Lesson 6: Preliminary Remarks about Christian Economic Thought

Moses confronts PharaohI was ready to leave this series. Usually a number of my friends will discuss the lessons either by email or face-to-face. This time I was hearing from nobody. That was a big disappointment, because I felt the perspectives from theologians in the Southern Hemisphere were extremely challenging, especially when we in the US are entering a political campaign where candidates are already being accused of being socialists or communists. Since many now associate Christian with capitalist, it seemed timely to examine what the Bible really says about the economy.

Comments from Paul and John changed my mind. As a result, I am going to take a few weeks responding to Paul’s claim that “Christians in the US have their work cut out for them as they/you run many of the large global corporations which implement the economic system impoverishing the rest of the world.” He went on to ask what I/we propose to do about that.

At the very least, US Christians should be speaking truth to the power of the global economic system. That does not mean championing any supposedly Christian economic system for there is no biblical basis for this. It does mean, however, using solid biblical principles to critique the economic system used in any society. One of the major responsibilities of all Christians is to articulate these principles in our preaching and teaching. To ignore this prophetic role is to abandon our mission.

I can only quickly convey my understanding of these principles. (To get more adequate coverage, read a book like Walter Bruggemann’s Truth Speaks to Power.) These always begin with the Exodus story in which God hears the cries of Hebrew slaves who suffer under the exploitation of the Egyptian economic system. God sends Moses to speak for him to confront the power of the Pharaoh. After freeing these slaves, God gives them the Torah law that goes to great lengths describing how God’s people are to relate with each other economically. Even a casual reading finds its major concern is to protect the weak, described as the widows, orphans, debtors, foreigners, animals, and the land who have no power in the establishment. Throughout the Torah, forgiveness of debt in the creditor/debtor relationship is a primary illustration for the uniqueness of God’s people. They share what they have so all will have enough and there is no poor among them.

These principles remain the primary message of the Old Testament prophets, Jesus the Christ, and the early Church. All of these speak truth to power, confronting the economic and political authorities of their time and place.

The assumption underlining these principles is not only that the strong can take care of themselves. But also, that the strong will end up deliberately or unintentionally take advantage over the weak unless provisions are made. Preference for the poor is really a means to ensure fairness and impartiality.

This need to protect the weak is also expressed in the checks and balances of the US political system. For that matter, the same need is behind using the market rather than the power of the strong to regulate the economy.

Rather than engaging in name-calling that accuses opponents of being some imaginary socialist or communist, Christians are called to employ this biblical assumption in realistically critiquing the form capitalism has taken in our time and place. This new form is a global system that has nothing to do with providing goods and services but everything to do with handling finances in the credit/debtor relationship. Because it attempts to remove regulations that protect the weak, it enables the strong to exploit them at their most vulnerable places.

Next week, I’ll examine how this is leading to self-destructive approaches to everyday life.

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. John Myers says:

    Truth to power has become much more complex in our society. Articulating our Christian principles in a world economy that caters to oppression of the weak in favor of those having wealth could easily mean we refuse to purchase a $5 pair of shoes made in China. I am astounded by the blissful ignorance bubble that many of us in the USA choose to live within. We fail to connect our purchases to an economic statement, or even consider if there are principles involved. The irony is that many wealthy consumers would never work in conditions that they expect others to work in to support the lower cost goods they demand. That arrogance extends as the USA creates laws to prevent exploitative employment practices and yet creates no similar regulation for other countries from which we purchase goods.

    If we truly believe all people are on equal footing as God’s children, we must stop exploiting them. Sadly, we have not improved in this regard. You could go back to 1850’s America…… would you be supporting the morally bankrupt institution of slavery if you were in Maine and were purchasing cotton from the South? While authoritarian states are certainly more prolific in exploitation, democratic capitalism has the achillies heel of being subject to the will of ‘us’ (as the market), and often greed prevails. So, this is the challenge – how do we change ‘us’?

    I think we must begin by teaching inclusion, not division. That all people are to be loved. And, to love them means we must respect them. We must recognize that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (MLK) applies to economic exploitation as well. This speaks truth to power in a world that truly hides power.

  2. Paul Wildman says:

    Thanks, Fritz, for me though in response to your message challenge below is to ask – where on earth is an exemplar economic system most like what one would envisage from a Christian perspective? Cheticamp? Mondragon? Certain indigenous cultures (which by definition are not Christian yet may well be Jesusian in practical deed if not in theological thought). Living authentically (as friends) is a crucial part of this where the authentic is, for me, a cultural lens that seeks to meet your following challenges from a Jesusian perspective.

    • Fritz Foltz says:

      I find Paul and John extremely helpful. I also feel challenged by Father Jude who thinks it is too late in the game to simply talk about speaking truth to power. He suggests going beyond Bruggemann and reading Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” or Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” He fears “violence like Charlottesville will start breaking out sporadically by mid-2020″, the economy will fail, and “the chaos will turn ugly and dangerous.” He worries if we simply write letters to the editor and government officials, we shall “continue to slouch toward real civil war.”

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