I almost forgot to post this–part two of my “Christianity and Public Issues” talk (see Part 1 here).
Economics is perhaps the greatest issue on the political radar, particularly in the past couple years. How should we as Christians approach economics and political economy? Well, let’s return again to the passage from Philippians 3. Paul contrasts us, the citizens of heaven, with those “whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things”–those who pursue desires of self-gratification, who seek to glorify themselves by how much more they can amass than others, those whose focus and chief goal is material prosperity. It is not hard to see that this is the way that most of the world lives today–not just individuals, but corporations and governments. How do companies in our world measure their success? By how many people’s lives are enriched by their efforts or by how wide their profit margins are? How do most governments measure their success? By how much they have promoted justice or by how much GDP growth they can create? Materialism and selfishness are nothing new, of course, but today Christians must confront the danger of an ideology that argues that selfishness is actually the best way to help people. The premise of modern capitalism is that as long as you let people pursue their self-interest and remove any barriers to their satisfaction of their material desires, then peace, prosperity, and freedom will grow for everyone. Paul here and almost any book of Scripture could warn us against the danger of this mindset, could remind us of what a treacherous tool wealth is, how easily it shifts from being a means to a good end to being an end in itself, could remind us that no society can succeed which puts individual self-interest above regard for others.
And if we read the Bible attentively, we will see that it is constantly insistent–from Genesis right up through Revelation–on decrying the injustices done to the poor and calling for us to be like God Himself in attending especially to the plight of the poor and weak and working to lift them out of their suffering. Christians have plenty of reason to join with many people in today’s world in decrying the scandal that so many selfishly pursue their own riches without regard to the needs of others, that billions struggle in unthinkable poverty, while others amass far more than they could ever need or even use, that massive corporations have grown to the point where they are more powerful than most nations and regularly distort information or bend laws to boost their profits still further.
But what do we do about this? If we take Augustine’s skepticism regarding the City of Man seriously, his warning that all the structures of this world are distorted by the selfish desires of sin, we will know better than to expect that any system or institution will provide the solution to these problems. Both the right-wing trust in the all-powerful market and the left-wing trust in the all-powerful government are naive and idolatrous. True economic justice requires hard work and focused dedication on the part of God’s people to aid those in need, practice righteousness in the marketplace, and fight for justice. True justice can only be found through a community of people bent on worshipping God, and receiving from Him the strength to give themselves for others as Christ gave himself for them. Ultimately, it is the Church, not the State or the market, that has the resources to overcome oppression and greed. To say this, though, is not to endorse the kind of pietism that imagines that all we need to do is give people the right heart, to convert them, and then we’ll have economic justice; the shape of Jesus’s ministry should show us the Church has a lot more work to do than that.
Augustine, however, should warn us against a triumphalism as well. Against all triumphalism, Christians should remember that the City of God is never complete in this life, in this age, that it too continues to struggle with sin and selfishness, and so we too will constantly fail in our quest for justice and charity. We cannot approach the world with a mindset of “We’ve got the answers, we’ve got the solutions–your plans can go to hell.”
A Christian politics thus recognizes that although there’s no such thing as a truly just worldly institution, there are some institutions that are more just than others, and we ought to recognize and encourage them, instead of simply writing them all off as equally rotten. Remember that in Augustine’s paradigm, the earthly city, seen in political structures like Rome, was sure always to miss the mark of justice, but that didn’t mean that it could never come close, or that we shouldn’t try to help it become less unjust. Economics then is an area ripe for “selective collaboration.”
While the Church does its work of preaching the Gospel, helping the poor, and encouraging charity, in the meantime, juster laws can restrain injustice and help motivate good deeds in those for whom the impulse of charity is weak. We have in the Old Testament a wonderful model of how God sought to encourage economic justice for his people–not only through moral exhortation and a call to worship and imitation of God, but through legal structures that recognized how easily the weak can be further marginalized and the strong can continue to grow stronger at their expense, and that tried to guard against this tendency. While we cannot and should not press for laws that mandate Christ-like charity, we can at least support policies that discourage outright un-charity, or which try to ameliorate its effects. We can support policies that seek to restrain the power and influence of money over our culture and societies, mindful of Paul’s warning that the love of money is the root of all evil. When economic policies are debated in our cities or our national assemblies, we must of course insist that the needs of the poor are remembered and are favored over and above the desires of the wealthy to grow wealthier. We must speak out against the lying narrative which insists that if we just leave wealth alone and let it do its work of creating more wealth, then poverty will disappear–usually this just means that, at best, poverty will be hidden away in some place less visible, like southeast Asia.
But we must be wary when we advocate better policies in the political sphere. The Bible tends to be pretty skeptical when it comes to rulers and central governments. “Put no confidence in princes,” the 20th Psalm warns us, and the story of the Old Testament tends to bear this out. In 1 Sam. 8, when the people ask for a king, God warns them that he will become an oppressor, amassing wealth and power for himself. It’s not long before Solomon does just this, and despite the positive work of several godly kings, on the whole the prophets of the Old Testament denounce the royal administration as being on the side of greedy landlords and usurers. Whatever their faults, conservatives are right to be skeptical of central government’s ability to improve economic justice and curb the power of wealth; after all, such large concentrations of power are difficult to hold accountable and easy to corrupt, and so they tend to aid rather than restrain the ambitions of large corporations. Moreover, large unwieldy nation-states generally tend to resort to crude tools like coercion, which we as Christians know is rarely calculated to advance peace and justice.
The answer, I would suggest, is not laissez-faire, is not no government, but is a different kind of government. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the law of the Old Testament, most of the laws of economic justice seem to be the responsibility not of the king or of a state bureaucracy, but of local communities, governments on a more human scale, in which citizens take a great deal of responsibility for what happens in their communities and decisions about justice and injustice are made by people who actually know something about the plaintiffs and the defendants. If the Church is to provide a model of a juster, truer kind of community, then perhaps we should seek political communities that are likewise organized on a manageable scale, which depend more on face-to-face relationships and not on bureaucracies or abstract legal ties. Such political communities, it would seem, would not need so often to result to cruder tools of coercion but would be more able to negotiate conflicts via genuine dialogue and reconciliation, an approach the Church is also called to model for the world.
Of course, it goes without saying that in our globalized world, with corporations like Wal-Mart that employ over 2 million people (just for perspective, that’s more people than you could meet if you met one new person every minute of every day for four years) in dozens of countries, not everything can be as local as it once was. We’d be courting disaster if we tried to shrink our governments down to the local level while leaving massive multinational corporations just as they are. As Christians, we need to also cultivate a more local, personal economics. Most things we buy and sell are still made and sold by human beings, not just machines, and we have a responsibility toward human beings we meet and interact with. We need to think about how to show Christ’s love to people in everything we do, which includes shopping for groceries or selling mortgages–and how can we do that if we don’t even know the name of the person we are buying from or selling to?
I’d like to conclude by driving this point home with a theme that has become common in recent theology and ethics: the Eucharist is the model of true community. In the Eucharist, God shares his life with us and we share it with one another. Isn’t it fascinating that what unites us as one body in the Church is not abstract membership in some organization, is not being listed on the membership rolls of a denomination or the fact that we send in a check for our tithe every month, but is an actual face-to-face gathering and eating together? In the Eucharist, we pass the bread and the wine to one another and we pass the peace to one another, speaking one another’s names. This exchange binds us together, and through it we resolve conflict and renew our determination to live together and serve one another. What would the world be like if we could make more of our lives that way? The answers to this question are not simple or easy, but it’s a question I think we should ask ourselves every day.