A Primer on Christian Economics

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.


A Primer on Christian Citizenship

I was invited to give a talk at my church’s Away Day yesterday, on the subject of “Christianity and Public Issues,” so I took the opportunity to distill my current political theology, such as it is, into something suitable for the ordinary British layman’s consumption.  Although it is necessarily very oversimplistic, sometimes simplicity can be refreshingly clarifying.  So I offer the manuscript version of my talk here, in two installments: 1) A Primer on Christian Citizenship and 2) A Primer on Christian Economics.  These are very much mere outlines of a position, so if you’re interested, please push me for clarification and expansion–I’m sure it will be very helpful.

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The last ten years, it seems, have seen America and Britain lurching from one crisis to another–the stock market collapse of 2000 was followed by the traumatic terrorist attacks of 9/11 (and later 7/7 here in the UK), the wrenching divisions of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and most recently, a devastating economic crisis that we are still trying to recover from.  In Britain, the era when the Christian Church and British politics went hand in hand is long gone, and although many American Christians seem determined to politicize their faith, they have lost a lot of their credibility after the disaster of the Bush years.   

The ongoing economic crisis, while it might seem to afford Christians an excellent opportunity to preach the Gospel against greed and point toward a more just economic order, threatens instead to weaken the Church’s witness still further, as Christians are deeply divided among themselves on economic issues and on how to engage the public sphere.  Many Christians (particularly in America) have bought into the ideology that the market, left to itself, always provides the best solution, and any restraints upon greed that are imposed by society or government to reduce inequality are destructive.  For them, the Church has no distinctive contribution to make, save perhaps to encourage honesty and charity among its members.  Other Christians are convinced that economic inequality today is a scandal, and one that needs urgently to be remedied.  The biggest, strongest institution around that can remedy it is the government, and so these Christians aggressively lobby (either in the name of the gospel or in secular terms) for more and more legislation and taxation to bring “social justice.”  But, if the government is the solution, then again we might ask whether the Church has any distinctive contribution to make to the problem.  Many Christians will say that the Church’s contribution is simply to convert people–that’s the only real way to help people, and the only task the Church has; economic and political disputes are not really the Church’s business, although Christians can engage in them as ordinary citizens.  

 

But are we ordinary citizens?  That is perhaps the fundamental point that we must establish if we are to provide a compass for Christian engagement with political institutions and particularly economic problems.  So, are we ordinary citizens?  The Apostle Paul doesn’t seem to think so, in Phil. 3:17-21:

“Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.  For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.  For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.”  

So we’re citizens of heaven?  Are we not then citizens of earth?  How do we make sense of this relationship?  

 

Countless answers have been suggested through the history of the Church, but I’m going to look here at three general models that have been proposed.

1) First, there has been a common tendency at many points in Christian history to diminish or forget the gap between the politics and the societies of this world and the heavenly kingdom of Christ.  In the period after the conversion of Constantine, many Christians mistakenly imagined that Christian Rome was now the visible expression of the kingdom of Christ, and was sure to continue forever. This may seem like an obvious mistake in hindsight, but it is remarkable how frequently it has cropped up in the history of the Church.  Many British Christians were tempted to think this way during the heyday of the British Empire and I can assure you that many American Christians continue to think this way.  This model is often called a “Christendom” model.  

What are some of the problems with this way of thinking?

  • it leads to false confidence and false despair; we begin to walk by sight and not by faith
  • it attaches eternal significance to limited, relatively insignificant earthly matters, such as changes of government; it mistakes where the action really is happening
  • it confuses the tools of the kingdom with worldly tools, and begins to imagine that the Gospel is best advanced by force and defended by law.  
  • for all these reasons, it poses a great temptation to ethical compromise, since if we are sure that the progress of Christ’s kingdom depends on political events in the here and now, we will do everything possible to bring about certain events, no matter what it takes.  A case in point was American evangelicals’ support of John McCain in the 2008 election. 

 

Many Christians, seeing the weaknesses in this approach, have reacted in one of two ways.  Both of these reactions respond by emphatically asserting the dichotomy between our citizenship in Christ and in the world, laying stress on Paul’s words that our citizenship is in heaven, but they go in somewhat opposite directions.  

 

2) One, which we might call the modern secular model, although it has been around since at least the 1300s, believes in the possibility of dual citizenship.  John Locke is perhaps the most famous representative of this approach.  To the Christian, Locke says, “Of course you can be a citizen of the City of God, but remember that this is a heavenly, invisible city, on a different plane from real cities and kingdoms.  So you can be a perfectly good earthly citizen too.  Just do your duty to king and country, which consists in things like fighting wars, paying taxes, obeying laws, and to your society, which consists in things like engaging in business, participating in sports, etc., and these will in no way conflict with your spiritual duty, which is to do things like pray, worship, give alms, etc.”  Many Christian thinkers have happily endorsed this dual citizenship model, assuring Christians that there is no conflict between their sacred and secular duties; these occupy different spheres, both of which are perfectly valid.

But what are some of the problems with this way of thinking?

 

  • is there really no conflict?  is this kind of schizophrenia really possible?  How can I be committed to peace as a Christian and yet committed to war as a citizen of my country?  Obviously, there are plenty of occasions when there will be no obvious conflict, but quite frequently there will be, and we’ll have to decide which citizenship takes priority.  Locke recognized this, and despite his supposed favoring of religious freedom, argued that religious convictions must be suppressed whenever they conflicted with good citizenship of the state.  
  • it doesn’t really seem possible then to have a dual citizenship; if you were really a citizen of the Church as visible body with another allegiance, you couldn’t be a full citizen of the state.  Locke realized this, and made churches nothing more than voluntary societies like chess clubs; “citizenship” in Christ, for him, happened only at an invisible and individual level; it was not a corporate identity.
  • doesn’t this seem to minimize the scope of the Gospel?  Did Christ really come just to save a little sliver of our lives and to leave society to basically operate the way it always has?
  • this model holds great temptations to ethical compromise; if we are citizens of the earthly kingdom, shouldn’t we be good, loyal, faithful citizens even if that means perhaps fighting wars we shouldn’t fight?

 

 

3) Fearing the temptation to compromise in these first two options, other Christians have insisted on a sharp distinction between citizenship in heaven vs. in the world, but have denied that dual citizenship is possible.  You can only be a citizen of one city, and that is the City of God.  The earthly city is headed for perdition, and we must remain outside of it, serving God in the Church but not in the world, lest we confuse the kingdom of Christ with the world, or be tempted to compromise.  This approach is often associated with Anabaptism, though there are other forms of it.  Like option 2, this view takes the distinction between the two cities in spatial terms–if we are citizens of heaven, then we are not of earth, and we need to hold ourselves aloof from many of the trappings of the earthly kingdom. 

What are some problems with this approach?  

 

  • well for one, it’s open to a similar problem as option 2–namely, that it doesn’t really challenge the power structures of the world in the name of the Gospel.  Whereas option 2 lets them remain as they are and lives with them, option 3 accepts them as they are and lives apart from them.  But the end result is the same.  
  • also, this viewpoint is often criticized for “irresponsibility.”  Christians are, like Christ, to be characterized by responsibility, taking on responsibility not only for their own sins and problems but those of the world.  This third approach tries to distance itself from the problems of the world and leave the world to perish in its sin.
  • this viewpoint can tend toward individualism as well.  Whatever binds us together in society with others can often be seen as earthly and as something we need to escape into a pure private communion with God.
  • also, this viewpoint tends toward hypocrisy.  Most are not really able to separate themselves from life in this world (most do not become monks), and so they simply deceive themselves into thinking they are living spiritual, unworldly lives, when usually it just means that they have chosen to ignore aspects of their lives that must be brought under Christ.

 

 

None of these, then, seem like the best way to approach the problem.  In response, I want to propose a return to an age-old approach suggested by St. Augustine nearly 1600 years ago.  Augustine’s proposition proved enormously influential in Christian political thought, and many theologians now are trying to make sense of it again as a paradigm for our own day.  Augustine confronted the problem of a “Christendom” mindset, as Christians equated the progress of the kingdom of God with the prosperity of the Roman Empire.  But in responding to it, he managed to avoid some of the pitfalls of the secular and Anabaptist approaches.

 

Augustine insisted that, since the Fall, there have been two “cities” or societies, the “City of Man,” characterized by self-love, “lust for domination,” and violence, and the “City of God,” the assembly of the righteous, who love and serve Christ, and are characterized by peace and love of others.  Both cities exist side-by-side in the present world, and have a visible institutional form–the City of Man governs itself in states and empires, and the City of God is the Church, a body of believers made visible by their exchange of peace each week in the Eucharist.  They live by different rules and employ different tools.  We must not therefore identify the City of God with a political form that borrows its tools and its goals from the City of Man.  But neither city is completely contained within this visible institutional form, and neither city completely lives up to its nature; the City of God is not perfectly peaceful–that is clear–and the City of Man is not always violent.  It consists of good creatures created by God, characterized by desires that, although distorted, are not all bad, and so the City of Man is not altogether useless, nor is it altogether without peace.  Augustine knew that the Roman Empire did preserve a kind of peace and order, despite its godlessness, although not the best kind of peace and order, and it did promote a certain degree of progress and civilization, although not the best kind.  The City of God should recognize, make use of, and build on these successes. 

Augustine, then, refuses to collapse the two cities, like the first model, which suggests that a kingdom of this world might be identical with the kingdom of Christ.  He recognizes that the earthly city is too much at odds with the City of God to permit us to be dual citizens, as the second model would have it.  However, he recognizes that the two cities are not perfectly separable, and that to belong to the City of God does not mean abandoning the world altogether; we can still recognize and make use of the imperfect goods the world and its structures have to offer, just as a traveler passing through or temporarily staying in a city may happily shop in its markets and enjoy the protection of its police, although he never mistakes the city for his home.  Augustine, in other words, helps us to see ourselves as “resident aliens” within the societies and social structures of this world.

 

But we must not here put the emphasis on the word “alien,” as we have often tended to do, but on the “resident.”  Augustinianism should not be used to portray us as pilgrims only, detached from the world and somewhat careless about its fate, taking from it for our own purposes but not giving back.  

To gain a fuller perspective, I want us to look back at that passage from Philippians.  After all, when Paul talks about our citizenship being in heaven, that sounds to us like we are just strangers and pilgrims, detached from this earth.  But is that what he meant?  Not exactly.  The Philippians, to whom Paul is writing, were a colonial city of Rome–they were Roman citizens living in Macedonian surroundings.  Their Roman citizenship did not mean they were only temporarily in Macedonia, and would soon be summoned back to Rome their true home, but rather that they were to spread the rule of Rome and the culture of Rome where they were, and make it reflect the lordship of the Emperor, for whose occasional visitations they were to be prepared.  Paul clearly intended to evoke the same symbolism.  The Philippian Christians were colonists of heaven; they were citizens of heaven, not earth, but this did not mean they were only pilgrims; rather, they were to stay there as an outpost of heaven, making earth more like heaven, and preparing for the return of their King to take full possession of earth.  

This suggests an important additional dimension to Christian involvement in the world, in society and politics.  Christians must make the City of God more visible here in the world, must work to expand its foothold here amid the kingdoms of the world, must work to make the Church a true embodiment of the City of God it is meant to be, modeling a new way of life in front of the world, and summoning the world to join up.  

This, however, can smack of triumphalism too much: “We’re the true city, we know how to do things right, you’re on the losing side, so give up or join up!”  You don’t win many converts that way.   And that would be inconsistent anyway.  The Church is a different kind of city practicing a different kind of politics.  Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.”  If we want the City of God to become great in the world, then we must live as the servants of the world.  Archbishop William Temple once said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of non-members.”  

Although it’s important to emphasize that the Church is thoroughly separate from and even in many ways opposed to the structures of the City of Man, we must not forget the call to pray for the peace of the City we are in, and to work for it.  Remember that in Augustine’s scheme, although the City of Man was limited, destined to pass away, and always liable to fall into idolatry, self-glorification, and the desire for domination, it was not useless.  Augustine and most of the early Church Fathers recognized that the peace and order that Rome preserved, despite its injustices, was a lot better than having barbarians looting left and right.  And so the Church put itself at the service of the just ends of the empire it inhabited, and did not seek the complete downfall of Roman society, but its preservation, improvement, and conversion.   

What does all this mean for us today?  It means that as inhabitants of the city of Edinburgh and of the United Kingdom, we must always remember that we are not full citizens of these earthly institutions, but are citizens of a different kind of society, the Church, which establishes different kinds of communities, communities based on grace, peace, and forgiveness.  We will beware of hastily identifying our own good, and especially the good of the Church, with the good of the surrounding society–in a war, for instance, we will not necessarily cheer for the United Kingdom to prevail; perhaps Christ’s kingdom would be better served by its defeat.  Knowing that we are colonists of heaven, we will work to make the Church a true embodiment of the heavenly kingdom, here on earth, to make it a model to the world of how a community should live, how people should do business together, how people can resolve disputes, how people can care for the weakest.  Whatever our other callings in life, this will always be our first goal and duty, since this is where our citizenship lies.  However, we will remember that this calling to build the city of God is on behalf of the cities and countries that we live in; we labor not for our own good but for the good of the City of Edinburgh and the United Kingdom.  Thus we work not only for their conversion, but seek to discern ways in which, within these and other earthly institutions, justice may be improved, peace may be advanced, the weak may be cared for, evil may be rebuked, and the Gospel may be propagated.  Our policy toward any worldly institution, political or economic, should be one of suspicion, to be sure, but also one of “selective collaboration”–identifying areas in which these structures are capable of doing limited good and putting ourselves at their service to accomplish as much of that good as possible, never forgetting to keep pointing them toward the only source of ultimate good–Christ and His Church.  

 

Note: I am indebted for many of these thoughts to James K.A. Smith’s lecture, “Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities?”