she works hard for the money?
– 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?
Posted on October 12, 2010, in Old Testament, Theology and tagged Ched Myers, Economics, Gospel, John Haughey, Jubilee, Money, Redistribution, Sabbath, Sabbath Economics. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.