Christianity and Capitalism in India and Sri Lanka

Rohini Hensman

Christianity came to India and Sri Lanka from other countries at various periods ranging from ancient times to the present. Therefore a general view of the link between Christianity and capitalism (or anti-capitalism) is necessary in order to understand how the specific relationship between Christianity and capitalism (or anti-capitalism) developed in these two countries. The first section of this paper will present a general view of Christian attitudes to poverty, wealth and capitalism in early Christianity, during the Reformation, and in the modern period; the second and third sections will look at the shapes and forms these attitudes took in India and Sri Lanka respectively; and the conclusion will sum up the findings of the paper.  

Attitudes to poverty, wealth and capitalism from early Christianity to the present

Christianity arose in a pre-capitalist world, but early Christian writings, including the gospels (the four books of the Bible which tell the story of Jesus) had a great deal to say about wealth and poverty. The so-called ‘Beatitudes’ are part of an early sermon in which, according to the Gospel of Luke (6: 20–25) Jesus says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied… But woe to you who are rich, … Woe to you who are well fed now’.

In the story of the last judgment (Matthew 25: 31–46), the Son of Man comes in glory and separates people into two categories. He invites the righteous into his kingdom, saying to them, ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ When they ask in astonishment when they did all this, he replies that inasmuch as they did it to the least of his brothers (and presumably sisters!), they did it to him, whereas the others, who are rejected, did not. It is notable that in this story, people are judged not according to what they believe but according to what they do.

The story of the last judgement could be interpreted as an injunction to be charitable towards those who are less fortunate and cater to their needs, but the Beatitudes suggest that poverty as such is an advantage and wealth an impediment to being a follower of Jesus. The latter interpretation is supported by another Gospel story, in which a rich young man comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus recommends that he sells all that he possesses, gives the proceeds to the poor, and comes and follows him….