In my last blog but one I suggested that the meaning of a positive concept like “House of God” might be clarified by an example of what it is against. One of the positive aspects of God’s house is its economy ( Greek: oikonomia = household management) The early Greek – speaking churches used this word to designate God’s management of the universe from creation to final perfection. They described it as a process of complete generosity, designed for the equal good of all creatures, requesting the cooperation of all creatures, so that they might have the dignity of contributing creatively to the future of the universe. They knew that out of arrogance and greed some human beings not only refused cooperation, but actively worked against this economy. They therefore emphasised the central act of God’s generosity as the gift of Godself to the universe in his only son Jesus, through whose dangerous living of God’s generosity in the face of human evil, the divine offer of cooperation might be made more powerful. St. Paul described this rescuing action in the words, “He became poor to make many rich.”
This kind of “economy” is obviously opposed to the ethic of global capitalism by which many are made poor in order that a few may be made very rich.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been amongst economists and politicians an assumption that capitalism is the only game in town, and we’d better get used to living with it. Not only should we accept its rule over world production and trade, but we should give it an unopposed rule because there is simply no alternative. Given the global triumph of capitalism any attempt to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, say by taxation, would simply result in capital interests removing their business from that country to one less demanding.
One curious contradiction in the current ideology of capitalism, is that it claims to be a global system which demands global thinking, but on the other hand, has little or no concern for a country in financial extremity like Greece lately, and will destroy its economy, and harm its people, as if it were somehow outside the one world economy. My house-of-God economy also argues that we live in the one house, but insists that every inhabitant is of equal importance, and that what hurts one, hurts all. It also emphasises that economy is not an isolated sphere of human activity but rather the management of the one house. Economic brutality, it says, like any other brutality, has consequences in the human household, as for example, the rise of Nazism in reponse to the poverty in Germany after the first world war. Clearly the one-house economy of the Christian faith is at odds with the global capitalism which dominates the production, trade and marketing of the world today.
1. The one- house economy is against capitalism’s view of wealth, as consisting in property, power, credit, goods and services, security, inheritance. Jesus was a small trader, used to working in an economy where many services were still provided for something other than cash, for reciprocal services, for example. Credit in the form of say, having a shed built, would be given on the basis of all that was known about the person and his family and its place in the community. This pre-capitalist economy was in the process of dissolution in the face of the proto- captalism of the Roman Empire.
Jesus taught that material wealth was an idol which you served to the exclusion of God and your fellow human being. The service of wealth and its accumulation of consumer goods blinds people to the loveliness of the world (the wild flowers that outdo King Solomon) and to the richness of human character and relationship. In particular it deprives people of the wealth of shared living which offers access to the lands, possessions, goods and humanity of others as part of a communal life of generosity. It’s no accident that in the UK at Christmas time we await the latest multi-million video advert from John Lewis, which year after year celebrates some rich and touching aspect of our humanity; designed to persuade people to buy stuff!
2.The one-house economy is against the capitalist goal of unlimited growth. Jesus knew the earth as finite and fickle. Treasure on earth is subject to natural wastage (moth and rust) and to the criminality of others (theft). The man who decides that his already successful business must grow, finds that alas, he is mortal. If a person is always looking for guarranteed and spectacular growth he will miss the importance of the small things, which like the mustard seed have the capacity for lavish growth. And the sower of seed knows that not every seed will come to fruition.
The sheer bulk, wastage and pollution of unchecked economic growth are toxic for both human happiness and for the ecosystems of the earth. The state capitalism of China is trying to manage continuous economic growth and protection of ecosystems at the same time, but already there are signs that these aims are not compatible.
The teaching of Jesus on the contrary equipped people to form communities ready to build a shared life, without making inordinate demands on the earth, because they found “ treasure in heaven”, that is in justice, caring, hospitality and in the gentleness that made them fit to “inherit the earth.”
3. The one-house economy is against the injustice of the capitalist system. Just today I read that a woman who runs a large string of betting shops paid herself £217 million for last year’s work. It’s the highest wage in the UK. At the same time a woman employed as a carer in an Residential Care Home for the elderly is paid just above the minimum wage at £7-50 an hour. Any sane society would pay the one to whom we entrust our dear parents much more that the person who runs a facility where idiots queue up to hand you money for nothing.
That’s only an extreme example of the grotesque and habitual injustice of a system which calls those who exploit the labour of others, “wealth creators” and labels those who fight through unions for better pay and conditions as “troublemakers.” Karl Marx analysed the injustice but also the genius of capitalism, which was in his day transforming the world and has continued go do so. The economy of God’s house views the injustice of capitalism as a crime which deserves punishment. In Jesus’ story of Dives and Lazarus, the real crime of the rich man is to make a great and impassible gulf between himself and the poor man at his gate. In the comic noir scene of his life after death, the rich man finds himself being tortured by flames and asks if Lazarus who is in heaven can bring him some water. Ah no, he’s told, there’s a great gulf between that place amd this place….. the punishment precisely fits the crime.
The gulf is a way of saying that there is not one house.
4. The one-house economy is against the capitalist ideology that what you earn or gain in wealth is your own and that taxation is theft. You would think that only very stupid people could hold this view, but such is the prestige of capitalism, many who are not otherwise stupid, do so. It should be obvious even to the smallest human intelligence that especially in an advanced capitalist nation, people can only make money because they and others are educated, because there is a maintained system of communication, because there is law and order, because there is a system of government, because essential infrastructure is maintained, because in civilised nations there is a public health service, because… past generations have contributed in wonderful and sometimes sacrifical ways to the present conditions which allow citizens to earn a livelihood.
For people stultified by capitalist ideology, they are not part of this good household management which enables their lives; they are self-made winners who want to behave like pirates predating a ship, who at least had the good grace to take their spoils and bugger off, whereas these people want to stick around and argue that their piracy is nobody’s business but their own. The recent publication of the so-called Paradise Papers in the UK has shown the extent to which rich individuals and corporations will go to avoid paying perfectly reasonable taxes.
The result of this piracy is that services which are not best run for profit, like medicine, education, age-care, social work, civil and criminal justice, police, armed forces and the like are deprived of adequate funding, and in some cases, infiltrated by the same pirates who deprived them. The generous people who are at the heart of house-of-God economy are angered by such meanness and the ideology which justifies it.
I have heard tell of Buddhist ecomomics, although I don’t know what they are; I have once been invited to share in Islamic economy by putting money in Bank which neither pays nor gains interest on loans. But I have heard little of Christian economy, except the practice of some Christian business people of greasing each other’s palms. These notes are intended to argue that it’s quite clear that the Christian tradition is anti- capitalist – indeed until the late middle ages, the church ruled that usury, that is, lending money at interest, was a mortal sin.