she works hard for the money?

“We read the gospel as if we had no money, and we spend our money as if we know nothing of the gospel.”

– Father John Haughey

No doubt there has been much criticism of the Church in regards to its handling of finances in the wider world over the last few decades. While the majority of the Church has probably not deserved such criticism, the fact is a few bad eggs will ruin the meal.

Such criticisms are a great opportunity, though, for the Church to re-evaluate where it does in fact stand in regards to money and wealth.

This is not as simple as asking whether or not it has simply extorted money…

What is required is a more comprehensive reflection on how the church approaches economics theologically. That might sound like an odd mix; economics and theology? And indeed, what is a teacher of theology doing talking about economics? It is in fact my contention that; 1) Economics is not primarily about number crunching, but more about human activity in the face of wealth (and poverty); 2) In this way every human engages with economic theory, even if only at a basic level, and is thus in some sense an economist, and; 3) Because economics pervades every sphere of human existence it is necessarily theological, and reciprocally theology is, at least at some point, economic.

Currently the Church in developed countries tends to operate within the philosophical realm of free market economics as dictated by the overriding pattern of the society it finds itself in. In this increasingly globalised world this society becomes more universal. Now I am not interesting in critiquing economic frameworks (capitalism, communism, socialism), but rather am concerned with the theological imperatives necessary for whichever framework is adopted. Indeed, we too often read the Gospel without contemplating what it means for our money (with the exception of thinking about what it means for me receiving more money…).

Ched Myers outlays a helpful concept that he calls Sabbath Economics, which as you might guess adopts the Sabbath as a guiding principal for whatever economic framework we decide to work within.

The Sabbath is a fascinating concept, not least because contemporary Christians have no idea what to do with it. We have, like many things, turned it into a consumer item which benefits me. But this was never the sole point, though God does want us to benefit from weekly rest and reflection.

The Sabbath was primarily an economic reality. Israel, having suffered as the bottom feeders in a shocking economy (Egypt) are called out by God in the Exodus and are then given instructions as to how to form an alternative society to the empire they had just escaped. Part of this alternative society was an economic strategy which placed limits on affluence and poverty, and which instituted a guaranteed level of equality amongst the population. Sabbath functioned in this way by limiting human production, resting livestock, workers and the land, and by ensuring that accumulation of money or resources was not the social priority.

In addition regular events such as the Sabbath year (a year off every seven years!) and the Jubilee ensured similar equity – the Sabbath year meant the forgiveness of debts and the freeing of slaves, and the Jubilee meant the returning of land to the original ancestral owners.

This entire system was supported by a theological imperative by which no one was to gather more than they required (remember the story of the manna in the wilderness in Exodus 16?). Economic growth was not the goal, but rather contentment was.

I am not arguing for the contemporary reinstatement of such a system; I am arguing for these principles represented by the Sabbath to be taken seriously by the Church in its economics. We are, after all, meant to be a radically alternative community to the society around us, embodying the kingdom of God in the world. If the Sabbath is any indication, such embodiment should surely look like:

1) Provision for all people
2) Redistribution and limits on disparity of wealth
3)  An alternative purpose for money

This last point is important to reflect on. Growth has been the undergirding philosophy of much economic activity in the past decades (at least!), but Paul Wachtel’s words should ring out deafeningly for Christians:

“An economy primarily driven by growth must generate discontent. We cannot be content or the entire economic machine would grind to a halt.”

Surely a kingdom approach to economics looks for contentment over arbitrary growth.

Moreover a kingdom approach should mean that all people are provided for, and that the gap between wealthy and poor is strictly limited. Perhaps I am simply a utopian dreamer…

…kind of like Jesus?

MCA

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Posted on October 12, 2010, in Old Testament, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I don’t think one can legislate against the disparity of wealth, nor was it a theme within Israel or the early church. Nor do I think it wrong or unethical for there to be a divide between the wealthy and those who are poorer….and I speak as one who falls into the lower realm of economic realities.

    I see wealth as a creativity that has no limits to any within a societal position. Rather within a Christian perspective ones regard to wealth depends on ones calling and the position that God places you within the community. Such as Mother Teresa’s ministry for example.

    You rightly mentioned that there is a social justice theme within the OT national system of caring for all within the community as well as the refugee. The only protectionist laws were those against the wealthy from gaining and maintaining wealth at the expense of others. Thus we saw the protection of family property / farmland which equalled livelihood

    If you are going to pursue this; one also needs to include a serious look into the OT tithe which was never to support the priesthood. Instead its intention was to freely provide for the orphans, widows, refugees and poor.

    There is an interesting symposium coming up at Regent College which I think would be interesting and informative to go to. Hopefully they will have future video links to it.

    http://www.regent.edu/acad/undergrad/general/prosperity/home.cfm

    As for the wealthy, I love watching Secret Millionaire and see the impact that happens on both the giver and recipient. It’s because of their wealth that they are able to be generous.

    In saying this, I think protectionist laws such as we saw in America where banks who were bailed out by the gov were made to pay back monies given to senior personnel a responsible government activity.

  2. WeAlth is a good thing because it usually comes to the most intelligent among us. Though unfortunately sometimes they fail to use their wealth with the same intelligence.

  3. Craig – I don’t believe I ever spoke about legislation. Nor did I speak about there being NO gap between rich and poor – I spoke about a limited gap. The OT and NT are, in my opinion, outspoken about this. I think you are very mistaken though, the theocracy that was Israel did legislate against disparity of wealth (you can’t read Exodus or Leviticus without being belted over the head with such laws).

    Ancients saw wealth not as a creation of humans, but as the gift of the deity. In this way humans were always stewards of what was created, and did not create wealth for themselves. Our concept of limitless economic growth is quite ridiculous when you think about it – wealth cannot continue to grow exponentially forever, as resources will eventually run out unless they are replaced and the growth plateaus out to allow such replenishment (not to mention the fact that if I am rich, that necessarily makes someone else poor).

    To argue that wealth from a Christian perspective is about the position that God places you in without any balancing factor makes God an absolute monster – how is one to explain the 27,000 children under 5 who die every day from easily preventable causes related to poverty? I’m afraid that my view of God’s Sovereignty does not work like that.

    Your mentioning the tithe is a great point which actually functions to support my argument – Israel was originally set to legislate against disparity of wealth. Our society is not a theocracy, so the legislation aspect is irrelevant, though I would argue that the church, inasmuch as it enacts the kingdom, should still embody the principle of equity.

    Benno – Is wealth good BECAUSE it comes to the more intelligent? That is to ask, does intelligent people receiving more wealth make the wealth better?

    I actually disagree with the premise – there are certainly many poor people who are lazy or whatever, though for the most part in my experience they are highly intelligent people who have, because of some systemic problem, had their choices taken away from them.

    Take for example farmers in Phnom Penh who have made a decent living up until the last decade or so when climate change has made the weather in their region unpredictable and has shortened the monsoon. They are not dumb, but the victims of a system which perpetuates the causes of climate change, which in turn hurts their farms and causes them to become poorer.

    Matt

    • Apart from legislation Matt, I don’t know how you can otherwise shrink the disparity between Rich and Poor.

      God places us into positions of wealth to help the poor.

      Take the Ethiopian debacle over 25 years ago. They were starving in terrible drought conditions and the UK were dumping ship loads of corn out to sea to maintain crop prices that were on a downward spiral that resulted from a bumper crop. Yet at one time Ethiopia was a thriving agricultural community.

      Interesting about the climate change, which has been happening for thousands of years. Inland seas drying up etc. While the monsoon may be changing in some areas, other areas are getting much more rain then before…allowing agriculture to boon in areas that were considered arid.

      Yes there have been environmental disasters caused by us, the worst I believe to be a certain inland sea that has been totally drained to support agriculture in Africa. This lake used to support an extensive fishing economy, now large boats just sit on the desert sands.

      The recent toxic sludge flood is another case in point.

      Benno, I totally disagree with you, though perhaps you meant that education means empowerment.

  4. Not seeing my point, and it not existing, are different things… 😉

    Moreover I think the argument that God places us in positions of wealth to help the poor is overly simplistic. As I said before, concentrations of wealth in one place necessitate lack in others. One thing I would assume we agree on, though, is that God *expects* the wealthy to help the poor.

    I also don’t think climate change positively helping weather for agriculture in some areas (temporarily) excuses the negative effects of it, which is what you seemed to imply. I must admit I don’t understand your stance on Climate Change, Craig. Are you saying we should do nothing about human-induced CC because there has been such a thing as non-human-induced CC for so long?

  5. Matt I don’t believe wealth has finite limitations. Rather I believe wealth has no limitations and therefore I see no foundation for a Christian bias against wealth its self. I don’t see why a concentration on wealth in one area means a lack of wealth in another.

    Take a mate of mine who is rather wealthy. When we were young, he was hard at study, to become an engineer. We would go out partying, drink hard, drive cars etc…while he slogged it out for a number of years…. Now that hard work has paid off for him….

    My stance on climate change is that I don’t believe it to be as bad as some are making it out to be… I have spoken previously about why I believe Carbon is a good thing and necessary for producing oxygen, which trees / plants need to convert carbon to oxygen… not to mention the vast amount of phytoplankton in the sea and algae s that use carbon to produce oxygen.

    I am not worried about the carbon emission. I am more worried about the other toxins that are emitted from pollution, heavy metals, poison gases, toxic sludge’s… contaminated soil etc. And yet I don’t see any cry to reduce these products… its all based on Carbon… co2 which is proven to be easily dealt with…

  6. Fair enough. Though this doesn’t shift my opinion that we don’t create wealth, but rather transform natural resource into wealth. In that sense wealth is not ours at all. You can see from this belief why I don’t think of wealth as infinite – resources are not infinite.

    The story of your friend is great, but it doesn’t make a point about wealth creation either way, except to say apparently hard work pays off with wealth, which is a half truth (I’m thinking of all those people who work much harder than any of us and earn a pittance through an unjust economic system).

    Matt

  7. I think you are now setting up a straw man argument in saying the foundations for wealth lay ONLY in natural resources.

    While natural resources are a source of wealth, I would argue its not the only source of wealth. Also some forms of natural resources are renewable. Such as sustainable / organic agriculture.
    As I mentioned in an earlier post about the renewable forestry schemes which were set up around power stations …which were utilising the carbon output… were stopped by a certain state government which is still in power….

    There is much wealth created in recycling, tourism, information and education to name but a few.

    I don’t think of economic systems as being just or unjust… its people who are either just or unjust. Many poor nations are not poor because of an unjust worldly economic system, rather its got to do with corrupt cultural systems on a local scale.

    • Not so much a straw man as a different opinion 😉

      The examples you gave are not of wealth creation, but of wealth distribution. I suppose I am following Adam Smith in my definition of wealth. He says it is the produce of land and labour (with labour obviously taking from the land). Tourism, for example, does not create wealth, but repositions it.

      Your point about renewable natural resources is very valid, though I would point out that there are still limits. We cannot *over*-fish, even though fish are renewable, and we cannot *over*-use forests, even though forests are renewable. My point is that these resources are limited, and therefore wealth is finite.

      I also don’t understand how you could say a cultural system can be evil, but an economic one cannot…

      Matt

  8. Wealth distribution is healthy and not unhealthy. I still say that wealth is created and not limited. While you are correct that tourism repositions wealth, you have to add that it also creates personal wealth through jobs.

    Many of these renewable resources you talk about have a near infinite recyclable life span. Take steel, paper and plastics for instance.. Methane gas is another infinite resource. I can make / install a methane gas digester at home which will power my stove, hot water and perhaps create some electricity which will utilise my garden scraps.

    Wind, solar and water energy is a continually renewable energy resource… which is being utilised to create wealth.

  9. I’m seeing what you are saying more and more as the comments bounce back and forth. I think there are more similarities than originally thought.

    One of my points was to say we don’t create wealth, but that we simply utilise what was created by God and distribute it. I think you are saying something similar in another way. Whereas in your vocabulary you say tourism jobs create wealth, I would say they do not, that they simply distribute what God has made. The same goes for those renewable resources you mentioned – you say we use them to cerate wealth, but I think we simply use them to distribute the wealth already inherent in creation. In the end, though, I suspect we think something similar.

    I agree with you about the resources. My point was simply that we cannot use those resources too quickly, because they could still potentially run out (the fishing industry is in danger of this, for example).

    Matt

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