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A Christian perspective on Economics

John Breadon's picture

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A Christian perspective

 

Greed becomes respectable

We live in a society in which economics, and the role of money in particular, has been accorded enormous importance, especially over the past two or three decades. From Mrs Thatcher’s economics of the Grocer’s shop, where the accumulation of wealth was the duty of a good citizen (even the Good Samaritan was praised for being sufficiently well-off to be able to lavish money on the care of the traveller left for dead on the road) to Peter Mandelson saying, ‘New Labour has no problem with people getting filthy rich’. The desire, even the love of money, has become a key motive force in society. Greed has become respectable.

 

Bankers, who throughout the last century preached the virtues of hard work, modest savings and economic living, now appear to argue that huge quantities of unearned income, living a wasteful and profligate lifestyle and maintaining an extraordinary gap between the rich and poor are necessary for the prosperity of the country.

 

What does Christianity have to say?

Most discussions on a Christian approach to Economics begin with two of Jesus’ famous lines: on paying taxes; “Render unto God that which is God’s and unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”; and on money: that “the love of money is the root of all evil” Notice that it is not money itself, which Jesus seems quite comfortable with, but the love of money. Love should be something which is devoted to God and to our neighbours – and even to our enemies – but not to money, or property, or any form of material goods.

 

Too much?

And there are strict biblical rules about how money is used: Jesus said usurers were among the worst of sinners, yet usury - the accumulation of money through lending and the taking of interest - is what our whole economy appears now to be based on. Most Christian theologians who have tackled the same question interpret usury as the taking of excessive interest. As Pope Benedict and Archbishop Rowan Williams have now recognised, it is exactly this form of excess which led to last year's crash and the present depression.

 

Too little?

There is also a strong Christian tradition for the renunciation of a money economy. Blessed are the poor, said Jesus, and encouraged his followers not to worry about their future security and prosperity. “Take no thought for tomorrow, for tomorrow will look after itself”; “Consider the lilies they toil not, neither do they spin, yet even Solomon in all his glory was not equipped like one of these” and other similar sayings.

 

The theme running through all this is the damage that can be done by too great a focus on money. It doesn't buy happiness, or even security. Of course it is necessary and it isn’t of itself evil, because we live in a money economy, but it has nothing to do with love or fulfilment or beauty or joy or any of the aspects of life which are important.

 

Many of the prophets, and Jesus himself at times, went further than this, saying that money and possessions lead to abuse, to the oppression of the poor, to dishonesty and greed. St Francis and many others throughout Christian history have preached a life without riches, possessions, a decent home or even clothes. But they also make it clear that this is a special calling. Most of us have jobs, bring up families, enjoy a bit of shopping and live everyday lives. Nowhere is this condemned. What is condemned is a political and economic culture which appears to glorify accumulation and excess, and the individuals who profit from it. In our time, as in Jesus' time, a period of prosperity has widened the gap between rich and poor, blighted the economies, and corrupted the ruling elites of countries across the world. Developing an adequate theological response to this context is an urgent priority for Christians and all people of faith.