Eastport United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors

Finance & Stewardship


 
APPLYING THE ECONOMIC WISDOM OF JESUS IN THE MODERN WORLD
 
            Jesus had a lot to say about economics, most of which is largely ignored or rejected by economists today. Modern economics focuses mainly on the creation and uses of money and wealth. Jesus warned that a focus on money and wealth can divert our attention from the love of God, which is the ultimate source of our well-being and salvation.
 
            Jesus proclaimed the good news (gospel) that we have God-given freedom to follow him in putting God’s “kingdom” of love ahead of worldly powers like wealth and political power. In this kingdom, God is a loving, non-coercive parent, who provides his children with all the resources needed for economic well-being. And we, God’s human children, are called to respond to God’s love by loving God and our fellow human brothers and sisters.
 
            Jesus took the power of love so seriously that he and his closest disciples gave up paid occupations to pursue a ministry of loving service and to spread the good news of God’s love. He didn’t say that paid work is a bad thing. But he told us to serve in response to God’s love and not to let ourselves be controlled by money or other worldly powers.
 
            It isn’t always easy to put God’s call to love ahead of worldly power. In fact, Jesus was crucified for putting loyalty to God’s love ahead of the power of the Roman Empire and Jewish leaders in first century Palestine. But love can change the world. By creating loving communities that reached out to others in love, for example, early Christians built a vibrant religious movement that eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
 
            As Christianity became a powerful religion, it experienced the corrupting effects of worldly power. But historically, many Christians have tried to remain faithful to Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom of love. And their efforts have surely helped make the world a better place, both economically and socially.
 
            Economists don’t deny that strong communities offer economic benefits. In fact, they increasingly affirm the value of “social capital” (e.g., character traits like honesty and trust) that facilitates cooperative work. But they aren’t experts on the love and moral commitments needed to create and sustain strong communities. Nor are they inclined to worry that their focus on matters of money may help divert society’s attention from the power of love.
 
            From the perspective of Jesus’ love-focused economics, perhaps the greatest failure of modern economics lies in its systematic tendency to define work as paid work. This tendency can be seen both in the way economists measure economic activity and in the way work is defined for economic policy purposes. For example, economists usually measure economic activity in terms of money and ignore unpaid work because it’s hard to value in monetary terms. And unpaid work generally isn’t considered in determining eligibility for benefits under social welfare programs like Social Security.
 
            Money and paid work are so central to the American economy that it’s hard to imagine people today simply abandoning paid careers to devote their full attention to following Jesus’ path of loving, unpaid service. But unpaid work, such as loving parental child care, is still needed to make modern societies work. So, we who seek to follow Jesus need to consider carefully how God is calling us to balance our participation in paid and unpaid work.
 
            Both culture and economic policies encourage Americans to put paid work ahead of unpaid service. And arguably, this focus on money no longer works well for many folks. When economic growth is strong, most folks can find paid work and acquire more stuff. But many of us get frustrated because we don’t have enough time to use and maintain our stuff well, let alone the time to help build strong, loving families and communities. And when growth is slow, or stops, paid jobs are hard to find and many suffer economic hardship.
 
            It’s been getting harder for Americans to balance time spent in paid and unpaid work. After World War II, the culture affirmed balancing paid and unpaid work by encouraging men to pursue paid careers and encouraging married women to focus on unpaid work, like child care and volunteering in the community. But this culture broke down as economic policies encouraged paid job growth, and as weakening family and community ties, along with rising feminism, encouraged women to seek security in paid careers.
 
            With the initial rise in female participation in paid work, there was a partly offsetting trend toward early retirement from paid work by men. But many early retirees focus most of their time on leisure and consumption instead of loving unpaid service. Indeed, consumerism in America has grown so much that we’re now deep in debt to other nations, and the dream of early retirement from paid work is becoming less feasible for many folks.
 
            The traditional “American Dream” of raising living standards by working to acquire more money and stuff seemed to work well for much of American history, when most folks could benefit from more stuff. But that era is over. So, it’s now particularly important to revive Jesus’ alternative vision of economic well-being through love.
 
            The American Dream encourages us all to aspire to live like the rich. But the rich can always pay for more of our increasingly scarce time than others can. And Jesus condemned the tendency of the rich to abuse the power their wealth gives them to control the lives (time) of others. Instead of poor and average folks serving the rich, Jesus proclaimed a kingdom in which we’re all equal children of God.
 
            The most vibrant movements of Christianity have invited the poor and powerless into communities in which they’re treated as equal brothers and sisters. This was true of the first Christian movement that began after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was also true of the Methodist movement in eighteenth century Britain and other Christian movements that helped western societies adjust successfully to the Industrial Revolution. And Christianity is now growing fastest in Africa and other parts of the world facing severe poverty.
 
            America is so wealthy by world standards that the temptation is strong to seek security through money and wealth rather than loving community. But the recent “Great Recession” has forced some folks, and encouraged others, to rethink the faith they put in the power of money and paid work to assure them a good life.
 
            Money is vital for organizing modern societies. But not only are many folks being diverted from love by focusing too much on money, we’ve also entered a new information and service era in which progress can often be made more readily by focusing on “network” relationships than by focusing on monetary relationships. The Internet, for example, is at the heart of much of the progress being made today, and the benefits of the Internet often lie more in its power to conserve on money use than in its power to make money.
 
            Families and other “mutual support networks” have always been, and still are, vital for human well-being. For example, mutual support networks that encourage healthy habits and help manage chronic diseases (like alcoholism and diabetes) can often be more effective in keeping people healthy than much of the expensive, money-focused health care system America has now. And the Internet can help make such traditional networks more effective.
 
            To see the potential of the “information revolution” to transform the economics of the industrial age, it may help to consider the changes in economics that came after the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century. The beginning of modern thinking about economics is usually traced back to Adam Smith and the publication of his “Wealth of Nations” in 1776. Until then, economic thinking was based on concerns that faced pre-industrial societies.
 
            During the eighteenth century, and even into the nineteenth century, the dominant economic philosophy in the West was mercantilism. In this philosophy, money and wealth were considered to be important mainly because they could enhance the power of nations and large territorial empires. Indeed, the mercantilist philosophy of Europe’s colonial expansion era can be seen as an extension of the focus on the power of empire that prevailed in the Roman Empire when Jesus offered his alternative economic vision.
 
            The vision of economic security, stability, and prosperity through the power of empire and hierarchical control was the dominant way to think about economic progress and well-being before the industrial revolution. During the industrial age, there was a gradual, but now largely complete, shift away from the vision of prosperity through hierarchy toward a vision of prosperity through growing use of money income and wealth. But now the information revolution is challenging this vision of progress and prosperity through money.
 
            The vision of progress through money still dominates in America. But an alternative vision is emerging from folks who see the rise of the Internet and social networking as having importance beyond supporting old visions of economic progress. In particular, many Internet advocates focus mainly on using it for free information sharing, not for making money.
 
            Jesus told us to focus on love. He didn’t say that hierarchy and money aren’t needed in our fallen world. But he condemned abuses of hierarchical and monetary power. So, he would likely approve of modern democratic efforts to protect folks from abuses of hierarchal political power. And he would also likely approve of the idea of free information sharing as a counterweight to the modern tendency to put the power of money at the center of society.
 
            Jesus’ path of love is often not simple or easy to follow. Hierarchy, money, and free information sharing can all be used to support love. But they can also be used for selfish or malevolent purposes that undermine love. So, we Christians need to be wise and diligent in our efforts to be loyal to Jesus’ model of self-giving love, lest we become distracted by the lures and/or the dangers of worldly powers.
 
            It’s the job of the church, as the “Body of Christ,” to embody Jesus’ self-giving love in the world today. There are many ways to do this. And different congregations are called to undertake different ministries. But I would urge us American Christians to keep two things in mind as we try to be faithful to Jesus’ call to love. First, the Internet offers useful new ways to carry on Jesus’ basic ministries of teaching and healing. Second, we Christians could do better at helping America heal its deep political divisions over the power of money.
 
            The Internet is becoming a powerful tool for helping people share information, including important information for people dealing with serious health problems and other personal or social problems. For example, free sharing of information on the Internet has great potential to help individuals and mutual support groups become less dependent on costly professional “experts” to obtain information needed to solve their problems. And that’s a good thing from the perspective of Jesus’ freely offered teaching and healing ministries.
 
            Paid professionals can supplement unpaid mutual support in providing education, health care, and other personal and social services. But it’s hard to have effective schools, for example, if paid teachers aren’t supported by communities with strong families and mutual support networks. Indeed, the success of home schooling networks suggests that it can be easier for strong mutual support networks to substitute modern techniques of information sharing for professional teachers than it is for professional educators to solve education problems without community support.
 
            Given the example of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministries, Christians are certainly not called to defend paid professional approaches to dealing with personal and social service problems. We Christians can be called to professional service careers, but we aren’t called to put pay ahead of the call to serve. And if improving information technology makes people less dependent on professional expertise, we shouldn’t mourn the loss of paid professional jobs. Job losses can cause economic pain. But few of us want to give up mass produced goods, even though the rise of industrial mass production caused pain for artisans whose hand made goods could no longer compete with less costly mass produced goods.
 
            In America’s current broken political environment many professional organizations will surely lobby hard to defend their jobs against threats that may come from new ways of freely sharing information. But rather than join in the special interest and ideological conflict that now dominates American politics, I’d suggest that we Christians could better use the political power democracy gives us to help uphold the basic Christian and democratic values of freedom and equality of citizenship (as equal children of God).
 
            Most Americans like the idea of freedom and equal treatment, even if many of us often put our own interests or ideological values ahead of these democratic and Christian values. And we don’t need to choose sides in special interest and ideological political battles to support initiatives based on principles of freedom and equal treatment.
 
            To uphold the principles of freedom and equal treatment in American economic policy it would be necessary to rethink the way the “social contract” underlying the welfare state is being implemented. Most Americans support the general idea that folks willing to “work hard and play by the rules” deserve to be protected by an economic safety net. But policies based on this social contract nearly always define work as paid work and ignore socially important unpaid work. This policy approach not only ignores Jesus’ call to focus on service rather than money, but it also undermines the democratic principle of equal treatment.
 
            When work is reduced to money there’s no way to treat workers equally because the monetary value of different work varies greatly. But if unpaid service is often as useful to society as paid work, then a social contract that treated work equally in terms of time would make sense. For example, a social contract pairing equal work time responsibility with equal economic safety net protection for folks that society expects to work would make sense.
 
            Not all work is equally useful or valuable to society, of course. And some might argue that it makes sense to focus on paid work because it can be assumed that employers will be reluctant to continue paying people who don’t do useful work. But families and communities have non-monetary means to try to encourage useful unpaid work and to discourage useless or harmful activities. And it’s reasonable to believe that nonprofit community organizations can help society more by focusing on encouraging useful work that isn’t done for money than they can by following the general trend of society to focus mainly on money.
 
            Money can, at times, provide useful incentives in family and community settings. But money can also divert us from values of moral commitment and mutual concern that are vital for strong families and communities. The growing focus of American institutions, including nonprofit organizations, on money has come with weaker families and communities. And if America continues to emphasize paid work, while ignoring unpaid family and community service, family and community decline will likely continue.
 
            From the perspective of sustaining strong families and communities, it makes sense to revise America’s social contract and public policies to treat socially valuable unpaid service on an equal basis with paid work. But to do this politically, it would be necessary for large numbers of Americans to begin to put families and communities ahead of paid careers. And while we Christians are always called to put love of neighbor ahead of monetary self interest, we need to be particularly conscientious in discerning what this implies in the emerging information age if we are to help America reverse its trend of community decline.
 
            Love of neighbor means giving generously of our time and other resources in service to those we encounter on our life journeys. In particular, it means reaching out to help those most in need. And as the Internet increases our power to reach out to others, we need to be vigilant to ensure that we reach out in ways that help build mutually supportive communities instead of feeding selfish tendencies.
 
            Much “social networking” on the Internet seems to reflect America’s cultural focus on consumerism and self-centered activities that tend to weaken communities. But the Internet has great power to facilitate information sharing that is socially useful and helps strengthen communities. Cooperative projects like the online encyclopedia “Wikipedia,” for example, make a great deal of useful information readily available to virtually everyone with Internet access. And the Internet is also making it easy to share medical information that can help families and communities deal with illnesses and improve health.
 
            If we Christians are to help make America’s new information and service economy function well, we will need to take Jesus’ call to service seriously. This is a call to reject the temptation to try to live like the rich who focus on having others serve them. It is, instead, a call to focus first on serving our fellow human brothers and sisters, especially those who may need special attention. We should take advantage of the power of Internet to help us share information. But we need to work to help build the Internet into a tool that serves our mutual interests as children of God, not into a tool of our own selfish interests.
 
            We Christians are not just called to serve, we’re called to serve as the “body of Christ” in the world. This means we’re called to serve as a unified body, not in an uncoordinated way that can lead us to serve at cross purposes to each other. It doesn’t mean that there must be “top-down” control of all Christian ministries. It does mean that we need faithful efforts to cooperate in serving the cause of God’s love. And we need to be open to God’s Spirit as we seek to find the most effective ways to respond to the call to serve.
 
            There’s no one way to serve God’s love. Support of home schooling networks can be a loving response to the problem of failing public schools, for example. And volunteer efforts to help improve public schools can also be a loving response. But home school networks will need to offer special help to families with few resources to help themselves. And volunteer efforts to support public schools likewise need to pay special attention to the disadvantaged, so as not to help perpetuate current educational inequalities.
 
             There are many kinds of loving service. But loving service takes time. And if we continue to follow the American trend of focusing more of our time and energy on making and spending money, we can’t expect a revival of loving service. Paid work is necessary, and often a good thing, in modern societies. But love calls us to be open to such possibilities as: 1) spending less time in paid work and more time volunteering; 2) choosing jobs that may pay low wages, but offer special opportunities for loving service; and/or 3) giving more money earned from well-paid work to help support loving unpaid and low-paid service.
 
            Jesus didn’t say it would be easy to follow his path of loving service in a society that puts worldly powers (like money) ahead of love. But even when there are crosses to bear for putting love ahead of power, Jesus promised that God’s loving Spirit will be with us. And we Christians believe that Jesus’ path of love leads ultimately to salvation; whereas, in the absence of love, a focus on worldly powers can lead to all sorts of disasters.
 
— Vern Renshaw,  January 2010