A Cross-Shaped Recovery? Economics Through A Biblical Lens

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Ben Gregg

The economy is frontpage news again. GDP fell 20% in April[1]. Headlines waver between hopeful claims of a V-shaped recovery and mass unemployment. In response, the government proposes a (half-hearted) New Deal and the Opposition demands a wealth tax. Decisions made now will define the lives of millions. They are confusing enough on their own but add faith’s influence and the fog thickens. The Bible is not simply political, but its ramifications unquestionably are. What, then, does thinking clearly about economics look like from a Christian perspective?

First, we need to understand what economics is. To be pedantic, it is the study of the economy – the production, allocation and destruction of resources within a given area. When the UK economy shrinks by 20% (GDP being the standard measure of an economy’s size), we are producing 20% fewer goods and services. The production and allocation of resources determines people’s employment, income and wealth; it is defined by the quantity, make-up and power of firms; and moulded by the size and shape of the government.

The barrage of jargon disguises why economics should matter to Christians: at its most basic, economics is about people. The economy matters because people matter. That people matter should be a truism for Christians (though I will explore it in more depth later).

Economics also matters because it is about stewardship, using God-given resources well. As a Christian, I could prove stewardship’s importance by the parable of the Talents[2] or the parable of the Shrewd Manager[3]: Jesus praises wise management of resources in both. Conventionally, however, these passages are interpreted as warnings of final judgement, though Tom Wright[4] argues that Jesus is foreshadowing the expansion of God’s mission beyond Israel (given the resonance of the images Jesus uses, his approach to Jerusalem and the Israelite audience). Either way, stewardship’s significance cannot be proven by them alone.

Rather, it is proven by eschatology. A Christian’s purpose is not to escape to heaven when they die. As shown by Tom Wright[5], God’s intention is to renew creation, “to reconcile to himself all things”[6], uniting heaven and earth[7]. It is for this reason that “creation waits in eager anticipation”[8]. This is not simply a change of post-death destination; it is a redefinition of Christian mission. All that is done in Christ’s name, including wisely stewarding God-given resources, “will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation which God will one day make.”[9] Or, in the words of Maximus Decimus Meridius[10]: “what we do in life echoes in eternity!”[11]

How, then, is economics done for Christ? To begin, we must separate ends and means. Mixing the two colours our attempts to find political direction from the Bible[12]. It is not that the ends justify the means; it is that the ends are primary and the means, while important, are secondary. Take the parable of the Shrewd Manager, again. “Make friends for yourself by means of unrighteous wealth,”[13] says Jesus. The unrighteousness of the wealth is redeemed by its use for a righteous goal. Judgement of an economic decision begins with its effectiveness in achieving Godly ends.

It is not difficult to find a Godly end for economics: “it’s the [people], stupid!”[14] Biblical economics aims at human betterment. People matter from the first verses of the Bible, “God made man in his image.”[15] All humans have inherent dignity as carriers of the imago dei. This idea runs throughout the law, from gleaning[16] to debt-relief[17], and shapes the prophets[18]. When asked to summarise the law in a single command, Jesus quotes the Shema[19] but appends Leviticus 19:18, “love your neighbour as yourself”[20]. Jesus offers two interconnected commands in place of a single summary: you cannot love God without loving your neighbour. Disregarding human dignity shames divinity.

In Economic Dignity, Gene Sperling offers a way to implement this. He put human dignity at the heart of economics and splits it into three: capacity to care for family, the pursuit of potential and purpose, and economic participation with respect and without domination. These unintentionally align with Christian aims. Consider the capacity to care for family. It is more than financial capacity; it is having the time and energy to enjoy family. Rest is as important as work, matching Sabbath ideals. And it reasserts the highest of ‘family values’, the value of valuing family.

With an end in sight, we can attend to the means. Here, it gets tricky. The Bible is not modern; our economy is incomparable to Biblical times; economics itself is a recent invention[21]. Moreover, the Bible is ambivalent on debates central to modern economics. We think in a government versus market dichotomy, the Bible does not. Justice laws in the Torah apply to a tribal nation without central authority, and the redistributive actions of the early church[22] are voluntarism within community. They do not neatly map onto our modern world.

Apparent ambivalence toward government runs through the Bible. 1 Samuel 8 criticizes the institution of kingship; yet King David is a “man after God’s own heart”[23]. Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 present empires as ravaging beasts; yet God designates Cyrus of Persia his anointed[24] and Paul urges the Romans to be subject to the authorities[25]. Jesus says “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”[26], but pronounces “I Am the Bread of Life”[27], usurping Augustus’ false claim to absolute power.

In other words, government is neither good nor evil but ambiguous. Jesus alone deserves absolute allegiance. We cannot be wedded to either big or small government. The Bible’s concern is good versus bad governance, as the repeating judgements of Kings and Chronicles imply, and the primary measure of that, throughout the prophets, is their attentiveness to justice.

Christians need not be politically homogenous to care for the same end. In God and Government, Phillip Booth calls for a smaller state, believing justice best served by Catholic Social Teaching’s subsidiarity, while Clifford Longley argues for a larger state, using CST’s principle of the common good. Neither is any less faithful in serving God. Biblical economics commits Christians to a shared goal not dogmatic politics.

The Bible does not offer policy proposals, only a guiding light in the fog of debate: human dignity. It is important to discern the most suitable solution for our setting, “justice must remain a kind of jazz”[28]. And, amongst the political debates and grand schemes, Christians must never forget that God’s justice is their responsibility too. It is for Christian consumers to put values over value; for Christian entrepreneur to put people over profit; and for Christian voters, politicians and policymakers to govern in service of Christ.

References

[1] https://on.ft.com/2ZFpiZ7

[2] Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27

[3] Luke 16:1-15

[4] In his Luke for Everyone commentary.

[5] Alongside many other Bible scholars, such as Richard Bauckham. Indeed, the Bible Project has a wonderful video demonstrating the point: https://youtu.be/Zy2AQlK6C5k

[6] Colossians 1:20

[7] Revelation 21

[8] Romans 8:19

[9] Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, p.219

[10] Husband to a murdered wife, father to a murdered son, who will have his vengeance, in this life or the next.

[11] Alternatively, in Paul’s words: “your labour in the Lord is not in vain”; 1 Corinthians 15:58.

[12] See The Bible in Politics by Richard Bauckham.

[13] Luke 16:8

[14] I am not insulting you. I am alluding to Bill Clinton’s informal campaign motto: “it’s the economy, stupid”

[15] Genesis 1:27

[16] Leviticus 19

[17] Leviticus 25

[18] Micah 6:8; Hosea 12:6; Amos 5:24; Isaiah 1:17; Isaiah 61; Zechariah 7:9. These are a few examples, mentions of justice in the prophets are innumerable. It is the core theme by which Israel’s commitment to God is measured. For further study, the Bible Project has a video here: https://youtu.be/A14THPoc4-4.

[19] Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

[20] Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28; John 13:31-35

[21] Sort of. Modern economics started with Adam Smith; but economics goes as far back as the works of Xenophon.

[22] Acts 2:44

[23] 1 Samuel 13:14

[24] Isaiah 45:1

[25] Revelation 13:1 – the same authorities that Revelation despises.

[26] Mark 12:17

[27] John 6:35

[28] Micheal O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets, p. 229

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