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Religion and Our Economic Crisis: A View From Across the Pond

by The Revd Dr James Jones

Posted: 2 Jul 2012

No moral issue other than the love of God and neighbor is mentioned more often or with more vehemence in the Bible than the issues of wealth and poverty. Issues of money, wealth and poverty are mentioned three times more frequently in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament than issues involving sex-the topic that most seems to preoccupy the Christian community these days.

The Books of Moses say directly that the poor and those in financial difficulty are not to be charged interest. Period. They also command a Jubilee year where every 7th year or every 50th year (the texts differ) all economic activity is to cease, all debts are to be forgiven, and one eats only the food that grows naturally. Granted this applies to an agricultural economy but surely our current financial predicament would be very different if our society had allowed the spirit of the Hebrew Bible to give rise to stricter limitations on usury, especially for the poor and economically distressed, and we had regular periods of debt forgiveness. The least one can say is that the biblical tradition is very, very suspicious of charging interest and putting people into debt.

The prophets, of course, are much blunter. One example of many, many, many from the prophetic books is this passage from the prophet Amos:

Woe to those who trample on the needy

And bring ruin on the poor of the land

Who say, when is the festival over so that we might get back to business

And the Sabbath finished so we can start selling again

Who say, we will make the measure smaller and the cost larger

And practice deceit with false scales

Selling the poor for more silver

And the needy for a pair of shoes

And, of course, we have the example of Jesus who spent his life among the poor, many of whose parables and sayings directly deal with poverty and injustice. Likewise the early church writers, many of whom were fiercely ascetical, did not hesitate to condemn extremes of wealth and poverty. In the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas and the reformer Martin Luther did the same, condemning the taking of interest. Throughout the Bible, naked self-interest merits only the Lord's anger and condemnation. The problem with wealth in the Bible is not that money is the root of all evil (it is not), but rather as Jesus' teachings and parables show, that wealth is most often the outcome of naked self-interest.

So the first point is that issues of wealth and poverty are theological and moral issues. Financial decisions and economic policies all have implicit and explicit moral and theological dimensions. The idea that such decisions and policies can be morally neutral and purely rational is an illusion that the religiously and spiritually mature best do without. Every budget in its priorities expresses some set of values: some budgets express greed and lust for possessions, some give expression to compassion and generosity; some budgets express a ferocious self-interest and narcissism, others take account of the common good. No budget is value free or morally neutral. The religious person best reflect on what values are expressed in the economic policies they support and best insist that these moral and spiritual dimensions enter into our economic discussions along with the purely technical details.

The second point is that the jubilee tradition, the prophetic messages, and the example and teachings of Jesus all show a special concern for the poor, the economically disadvantaged, and those whose lives are socially and economically precarious. There are surely many different ways of analyzing and addressing the moral priority claimed for the socially and economically marginalized. But any economic program that does not take account of, and protect, the weakest and poorest among us has little claim on the religious conscience.

That economic programs and policies have an inevitable moral and spiritual dimension and that the poor and the precarious make a special moral claim on us are ancient and traditional teachings. No one from the earliest Christian writers through to the medieval theologians and the Protestant reformers would dispute them. But that's the past tradition, the shoulders on which we stand. Now we come to the present.

Post Civil War America was torn by class warfare, labor violence, the sabotaging of plants and the shooting workers all of which continued sporadically into the middle of the 20th century. But by the middle of the 20th century, a new social contract was in place that allowed for an unprecedented era economic prosperity and civil harmony. At first, in the United States, that contract was a white male privilege, but as the 20th century moved along, that contract was expanded to embrace women, African-Americans, and recent immigrants. That mid-20th century social contract contained and restrained the potential violence of competing interests. It did so because it was, I think unconsciously, a moral and spiritual contract as well as a political and economic one. It drew on the very deep moral and spiritual wells of American history.

The model of society that was embodied there was not theological or denominational, but it was moral and spiritual because it called people to a duty higher than naked self-interest; it relocated and embraced their particular interests as working men and women, or as doctors and lawyers and teachers and other professionals, or as owners and managers, embraced our particular interests in a larger framework of moral citizenship that acknowledged others' interests as well as our own and respected the common good. In a sense it was a political representation of the Gospel imperative about not serving God and wealth in its insistence that one cannot serve self-interest alone and be a moral citizen.

For a host of reasons that social contract has frayed and fragmented. While we have not (and in all honesty I should say not yet) seen in the United States the return of the labor violence and social unrest that one saw recently in Greece, the fragmenting of our post-World war II social contract has again released upon American society the furious verbal and psychological, if not yet the physical, violence of untempered self-interest and conflicting claims unconstrained by the common good. This is the context that gave rise to the Occupy Movement. This is the context that also gave rise to a ferocious economic inequality that some among us even say is a moral good. It is not. In light of the Biblical tradition, it is a moral (as well as a social) catastrophe.

The task we are called to now is nothing less than the regeneration of our social contract. And we best remember that the creation of a new social contract is a moral project. The fraying and fragmenting of the mid-20th century social contract that previously enshrined the ideals associated with the Western Religious moral traditions regarding self-interest, wealth, and poverty, that fraying and fragmenting has resulted in a society out of touch with the virtues of justice, responsibility to the common good, wisdom and self-restraint. They sound so old-fashion, not because they are out of date, but because earlier generations acknowledged them (even when they did not really act on them) and we do not. But the biblical witness is clear that such virtues are necessary to sustain the day to day life of a society.

The creation of a new social contract is a moral project. Perhaps, then, a new social contract will require renewed religious and moral impulses. Religious revivals powered the Abolitionist movement in the United States. Religious impulses drove the Civil Rights Movement. Religious values even entered into the New Deal in the 30's. A religious and moral revitalization can generate a new social contract.

On Labor Day the American Episcopal Church says this prayer which expresses that vision of moral citizenship that must be a necessary component of any workable social contract.

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives with one another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: so guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our common concern for those who are out of work.

God has so linked our lives with one another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives. What an astonishing vision. But one that is profoundly expressive of the vision of Jesus and Paul, that we are members one of another, that what was done to even the most marginal and despised person, one does to Jesus himself, that any kingdom of which Jesus is the King is a kingdom characterized by service and bearing one another's burdens.

As a nation Americans all have differing approaches to how these principles are applied in the concrete world of politics and economics. Moral citizenship does not ask us to give up our own interests and perspectives but it does require, in the words of the collect "that what we do, we do not for self alone but for the common good; and as we seek a proper return for our own labor, we remain mindful of the rightful aspirations of others."

America, and I think Britain too, has before itself a historic choice: a society torn to shreds by competing self-interests and ideologies or constructing a new social contract for the 21st century grounded in the common good and a biblical concern for the impoverished and destitute among us. In the words of the prophets, will we construct a new social contract that will let justice roll down like water or one that sells the poor for more silver and the needy for another pair of shoes?

About this author

The Rev'd. Dr. James W. Jones is a Priest in the Episcopal Church USA and a Professor at Rutgers University.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.