I have a book review in the latest edition of Crucible, an online journal of theology and ministry under the auspices of Ethos. It’s on one of my favourite Christian theological books engaging with questions of economics and consumerism.
Recently I had the privilege of taking part in a an episode of the UK podcast ‘Unbelievable?’, hosted by Justin Brierley, in which I discussed theologian Wayne Grudem’s new book on solutions to global poverty with Wayne Grudem himself. (Thanks to Justin for having me on the show). The podcast is now online, here. A special welcome to anyone visiting my blog for the first time, having heard the podcast – be aware that my blogging is both sporadic and diverse, but I hope you find something worthwhile!
The conversation with Professor Grudem gave me an opportunity to explore the intersection of theology and economics – a particular interest of mine – in a way that I haven’t for a while, and so I thought some follow-up blog posts might be in order. In my review of Professor Grudem’s book for the Bible Society I was only able to scratch the surface of these issues; in addition, some of Professor Grudem’s responses to my criticisms on the podcast were, I think, insufficient.
A review of The Poverty of Nations: a Sustainable Solution by Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus. Published by Crossway.
All Christians can strongly affirm the premise of this book: God cares deeply for the plight of the poor, and the church must seek out ways to alleviate such suffering. Unfortunately, The Poverty of Nations represents an unpersuasively narrow engagement with economics instead of the robust economic and theological engagement that we need.
Theologian Wayne Grudem and economist Barry Asmus seek to present ‘a sustainable solution’ for the poverty of majority-world nations. Their solution, in short, is a particular brand of free-market capitalism, characterized by continuously creating more goods and services in order to enter ‘a path of ever-increasing prosperity’ (p. 25). The authors seek to persuade their readers by comparing alternative economic systems with free-market capitalism and proposing a series of policies nations can adopt to move from poverty to prosperity. In addition, they seek to show how the Christian scriptures affirm the economic policies they propose.
The Sydney University Evangelical Union, for whom I work, is currently in the midst of a three-week campus mission. Today (Friday August 2, 2013) we held an event called ‘500 Seconds,’ where speakers had 500 seconds to talk about spirituality as it relates to a particular area of life. Here’s my contribution.
In our world, the economy is king. It governs governments, directs our fortunes, makes and breaks our hopes and dreams. Newspapers devote whole sections to it; words like debt and deficit, budget and surplus, inflation and consumer confidence dominate our front pages.
This article was first published at The LAS and was written for Christian University students.
We tend to be more stingy than generous. The first question that comes to mind when we think about generosity is ‘How much?’ This is usually a way out of generosity, a shady way of asking ‘how much can I keep?’ If we know how much we have to give, we don’t have to keep giving more.
How can we be ‘cheerful givers’ (2 Corinthians 9:7) instead of keeping as much as we can for ourselves? The keys to generosity are to remember that God provides our daily needs and that Godly stewardship means being generous givers.
One of the most fundamental untruths our world teaches us is that there isn’t enough to go around. Any economics or business students reading this will know this idea as ‘scarcity.’ Economics is all about working out how to allocate resources in a world where there isn’t enough to go around. Because we believe this lie so easily we don’t want to give up anything we have. If we give it up we might never get it again!
In contrast to this idea, the scriptures teach us that God has not made a world of scarcity but of abundance. Read Ephesians 1:1-14. This magnificent passage lays out all the gifts God has given his people. In Christ we have every spiritual blessing (1:3): redemption, forgiveness, grace (1:7), an inheritance (1:11), hope (1:12), the Holy Spirit (1:13). Right in the middle of these great gifts we read that God gave them ‘according to his good pleasure that he planned in him for the administration of the days of fulfillment’ (1:9-10, HCSB) or ‘as a plan for the fullness of time’ (ESV). That word ‘administration’ or ‘plan’ could just as easily be translated ‘stewardship.’ (Another note for any economics & business students out there: the Greek word is from the root oikos, from which we derive the English word ‘economy.’) Did you notice what God has done with his gifts? He has lavished them on us (1:8)! God, then, is a steward of good gifts, and stewardship for God means to give good gifts out of the abundance that he has.
This should reshape how we think about stewardship. Often when we talk about stewardship in our churches we say things like ‘make sure you’re not a burden on others’ and ‘make sure you prepare for the future.’ This is often said to be the wise course of action. We keep more than enough for our immediate basic needs so that we won’t get into trouble in the future. But God’s stewardship is generous. He keeps nothing for himself but lavishes gifts from his abundance on us. Godly stewards don’t store things up to guard against a rainy day (which is futile—read what Jesus has to say about it in Luke 12:13-21). Godly stewards pray ‘give us today our daily bread,’ trusting God to provide, and out of their abundance give good gifts.
This is clearly the principle Paul has in mind when he writes to the Corinthians encouraging them to be generous. He asks them to give to their brothers and sisters whose basic needs are threatened by famine. ‘[This] is not that there may be relief for others and hardship for you, but it is a question of equality—at the present time your surplus is available for their need, so their abundance may also become available for our need, so there may be equality’ (2 Corinthians 8:13-14). His appeal to them is that they might display the character of the Lord Jesus: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: Though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich’ (8:9). To give generously is to be like the One whom we worship. The Corinthians had more than they needed; Paul encouraged them to use their abundance to give good gifts to those in need.
How then might you be a godly steward?
Think about what you need. Do really need another Playstation? Do you really need more shoes? Do you really need another overseas holiday? Do you really need to save for a house?
Think about what gifts you could give. Could you give more to the work of mission? Could you give more to the poor? Could you give more to brothers and sisters in your church family who don’t have your abundance?
Let’s not be legalistic; it is right to delight in the good things God has given. Enjoy his creation. You don’t have to give everything away. Paul is quick to assure the Conrinthians that he is not commanding them to be generous (2 Corinthians 8:8); rather he is encouraging them to be Christlike in their giving (8:9).
The Lord says ‘it is better to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35), because in giving you are behaving like your heavenly father. God is the giver of good gifts, and it is he who secures our daily needs for us. He has given us the rest so that we might become givers of good gifts too. How might you use your abundance to reflect the character of the Giver?
Here’s a link to an article I wrote on Money & Generosity. It’s for a site one of the students I work with on Sydney Uni campus runs. The site helps young Christians to think through their faith. My article is the 4th in a series.
As some of you will know, I’ve been thinking at writing about capitalism and Christianity in preparation for a seminar at the Sydney University Evangelical Union’s Annual Conference. The seminar went well, thanks for asking!
In the seminar I tackled the underlying assumptions of capitalist economy, and showed how they’re in opposition to the basic assumptions of a Christian worldview, which I termed and presented as ‘God’s economy’.
Something else I’ve been thinking about for a while is the way in which ‘financialization’ (the transformation of non-material commodities into financial assets) seeks to transcend material constraints. William Cavanaugh has many useful things to say on this idea. Here’s a quote from a recent article on the ABC’s Religion & Ethics site.
We have been sold on the imperative of economic growth at all costs. Such faith in growth is not just a material but a spiritual aspiration, an attempt to get beyond our damnable servitude to material reality, and so overcome human vulnerability and limitation.
It is vitally important that the church begins to realise the spiritual dimensions of modern economics, and the ways in which they shape our thinking about living in the world. The Western church too easily falls into capitalist modes of behaviour instead of Christian ones.
As some of you will know, I’ve been working this year for the Sydney University Evangelical Union, a student organisation. As part of my role I’m running a seminar at the EU’s Annual Conference. The topic this year is eschatology. To my delight, I’ve been able to convince the senior staff to allow me to run a seminar which nicely combines my studies in political economy with my love for theology & Christian living. My topic (as above): Christianity & Capitalism: The End and Economic Imagination.
I’ve had to write a blurb, so that the students can decide whether or not they want to come to my seminar. Here it is. Let me know what you think!
Wealth is a problem. On this the Old Testament Law and prophets, the New Testament writers and Jesus himself are unambiguous. How, then, are Christians to live in a world where endless economic growth and rising living standards are the norm, where social outcomes are measured by dollar-value?
If you’re a Christian living in a capitalist world (hint: that’s you), you need to wrestle with these questions. Exploring ‘the End’ according to capitalism and ‘the End’ according to the Bible, we’ll see how God’s economy of abundant grace can free us to imagine economic practices that promote human flourishing.
A seminar for anyone who has ever wondered what the Bible has to say about wealth. Students of economics, business and political economy may find themselves challenged to rethink everything they think they know!
Here’s a sermon I preached at Cottage Church on the weekend. (For anyone who heard it, yes, I went a little off-script a few times; hence why this text might read a little differently!
A World Divided: Failed Politics.
Francis Fukuyama, in a famous article titled ‘The End of History’ (1989), makes the astonishing claim that we’ve found the perfect political ideology. As the world converges ever more on the liberal democratic state and on free-market capitalism, the evolution of human civilisation is over. We will move inexorably towards a lasting global peace.
This ideology has achieved the following things: Wars (Iraq, Afghanistan). Devastating financial meltdowns across the world always hitting the poor the hardest (particularly in Latin America, but most spectacularly in the United States and Europe). The justification of torture and violence as a means of making ‘peace’ (aspects of the global ‘War on Terror’). Social isolation and disruption (the Occupy movement). Heart hearts towards children, the elderly, the poor and refugees (the latter nowhere more than our own nation of Australia). Matters of sexuality, lifestyle and even truth itself are reduced to ‘personal choice’.
Being a community, in this worldview, means ‘You can do whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t stop me from doing whatever I want.’ And so we have: Conflict. Division. Inequality. Alienation.
This politics has failed.
These effects are not restricted to the liberal democratic state and is the same with every form of political community and structure which humans have pursued. Ancient Greece. Fascism. Socialism. Liberal capitalism. Communism. Every politics constructed by human hands has failed. The reason for this is so obvious that we are often blind to it: the world is full of evil. This is true of our social structures and economic agendas; and it is true of our own hearts, filled as they are with selfishness, greed, envy, malice, and violence—be it physical, social, psychological, political or economic.
In Ephesians 2 (which you should read at this point!), we see that in Jesus Christ, God has achieved and established a new politics for a new humanity.
The root of the problem.
The problem, we see, is twofold: all humanity is alienated from God (2:1-3) and alienated from each other (2:11-12).
The passage moves from the alienation of God and humans to the alienation between people: especially the primary category of God’s people and the world. Gentiles (non-Jews) were doubly in trouble: hopeless and godless, without the covenant promises given to Israel. (Although it is true that God always intended to include them in those promises: see Genesis 12:1-3 and plenty of places in Isaiah.)
In Jesus, God solves this double alienation. In Jesus we are reconciled to God the Father (2:4-10, 16). In Jesus, by his blood shed for us, God deals with our guilt, rebellion and ignorance towards him (2:6, 13, 15). In Jesus, by abolishing in his body the law with its commandments and regulations, God removes the barrier between God’s people and the rest of the world (2:13-16).
The result of this lavish grace and mercy is nothing less than a new humanity! A new community marked by union with Christ, a shared faith, a shared salvation, and shared access through Christ to the Father by one Spirit. In this new humanity (the plural form of ‘man’ is used in the Greek, to mean ‘mankind’), there is perfect equality before God and with each other. Since there is now no barrier stopping any people from any nation joining with God’s people, all enter by the same route: faith in the Lord Jesus, the Messiah promised to Israel for the whole world.
One of the ways this is summed up is citizenship in the people of God (2v19). Sharing allegiance to the true Lord and King of the world and bound together by our union with Christ, the Church is a new community of peace.
In this way, our reconciliation with God and each other is a political act. No longer is our primary community Newtown or New South Wales or Australia: our primary community is the Church, a community under the rule of King Jesus.
This is the only true community. This unified people is precisely what all human political systems have tried and failed to achieve!
In Jesus, the formation of a true and lasting political community is achieved. Only Jesus, by the shedding of his blood for us, is able to deal with the root of the problem which causes all other politics to fail: Jesus overcomes the problem of disobedient, enslaved and broken hearts.
A Christian politics.
The worldview of liberal democracy championed in the rich world (and increasingly in the majority world) is, we have seen, a politics of division and alienation. It is a worldview which, because of our broken humanity, continues to disenfranchise, dislocate and dismantle communities.
How different to the new humanity created in Jesus’ body! In contrast to the world’s politics of alienation and division, the gospel is a politics of welcome and peace.
And the Church, as a political community, has a political task in the world. That task? Preaching peace to those who are near and those who are far off (2:17).
John Stott observes that ‘he preached peace’ (2:17) cannot refer (at least primarily) to Jesus’ earthly ministry. This preaching peace is precisely the announcement of what Christ has achieved by the shedding of his blood: a new, unified humanity! This is how Christ began his teaching when he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection: ‘Peace be with you!’ (John 20:19).
The political task of the church is nothing less than to snatch people away from any allegiance other than to Christ. As the Church preaches (and, importantly, embodies) the peace of Jesus, people are pulled out from under the rule of the kingdom of the air (as well as Gillard, Obama, Merkel, Sarkozy, Hu Jintao and Hun Sen) and united with the new humanity under the rule of Christ. This is the root of what we might call a ‘Christian politics.’
The gospel, therefore, is unavoidably political. To say this is not to say that Biblical Christianity gives us a set of clear political policies (although I do think there are important Christian things to say on matters of policy). The political claim of the Gospel is much grander than that: the Lord is King (there is no other), and he has created in himself a new humanity, a united people of God; this is the only true human community, in which there is no inequality, no division, no alienation. Instead, there is peace. This is the only politics that works. This is the only politics that sustains hope. This is the only politics that truly unites.
The Church here in Newtown is not facing the same problem as the Ephesians; among us there is no great schism between Jew and Gentile. Yet the issue of being at peace with one another is still a significant one. We’ve had moments in our little community where being at peace has been a struggle. That’s normal for any community! I think we’ve actually managed rather well.
But we need to keep struggling together to be of one mind: following Jesus and letting the peace we have with him and with each other bear witness to the achievement of Jesus Christ on the cross among the people of Newtown.
Paul, writing to the Colossians on the same theme, says this:
For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:3-4)
This is who we are. This is our community. This is our story.
Western society often tries to push the Church out of the public square: ‘religion is a private matter; politics is public.’ But our Gospel is political. Let no one convince you that the church is anything other than the new, true and primary human community, which has and will overcome the world through Christ. We are seated in the heavenly realms in Christ (2:6), now, and forever. The church is the world’s true community, even though the world is blind to it.
And so be assured: because your faith is in Jesus, you are taking part in a Christian politics. For a Christian politics is first and foremost to be the one new humanity he has made, and through being so to witness to the peace won for us in Christ Jesus. To those both near and those who are far, the peace of our community points to the One who has made that peace in his flesh.
Francis Fukuyama is right: we have, in a sense, reached the end of history. Although we wait for Christ to return to make his victory finally and fully known, we have already been given the perfect, effective politics of peace, achieved by the blood of Jesus and by our union with him in his death and resurrection made manifest in the community of the church. A true community in which there is no division or alienation, but peaceful citizenship of God’s people and membership of his household.
Jesus is the cornerstone of this community. He has made it possible. He has achieved it, through his blood on the cross and by his Spirit giving us access to the one Father. Only faith in him and the work of the Spirit in his people can hold this politics of peace together.
There’s an interesting article in the current edition of The Economist, titled ‘Holy Relevance: Faith Can Influence Economic Behaviour, But Not Always Directly.’ The article cites some research which seeks to observe whether Max Weber’s sociology of religion plays out in the economic behaviour of religious people.
In short, while citing some interesting correlations between Islamic faith and capitalistic success, the article finds no research which presents a convincing case for the positive effect of any Christian tradition on the economic success of their adherents. The article concludes:
In the end, laws and institutions seem to make more difference to people’s worldly chances than the arcana of theology.
I’m not surprised. Any approach to economics from a Christian worldview must take into account the Lord whom Christians follow, Jesus Christ, who said things like:
No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be slaves of God and of money. (Matthew 6:24, HCSB)
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40, HSCB)
Furthermore, those who became the leaders in the early Christian church said things like this:
Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27, HCSB)
In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret [of being content]—whether well-fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. (Philippians 4:12b, HCSB)
If I may paraphrase: Put no faith in the salvation falsely offered by wealth! Give generously, even sacrificially! Put others first! Be content with what you have; flee consumer capitalism!
While the New Testament certainly does not forbid Jesus’ followers from doing well in business, is it really a surprise that faith in the Suffering Servant doesn’t correlate with worldly wealth? The ‘worldly chances’ of Christians are played out in light of the heavenly certainties secured in Christ.
Following a God who associates with the lowly and encourages the same generosity He has shown in giving Jesus Christ, it is no wonder ‘the arcana of [Christian] theology’ has no correlation to business success. As the Apostle Paul says: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: although He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9, HCSB).