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Our God Reigns (but not in Economics)
Brian K Smith
In the Middle Ages a monk from Germany made a pilgrimage to Rome. There he bought a silver chalice to take back to his village church. On the way home he fell in with a trade caravan, and one night got talking to a couple of the merchants. In the course of the conversation he showed the two merchants his chalice, and told them how much he had paid for it.
The merchants congratulated him on his purchase. He had, they said, been very fortunate. The chalice was worth much more than the amount he had paid. They were tickled by the fact that an inexperienced monk had been cleverer than they had. Although they were merchants they had not had such a good stroke of luck on their trip.
The monk listened carefully to what they had to say. The following day he got up and started out, but not for his home town. He went back to Rome. There he searched for the seller of the chalice in order to pay him a just price.
In church on Sunday we call each other
'brother' and 'sister'. When it comes to
economics, however, we don't treat each
other as brother and sister. Instead we
treat each other as 'the market'.
Economics as ethics
Now if that had been us, the only reason for going back to Rome would have been to buy a dozen more chalices. Why did the monk act as he did? Because the idea of a ‘just price’ was part of Church thinking.
In the western Europe of the monk’s time the whole of society was ‘Christian’, hence by definition it was under the rule of God. And this rule of God had to do not just with religious things, but with the whole of life, including the business of buying and selling. Thus the Church taught on what we call ‘economics’. It preached against the amassing of riches, and the lending of money at interest. It also taught that goods should be exchanged at a ‘just price’.
Behind all this was the understanding that economics is not, as it is for us, an independent reality of its own. Economics, the Church saw, is a form of human behaviour. It has to do with the way we human beings treat one another.
In other words, economics is really a subset of ethics. And in the matter of ethics society was to conform to God’s ideas on the subject. The situation then looked like this:
A split worldview
We, however, live in a situation very different from that pictured above. Modern western culture has a split worldview. It divides the world into two, a public sphere and a private sphere.2
The public sphere is the arena where society lives its common life. But for this common life to operate it must have an agreed basis — in other words, there must be an underlying consensus about what will be regarded as ‘true’. In western society the underlying consensus for truth is the modern scientific worldview. In this view truth is regarded as ‘objective’, that is, it is about ‘the way things are’. This of course includes scientific truth, but public truth is much wider than just what can be proved scientifically.
Public truth includes a whole range of convictions that are held to be self-evident so that any reasonable person could be persuaded of them. One of these non-scientific convictions is the belief in the autonomy of human reason. A second is the idea of human rights. A third is the persuasion that the whole point of human life is ‘happiness’.3
Because public truth is about ‘the way things are’ it is seen to be dealing with facts. Facts are not open to debate, they are incontrovertible.
In the private sphere, however, the situation is the exact opposite. Here we are dealing not with facts, but with beliefs or faith. In the private sphere we are not talking about ‘the way things are’, but about the way things ought to be. We are dealing with opinion, preference and values. Where public truth is a matter of fact, private truth is a matter of faith.
Religion and politics don’t mix
In this split worldview it is clear that the only place for Christianity is the private sphere. Christian faith is just that — faith. ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not a fact, it is just what some people believe. This view of the world is expressed in such popular phrases as: “Religion and politics don’t mix”, that is, private truth (faith) should not intrude into the realm of public truth (‘the way things are’).
The big plus of this split worldview is that it neatly solves all the intractable problems of pluralism. In the private sphere diverse and even opposing beliefs can happily coexist. Thus Christians (along with everybody else) are free to do their own thing provided it is not illegal and doesn’t impinge on public truth. Private truth is plural, public truth is single, it is ‘the way things are’.
Free from ethics
At the same time as our worldview relegates Christian faith to the private sphere, it is equally convinced that economics belongs unequivocally to the public sphere. There, free from the dogmas of faith, economics can function as its own reality. In particular, economics is divorced from ethics. No longer is it about how we behave towards one another. Rather it is an impersonal and independent reality, that runs according to its own laws in the same way that physics and chemistry follow their own laws.
If it is a physical law that water flows downhill, it is equally an economic law that money flows to where it can make the best profit. Thus when we are told that the interest rate must be increased (or decreased) we accept that this is just ‘the way things are’. In our split worldview economics is an autonomous reality, that is, it is a law unto itself. The best we can do is employ economists to listen to the rumblings of the economics behemoth in the hope that their predictions about its lurchings can be used to our advantage.
A law unto itself
Underlying all this is the belief that to regard economics as a law unto itself is ‘rational’. This, we think, is the proper (and only) way to regard it. To suggest that things could be otherwise, and that perhaps God might have something to say about economics, is, in our culture, sheer blasphemy.
In fact, the story at the beginning of this article about the medieval monk is taken from a book by an economist who uses it to show how the introduction of religion into economics brings in an irrational factor that interferes with its ‘proper’ (rational) working!
And we Christians go along with all this. We may sing “Our God reigns”, but we don’t imagine that this extends to economics (among other things). Economics belongs to the public sphere. It is its own reality and is part of ‘the way things are’. It is not subject to God’s law, it is a law unto itself.
The time has come for Christians to stop believing that economics is a law unto itself. The time has come for us to start acting in a way that demonstrates that God also rules over economics.
Anyone who has managed to read this far is likely to have one of three reactions.
1. Remain unconvinced. When all is said and done, economics is a law unto itself. It runs according to its own rules, and there is nothing we can do about it. Let’s concentrate on the worship of God and leave economics to the economists. The best we can do is spare them the odd prayer.
2. Yes, somehow we have to bring God into economics. Let us Christians get together and start putting pressure on the government, especially with regard to the poor. (Another Hikoi of Hope maybe?)
3. It’s no good trying to pressure the government from the outside. That doesn’t work. The system is too strong. You have to get on the inside and work for change there. There’s an election in two and a half years. Let’s get more Christians into Parliament.
Reaction 1 is simply the status quo, the split worldview. Our God reigns, but not in economics. Reactions 2 and 3 call for political action. What we have to do is to work within our political structures to ensure better and fairer economic outcomes.
Now there is no doubt that we Christians should be at work within political structures. The trouble, however, is that political action works within the assumptions of the prevailing worldview, which in this case asserts that economics is a law unto itself. Politics as we know it does not seek to challenge that. Rather it seeks to find ways in which what is produced by an autonomous economics can be utilised in a more benign and ‘Christian’ manner.
But it is precisely the autonomy of economics that is at issue. As long as economics remains under its own law it is not under God’s law. How can we challenge that sacred autonomy?
A modest proposal
Let me make a modest proposal. It is modest because it is only a beginning. But then we have to start somewhere. The early part of the Old Testament provides us with a clue. In the first books of the Old Testament God lays down certain laws for his people, Israel. One of these concerns lending money to a neighbour: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest.”4
The setting here is a simple agricultural society in which some of its members have got into difficulty and become poor. Maybe locusts have eaten the crop. Maybe disease has struck the flocks and herds. Whatever the reason, the poor person is to be given a charitable loan.
But you must not charge interest. Why not? Because the person in distress is your neighbour. You are to fear your God, who is a God of mercy and brought you out of the land of Egypt.5 It would be wrong for you to profit from a neighbour’s distress.6
Being the Church
Let’s translate that into our terms. The people in distress are what we call ‘the poor’. In the world of rational economics when they get into financial difficulty and need a loan they have to get one at ‘market rates’, and often highly inflated market rates at that. But suppose we took an Old Testament view. We could say to the poor person: “Look, we realise you’re in a hole. We want to help you, but we don’t want to profit from your distress. We don’t need market rates. We will lend to you interest free.”
It is important to note how radically different action of this kind is. Unlike the political approach it actually challenges the public sphere. It takes on ‘the way things are’ and says that they don’t have to be that way.
Again, unlike political action which ends up trying to tell others — and especially the government — to change their behaviour, this approach requires none of that. All it requires is a change in our behaviour. All we have to do is to be the Church, that is, act as a people whose economic behaviour is brought under the reign of God.
In the world of rational economics this kind of interest-free lending doesn’t make sense. It is irrational. But then who determines what is rational? Rationality is always premised on the basis of some belief system. The faith framework you start with determines the rationality you get. Of all people we Christians ought to understand that there is rationality and there is rationality. What in one framework looks irrational can, in another framework, look exceedingly rational. To deny oneself and take up a cross is just plain crazy, yet we believe that to follow Jesus is the most sensible thing in the world.
A way for churches
Of course we can lend interest-free as individuals. Many Christians no doubt do. But we also need to act as congregations and churches. And for this new kind of economic behaviour to be corporate we need a mechanism. In 1988 the Spreydon Baptist Church in Christchurch set up what it called the Kingdom Resources Trust (KRT). The Trust invites people to deposit savings at no interest, so that it in turn can lend money to the poor at no interest.
KRT operates like a savings bank. It accepts both term deposits and deposits that are on call. In the 15 years of its operation the Kingdom Resources Trust has lent over $2 million. These loans, at an average of $4000, have been made to people in financial distress, who along with the loan also receive proper budget advice so that there can be a real change in their circumstances.
Until 2000, KRT confined its operations to Christchurch and North Canterbury. Now, however, it is expanding its services nationwide by entering into partnership with local churches in other parts of the country. The deal is a two-way one. The church agrees to preach and teach a biblical view of economics and to encourage members of the congregation to deposit savings in the Trust at no interest. In return the church, through its leadership, is able to make interest free loans to the poor.
While the legal and administrative side of the loan is handled by KRT, the human face of the loan is the local church. Churches of any denomination and none can take up this partnership. More information can be obtained from John Exton, Kingdom Resources Trust, PO Box 33-285, Christchurch. Phone (03) 332-1700, Fax (03) 332-1600, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Beyond the poor
While the Bible has a particular concern for the poor, our discussion about bringing the reign of God into economics raises a much bigger issue. In church on Sunday we call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. When it comes to economics, however, we don’t treat each other as brother and sister. Instead we treat each other as ‘the market’. When a brother or a sister wants a mortgage to buy a house he or she has to go the bank and borrow our money at market rates.
The reason we behave like this is because of our split worldview. Our Christian affirmations belong to the private sphere of faith. Economics, on the other hand, belongs to the public sphere. Here the controlling force is not personal (faith), but the impersonal ‘market’.
Money is lent and borrowed at the rate the market will ‘bear’. And, we think, there is nothing that can be done about this. Like the force of gravity the need to pay interest at the market rate is just ‘the way things are’.
All of which of course is nonsense. What we happily call ‘market forces’ are simply the end result of individual human decisions, sometimes many millions of them. And because they are human decisions they could be different. We who claim to follow One who sets people free ought to be in the forefront of those who decide differently. In particular, we could stop treating brothers and sisters as ‘the market’. We could change our economic behaviour.
If we Christians change our economic behaviour the gospel will for the first time become credible to many. As long as the good news about Jesus remains in the private sphere it won’t be believable. Only when it starts to affect ‘the real world’ (the way things are) will it be taken seriously.
The call for the reign of God to be brought into economics may seem to imply a condemnation of the free market capitalist system. Such is not the case. Free market capitalism has been, and is, the source of many good things.
Yet we Christians ought not unthinkingly to go along with our culture’s view of free market capitalism as an autonomous reality. Rather, we should seek to bring our economic behaviour into line with kingdom ethics. The culture may view the introduction of such private truth (the gospel) into the public sphere as illegitimate, but how else is the reign of God to extend to the human activity we call economics?