These are fretful times. The economy seems to be in another tailspin. We’re witnessing gridlock in Washington, panic on Wall Street, riots in London, high unemployment and budget cuts all around. Are these difficulties strictly economic and political, or are there moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions to our economic woes? How are these difficulties affecting the people you serve?
Biblical economics has three fundamental principles, both of which are being largely ignored in the economic policies and practices of the United States and indeed the world today.
The first of these principles is that the economy is to serve people rather than people serve the economy. Another way to put this is that the economy is not God, and human beings are not slaves to economic life. Instead, as both the stories of Genesis and Exodus show, the economy is part of God’s creation over which human beings are to exercise stewardship. This principle of human liberation and stewardship urges that people come before profits, that compassion and justice come before competition, and that we need to respect both our dignity and our limitations as creatures in relation to the whole of God’s creation.
The second of those principles is that in God’s bounteous creation there is more than enough for everybody if people do not hoard but rather share. This might be called the Manna Principle after the story of the manna in the desert. The Israelites were fed by God, but they were commanded to not keep what they did not need for that day. The same Manna Principle is evident in the feeding miracles of Jesus in the New Testament in which he feeds large crowds with evidently little in the way of food. He begins by thanking God for the food that is present, and then commands his disciples to begin sharing the food. Lo and behold, there is more than enough for everybody.
The third principle of biblical economics has been called the Preferential Option for the Poor. This principle urges that all economic institutions and decisions are to be evaluated by how they help or harm the poor. Jesus, in Matthew 25:31-46, clearly states that the nations will be judged by how they treat “the least of these.” By this standard our national and world economy are utter failures.
Evaluating our economy and the world’s economy by these three principles it is no wonder that we are experiencing economic woes. God has revealed to us in many stories, commandments, and prophetic pronouncements that our economic life is to be guided by these three principles, and we are by and large ignoring them. We will flourish economically if we live by these principles. We will destroy ourselves if we do not.
Each day at Manna House, a place of hospitality for homeless people, I see firsthand the destruction caused by the ignoring of these three principles. Many of our guests have been broken physically, emotionally, and spiritually by slave-like work that paid little, demanded too much, and cared nothing for their well being as humans. Such work is part and parcel of system of greed that violates the Liberation and Stewardship Principle along with the Manna Principle. Their lack of access to housing, medical care, mental health care, food, and clothing reveals the continuing violation of the Preferential Option for the Poor.
How might we begin to turn things around, to change our economy to reflect these three principles? There is need for both political organizing and personal change. Consistent with the first principle of liberation and stewardship, people of faith must reject any economics that would put human dignity second to economic life. Corporate capitalism is as bad as communism. Both overly centralize economic power to the detriment of human dignity.
Thus consistent with the Manna Principle, we must work to decentralize economic power through re-distributing of wealth, breaking up of monopolies, and encouraging local production and consumption of goods.
And finally, reflecting the Preferential Option for the Poor, we must create an economic life that cares especially for those least able to care for themselves, and also one that does not exploit and victimize people in the first place.
None of these goals are easily attainable. Our current economic system took years to build and will not go away without years of political and economic agitation. But we can begin by choosing political leaders who will seek to craft economic policy ever closer to those three principles, and by creating in our own lives alternatives to the dominant economic structures. We can already begin to refuse to be defined by economic life, to redistribute wealth, to produce and buy locally, and to share our lives with the poor. There is no law against any of those, but there is biblical support for each. We can build a new economy from the ground up.