Renewing Friends’ Testimony on Economics

February 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

One of the reasons I’ve been writing on Quakers and capitalism is that I hope to invite Friends to consider more deeply our testimony on economics (and I don’t mean our testimony on money, but on the structure and institutions and worldview of our economic system) with a fuller appreciation of our economic history as context. I believe we stand in some ways in the same relationship with capitalism as we do with penitentiaries: our ancestors played key roles in the emergence of capitalism (industrial capitalism, anyway) and its early evolution, just as we did with the penitentiary. And just as the penitentiary was, in its inception, an advance in human welfare, a positive solution to a problem, and now has become part of the problem, just so industrial capitalism brought tremendous improvements to humankind, only to become in some ways a new source of suffering and oppression. In both cases, our historical role lays upon us some kind of obligation to reform the system and minister to the victims of our legacy.

Where to start? We have four paths to walk, I think. They are somewhat independent of each other and each deserves careful consideration. In my initial thinking, anyway, these four paths to a renewed testimony on economics are:

  1. Starting with divine inspiration. The first impulse, of course, is to turn to our Teacher, from whom we have learned to expect continuing revelation. Spiritual renewal comes from G*d (using G*d as a placeholder for the Mystery Reality behind/within our personal and corporate religious experience, whatever that experience is). So, in addition to study, thought and discussion, we need to pray and worship and support those who are called to ministries of witness in this area.
  2. Starting with secular progressive thinking on political economics. The vitality of our economic testimony depends on being Spirit-led. Its effectiveness depends, to a great degree, on knowing the science of economics and the work of its progressive thinkers and critics. There’s lots of material here, and therefore lots to learn and lots of work to do.
  3. Starting from our present testimonies. We can work our way ‘laterally’ across our testimonial life from the other testimonies. This is a common and natural tack. I’ve done this myself, turning the light of the testimonies on peace, integrity, simplicity and equality on economics. This yields great fruit and I will return to this approach in some future posts.
  4. Starting from our foundational traditions, including, especially, the Bible. I think a lot of ‘liberal,’ ‘post-Christian,’ ‘post-traditional’ Friends overlook the Bible, partly because they just don’t know it and partly because, in some folks’ hands, they have experienced the Bible as a weapon of regressive thinking. This extends to the sphere of economics no less than other areas social and political life. In fact, I devote a lengthy section of Quakers and Capitalism to the often, though not exclusively, negative influence of evangelical thinking on progressive political economics. Nevertheless, our Christian Friends are in a position to lead the way here, because the gospel of Jesus is, at its core, a powerful progressive economic message.

I’ve been writing another book on the gospel of Jesus whose sections on his teachings on ‘economics’ have grown so much that it now looks like it needs to be its own book. The new book’s tentative title is Good News for the Poor: The Economics of Redemption in the Common-wealth of God. I’ve explored some of this material in my other blog, www.biblemonster.com, including a series on the Beatitudes, which, when you know enough about the ‘economic legislation’ in Torah, turn out to be midrashim on inheritance law and, specifically, on bankruptcy.

In fact, Christian scripture—the synoptic gospels, anyway (Matthew, Mark and Luke)—are totally saturated with economic testimony. Jesus was preoccupied with the poor and the people and social, political and religious institutions that oppressed the poor. (It’s worth noting that in Hebrew and Aramaic (Jesus’ native tongue), the word is the same for “the poor” and for “the oppressed”—ani, as in Bethany (beth ani, house of the poor/oppressed), the little town not far from Qumran where Martha, Mary, Lazarus and Simon the Leper lived.)

Jesus healed the poor and I believe that several of these healings included a social welfare dimension in the healing itself—that we too narrowly define these ‘miracles’ as medical cures of disease, and miss the innovations and reforms in community life that serve as context for his healings. Several of his other miracles also have an economic dimension. Several parables deal directly with poverty. Many of our favorite sayings of Jesus are essentially teachings about economics or have economic elements, including not just the Beatitudes, but also much of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, and the two love commandments. The Lord’s Prayer has economics at its core. But more importantly, Jesus defined his ministry, his role as the Christ, the Messiah, in economic terms. Economic justice was the very foundation of Jesus’ ministry.

These are far-reaching claims, I know, and to some, all the more startling because these teachings often are virtually invisible to the ‘untrained eye.’ We know so many of these passages so well that it’s hard to believe such a different and radical meaning could be hiding in there. So it takes a while to make the case. I hope you’ll bear with me.

Nevertheless, I believe that Jesus’ teachings on ‘economics’ are comprehensive, far-reaching, radically progressive and totally relevant to our situation today, notwithstanding their original context in an agrarian economy very different from our own. The gospel is a great place to start when reconsidering out testimony on economics. I think I’m going to pursue this mostly in BibleMonster because that blog is dedicated to the Bible, but it will take time. For one thing, I have another theme I want to take up there, as well—what I call “spiritual ecology”: a look at how Jesus used the landscape of Palestine in his own spiritual practice (where he went in Palestine to do what and why); and also a look at the role that ecology and technology have played in the emergence and evolution of the Western religious tradition more broadly.

In the meantime, I want to lay out in BibleMonster the “economics of redemption” as I see them and bring these principles into Through the Flaming Sword as planks in a platform for a more fully developed Quaker testimony on economics. More to come . . .

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§ 2 Responses to Renewing Friends’ Testimony on Economics

  • TheYellowDart says:

    I agree with everything you said in this blog post especially your take on the Bible and its thoughts on the subject, except for your second point in the “where to start” section. Why start with “secular progressive thinking on political economics”? I realize you mention we should look at all four and start with all four. I do not mean to question this in relation to the others. My question is rather why would you start here at all. Why not study economics from every perspective? You might be selling yourself short to start with a particular perspective from the start.

    I am, of course, as biased as you are about my particular perspective, but that has not stopped me from taking a look from other angles.

    I agree that Jesus came preaching a gospel which includes reaching out to the homeless/marginalized/oppressed/imprisoned and otherwise poor in an economic sense, but physical/emotional/spiritual healing is also in the same basket. I would go so far as to say that these two together are the most central practice of Jesus’ and His followers’ ministries. Far more common are instances of these in the Gospels and Acts than teaching or sacraments (where the vast majority of Christianity is stuck).

    In my humble opinion, this proper economic focus (outreach to the “poor”) has nothing at all to do with government action which is the backbone of progressive economic thought. Progressivism begins and ends with secular central economic planning. This philosophy is so far removed from the call of Jesus to the allegiance to the Kingdom of God that I have a problem with it. Jesus is clearly demanding allegiance to the Kingdom of God alone. This is quite a radical departure from that which came before in Jewish practice – nationalism. Jesus is calling for a transcendent, anational, spiritual and physical turning from human hierarchy (political, religious and economic) to rule by God in the hearts of mankind. Jesus was constantly railing against the hierarchies of the political state, the religious establishment, and the economic powers of the day. We as followers of Jesus should not honor the claim of authority from any of these earthly entities.

    The commune of Christians in Acts operates as the Kingdom of God economically and otherwise, but it does not include non-believers or the govt. The govt is over against this commune. The religious establishment is over against this commune. The disciples certainly ministered to the poor non-believing population outside this community but not in any systematic or hierarchical way common to governmental or religious institutions. The commune itself is the vehicle God chose to witness to the surrounding community of the way of God (economically and otherwise). The goal is for those outside this commune to abandon allegiance to the political govt and the religious institution and begin to voluntarily live the life of a follower of Jesus as a subject of the Kingdom of God. Following earthly kings, religious institutions, or being enslaved to consumerism is the opposite of the radical call to follow Jesus. So I hope you can see how antithetical progressive central economic planning is to the Kingdom of God.

    We definitely have a clear picture of the practice of Jesus to follow in His outreach to the poor/marginalized/oppressed etc; we are each responsible to help those around us directly and sacrificially. But, any exercise involving the marshaling of gov’t to do that job for us is an abandonment of our personal responsibility as well as our community’s responsibility. It is akin to using gov’t to enforce anti-sodomy or sabbath laws. Enforcing Christian communism via the police state makes a mockery of both Christian communism which is voluntary and the Constitutional ideal of the separation of church and state. Why should your faith interfere (by force) with my ability to buy and sell in the mart of voluntary commerce? Does this sound familiar? The same can be said of sodomy laws for two consenting adults or drug laws, etc… How many of us have argued against the political right for this kind of govt meddling? The exact same argument can be made for the social gospel of the political left. Voluntary consent between two or more parties to exchange goods and services cannot be infringed because your “religion” informs you in that direction. Stealing money from one person to give to another occurs nowhere in the gospel as part of the Way of Jesus. Jesus definitely convinced Zaccheus to implement restitution to those he took taxes from, but Jesus did not force him.

    Following Jesus is a voluntary matter and ultimately a faith commitment that we cannot expect others to make necessarily. That is why it is all the more important for us to do our job of setting the example of the Way of Jesus. We need to live in commune with our fellow followers and reach out to those around us personally and sacrificially. The power of the gospel when truly practiced is powerful enough to change the surrounding culture. Reaching for the police power of the state to implement “goodness”, “righteousness”, or “purity” is off-putting to say the least to those who do not yet agree with us and ultimately deleterious to our cause. The end goal is not really food for a hungry guy; the turning of the human heart is what we’re after. The hungry guy as a permanent social problem disappears when we have turned the hearts of the individuals who make up the total community. Force and coercion by the state can never in the end feed the hungry (for all their hungry for) effectively or turn the heart of those in a position to help. This is our job as followers of the Way.

    • I agree with you about the importance of healing in Jesus’ ministry. And, of course, the ministry of healing and the ministry to the poor and oppressed often converged. There were seven traditional categories of the poor in the literature of ancient Israel—the widow and the orphan, the blind and the lame, the Levite and the resident alien, and the poor—and Jesus focused his healing ministry on the two who were poor because they could not physically work—the blind and the lame. Of his 27 healings, 6 were exorcisms of the possessed, 5 were blind, 4 were paralyzed or crippled, 3 were deaf and/or mute, 3 had a fever, 2 had ‘leprosy’ (actually, skin diseases), and one each had dropsy, epilepsy, chronic (menstrual?) bleeding, and a sword wound.

      In the book I’m writing on the land-based gospel, I devote a whole chapter to Jesus’ healing ministry, and I believe that these ‘miracle’ stories cannot be fully understood and appreciated without understanding the social context of the illness and the social/economic/political dimension of the healing. This dimension actually dominates the story in several cases, to wit, the exorcism of “Legion,” the demoniac in Gerasa/Gedara/Gergasa (the Synoptics disagree about which city it was, though they all agree it was in the Decapolis) and the paralytic lowered on his pallet through the ceiling of the house. I think it’s even possible that the main ‘lesson’ of these ‘healings’ was how and why to mobilize the community around the support of the physically incapacitated. I’m not trying to turn these ‘miracles’ into something else out of skepticism, though; I have seen and even ‘performed’ (an unfortunate word for this—maybe ‘channelled’ would be a better word) genuine, ‘miraculous’ healings myself, so I know they are possible. My point is that evangelized, mobilized community seems to have been essential to much of Jesus’ ministry of signs.

      As to the role of government, I could not agree with you more—about Jesus’ own stance toward the Powers and about the emphasis we should put on our own revolutionary work. Jesus did consistently and even forcefully deconstruct hierarchies in his own communities, in direct challenge to the way of the Gentiles and their puppets in the Judean temple-state establishment. The casting out of the demon Legion is, I think, the most dramatic example of his teachings and actions against the imperial order, for clearly “Legion” is Roman occupation and, more importantly, assimilation to Greco-Roman culture.

      Jesus did preach to the establishment, at least in the last week of his life, but I don’t think he had any illusions about the likelihood of their conversion. You can pick up a Zacchaeus and a Joseph of Arimathea here and there, but the rulers have too much to lose, like the rich young man who turned away when Jesus tells him to sell everything and come with him.

      Our problem—my problem—is that we are/I am that rich young man. The commune model is not going anywhere in Quakerism today. There actually was a communal movement among British Friends in the late 19th century, made up mostly of socialists, I think. And there have been cooperative Quaker communities here in America at least since the 1960s. But they have never caught on. Even going part way—organizing meeting governance and finance around taking care of those in our meetings who are in financial trouble—would require a kind of covenantal agreement between members that most of the meetings I know would find it hard to agree to.

      Liberal, post-Christian meetings are sort of let off the hook because they don’t take Jesus’ teachings seriously anyway. But for the majority of Friends who do turn to Christ as the center of their religious life, the gospel of the Christ—good news for the poor—provides meetings with planks in a platform for a radically new common-wealth of God. If even a few meetings reorganized themselves around Jesus’ teachings and community practice, it would raise a light upon a hill that could awaken a real movement, I think. And, of course, it would attract the poor, as it did in Jesus’ own community—these meetings would grow!

      It’s worth noting, though, that the post-resurrection church in Jerusalem eventually went broke. They just could not keep up with the demands of urban poverty. Not enough Barnabases and Zacchaeuses, converts rich enough to support the rest. On the other hand, they were waiting for Jesus’ immanent return, else they might have returned to Galilee, as Jesus had told them to do. I suspect that they just did not seriously consider returning to their normal economic lives. Things might have turned out differently if they had. There is evidence that the Hebrew branch of Jesus’ movement, left behind by the Gentile converts of Paul, migrated east, becoming the Ebionites, and the Church Fathers who mention them focus on their communal lifestyle. They seem to have died out sometime in the third century, by then located I believe in Persia, modern-day Iran.

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