Economics & Theology: The World Is More Complex Than I Thought It Was

Known in EternityEarlier this summer I blogged about homelessness based on some encounters from my travels.  I had intended that to be a gateway to a bigger series. The research I did after that post led me in different directions than I thought I’d land, as research often does.  The rabbit trails made me hesitant and slow about continuing to post.

I realized I have a long way to go to love like Jesus, and there’s a lot more work I need to do in the real world before I have wise things to say on homelessness as a social issue.

But, in the process of my reading over the last ten months, I connected some dots about economics and theology.  This post delves into that economics, theology and justice connection. This post hits a little more seminary nerd than my usual, but I think these are important concepts and worth discussion, even if I end up on a bigger soapbox than I’d typically like.

As I read Dorothee Soelle’s Death by Bread Alone and Choosing Life, I was struck by her comment that she never really understood the concept of original sin until she started looking at economics, namely capitalism. I don’t want to hate on capitalism or economics, but I do want to wonder at some human nature problems.

I’ve wandered off into technical terms, so let me break down original sin a bit before moving on. Original sin is a Christian theology term referring to the idea that all people are born inherently broken and in need of God’s grace. Since Adam and Eve, all humans (except for Jesus) inevitably act in ways that destroy relationships with themselves, others and the world; it is part of their messed up nature. If you’re looking for Bible passages where this notion comes from, check out Romans 5:12-14, Psalm 51:5, and/or Ephesians 2:1-3, and weigh in on this for yourself.

A guy named Augustine wrote on this idea early in church history, and his views shape a lot of the discussion even to this day; I love Augustine in many ways (truth!), but his view on original sin, that it is transmitted more or less like an STD from parent to child in utero, tends to taint human sexuality in a way that I find problematic. Sorry to those of you who pretty much think Augustine comes a close second to Jesus.

I struggled wrapping my brain around original sin; I can regurgitate Christian doctrine here, but it sometimes felt more like prattling orthodox (right belief) words that I should say than something I actually grasped.

Soelle’s point about economics and original sin was helpful for me in that it put sin in a more complex relationship. We’re born into economic systems over which we have little control. Money makes the world go round, so to speak. Our interaction with social and economic systems leads us to sin, whether we are conscious of it or not.

Thinking about economics, let’s go with the example of buying a shirt.  If I head to my local big box store or mega mart to buy a t-shirt, I don’t tend to ask many questions about where my shirt came from. Instead, I focus on what I can afford to pay, which, these days, is not much.

I don’t (typically) contemplate the reason why items are able to be priced cheaply: somewhere along the line (or in multiple places along the line), someone isn’t getting a fair deal  or living wage for either their product or their work. My ignorant purchase makes me complicit in the unjust actions of the company or companies involved. It’s not intentional or mean-spirited on my part. But, I’m still participating in and unwittingly supporting unjust systems. My manner of filling basic needs causes me to sin unintentionally. And our ability to research every detail of every product that we buy is limited, even were we so inclined to do it.

Sometimes as we make purchases, we do know of some of the unjust elements.  We end up ignoring our justice drive in pursuit of meeting our own needs.  Our perceived needs or wants trump nameless and faceless people’s needs. Waking to this reality produces uncomfortable, gut-churning guilt.

I’m left holding the very same tension that Soelle names in Death by Bread Alone. “The trouble with middle-class people such as myself is that we are living on both sides. We belong to the exploiters simply by virtue of living here — paying taxes, eating the fruits of the labor of third world people and exploiting their cheap labor.  But at the same time we are dependent employees, oppressed by the decision-making classes of our societies.  This complex and ambivalent situation has the capacity to confuse and paralyze us.  We find ourselves falling either into guilt trips or blind activism.”

This is exactly the place where I find myself stuck. We cannot carry the weight of the entire world on our shoulders.  We are not meant for that.  Nor can we remain passively silent. I also don’t think it is as easy as just individuals doing individual things, like never buying new clothes (new clothes aren’t necessarily inherently bad).

Also, even though individual actions can be great, they don’t even impact an overall system that much. The system does not care. Maybe it does after something lands a company or government in a public relations nightmare when an issue goes viral on the internet.  But before that, not usually.

Somewhere we have to hold businesses and systems accountable.  And I’m trying to figure out what that looks like — respectfully and wisely. I’m afraid I’m going to make mistakes in the conversation and the attempt.

And even as I wrap up this post, I find myself with the question: how does Jesus fit into this?  What role does grace play? What does it mean to be both forgiven of our brokenness and to seek to live with our brokenness mended?  Grace isn’t an excuse for us to continue willfully doing destructive things (check out Romans 5:21-6:14).  What do we do with that economically speaking?  How do we walk that tightrope? And, where is the hope in that? What would health look like here?  And right now, no, it’s not enough for me to hear that Jesus will make it better in eternity as though that robs us of human responsibility now.

I find myself circled back to where I started: the research.  The research made the world more complex than I thought it was and left me with more questions, fewer answers, and less certainty, as you’ve now seen.

Questions or comments?

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