Calvin the social justice advocate:
Calvin was also a strong promoter of social justice—the idea of bringing one’s faith to bear on the inequities in the world.
Calvin on who our neighbors are:
“We cannot but behold our own face as it were in a glass in the person that is poor and despised . . . though he were the furthest stranger in the world. Let a Moor or a barbarian come among us, and yet inasmuch as he is a man, he brings with him a looking glass wherein we may see that he is our brother and neighbor.”
The social activist meets John Calvin:
Activist: All people think about today is themselves—oh, yes, and their possessions. Our lives are tangled up with economic forces that reduce us all to players—mere pawns—in the game of global market. So many—particularly women, children, and refugees—continue to be marginalized, impoverished, and exploited. Don’t these people matter in the overall scheme of things?
Calvin: Our neighbor includes even the most remote person. We ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; there is no distinction between uneducated and educated, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated as bearing the image of God.
Activist: Our communities need social programs! Both in North America and around the world, international financial institutions are influencing economic decisions that set the stage for our governments to cut social programs and public services.
Calvin: During my time in Geneva, what mighty works were done! The City Council organized ministries to care for the needs of all people: the poor, the sick, the aged, those unable to work, the widows, orphaned and abandoned children, those suffering the plague, and refugees who had fled persecution in France and Northern Italy.
Activist: We don’t need tax cuts paid for by reducing social and educational services! We don’t need tax cuts that benefit the “haves” of our society! We want a fairer system of taxation. We need to find ways for lower income people, not for higher income people, to have more.
Calvin: In my mind wealth possesses dangers and involves serious responsibilities. Let us then that have riches . . . consider that their abundance was not intended to be laid out in intemperance or excess, but in relieving the necessities of the brethren.
Activist: The debts of poor countries must be cancelled! In these countries the poor are paying for most of the country’s debt. They are oppressed by stiffer taxes, higher prices, removal of subsidies on staple foods, and the lack of basic health and educational services.
Calvin: I can accept lending money for risk capital, provided one charges no more than 5 percent interest, but one must not charge any interest when lending to the poor. Indeed, it would be better, in the face of the distress of the poor, to give them the necessary money outright. And I don’t care what society may say is legal by way of lending rates; if it’s unjust, then it is prohibited to the Christian.
Activist: We need less talk and more action on the issue of homelessness! The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the homeless are joined by more homeless.
Calvin: What with the social hardships of the day and the influx of refugees, there was a major housing shortage in Geneva when I was there. If someone with a large household uses a large house, he cannot be blamed; but when people, swollen with ambition, make superfluous additions to their houses so they may live more comfortably, and when one person alone occupies a habitation that would be enough for several families, this would be empty display and must be condemned.
Activist: Consumerism is killing humankind and the earth! Twenty percent of the world’s population consumes over 80 percent of the world’s resources. The gap between rich and poor has more than doubled in the last twenty years.
Calvin: I believe it is a major plague ruling the world that people have a mad and insatiable lust for possessions. Like Martin Luther, I relate this to the commandment “Thou shalt not steal.” We will duly obey this command . . . if we are zealous to make only honest and lawful gain; if we do not seek to become wealthy through injustice, nor attempt to deprive our neighbor of his goods to increase our own; if we do not strive to heap up riches cruelly wrung from the blood of others; if we do not madly scrape together from everywhere, by fair means or foul, whatever will feed our avarice or satisfy our prodigy.
Activist: Look around us. This world is divided into “haves” and “have nots.” The disparity is increasing daily. Who with power really cares? Who will advocate for justice? Who will stand firm against oppression?
Calvin: We must recognize that God has wanted to make us like members of one body. Our Christian faith must invade every avenue of life—money, property, work were all meant to be used not to deprive our neighbors, but to serve them. The economic life of the world is bound up with our faith. We Christians and our churches must give ourselves to ministries of social justice. We must be compassionate advocates of justice for all! The church must be the implacable foe of tyranny!
Activist: Right on! Let’s begin! The time is now!
[John Calvin and the social activist walk up to each other, “high five” each other or shake hands. The activist gives out placards; Calvin gives out pages of his writing to those nearby. Then they exit together, arm in arm.]
See also: CALVIN, SOCIAL JUSTICE AND DIAKONIA, A COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition, The Many Faces of John Calvin: The Historiography of Calvin's Political Thought over Five Centuries, John Calvin at 500: From Theocrats to Marxists, Calvin’s Vision of Joy and Cruelty Left Complex Legacy and John Calvin: Comeback Kid.
Not only was Calvin an advocate of social justice but Luther was also:
Protestant theologians such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, as well as Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, saw the call to social justice as inherent in the Scriptures. Catholic theologians Augustine and Aquinas noted that there was a social component to God's call to righteousness.
Luther published tracts on social justice:
Luther’s name was becoming well known throughout Germany and Europe. By the end of 1520, he had published at least 81 pamphlets calling not only for religious reforms, but also for more political and social justice. Translated into many languages, Luther’s words found resonance with people who were suffering under the unjust social and econonomic conditions of the time. There was also growing tension between the various principalities and the central powers of Europe.
Martin Luther bringing the monastery to the world:
Luther taught that working in the service of God was the moral duty of all Christians, not just those called to serve the church in the clergy or Holy Orders. Where work was traditionally viewed simply as a means to worldly ends (i.e., survival), Luther argued that individuals must treat their labor as a gift to God. Thus, claims Weber, Luther brought the "monastery into the world," motivating ordinary believers, whatever their worldly occupation, to work hard in the service of God.
The Reformation brought social empowerment:
Once the Reformation is under way the common people perceive it as a means of social empowerment. The peasant class senses the potential for secular, though not necessarily spiritual, freedoms. The Peasants War, which begins in 1524, is a response to Luther's urgings of democratic reform and a reaction to an unbalanced social system. Luther, initially sympathetic to the peasants, is eventually appalled by the war and angrily addresses the warring faction in his pamphlet, Against the Thieving and Murderous Gangs of Peasants. To Luther the sectarian groups represent an attempt not at spiritual elevation, but at an easy redemption. The social revolt has unfortunate consequences for Luther's reformation. The humanist view that human beings might be brought to higher spirituality through education and innate ability, is a source of contention for the Reformers. Instead the Reformers depend on the concept of man's embodiment of original sin and his incontestable need for redemption and the Grace of God.
Luther against "big banks:"
Interestingly, Fuggerei was established by Jakob the Rich as a settlement for the indigent, upon criticism by Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, claiming that the banker's massive fortune was somehow sacrilegious. Clearly that was not God's will, not to mention the fact that charging any interest during that time was considered usurious. Luther would've been pleased to know that Fugger's empire took a serious hit over the next 150 years or so, thanks in large part to a string of wars and significant loan defaults. Even so, over the centuries, the family has ensured that Fuggerei remains, a symbol of the benevolence which has eluded far too many for far too long. I'll eat my words if anyone can apprise me of an investment banker in these parts worth praying for.
See also: Taxation in the History of Protestant Ethics, Lutheranism and Calvinism, Martin Luther's Doctrine on Trade and Price in Its Literary Context, THE REFORMATION ROOTS OF WESTERN CIVILISATION, The Reformers: Martin Luther and César Chávez and A Second Protestant Reformation.