The surprising thing about politicians is not that they are always arguing. What's surprising is how much they agree with each other.
Think of the budget. Politicians poured into studios for vociferous arguments. But their debates were very narrow. Few questioned the economic system itself. When inequality was mentioned, it led to talk of “social mobility” - allowing a few of the poor to become better off. It was a far cry from the Occupy camps. One of the biggest home-made banners outside St Paul's Cathedral read simply “Abolish Money”.
Such ideas are dismissed as unrealistic. Many of them may be so, but it's hard to know if we refuse even to examine them. Any system can be defended by those who dismiss all alternatives as “unrealistic”. The abolition of slavery, votes for women and racial equality have all been labelled “unrealistic”.
The economic crash of 2008 was triggered by banking systems that seemed to operate in a fantasy world of endless money. Some insist that alternatives to capitalism “wouldn't work”. As inequality in Britain plummets to Victorian levels and the Eurozone spirals out of control, it is capitalism itself that is not working.
I'm not suggesting that we should regard any alternative as desirable or practical. But nor should we fall for the arrogant assumption that what's normal in our own time and culture is more “real” than anything else. As Christians, we are called to a vision of the Kingdom of God which is mindbendingly eternal yet thoroughly grounded in the realities of everyday life. This loyalty is in conflict with the dominant powers and values of our own culture.
Do Christians have anything distinctive to say about money? Several churches are now speaking out for greater economic equality. The United Reformed Church, Baptists and Methodists have used their Joint Public Issues Team to highlight the effects of government's cuts. I'm delighted about this. Nonetheless, it has triggered criticism from within all three denominations. Perhaps we need to be clearer about the theological basis for challenging not only inequality, but capitalism itself.
The Bible says more about money than almost any other ethical issue. If we start with Jesus, it is difficult to see how we can be satisfied with our economic set-up. Issues of money were central to Jesus' teachings. At the beginning, he proclaimed “good news to the poor” (Luke 4,18). News with no economic dimension would not merit this description. We find him declaring “Blessed are you who are poor... But woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6,20-24). He famously said that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God's Kingdom (Mark 10,25). Rather than promoting hatred towards the rich, he offered them chance to change. Zacchaeus chose to give away half his possessions and pay back those he had defrauded four times over (Luke 19,8).
This constant theme of Jesus' life poses major challenges for how we approach inequality, both in global terms and in our own society.
Jesus was of course familiar with Hebrew prophets such as Amos and Micah who condemned those who abuse the poor. Usury - lending money with interest – is criticised throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Now we live with an economy built on usury. The very rich make their money out of money. Instead of selling real goods and services, hedge funds exist to engage in gambling far more profitable than horse-racing or the national lottery.
At several points in the Bible, personal wealth is associated with idolatry. Colossians states that greed is in itself idolatry (3,5). Idolatry is not simply about making statues. It's about putting our trust in something other than God – something which has been created by people themselves.
Today, our economic system is dependent on trust in money. Most money exists only as numbers on computers. The system is sustained by our collective faith that these numbers mean something. Politicians avoid “upsetting the markets”, as if markets were supernatural entities that must be appeased. Rather than working out how to use the world's resources fairly, we think that economics is about serving systems of money and markets that we have created. People “bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made” (Isaiah 2,8).
Capitalism relies on faith in something that is not real. It is not those who challenge the system, but those who continue to trust it, who are being unrealistic. Many churches are absorbed by a tiny number of biblical passages that appear to condemn same-sex relationships. Can we instead rediscover the opposition to idolatry, usury and economic abuse that is a consistent theme of scripture? Can we proclaim the reality that our society denies?
© Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion.
The above article was published originally in the May 2012 issue of Reform magazine. Please see http://www.reform-magazine.co.uk.