Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Economics at the Jesus Creed: Michael Kruse 10

posted by Scot McKnight

WallStreet.jpgFolks Michael Kruse finishes off this wonderful series today, and I hope you express your appreciation to him. We need education like this, and to that end David Opderbeck will begin a series next week on “Law” — David’s a Law professor. So, here’s Michael’s last post…


Today we come to the final post is this series on basic economics. Over the last nine weeks we’ve reviewed several economic issues: scarcity vs. abundance, supply and demand, positive vs. normative economics, opportunity costs and tradeoffs, markets and trade, division of labor, self-interest, wealth, utility, profit, face-to face community vs. commercial society, and capitalism, to name just a few. Any of these topics are book length material. As I noted in the first post, I’m not an economist and I’m certain I haven’t done justice to each issue. Nevertheless, I hope the discussion has illustrated the lens through which economics views the world. I want to conclude this series with thoughts on why I think economic thinking so critical for Christians today.

 

Why should we care about basic economics?

 

Many people have noted that material possessions are addressed in the Bible more often than any other topic. Passages like Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 make clear that, in addition to being in relationship with God, our function is to exercise dominion over the created order. Dominion includes the formation of human civilization to carry out our mandate. So in light of our present circumstances, we might ask, “Is capitalism Christian?” There is little doubt in my mind that the answer is, “No “… but neither is any other economic system. There is no economic system presented in the Bible.


A few of questions. I hammer theologians and Christian leaders pretty hard at the end of this post. Is it justified? Do you agree that we need more venues for this dialog to happen? In what venues do you see dialog that draws on both mainstream economics and scholarly theological insight?



 

Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman cultures
had no concept of economics as we have known it over the past century or so … the
systematic analysis of production, distribution, and human decision making. We
tend to think of society as government, business, family, religion, and
education, … each with distinct traditions and semi-autonomous institutions. Everything
in the ancient world was subsumed under kinship and politics. What happened
“economically” was an extension of these two ancient institutions.

 

Ancient Near East patriarchy and
Greco-Roman patronage was the milieu of biblical times. Appreciating this is
critical. God always revealed himself into specific contexts. For instance, it
is a cardinal doctrine of Christianity that there is one God. It was believed
that there were many gods in the ancient Near East. Note the first of the Ten
Commandments: “Do not have any other gods before me.” Passages like this do not
correct the mistaken notion of multiple gods but rather limit worship to Yahweh.
The “one God” concept comes into focus later. Concerning enemies, the Hebrew
law reforms the sevenfold vengeance into the equitable “eye for an eye and a
tooth for a tooth.” Then Jesus says, “love your enemies.” Slavery, in one form
or another, seems unquestioned in the Old and New Testament. Yet today we
consider it unethical. Treating culturally bound practices and revelations as
transcendent mandates creates a number of problems. Context is important.

 

Jesus’ context was First Century
Palestine. The “American dream” for the Jewish Palestinian was to own his land,
to live in self-sufficiency, and to barter within the village to supplement
what was not produced at home. There was no concept of specialization of labor
or an expanding economy. Economic life was a zero-sum game where anyone who
became significantly wealthier than others did so at the expense of others.
Furthermore, the powerful persistently tried to impose monetary exchange on to
the community to facilitate the collection of taxes and fees. Lending was a way
of trapping people in debt and confiscating their land. Where we see money as a
liberating force, the peasants of Jesus’ day viewed money as a means of
oppression. This is the context into which Jesus delivered his message of the
coming Kingdom.

 

Consequently, we see criticism of
hoarding in Jesus’ message. The powerful stored up grain they had extracted
from peasants. Crops frequently sat in storage facilities serving no productive
use until the owners saw fit to sell them. Some uncritically apply “hoarding” to
anyone who has wealth today. Yet most wealth held by the wealthy today is in
the form of productive assets. Wealth is invested through ownership of personal
businesses or through shareholdings in firms that produce goods and services.
Wealth is placed on deposit to be lent to other people for business enterprise
and discretionary projects. All of this creates more wealth, more goods and
services, and more jobs. Clearly those who invest more wisely are going to be
wealthier than others who do not. Are these people hoarding?

 

Similarly, while greed was essentially
craving more than your fair share of a fixed amount in Jesus’ context, is
someone having more than others do through prudent investing and management in
an ever growing economy evidence of greed? If not, than what constitutes greed?
Is lending money in order to help finance productive enterprises different from
lending money to those in need? How does one determine how much to consume, how
much to invest, and how much to give? What constitutes a just economic system?
How does one discern the common good, much less pursue it? These are not
academic questions to the great majority of business people I converse with.

 

My experience is that Christian leaders
of many different stripes do not handle these questions well. They uncritically
lift Scripture passages out of context … or maybe read their present context
back on to Scripture … to support particular views. There is the prosperity
“name and claim it” gospel that cherry picks from passages about faith and
blessing. Another view finds free market exchange emanating from the Word …
success in business comes close to being equated with spiritual maturity and receiving
God’s blessing. Then there is Liberation theology with its roots in sociology
and conflict theory (Marxian analysis.) In Mainline Protestantism, Scripture’s
“economic” teachings are little more than soft-socialism baptized in
theological language. Roman Catholic social teaching is one place where I think
there has been some solid reflection on economic issues, although even here I
question the way some economic issues are framed. But I suggest that there is
something deeper than just poor interpretative frameworks.

 

Most theologians and church leaders I’ve
encountered have considerable ambivalence, at best, and outright animus, at
worst, toward the marketplace. Charles North and Bob Smietana write in Good Intentions:

 

“In interviewing businesspeople for her
book Church on Sunday, Work on Monday,
[Laura] Nash discovered a chasm between how business people and their pastors
saw economics. Pastors and church leaders talked in restrictive terms about the
need to limit greed. The businesspeople in their congregations had a different
view.

 

‘Business people took a positive, additive
view: faith was about expanding economic opportunity for more people through
business success,’ says Nash. ‘For the business person, business was about
solving problems and creating prosperity and it centered on specific
activities.’” (37-38)

 

John C. Knapp, a professor at Samford
University and Columbia Theological Seminary,
wrote an article three years ago about the perceptions of
the church by businesspeople. He mentions one study (which I heard him review
in person) that featured interviews with 200 Christians from all walks of life,
ranging from a Fortune 500 CEO to retail clerks. Each was invited to identify a
time when they had encountered a particular ethical problem in the course of
their work. When asked if they had sought counsel from a pastor or spiritual
leader all but two or three said no. The most frequently given reason for not
doing so is that their pastor would not understand or would not care. Another
survey of 2,000 people who regularly attend church were asked, “Have you ever
in your life heard a sermon, read a book, listened to a tape, or been to a
seminar that applied biblical principles to everyday work issues?” Ninety
percent said, “No.”

 

Miroslav Volf writes in Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of
Work
:

 

“Given the paramount importance of work
in both liberal and socialist economic and social theory, it is remarkable that
in our world dominated by work a serious crisis in work had to strike before
church bodies paid much attention to the problem of human work. Theologians are
to blame for the former negligence. Amazingly little theological reflection has
taken place in the past about an activity that takes up so much of our time.
The number of pages theologians have devoted to the question of
transubstantiation – which does or does not take place on Sunday – for
instance, would, I suspect, far exceed the number of pages devoted to work that
fills our lives Monday through Saturday. My point is not to belittle the Christ
in the Lord’s Supper but to stress that a proper perspective on human work is
at least as important.” (69)

 

While more attempts to rectify this
deficiency are emerging, the reflection is still most often done in isolation
from mainstream economics. In fact, I frequently detect a prideful admission of
economic ignorance in some literature, signaling that the Christian scholar has
not been corrupted by such degenerate thinking. Economics is to Mainline
Protestant seminaries what evolution is to many conservative seminaries. Mario Varagas
Llosa says human nature demands two things for our world: A hero to solve our
problems and a villain to blame for creating them. Business people are quite
clear what role they’ve been assigned by all but some conservative Evangelicals
and Pentecostals.

 

Business people need … and in my
experience many of them crave … to know how their day to day work connects with
the mission of God in the world. They struggle for clarity in the work they do.
When this connection becomes real for them, ethical decisions become clearer.
The obligation to use resources to bring the poor into the economy with dignity,
and to exercise proper respect for the environment, emerges. Yet, the Church,
by and large, seems content to A) uncritically lionize business success, B) to ignore
economics and the world of business, or C) to treat brothers and sisters called
to marketplace work with condescending platitudes about abundance and avoidance
of greed. The venues where genuine economists and theologians meet are few. Scot
has provided a venue here at Jesus Creed for such discussions to develop. I
hope many others will follow his lead.

 

A few of questions. I hammered theologians and Christian leaders pretty hard at the end of
this post. Is it justified? Do you agree that we need more venues for this
dialog to happen? In what venues do you see dialog that draws on both
mainstream economics and scholarly theological insight?



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Comments read comments(42)
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Michael W. Kruse

posted November 11, 2009 at 6:47 am


My thanks to you, Scot, for providing this venue. I’ve really enjoyed the discussion. Thanks to those who have participated in the discussion.
I will be at a planning retreat today and I’m uncertain how much I will be able to contribute until late in the day.



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RJS

posted November 11, 2009 at 7:57 am


Michael,
The last bit surprises me. I hadn’t thought of mainline as anti-business. I can see where it could be true though.
Interesting.



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Joan Ball

posted November 11, 2009 at 8:20 am


A great list of resources and an ongoing discussion regarding the intersection between faith and work appears here.
http://shrinkingthecamel.com/2009/11/09/your-online-guide-to-faith-in-the-workplace/
And, in the comments section of this post, a Harvard MBA/business consultant weighs in on why, despite the offhandedness of an original comment at a recent business breakfast, he views Buddhism as a potentially healthier model for capitalism than Christianity.
http://shrinkingthecamel.com/2009/11/04/move-over-christians-buddhism-is-the-new-standard-for-business-spirituality/



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Diane

posted November 11, 2009 at 8:34 am


Hi Michael,
Thanks for doing this series and putting up with all my questions. I agree with you that we need to learn and do much more economics in the religion sphere. I have found this series quite interesting and hope Scot would invite you or others back for a permanent niche on economics on the JC.
I also agree that we need to develop a theology of work so that there is more integration between Christianity and work. I believe it infantilizes Christianity when we close the door on it at the job with “that doesn’t apply here.” If there’s anywhere it can be transformative, it can be there, as I’ve learned from personal experience.
Beyond that, we simply have to agree to disagree. So much is in how we frame issues, and I find myself questioning basic premises (and I know in a short blog you can’t write a book and must rely on a short hand). Questions pop to mind: isn’t debt today still a way to trap poorer people, as it always have been? More significantly, Is it the people who invest most wisely who make the most money or is people who have gotten lucky or been lucky enough to be born in the right family, with the right connections? I know a 29 yo with $10 million. He was born into it. He did not work for it.
As people say, “them that has, gets.” And if it is true that we live in only a partial meritocracy and that only based on the sacrifices of people who went before us who invested their money into roads, schools, safety, etc, so that we who are alive today could take risks and could develop wealth, is it indeed “socialism,” “soft” or “hard,” to say that there’s an ethical obligation to a. be humble, b. be grateful, c. understand that “there but for the grace of God go you” when you see a poor person rather than seeing a person who didn’t invest wisely and d. most importantly, to give generously, and I mean not only to your favorite charity but via taxes–letting a democracy allocate resources; trusting and investing in democracy, as imperfect as it may be. I don’t think we are at a point of needing to be apologizing for the very great disparities in wealth in our culture, which, as I said, seem to be based more on luck than any other factor in many cases, as well as not on work or merit but the privileges of race. I think it is, in a Christian context, blasphemy, for example, to say ONLY, “I got where I am through hard work,” when the true case is that no matter how hard you worked, you owe the wealth you are “creating” and borrowing for a short time to a gracious God.
I also think that we need to distinguish between the large number of small entrepreneurs in a society and the small number of very wealthy, who maybe are not circulating the wealth very well and should not be defended, imho. And finally, I think we need to take very seriously “jubilee” economics, which could be very healthy for creating wealth and breaking up big conglomerates.



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Rick

posted November 11, 2009 at 8:48 am


I wonder if the “mainline” issue is really not more of an overall “liturgical” issue.
Andy Rowell, at Out of Ur, recently wrote:
“Liturgical clergy see their role as being a faithful steward of historic Christianity. This consists especially of serving the Lord?s Supper and preaching. Free church pastors tend to see their role as equipping their congregations for evangelism and social justice. Because of their different understandings of their roles, it is not surprising that free church pastors are open to insights gleaned from megachurches, church planters, and business leaders; while liturgical church clergy see these sources as consumeristic, arrogant, and hopelessly misguided.”



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Tripp Hudgins

posted November 11, 2009 at 8:54 am


Thanks for this thread. I’ve read without commenting too much. I’m one of those mainline pastors with little to no economic understanding. I say that with no bitterness or sarcasm. I just wanted to learn.
Here is a question or two to start another conversation.
1. Genesis says we are cursed with toil. Can we begin to understand the stress and difficulty of work as part of our fallen-ness? If we can, how does Jesus redeem this?
2. How do people here unders4tand God’s “live life abundantly” promises? Is this about economics? Is it about something else?
These are the two places I am inspired to start. You have given me some great ideas for a sermon series. Let’s hope I don’t step in it too badly.



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Don Heatley

posted November 11, 2009 at 8:59 am


Trinity Wall Street’s Trinity Institute is having an a event around creating an ethical economy in January. It will be viewable on the web and churches can become partner sites. http://tinyurl.com/yjkoyzy
I have worked on their events before. The speakers and reflection groups are of excellent quality.



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MatthewS

posted November 11, 2009 at 9:03 am


Michael,
Thanks for the time and effort you put into this. These are the kind of posts that I save for future reference, knowing they will be valuable to have and that there is more than initially meets the eye. I am very ignorant in this area and appreciate the thoughts from your perspective.
As to the post itself, I wish for pastors and theological thinkers to be intelligently involved in these “real-life” issues of business and economics. I wonder if some of the current thinking about inter-cultural ministries and being missional could have some application for pastors interacting with the culture of business.
I don’t know how to say this…there are some pastors who are very non-technical. They are people-persons and don’t handle detail very well. Sometimes ignorant advice is worse than no advice at all. I don’t intend this as an insult, only to say that some pastors might want to encourage others on their staff to be involved here but should not themselves feel pressured to try to take on a subject they just aren’t going to do well with. I hope that comes out right!



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Rick

posted November 11, 2009 at 9:08 am


Tripp-
“Genesis says we are cursed with toil. Can we begin to understand the stress and difficulty of work as part of our fallen-ness? If we can, how does Jesus redeem this?”
Before even reading Michael’s post today, I just happened to hear a podcast from Northpoint Community that is doing a series on Christians at work, and our approach to it. Part of the idea is that work is part of our overall ministry, not apart from it.
http://www.northpoint.org/messages



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Tom Bassford

posted November 11, 2009 at 9:24 am


Thanks for a well-stated and thought provoking post. It is in the drawing of lines between secular and sacred that we allow ourselves as Christians to live parenthetical lives. Erase the line! Take out the parenthesis and our thinking about the normal Christian life will become a conversation about the whole of our lives. The context might actually transcend the culture in which we live with all of it’s assumptions and ideologies and come to rest in the simple teachings of stewardship and love for God and others. Thanks for asking some great questions and pushing the conversation in the right direction.
Tom Bassford



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dopderbeck

posted November 11, 2009 at 9:25 am


Good post. I think this is a good point: “Yet, the Church, by and large, seems content to A) uncritically lionize business success, B) to ignore economics and the world of business, or C) to treat brothers and sisters called to marketplace work with condescending platitudes about abundance and avoidance of greed.”
My tradition, that of the evangelical-fundamental non-denominational church, historically has engaged in (A), except maybe during Missions Week, although in my own home church that is changing. We have done this not so much overtly, but more in who we uphold as role models in lay leadership — mostly successful white male businessmen. So, my sensitivity is more along the lines of the Church not being critical enough of “business.”
In this regard — I agree that the Biblical teachings on money need to be considered carefully in context. But, I don’t think it’s so simple as suggesting that the ANE / Second Temple economy was zero sum and ours isn’t. Jesus was a carpenter and Paul was a tentmaker — neither of those were zero-sum agrarian occupations. The Spirit’s letter to Laodecia in Rev. 3 refers to that city’s vibrant market in eye ointment — again, not a zero sum agrarian economy. Rev. 18:9-17 describes the bounty of Roman trade:

cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men.
Again, this reflects a robust and sophisticated form of market economy, not a zero-sum agrarian one (except for those slaves!).
So, when the Bible prophetically challenges the lure of wealth, I think it challenges us in modern capitalist economies just as much as it challenged the original hearers.



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BPRjam

posted November 11, 2009 at 9:53 am


I find myself with many of the questions posed by Diane (#4).
I’m interested in what things like “Hasn’t God chosen the poor of the world to be rich in faith?” and “If anyone has material possessions and doesn’t help is brother in need, how can the love of God be in him?” mean in the proposed reframing of economic realities.
I just can’t seem to shake the idea that the mechanics of oppression have changed (e.g., I don’t literally oppress the poor by having a cush job for which I became qualified via my eduction), but the fact that I create and participate in a system in which the poor are robbed of justice by a lack of means to participate in the “creation” of wealth seems to be the same. In other words, in what ways have I, as a Christian, participated in economic kenosis for the betterment of the least among us?
I could go on and on, but something about this post rubs me the wrong way.



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David Congdon

posted November 11, 2009 at 10:12 am


Michael,
I appreciate this post, and your attempt to raise our awareness of this issue. I also think you’ve presented us with some tough questions that need to be addressed. But I also think there are some serious problems with what you’ve written and left us with here:
1. You do not seem to raise the distinction within the NT between those within the ecclesial community and those outside of it. While it’s true that Jesus condemns hoarding in general, there seem to be much stronger economic implications for those within the church. See the opening of Acts, for example, or Paul’s condemnation of what we might call class divisions in the Lord’s Supper pericope in 1 Cor. 11. In short, it seems to me that while the NT has some words about greed and hoarding more generally, the bulk of its pronouncements (including those of Jesus himself) concern those within the church. The question then arises: what about self-identifying Christians who work in the field of business? Maybe I missed it, but I don’t see you making this distinction. As a result, it seems that you think the NT has nothing specific to say to those who identify themselves as followers of Christ.
2. While you are quite right that the NT does not give us an economic system ? analogous to the way the OT does not give us a science of origins ? I would want to say that, at the very least, it gives us basic principles that inform our moral agency. Moreover, I would want to say that these principles are not merely guides for individual action in the world, but they are normative for the life of the church community as a whole. They have a social, even sociopolitical, dimension. If something like that is indeed the case, what happens if these basic principles turn out to conflict, in deep-seated ways, with capitalism? While you don’t come out and say it directly, it sure seems like you are hinting at something like the following: (1) the NT entails no economic system; (2) the ethical principles in Scripture are reserved for individual moral actions alone and have no implications for social life, whether within the church or without; and (3) therefore there is no conflict between Christian teaching and modern American capitalism – we just need to see how we can bless others with our capitalist system. Which leads me to the next point.
3. You wrote: “The obligation to use resources to bring the poor into the economy with dignity …” This seems to be a very poor choice of words, and I’m wondering if it is intentional or not. The key phrase is: “to bring the poor into the economy.” First, there is the obvious fact that the poor are already in the economy; everyone is by default. Second, I take it you mean that the poor need to be made into productive participants in the economy. But then we have to ask: why? Is economic productiveness, for you, a virtue that defines true humanity? Is this kind of economic incorporation of the poor something for which we see biblical warrant? How do you reconcile the NT’s model of economic distribution with this very capitalist notion of economic incorporation? Third, at the very least, the phrase “bringing the poor into the economy” sounds very Borg-like, as if the economy is an imperial power assimilating all life. Wouldn’t it be better to say that we need to bring the economy to the poor? Finally, as a Christian theologian, isn’t the proper statement not that we need to bring the poor into the economy or the economy to the poor, but that we need to bring the kingdom of God to the poor, or rather stand in economic solidarity with the poor as those in whom Jesus has promised to be present (Matt. 25)? In other words, I want to say that the goal of the church is not to support the expansion of the capitalist regime, but rather to further God’s mission of reconciliation by sharing with the poor the resources of the Christian community. If business people want to turn people into capitalist drones, that’s their business (pun intended). The church’s work is to humanize the dehumanized and partner with the marginalized.
4. Lastly, you scold Christians for giving pat answers and cliche responses to serious questions. I heartily agree. But then I have to wonder: have you escaped your own criticisms? In two paragraphs ? the one beginning with “Similarly, while greed was essentially craving…” and the other beginning with “My experience is that Christian leaders…” ? you (a) raise some very serious questions and (b) dismiss all the major Christian groups that have raised economic issues. But then where do you leave us? You don’t answer your own questions, nor do you chart a substantial path forward. You leave us with the following statement, perhaps the most cliche of all: “Business people need … and in my experience many of them crave … to know how their day to day work connects with the mission of God in the world.” How is this helpful in any real way? What does this actually contribute? In the end, it seems that you dismiss everyone else rather casually, then offer nothing of substance in its place. I don’t care for the pseudo-”health and wealth gospel,” but at least they have an encompassing theological vision of God and the world. This post leaves us with the benign and platitudinous vision of business people being part of God’s church in some ambiguous but positive sense. But this is not the basis for any kind of change in the church.
In the end, it doesn’t seem like you have a message beyond: Capitalism isn’t an enemy of the gospel, so let’s preach about the virtues of capitalism from the pulpit and give our business people a sense of self-importance. Is that about it?



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Drew Tatusko

posted November 11, 2009 at 10:49 am


Scot,
I think that economics is not only a horribly ignored topic in seminary, but in any liberal arts education in general. Students simply are not aware how the economic system binds them together as soon as they matriculate. How? They all have accumulate debt of some sort.
One assumption that I think we ought to look at more closely that also alludes to David’s second point above is this statement:
“Furthermore, the powerful persistently tried to impose monetary exchange on to the community to facilitate the collection of taxes and fees. Lending was a way of trapping people in debt and confiscating their land. Where we see money as a liberating force, the peasants of Jesus’ day viewed money as a means of oppression. This is the context into which Jesus delivered his message of the coming Kingdom.”
Currency is not local and barter economies that use receipts for currency are consistently pushed out by larger coporate interests and the politicians that support those interests. The federal reserve does the same thing as a wealthy merchant who hoards grain to increase its value and thus his investment. The Fed literally determines the value of the dollar in relation to the debt that the dollar has to hold.
College students graduate with 10′s of thousands of dollars of debt, home ownership is a myth since few people stay long enough in the same home to own it,car leases, credit cards, etc. The value of the US economy is purely speculative and that is clear by the ratio of produced goods and exports versus the ratio of speculative investments and exported labor. The US economy needs debt in order to be prosperous and that means it needs the public to hold that private corporate debt.
This so the dollar is only branded as something liberating when in actuality it is a vehicle of oppression itself. If this is al true, and I think it is, then the call of Jesus remains almost identical to that of his day. He was a radical as far as the socio-political and economic structures of his day. The church is far from radical, but merely a leech on the very structural problem itself which you rightly say is indeed a means of oppression.
I would ask how the church can engage in alternative economies that do not use any federal dollars on loan from the federal reserve to large banks! How can the church stimulate local economies where we can create systems to make love of neighbor not the exception, but the norm?



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Dave Weidlich

posted November 11, 2009 at 10:55 am


Great post. I am guilty. Most of my sermons on money work their way towards giving to the church. Recently, I made reference to rising salaries of Americans in the top .01%. They have risen 900% in the last 30 years (Time mag). I gave this as one sign of a change in values in America that exalts greed. I received some pushback from some who understood me as bashing the rich.
Your post demonstrates that it is not as simple as we pastors often make it. I will read the previous posts. Many thanks.



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Rodney

posted November 11, 2009 at 11:18 am


Michael,
Thanks for leading this discussion, like others I haven’t joined in–too much to learn.
I would like to ask for clarification: you wrote, “The ‘American dream’ for the Jewish Palestinian was to own his land, to live in self-sufficiency, and to barter within the village to supplement what was not produced at home.”
I’m assuming you’re talking about the retainer class–those who already own the land and want more. Those who actually worked the land–the farmers–didn’t own it. And, they had no resources to acquire it (something “Jubilee” was supposed to take care of for Jewish people). So, their “dream” wasn’t to be self-sufficient (in a dyadic culture that would be suicide), but to live in a community without need of the city. In other words (unless I’m misunderstanding you), your description of the first-century world seems to be based on twenty-first American assumptions.



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Virgil

posted November 11, 2009 at 11:24 am


“College students graduate with 10′s of thousands of dollars of debt, home ownership is a myth since few people stay long enough in the same home to own it,car leases, credit cards, etc.”
Drew, that’s a well made point. Christians have bitten hard and swallowed the message of the Kingdom of the World in that they accept without question assumptions presented to them: college education is a necessity, home ownership is a right and a requirement, comfortable and new cars and required, etc.



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EricG

posted November 11, 2009 at 1:48 pm


As someone who has attended both evangelical and mainline churches, I have also noticed that many mainliners (and sometimes emerging-church types) have knee-jerk reaction against business. Such as the mainline pastor who, when I explained that I handle business litigation for corporations said “oh, so you work for The Man!” (Only 10% of the comment was kidding, based on the rest of the conversation).
I think some posters above are missing Michael’s point, which (as I undersand it) isn’t “hands off capitalism!” The point is that, as flawed as they are, market economies are the best method we have to drive improvements in the lives of many, including the poor. Markets sometimes fail, of course, and for that reason we regulate them, and have a legal system that addresses problems as well. And we (thankfully) partially redistribute wealth through the tax system. But we don’t abandon markets because of these issues. And its a signficant stretch of the Bible (OT and NT) to suggest you can lift text from those circumstances and apply directly to the sort of complex markets and distribution systems we have today. The results would be profound and negative, including for the poor, in some instances. If you tend to disagree, I ask you to do some investigation of the economics before firming up your opinions. Instead of pushing for abandonment of markets, I believe Christians should push for regulations of markets and laws that make sense — only after they have a firm grasp of the underlying economics, however (outlaw debt, for example? Do you have any idea what would actually happen?) And work for social justice as the church. But you simply can’t extend common ownership among small church communities, as in Acts, to full scale markets today, because it simply won’t work given that the population at large is fallen and selfish, and because economies work on such large scales today. You need an economic system to recognize that people are motivated by self interest, and that tries to work in spite of (and sometimes because of) that fact. That doesn’t mean people *should* be selfish; it just means that we need to recognize it and design a system that addresses it.



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Ken

posted November 11, 2009 at 2:05 pm


I am not a business man, but it seem to me that there is an almost inexhaustible opportunity for good business minds, retired businessmen and farmers, and others to develop ways to aid and help develop local agriculture and business in underdeveloped countries. I am thinking of things such as the Service Station (Spokane, WA), Dominion Trading Company (Liberty Lake, WA) and the New Covenant Foundation. Google them. Maybe we can actually help farmers around the world o be more productive, market their own crops, and get much of the benefit instead of working for large corporations who get most of the profit.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted November 11, 2009 at 2:11 pm


I finally got a couple of minutes out of my meeting. Thanks for the great comments.
EricG #18
You’ve captured my intent well. My intent in this series of posts is for us to deal well with the issues from both a solid theological understanding and a solid understanding of economics.
I have not said the economists are infallible or should be listened to uncritically. While economists are in wide agreement about necessity of markets, how supply and demand works, etc., etc., there is considerable debate about how well, say, markets work and how they should be managed. What our theological discourse needs is to deal with economics seriously. When the theologian says economists say thus and so, they must be willing to listen back to see if economists affirm that there thoughts have been correctly represented. Only when the economist says, “Yes. That is what I’m saying” do we then move to critique. What usually happens, in my experience is, caricature, not engagement with economics.
More later.



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David Congdon

posted November 11, 2009 at 2:30 pm


Eric,
Since you’re mostly responding to me, I’ll say something here. You write at the end: “You need an economic system to recognize that people are motivated by self interest, and that tries to work in spite of (and sometimes because of) that fact.”
That’s certainly true, and I would never advocate that the world needs to become the church. That’s the great mistake of the Constantinian legacy.
But it does NOT follow that the church is reduced to championing the cause of whatever economic system is dominant (in this case, capitalism). This is no less of an error; it simply repeats the error in the opposite direction. Instead of taking over the world and imposing divine law upon the land, now the church simply promotes the world’s efforts to produce and maintain wealth (divine law now has nothing critical and material to say in response to and in dialogue with human law).
We need to acknowledge both that the church does not come prepackaged with an economic system to impose upon others and that the church cannot become a cheerleader of whatever economic system exists. Instead, it must remain a thorn in the side of the systems of the world, a word of judgment and grace that scandalizes every ideology and subverts any attempt to wed the gospel of Jesus Christ with any social, political, or economic platform.
The true service that the church renders to the world is not to promote its economic causes, but rather to speak the disruptive Word of God, thus nullifying their self-serving claims while at the same time seeking to bring these systems into greater correspondence to the reign of God ? always acknowledging the eschatological rupture between these systems and the kingdom to come.
The church must not simply pat our business people on their backs and say, “Well done.” Rather, it must always call them ? like it calls every one of us ? to question our actions and motives, to examine whether we are indeed living in correspondence to the truth of our being in Jesus Christ.
So to return to your point: yes, our economic systems probably work best if they take human selfishness into account. But the church cannot and must not remain content with this conclusion. In fact, it must work to undermine it. The church must always proclaim the counterintuitive and counter-cultural message that followers of Jesus are to live in self-donating love for others. It will proclaim the message that selfishness may be the way of the world, but it will receive no blessing from the pulpit. Instead, those business people who claim Jesus as Lord will be sent out into the world as agents of subversive grace. They will be messengers of God who unsettle the world’s easy capitulation to greed with the radical proclamation of kenotic, cruciform love. In this way, they will fulfill Jesus’ uncompromising call upon the lives of his disciples.
In short, there is no baptized capitalism. If participate in the capitalist economic system ? and it seems we have no choice ? then we must do so with a contrite spirit, asking for God’s forgiveness in the acknowledgment that while our actions may contribute to greater gain for some who need it, it will most likely simply further the divide between rich and poor while also contributing to the continued subjugation of the marginalized and the oppressed in this country and in the many others around the world.



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EricG

posted November 11, 2009 at 2:56 pm


David,
Geesh, brother, before you start preaching at people like that (see your last paragraph): I don’t think you are hearing what I am saying — please re-read my post. I also think you need to better undersand markets before you start making statements like this, particularly your last paragraph. Maybe you are used to dealing with people that have greater patience than I do (certainly Michael has greater patience than I do), but if you don’t listen to people, and you don’t understand the topic you are talking about (economics), you are just preaching at them with little effect.
Sure, the church isn’t supposed to champion markets. But folks do need to understand its the best system we’ve got, and stop saying things like “you’ve better start asking for forgiveness in participating in them.”



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David Congdon

posted November 11, 2009 at 4:27 pm


Preaching is the job of the church, not economic theory, so I’m not sure I understand your point. It’s not the church’s business what economic system is the best. It’s the church’s business to proclaim a message that strikes at the heart of all systems.
It seems to me that you, like Michael, are confused about the mission of the church. You seem to think that part of the church’s mission is to learn economic theory and to help its parishioners become better business people. If that’s the case, why stop there? Why not start engaging in education theory to help teachers become better teachers. Or why not run adult classes on the latest in particle physics, psychology, and lit theory?
And all the while the actual mission of the church, the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, gets lost in our attempt to become the world, instead of our faithfully learning anew what it means to be the church.



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RJS

posted November 11, 2009 at 4:38 pm


David (21 and 23)
It seems to me that what both Michael and Eric are saying is that we shouldn’t preach value judgments on economic principles without first understanding the issues.
The last paragraph of #21 preaches condemnation and resignation regarding an economic system. It does not preach the Gospel and it does not preach church or mission of church.



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Diane

posted November 11, 2009 at 5:19 pm


David Congdon,
You are speaking my mind and quite eloquently (though I appreciate what Michael is doing and bless him for opening up the conversation.) Yes,I agree the church has a role in being a thorn in the side of the economic system as it speaks up for and acts on behalf on the poor and oppressed.
EricG,
Are we conflating “markets” with “free market capitalism?” I think all economic systems rely on markets of some sort.
I think I have an uneasiness with the “what we have is the best economic system we’ve found to date” as a defense of capitalism. Maybe the answer is not revolutionary change–I’m sure it isn’t–but the answer also certainly isn’t the implicit resignation of “Well, we can’t do any better, so let’s learn to live with our current system.” Surely, we can do better. Surely the Bible promises us we can do better. The fact that we haven’t figured out how doesn’t mean we should be accepting the status quo of a system that is in so many ways not serving the needs of the “least of these.”



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Diane

posted November 11, 2009 at 5:44 pm

David Congdon

posted November 11, 2009 at 5:54 pm


RJS et al.,
If the last paragraph of #21 troubles people, then feel free to ignore it. I don’t have any stake in it. My point is not that capitalism itself is evil, only that regardless of what economic system we live in, we need to be continually mindful of how our actions may be contributing to the subjugation and oppression of others. I’m only targeting “free-market” capitalism because Eric and others are presupposing that this is the best system available. Substitute any other system and I would say the same thing.
But don’t get me wrong: I heartily agree that we need to understand economic issues. I just don’t think that this is the business of the church as a whole, i.e., it’s not an essential ingredient of its mission.



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EricG

posted November 11, 2009 at 6:00 pm


David, Where do I say (or even come close to implying) “that part of the church’s mission is to learn economic theory and to help its parishioners become better business people”? I believe part of our mission should also be to treat each other fairly, and listen to each other. Comments like yours do not further that mission.
I agree that part of the church’s mission is to challenge currupt systems. You and I would probably agree, for example, that the U.S. government should forgive more foreign debt than it does, to relieve poorer nations and people.
You suggested that Christians need to ask for forgiveness for participating in markets, because they harm the poor. My concern is that you are making such broad statements without an understanding of reality of the improvements markets have brought to living conditions, including for the poor. As RJS says, I think christians need to understand issues before we try to address them.
Diane — I’m all for improvement of systems, if you’ve got a better solution. What is it you have to propose? I’m all ears.
Also, markets and capitalism are related. I prefer to discuss “markets,” because “capitalism” is something that means different things to different people. I would prefer to discuss things like “markets” that have a somewhat more objective definition.



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Ted M. Gossard

posted November 11, 2009 at 6:02 pm


Michael, I’ve picked up some knowledge from your postings which have influenced my thinking. I thank you for sharing with us here. It does begin to open up for me how I need to approach this issue.



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Jesse

posted November 11, 2009 at 6:09 pm


Another angle to consider is the world-wide view. Many of the comments above have spoken of things like inequality and how “the system” creates it.
Now consider that the US as a whole probably resides in the top 25% of wealth of the whole world. That means when we redistribute wealth from the top 5% to the bottom 5%, on a global scale we’re taking from the top 0.2% and redistributing it to the 24th percentile of folks. Not all that radical, really. I don’t mean to trivialize the plight of the homeless and the needy in the United States, I simply point out that The Bottom Billion live on $1 per day in purchasing power parity. That doesn’t mean what $1 would buy in Bangladesh, that means they live as if they were living on $1 per day in the US.
The past hundred years or so have been nothing short of a miracle of progress in terms of wealth, health, and longevity in the US. The same has happened in less than 30 years in Korea and Japan. After the Korean war, Korea was a war-torn shambles not unlike some African nations. Today, lifespans are longer, people live with more security (police won’t come and steal from them) than ever before.
These are some of the things Michael is trying to bring to light. Is it perfect? Of course not. We need to address things like greed and selfishness, but the rich don’t have a monopoly on those things. There are many great things that have been brought about by modern exchange economies – we take the good with the bad and press on to make it better as we can in each of our own ways.



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Blessed Economist

posted November 11, 2009 at 6:10 pm


Michael you say, there is no economic system presented in the Bible. I do not agree. It is not presented as a system, but all the elements are there.
People are free to buy and sell if they choose, which is all that is a required for a free market.
The law against theft prevented expropriation of property.
Land is recognised as productive asset, so peoples access to it should not be removed unjustly.
A metal based currency functioned. The laws on weights and measures prevent currency inflation and manipulation.
There was recognition of the value of working livestock and tools as productive capital that needed greater protection. Tools given in pledge could not be kept during the day.
This is all that is needed for an economic system to function. Our economy is more sophisticated, but the underlying working is still the same.
They problem is that Christians do not like the biblical system. They want God or the state to come in like superman and impose a perfect state of peace, harmony and prosperity.
Unfortunately, God does not want to do it that way. He wants us to bring peace by sharing the gospel and prosperity by generosity and sharing.



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Paul Rack

posted November 11, 2009 at 6:45 pm


“Dominion” needs to be defined by the life and teachings of Jesus. That is, as responsibility, stewardship, walking lightly on the earth, non-violence, etc. There is no implication in “dominion” that includes “the formation of human civilization to carry out our mandate.” Civilization in Genesis is invented by Cain and his descendants.



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Diane

posted November 11, 2009 at 10:34 pm


EricG,
My point is that when you say I’”m all ears, what’s a better system?” that’s exactly the question I’m trying to raise. Let’s work together to find a better system. If we don’t think there’s a better system, we won’t find one. In the eighteenth century, in England, people widely believed that the best system for educating children involved corporal punishment. To people who were not comfortable with hitting children, the question was: “Show me a better way? Yes, it’s not perfect, but how else can we educate our children? They won’t learn without fear to motivate them. And if a few get traumatized, well, overall, look at the benefits.” Yet during the course a century, people established a new way, that was better and didn’t involve hitting the young, a less fear-based, more positive system. So, all I can do is to advocate for a mixed economy, with the gov’t doing what it does best and the private sector doing what it does best, but the fact that we don’t HAVE a better way than that isn’t an excuse for not SEARCHING for a better way, a way that better includes all people in the growth of prosperity and which in fact, might redefine prosperity and be less based on fear.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted November 11, 2009 at 10:56 pm


dopderbeck #11
My comment in the post narrowed specifically to Jesus’s context of First Century Palestine and the lives of the local peasants. That was the specific zero-sum game. The wider Greco-Roman world certainly included some trade of goods. Commodities (like food and livestock) were certainly exchanged between regions. Luxury goods were accessible only to a tiny sliver at the top of the status pyramid. The masses were untouched by this.
What I’m aiming for is how the Romans understood their context and how they moralized about it. Thus, while they may have benefited from trade, their image of themselves was as owners of idyllic estates engaged in agriculture … they envisioned themselves as self-sufficient. Trade was an unseemly game that no high status Roman wanted to be known for yet they all obviously did it. I don’t think they saw themselves as growing an economy or thinking a rising tide lifts all boats. They saw X amount of land and measured their importance by the quantity they controlled, not by how profitable they were in trade. That is a zero-sum game.
This is topic I’ve been doing a lot of digging on but I don’t feel like I’m explaining myself well here. In this context I’m less concerned with what they were actually accomplishing than with how the interpreted what they were doing.
Anyway, I look forward to your series on law!



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Michael W. Kruse

posted November 11, 2009 at 11:07 pm


BPRjam #12
” … but the fact that I create and participate in a system in which the poor are robbed of justice by a lack of means to participate in the “creation” of wealth seems to be the same. In other words, in what ways have I, as a Christian, participated in economic kenosis for the betterment of the least among us?”
I’m not sure what in my post is rubbing you the wrong way but I thoroughly embrace the question asking. I’m not sure but if you are saying that poor being robbed of means to participate is inherent our economic system I don’t think I would agree but I think sinful humanity will bend the systems toward that end.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted November 12, 2009 at 12:58 am


David #13
1. ??As a result, it seems that you think the NT has nothing specific to say to those who identify themselves as followers of Christ.?
No. I like William Webb?s idea of an ethical ladder of abstraction. At the top of the ladder may be an ethical imperative like, ?love your neighbor as yourself.? Farther down the ladders we may find, ?There shall be now poor among you.? At the bottom of the ladder we may find, ?Leave the edge of your field to be gleaned by the poor.? Bringing these biblical instructions forward we see that the bottom of the ladder no longer applies to our context. So we move back up the ladder to those imperatives that seem to have more cultural transcendence and work our way down to a specific application in our context.
2. ?
(1) ?the NT entails no economic system.?
Correct
(2) ?the ethical principles in Scripture are reserved for individual moral actions alone and have no implications for social life, whether within the church or without?
I said nothing of the sort. What I?m saying is that the idea of thinking of societal systems as systems that can be methodically studied, altered, and managed toward particular ends a phenomenon of that largely began with the Enlightenment. To read Scripture as though it were teaching a culturally transcendent economic system is anachronistic. Reason and experience play a critical role alongside Scripture and tradition as we discern how best to form our culture.
(3) ?therefore there is no conflict between Christian teaching and modern American capitalism – we just need to see how we can bless others with our capitalist system.?
No. I said because we have no economic system in the Scripture we need sound theological reflection on economics that includes a truly informed knowledge of what economics says, not dealing with economics in terms of caricatures and platitudes.
From a ?reason and experience? standpoint we know that from 10,000 BCE until 1750 CE, world per capita annual income to grew from $90 to $180 (measured in 1990 purchasing power parity dollars.) From 1750 to 2000 it rose to $6,600 ? while the total population grew more than sixfold. The percentage of the world living on a (inflation adjusted) dollar a day was 39% in 1970 and today it is less than 20%, during a time when the world population doubled. Throughout history infant mortality rates (deaths of children prior to age 1) have been around 250 out of 1,000. In developed nations it is now in the single digits. The global average is less than 60 and plummeting. Throughout human history life expectancy at birth was around 30 ? 45 if you made it past age one. Today global life expectancy is approaching 70 years while developed nations are at 80. The poor in America today lead lives better than the middle class less than 100 years ago in absolute material terms. I can keep going with more. The most pronounced advancement has happened in nations that have adopted market economies and democratic systems.
So do I think capitalism is good thing? You bet (And in the previous post I spelled out vary precisely what I mean by ?capitalism? so be sure you know what I mean before you start critiquing.) Humanity has never seen the likes of what has emerged. Is this the Kingdom of God? Hardly. Because of our ignorance of the consequences of fossil fuels we have had pollution problems and possible problems from CO2. Our economic system has disrupted traditional social systems. Post-materialism is creating its own set of dysfunctions. How do we reflect theologically on what all this means? That is why I stress the need for true dialog.
3. ?Is economic productiveness, for you, a virtue that defines true humanity? Is this kind of economic incorporation of the poor something for which we see biblical warrant??
We were created to be co-creative stewards over creation with God. Creativity is transforming matter, energy and data from less useful forms into more useful forms. We do not take of the grain and the grape but of the bread and the wine. We are participants in our own provision. Human creative labor part of being in Gods image. Our labor and creativity is what gives us wealth that provides for us and provides for others through exchange and generosity. To bring others into the economy where their gifts are made apart of dance of creativity and exchange is to humanize them and restore dignity. To treat the poor as merely the recipients of resources to be consumed is dehumanizing. You are treating them as so many cattle to be fed.
4. ?You don’t answer your own questions, nor do you chart a substantial path forward.?
I certainly did! We don?t have clear and well thought out answers because few theologians have honestly tried to enter the world of economics to the point they can articulate issues in ways that economists would affirm their view is being accurately portrayed before engaging in critique. That is the answer. We need to begin the dialog.
?”Business people need … and in my experience many of them crave … to know how their day to day work connects with the mission of God in the world.” How is this helpful in any real way? What does this actually contribute??
Because we are sent in mission to the world. As Christians, business people want to know how their daily lives connect with the God?s mission in the world. They don?t here an adequate answer and the church seems ill-equipped to really process the issues. Are you saying business people should partition their Christian life from their daily existence. Or maybe you?re saying business is evil and you can?t be a Christian and a business person. I don?t get your point.
?Capitalism isn’t an enemy of the gospel, so let’s preach about the virtues of capitalism from the pulpit and give our business people a sense of self-importance. Is that about it??
My series was about economics. Only one post was about capitalism. I did not say that we should preach the virtues of capitalism. I said that theologians and business people are far apart in their understanding of what happens in our economy. Markets clearly do some wonderful things but there is a lot of gray and a lot of questions.
Where did I mention anything remotely suggesting we need to give business people a sense of self-importance? They need informed correction and guidance every bit as much as the rest of us. My perspective is they would welcome it. What I would really like to know is why you perceive a call to truly struggle alongside brothers and sisters in Christ who are seeking to understand and fulfill their calling in the business world as promoting self-importance.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted November 12, 2009 at 1:37 am


David #21
I disagree that we are merely to be thorns in the side of human society. We are to proactively seek and work for the shalom of the world, which means being part of the solution.
Eric did not say selfishness. He said self-interest. We addressed what this means in economic terms in an early post. There is nothing incompatible with self-interest and the Kingdom of God. Jesus appealed to it repeatedly. See post.
I don?t know how you define capitalism but I don?t accept your interpretation of the impact of capitalism based on my definition (division of labor, market exchange, private property, and emphasis on capital) See post
David #23
At creation God gave humanity the mandate to multiply, fill the earth, and exercise dominion over it ? to be co-regents over the created order (Pslm 8) That mandate was corrupted with the fall but it has not expired. Redemption is not just about saving souls but redemption of the human mandate given at creation. So yes, physics, education, psychology ? everything. All the created order is being transformed by Christ and we are each called to service in a particular sphere of the world as we seek the shalom of the world in that corner.
David #27
I couldn’t disagree more. You’ve abandon the holistic redemption of humanity and humanity’s God’s mandate at creation for simply being a thorn in the side of the world.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted November 12, 2009 at 1:43 am


Thanks for the many kind affirmations above. And thanks again to Scot for this venue.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted November 12, 2009 at 2:12 am


Ron #31
There is behavior mandated for the context of the covenant with God that had economic consequences but I don’t think there is a culturally transcendent economic model. I do think there are clues for building an understanding of how our economy might function today.
Paul #32
If the mandate is multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it that means that eventually people have to have seem means by which they cooperate. That is human civilization. Yes Cain builds the first city in defiance of God. The city was the ancient symbol of human civilization. In the end, God does not destroy cities. He redeems them. The biblical narrative begins in a garden and ends in a city .. the new Jerusalem.
Dianne
I’ve enjoyed your comments. I would just emphasize again that I’m not suggesting that you, or anyone, should take what economists say as gospel. I am saying that before we run off trying to create new things and dismiss what economists say, let’s be really sure we have heard what the economist is saying.
As Christians I think have a the challenge of endlessly asking how can we create greater shalom in the world while not doing harm through well intentioned, but not well thought through, ideas. We need more venues where we can challenge each other.



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Ryan J Riehl

posted November 12, 2009 at 12:39 pm


Hi Michael,
Thanks for doing this series; im very inspired by yours and everyone’s desire to engage with these oft-forgotten issues.
Since I don’t believe in coincidences, it is fascinating that one day after i read this challenge to theologians and christian leaders on economics and business, I found an article in the Atlantic on how today’s strain of the prosperity gospel may have been a big cause of the housing bubble and thus the current financial crisis: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200912/rosin-prosperity-gospel/ (start at bottom of page 1, if u dont need an intro to prosperity gospel).
Diane (#4)- I also raise the same questions, but I don’t think they fundamentally disagree with Michael’s own questions and arguments. You are thinking in the vein of social justice and wealth redistribution, like in Acts 2 and 4, which is beautiful and amazing in my imagination. Michael is thinking in terms of business entrepreneurship and sparking economic growth, which is more seen in the OT, and i hear it works very well for holistic ministry in poor, developing countries. I think we need more dialog between these two sides to us find truth.
Blessed Economist (#31)- I like your points, and they are important. But it is necessary to remember that those points dont make an economic system; they are merely ethical and (normative?) economic principles.



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Blessed Economist

posted November 13, 2009 at 9:13 pm


Ryan J Riehl #40
You are right. They are not an economic system; but we do not need an economic system. The idea that we can install a new economic system to replace one that does not work, like installing Windows 7 to resolve the problems with Vista is misleading.
We do not need a new system. We just need better ethics and better laws. We already have those in the scriptures. The problem is that we do not like God’s laws, so we ask for a new system. That is a false hope



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