Towards an economy worth believing in

Abstract

A paper summarising some recent interventions from faith bodies on the debate about economy, globally and locally. It also highlights the historic links between Christian thought/action and oikonomia (the management of the household), some different stances on markets, and Ekklesia's own research paper, Is God bankrupt? - a response to a British and Irish churches' report on 'prosperity with a purpose', published in 2005. A brief update has been included relating to the 2008 credit crunch / banking crisis.

What on earth have faith and economics to do with one another? A good deal, actually. The three 'religions of the book' (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all have ancient, and often overlooked, prohibitions on usury - interest for profit. The Jewish and Christian scriptures have strong egalitarian strands. The Jubilee tradition of the remission of debts has made a recent comeback through a global campaign to end the financial burden on the poor.

The New Testament word for oikos, household, as a unit of society and Christian gathering, gives us the word oikonomia (economy) as well as oikumene (ecumenism, the search for spiritual, ecclesial and human unity). This suggests that economics is for the service of persons-in-community, rather than the other way round. Jesus's new community of equals, a disciplship group that pre-dated institutional 'church', was rooted in an ethos of gift and sharing. Such values have been upheld and practiced by dissenting groups, including the Anabaptists in the C16th century and Base Ecclesial Communities in the C20th, ever since. Yet today the major church institutions have amassed considerable wealth on the back of what many would consider shady dealing and a legacy of entwinement with power and wealth under Christendom.

But new, critical voices are being heard all the time. Here are some examples: Questions are being raised in the UK and internationally about church investments. In the Reformed tradition, the pattern of globalisation based on selfish neoliberalism is being posed as a 'confessional' concern - one related to fundamental Christian, and human, convictions. Global churches have organised a week of action on just trade and the economy. African churches have been urged not to be taken in by so-called 'prosperity theology', and a major consultation took place in November 2007 on excessive wealth, deprivation and ecology in Africa. Church-related economists are speaking out about new models of economy. The Christian Council for Monetary Justice is asking questions about the corruption of the money system.

Meanwhile, there are campaigns to shop locally in the global interest. Church leaders in Britain have joined campaigners in speaking out with regard to G8 rich-nation priorities. The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity has become involved with Transforming Business. The sub-prime home loan crisis has highlighted the tension between grace and mortgage. Catholics are promoting the 'live simply' message. Anita Roddick is held up as a flag-raiser for a different way of doing things. Fair Trade is now big business itself, with mixed results but some real progress - and more challenges to be faced in the near future.

The matter of economic sharing within the church community and beyond is being explored practically by modern-day Anabaptists (Mennonite World Conference). And the issue of how Christians should live, spend, create and share in an acquisitive, consumer society is unavoidable. The work of global ecumenical bodies (the WCC, WARC and others) over the past ten years remains important and ongoing.

Oikocredit is a socially responsible investment opportunity promoting global justice by converting investments into credits. It aims for high social impact and sustainable development. Individuals and churches can invest in the scheme, which was originally established by the WCC. The new UK Oikocredit operation can be contacted here.

On a larger scale the world faiths have said they will now use their billions to back ethical business. Religious organisations already have a major stake in the global economy and can now shift decisively towards using their resources for ethical purposes and to redistribute wealth to the poor, a major group of faith investors has declared.

In 2005, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland was commissioned to do a piece of work on poverty, prosperity and the Gospel. It ended up as Prosperity With A Purpose and advocated a bolder use of markets than the Christian social traditions of the twentieth century had envisaged. Our associate Giles Fraser will shortly be publishing a book advocating a more positive approach to capitalism than has previously been contemplated in progressive Christian circles.

But questions are coming the other way too, notably from US theologian Ched Myers and his Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, which has spawned practical experiments with new patterns of living concerned with socialising the economy - rather than baptising it (which is the accusation that may be laid at the feet of the more pro-market voices). A German theologian has warned against the over-accommodation of the churches to consumer capitalism. The Pope has said a money-driven economy cannot be allowed total sway. And the spectre of Marx has re-entered the debate.

Ekklesia's own contribution to the growing conversation about faith and economy has come in two ways. First, by monitoring, reporting and gathering information about these developments. Second, through a report entitled Is God bankrupt?: a substantial, positive economic and theological critique of the approach developed in Prosperity With A Purpose. This received media coverage and has been discussed at a consultation at Scottish Churches House (February 2007) and elsewhere.

Since finance, wealth deployment, production, markets and distribution are intimately bound up with all the other big global issues (conflict, population, health, ecology, migration and poverty), the need for work in this area remains strong. We would welcome other proposals and offers.

September / October 2008 Updates

When British chancellor Alistair Darling commented in an interview given in August 2008 that the global 'credit crunch' might be the worst crisis facing the world economy for sixty years, he was promptly accused of seeking to blame-shift the UK's problems. Within a month, however, the collapse of household banking names and the prospect of the US needing to bail out (and even nationalise) major institutions to the tune of US$700 billion - the details are still being argued over - has indicated that the fault-lines are indeed deep.

The immediate response has been to find villains. Short-buyers and speculators have been roundly condemned across the political spectrum and by church leaders, including the Archbishops of York and Canterbury (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7746). There is much validity in these criticisms, not least warnings that money-driven life has become almost godlike in its power and attractiveness.

But it is also true that players in a system are conditioned by the rules, benefits, constrains and ethos of what has been collectively built - and the economic challenge of the 2008 crunch points to deeper questions of instability and unsustainability in a global money economy where transfers can be made in an instant, and where speculative finance has largely lost meaningful contact with the 'real economy' where people make and develop a living - or not, in the case of the poorest, who are always the most vulnerable, and whose leverage to ensure fairness and just distribution is painfully lacking.

Here rich nations have mostly failed to address the issues (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7744), and the September 2008 UN summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been overshadowed by the anxiety and panic among major corporate players, the US Federal Reserave and the international financial institutions.

The questions and imperatives raised in this paper (which was originally written in 2006/7) concerning the churches and alternative economic possibilities have been considerably strengthened by the shock waves emanating from the current crisis. The first response of church leaders, which might be seen to be pointing the finger at others without adequately addressing the way their own significant assets have been (and are being) used, is one which has caused comment from a number of quarters (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7750).

For its part, Ekklesia has detailed the Church of England's involvement as a shareholder, hedge operator and speculator - not in order to feed the negativity that is around at the moment as people stare liquidity in the face, but for the opposite reason: because there is an opportunity here to take a positive stance (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7752), to reappraise the contribution the churches can make, as economic operators, to a fresh way of appraising how we relate resources to people, needs, the environment and social justice. The church can and should re-examine its economic heart: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7757

See also:

Support grows for UK 'Green New Deal', say activists - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8073
Neoliberal economics in retreat, says Christian gathering - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7807 [with WCC documentation]
Economic Greed is a spiritual crisis, by Ann Pettifor - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7778
Time to invest practically in social change, by Patrick Hynes - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7771
Seeking to build a just economy, by Simon Barrow - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7790
Rowan Williams makes his Marx - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7756
The church and alternative economics - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7753
Fairness, trade and free market ideology - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6849

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[This is a summary and overview paper with signposts to a range of action and research points on church and economy. It was first published in Spring 2007 and updated in the Summer, Autumn and Winter of 2008]