Some Elements of Economic Wisdom to Be Addressed by Christian Ministry


This is the second of two presentations given at at the Kern Family Conference for Theological Educators, January 25-26, 2013. The first presentation is Economic Wisdom and Human Flourishing.


In my talk yesterday I gave my reasons for saying that “the church,” through its teaching and preaching, has the responsibility to explicitly address the economic proposals and processes of the society within which it ministers, including those that involve government action. Spokespersons for Christ are under the imperative to love God and to love their neighbors as themselves. Their responsibility for what honors God and what is good for the public, as well as for their closer “followers,” dictates that they deal with economic issues that seriously impact life and well-being. This will in turn require that Christian educators undertake to prepare those who embrace this responsibility to speak with understanding and clarity about economic issues, with reference to the government, of course, but also with reference to the major non-governmental segments of society: business, education, the professions, and so forth. For example, the failure of ‘lower’ education to teach all students about money, how it works, and what to do about it, should be a constant concern for ministers and should be seriously dealt with by them. The same is true for other sources of well-being (and its lack). Of course they will encounter strong opposition.

But my main point yesterday had to do with the differing versions of flourishing or well-being that frame a secular vision of human life and that frame a Christian/Biblical vision. Human flourishing and well-being have numerous possible dimensions. But a vision of what it is to have well-being or to prosper is presupposed in any evaluation of economic ideas, plans, or practices for implementation. However, economics as a field of inquiry does not help us with the understanding of what constitutes human well-being. That simply does not fall in its domain—though its experts often seem to presume it does. It is the task of the Christian minister to keep before the public an understanding of when human beings are well-off and when not. He or she does not have exclusive responsibilities in this regard, perhaps, but they do have this responsibility in a special way, because of their position in society, and because of the sources of knowledge and power they have that come with that position as spokespersons for Christ.

We concluded last time with some discussion of reasons why conservative/evangelical churches, in particular, and their ministers, tend to back away from any such responsibility. We emphasized what I take to be a misunderstanding of the gospel as having to do only with forgiveness of sins and the afterlife, and as something with no essential public bearing or involvement. Also, we pointed out that to bring knowledge of political and economic affairs is not to be political, in the sense of seeking to control political persons, offices and events. Not that that is ruled out, but it presents a different set of issues

Today I want to focus more closely upon the makeup of the life exemplifying economic wisdom, both in the individual and in public institutions, and upon the role of Christian spokespersons in promoting such a life. What does a life of economic wisdom look like? In approaching this topic a certain misunderstanding, already mentioned, must be hit head on. This is the idea that Christian virtues and character can be—or even necessarily are—something hidden from public view and of no significance for how the world runs. One can, on this view, be exactly the kind of person God intended one to be without influencing or transforming the social connections (including governmental) in which we live. Let us say once for all that nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible, Christian history, and careful observation all bear that out. The early Christian movement simply transformed its world. However, we must admit, study after study in recent decades shows that the general run of Christians in North America do not differ in character from the non-Christians there. That opens the door for the small number of Christians who really are profoundly different to be dismissed as oddities, and for the serious implications of Christian virtue for public life and order to be disregarded—both by the world and by the church itself. A part of what emerges from this picture is the usual assumption that religion has no relevance to government, or even to business (C. Stanley story: “This is business. Let’s leave God out of it”) and the various professions. The truth of the matter is that the character of Christ lived out in ordinary life would transform our world, including what it means to have economic well-being and to live a life of economic wisdom.

A Life Exemplifying Economic Wisdom

For purposes of discussion here, let us say that a public/social setting exemplifies economic wisdom if the ordinary person living therein, under normal conditions, is able to engage in productive living (maybe with a job), with adequate resources to meet basic needs of life, with assurance of security, and with a reasonable hope for attainment of familiar human objectives, given appropriate application of thought and effort. People generally in such circumstances would be able to lead useful and happy lives and be content with their lives, even though those lives might be far from perfect. We do not make it a condition of exemplified economic wisdom in a setting that most people therein have opportunities to “make it big”—though that might be a possibility for some—or that someone could be economically successful without appropriate, intelligent effort, or without the assistance of individuals around them (family, friends, acquaintances) who contribute to their lives in ways that are uncoerced but non-commercial. In the setting we have in mind, it is important to note, many wants and perhaps some needs would go unsatisfied. The situation we are contemplating is not utopia.

I want to emphasize that achieving an environment of economic wisdom is not something simple or easy. We especially want to reject the idea that there is this relatively self-contained system, called “the economy,” that runs on laws that can be discovered by clever people and manipulated in such a way that the “system” produces human well-being, “general welfare,” even of the limited sort specified in the last paragraph. Some seem to think that if you can just get those laws right and find experts (guiding government action or inaction) to tinker with them, desirable conditions in “the economy”—say low inflation, fair and mild taxation, care for the needy, great opportunities for all individuals—will flood the land. As T. S. Eliot said decades ago, “We are looking for a system so perfect that we will not have to be good.” But such a system is not going to happen. There is no “answer” of that sort. Spokespeople for Christ need to say this repeatedly and with emphasis. Only so can they deal realistically with the human condition. A good economic condition is not just human accomplishment.

Three Main Factors in a Life of Economic Wisdom

A situation successfully exemplifying economic wisdom will, I surmise, involve three major factors, only part of which is subject to human direction and control:

  1. Prevalence within the population of a certain range of individual characters and virtues.
  2. Social and political arrangements and practices that manifest much of those same characters and virtues in public life and its institutions, suitably adjusted to fit the fact that they are now social and not traits of individuals. In this the role of leaders and their characteristics becomes paramount. Honest governmental or business agencies, for example, are up to leaders to see to. Here too, system alone will not suffice.
  3. External circumstances, natural resources, historical events (wars, climate—storms, drought, etc.), turns of government, and things that might be termed acts of God.

There is, of course, very little I could say about (3), and so I will spend my time on (1) and (2).

The Primacy of Individual Character

Life exemplifying economic wisdom only emerges from the prevailing characteristics and actions of the particular persons who make up a population. The particular person is primary because only individuals are capable of action. The order or disorder in any dimension of society, under usual circumstances, is entirely a function of what individuals are prepared to do. (Explanations in such terms are shunned by social scientists.) Of course what individuals are prepared to do is in turn largely determined by the social structures and processes which formed them and in which they are immersed; and that is totally so for people who are not thoughtful, informed, and self-motivated to think critically about what they do, or who do not have leaders and teachers that challenge their habits of thought, feeling and action, enabling them to do more than just react to their surroundings. So we always have to take into consideration, when reflecting on economic life, both the characteristics of particular persons and the social contexts and structures that actually influence people to do what they do.

Still, it is the actions of particular persons and the character traits that those actions express which directly constitute whatever economic wisdom (or foolishness) we may find exemplified in a given context. So let us look briefly at the personal characteristics which will be favorable to a life exemplifying economic wisdom. And, first, we consider the characteristics that are foundational, and probably foundational for any decent form of human existence. You can collect a list of those from almost any of the great thinkers in human history, East or West (e.g. Confucius), because they are so important for human life. But here we are in a Christian context, so we will take our list from the New Testament.

The Role of “The Fruit of The Spirit

In chapter five of his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul lists major components of what he calls “the fruit of the Spirit,” and contrasts them with “the works of the flesh.” He lists love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23) “Against such things,” he says—surely with some sly humor—“there is no law.” No doubt that is just because of the ‘foundational’ role such traits have in building strong and beneficial relationships and contributing to human well-being. Take them out of human life, and you are left with a condition that few would find desirable or even endurable, where “the works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19-21) provide the dominant tone and substance of society. That is a condition which largely prevails in life around the globe and which contributes heavily to—I would say makes inevitable—the economic unwisdom or foolishness and the outright wrongdoing and evil which we see all around us. Just look at the “works” listed for “flesh,” and think about what they presuppose and what they produce for economic life. Compare that to the fruit of the Spirit.

A life structured around and animated by the fruit of the Spirit will be one in which the personal relationships discussed in our previous talk, as central to human well-being, are strong and profitable to everyone involved. It will be one in which the further characteristics more specifically required in a life (individual or social) exemplifying economic wisdom are likely to be present and strongly supported. That is why I call the elements in the fruit of the Spirit “foundational.” Let us think briefly about a few of these foundational traits. Just consider love, joy, and peace from the viewpoint of economic wisdom.

”Love is good will in action. To love something or someone is to act or be poised to act for its (or their) good. Love of neighbor is a disposition to act for what is good for your neighbor. Or if you see harm coming to them, you act to deflect or diminish the harm. And if they need some good thing, you do what is reasonably in your power to supply it. In the larger social/governmental setting love does what it can to establish and sustain arrangements and practices that will benefit everyone or many effected—or will benefit the now much maligned “common good.” It will oppose institutions and practices that hurt “the public” or fail to help them. Thus, all of the clear cases of “professions” are devoted to a common good, and therefore are seen as callings and as groups that are devoted to service, not just to personal gain for practitioners of their “profession.” Love at the public level will care for the economy because it cares for (loves) people.

Joy is a positive outlook of hopefulness based upon a pervasive sense of well-being over all. It, like love, has a feeling component that is pleasant, but it (also like love) is not a feeling. It is a positive posture in life that assumes that good will be supported and eventually triumphant. Joy is compatible with pain and disappointment and sorrow, because it always takes a wider view of circumstances and hopes for what is good to prevail. It enables one to be patient in endeavor, faithful to commitments, and is required for the all-important factor in economic well-being of deferred gratification: the ability to say “no” to desires, or at least a firm “not yet.” Joy enables delayed or denied gratification. The bearing of joy on economic wisdom should be obvious. It is indispensable to steady contentment and perseverance in a task. It liberates from the demands for immediate satisfaction, rather than for what is good. One of its offshoots is wise investment.

Peace is a kind of rest that comes from bedrock confidence in the sufficiency of what is necessary and good for me. “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows role…It is well with my soul,” the song says. A person of peace does not attack others, and faces attacks on him or her self with calmness and non-malevolence that arises out of assured abundance. They are not hostile or suspicious or “touchy” and easily offended. The wisdom that is from above, says the Epistle of James, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy, and the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (3:17-18)

These few remarks will, I hope, make clear the role of elements of the fruit of the Spirit in a life of economic wisdom. Here we will not be able to discuss each element listed by Paul in the fruit of the Spirit, but when you add them all together, including patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness (or moderation), and self-control, you get a picture of a different kind of person from the standard run of the human mill. Upon reflection you will realize, I think, that the well-being and flourishing that such a person has, and promotes for others, will strongly influence the social and governmental arrangements that they will be caught up in (in the natural course of life) and that they will seek to establish and maintain. If a person is well-developed in these characteristics, they will tend to be capable of being at home in their context and of supporting themselves and others related to them. By contrast, you can observe, I think, that people caught up in a life of economic unwisdom are usually—exceptions must always be allowed—lacking in the foundational traits that make up the fruit of the Spirit.

The Effects of Love, Joy, and Peace on Economic Behavior

From these foundational traits, certain characteristics that have a more direct bearing upon the economic flourishing of individuals and societies will naturally arise. A long and profitable study of how this works could and should be made. Here we will only make a few comments. For example, love (especially with joy) will certainly promote productivity of goods and services, both in quantity and quality. Love naturally focuses upon the production of what is good and seeks to make it widely available. (The Templeton study) God’s creation was an act of love. The drive to be self-supporting is almost always tied to the will to be productive and to benefit others. Again, that is observable in human life. Paul remarks on his own practice: “We did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we might not be a burden to any of you.” (2 Thess. 3:8) And he calls upon his readers to follow his example. Again he says: “Let him who steals steal no longer; but let him rather labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.” (Eph. 4:28)

Peace eliminates hostile relationships that hinder productivity and wastes human talent and energy. It enables helpfulness to dominate human relationships. Joy (in work and in sharing) makes everything easier and adds a strength of its own to any endeavor. These traits also foster restraints that make for economic well-being. The elements of the fruit of the Spirit put one in a position to be patient in undertakings, capable of deferred gratification, not wasteful or foolishly indulgent, not unable to say “no” to what one wants or, as a leader, to what a group wants. The ability to say “no” to desire enables the individual or group to distinguish between a want and a need (the Wells Fargo note), and to keep wants in their proper (limited) place so far as decision and action goes. This is of overwhelming importance at the level of government, where, once deficit spending or “redistribution of wealth” is adopted as a way of getting on, wants simply run wild for lack of leaders who can say “no” to their constituency. (Plato, Republic, Books 7-9) Thrift, as a central practice, is then abandoned. But thrift, now an old-fashioned idea, is in general essential to economic well-being and flourishing. (“Thrift” and “flourishing” are now words that do not comfortably fit together, if they even show up, in the contemporary consciousness. Thrift is thought of as shabby.) (The little song)

A need, as opposed to a mere want, is a lack of some kind that, if not properly met, results in a serious harm to the functioning of the system in which it occurs, or even the demise of that system—e.g., malnutrition of very young children, lack of intellectual or artistic stimulation in early childhood, or failure of an infant to emotionally “bond” with significant adults. At the social/economic level, freedom to exercise initiative creatively and to reap the rewards (and sorrows) of risk and effort is a need which must be met if self-regulating, productive life is to be attained. It is the foundational character traits from the fruit of the Spirit that can enable the individual (and by extension the group) to say either “yes” or “no” to what is required or not for a life of economic wisdom. It is certainly the task of the Christian spokesperson to teach, train, and exemplify both the foundational traits and the more specific traits required in the economic domain—industriousness, self-control, moderation, and responsibility for oneself and others. That is the responsibility and posture of love. To repeat, we should put to rest once for all the idea that these traits are “private” and that public economic flourishing is independent of them. Public well-being and prosperity essentially depend upon them, properly understood and implemented.

Well-Being Cannot Be Arranged for People Generally

I think we have to concede that welfare is not something that can be produced for people generally, though some provisions for “general welfare” can and must be made. The general welfare can be destroyed by events or by foolish policies and actions. But welfare is essentially also a matter of the character of the people involved. Augustine says in his Rule that “Those who have the strength to lead simple lives should consider themselves the richest of people. For it is better to be able to make do with a little than to have plenty.” What an idea! The character of people in a population is hugely determinative of how well-off people are and of whether or not they and their society flourishes. Some dimensions of welfare or flourishing can, perhaps, be quantified and dealt with abstractly and externally. But two people in the same material conditions may not have an equally good life or be equal in welfare or well-being. Because of their attitudes and understandings and, especially, because of their human relationships their lives may be quite disparate so far as human well-being goes. Fifty dollars in the pocket or hand of an intemperate or ignorant person is not equal, so far as welfare is concerned, to fifty dollars in the hand of a wise and virtuous person living in a network of sensible friends and relatives. A “safety net” is one thing, and it in some measure might be provided to a population, so long as the money or credit lasts. But well-being, or a flourishing life, is quite another thing, and it cannot be handed to people generally (if it ever can to anyone).

Christian Spokespersons Addressing the “Public” Domain

But the work of the responsible Christian spokesperson is not done with having pointed out the traits that most essentially enter into human well-being. It is by far the most import thing we must do, but now we want to look at a few extensions of that work which have special involvement and significance for public life, including the functioning of government. And with this we return to (2) in our list of major factors involved in a human situation successfully exemplifying economic wisdom.

It is of course true that Christian spokespersons are not to dictate governmental or other large-scale policies. They are not in any position to do so, and that is a good thing. But they are in a position to address economic and social issues that effect all citizens, and not just those of their particular “flock.” Not every person in pastoral or other Christian position should do this, but many should. The well-being of their neighbors is at issue, and love dictates that they speak the truth, as best they can, to as wide an audience as they can access in the various was of speaking, writing, and communicating. That is the well-established role of the prophet in the biblical picture of life. It is something that Jesus himself did, and, though not for everyone in ministry, for those called and gifted it is their necessary task.

People in positions of power, governmental and otherwise, should be under the constant scrutiny of Christian leaders. Who else is to do this? Government is executed by human beings, and those human beings tend to drift in the direction of interests of the government and its employees. This often means in the direction of the world, the flesh, and the devil. What should be accomplished for the public good, and how it is done, by judges, legislators, executives, and those in public service (“civil” servants) cannot be left up to them. Context, if not mere egotism and group identity, usually—not always—overwhelms them. That is where the prophetic voice must come into play. The Christian spokesperson must speak up. It is the sad mistake of many ministers to suppose that they only speak to their church or constituency. Christ speaks to the world, and about everything that really matters. It is our responsibility to follow him and be with him in this.

This is especially important in a situation where government accepts the responsibility of providing “welfare” for its people. Of course in some measure it is right that it should do so. But where welfare has come to mean that the government has the responsibility of securing a comfortable form of life for recipients, “entitlements” will eventually explode, and deficit spending becomes inevitable and uncontrollable, because those in positions of power cannot say “no.” A “no” will cause a great deal of pain and harm for some people. It is, for many, a tragic situation. But neither the individual nor a government can live perpetually beyond their means, and perpetual deficit spending with no plan for recovery, or at least a “sense” of how to go about stopping the overspending and paying off of the debt, is madness—probably just a blind hope that somehow it will work out. John M. Keynes, a great sponsor of deficit spending, was often told that “sooner or later” Britain would have to pay off its debts. His reply, I understand, was: “Sooner or latter we will all be dead.” Well, that is certainly true.

The pastor or spokesperson also has the task of preparing some of those under his or her influence to step into and occupy positions of influence at all levels of society, including government. This means the development of a character that will allow the individual to play a role in public leadership which leads in the direction of economic wisdom, and not just toward securing their own position and advancing the interests of their supporters. For the Christian, of course, that means identification of the leader with servant of all. It is only through leaders that a society or government takes on the qualities of economic wisdom—or the vices of the opposite. One cannot bypasss this in dreams of a “system” that will do the job on its own. The pastor/teacher must talk about this and stress that such leadership is a call on the lives of many Christians as well as others. We must emphasize that this is a holy calling. Of course a Christian in such a position can only survive and thrive by the hand of God moving with him or her. But that is just another day in the life of those whose actual citizenship is in the heavens. (Phil. 3:20) We should explicitly assume this and, if we are in a position of leadership, count on it, along with those in our discipleship setting. We should do what we can to help such people gain and sustain positions of influence where their judgments and examples can make a difference.

Finally, the Christian spokesperson must make a point of knowing what is taking place in his or her world. Some will have to take on the role of investigative reporters and organize their operation around it. They must go out of their way to be informed and to personally interact with leaders in social and economic matters. Here Christian academics and specialists must come to their aid. Being properly informed is more difficult today, since what is now called “journalism” has for the most part degenerated into a branch of entertainment, and journalists almost never look into and responsibly inform the public on matters that deeply impact it. (Where were the “journalists” when the series of financial disasters that have unfolded over recent decades, from the famous “Savings and Loan” scandal onward to “Enron,” were developing? Etc., etc.) Again, this is not for everyone in the position of Christian ministry, but it is for some who are. And it is, further, the responsibility of the “experts” who occupy positions in higher education—and, specifically, Christian higher education—to prepare those who exercise this prophetic ministry, to the church and to the nation and world, for effective execution of their special tasks. They must expose the economic follies of a government or society dominated by desire alone, and the power contests that arise from that.

Let us begin.


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