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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 . . .