This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of the Catalyst.
by David Pfrimmer
Last year, Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).” In discussing the Roman Catholic Church’s renewed sense of mission, Pope Francis highlighted “the structural causes of inequality” and reaffirmed the social teaching of the churches: “No to the economy of exclusion. No to the new idolatry of money. No to a financial system that rules rather than serves. No to inequality, which spawns violence.”
Many in the media interpreted the Pope’s assessment of capitalism as Marxism. Others suggested that his words reflected a growing public concern about the increasing influence of corporate power. Christians, however, may have heard in his address a return to the economics of Jesus. In wandering the Galilean countryside, Jesus called for a “values revolution” that changed how people viewed possessions and deployed power. But it also included a wisdom that offered hope to an occupied and excluded people.
Inequality is certainly a symptom of the darker side of the principalities and powers today. It is driven by changing demands for workers due to new technologies, the nature of global markets, and the knowledge economy. Globalization and free trade have been linked to the declining influence of labour unions, to stagnant incomes and wages for families, and to higher education requirements for almost any job. All these have contributed to growing disparity, but people are not simply poorer; they’re excluded from the economic and the social mobility necessary to pursue a better life.
Theologian Douglas Meeks has suggested we might well look to the oikonomia tou theou (economy of God) for a vision of possible alternatives. The “economy of God” is an economy of enough rather than an economy of scarcity. It assumes that basic human needs take priority over the consumer-driven desires or wants that placate us. The economy of God summons human generosity and understands human vulnerability as the basis for more authentic security for all. As former Chilean Ambassador to the United Nations Juan Somavía aptly said to the World Summit on Social Development, “You cannot have secure nations full of insecure people.”
No economy can function without foundational values that inform, sustain, and hold its leaders accountable. In What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandal observes that we have yet to have a public debate over the kind of economy we want. As a result, he says, “We drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. The difference is this: A market economy is a tool – a valuable and effective tool – for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It is a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.”
Sandal’s analysis sounds much like the situation that faced the people of Galilee when social relations were being remade in the image of Rome. This brings us back to the economics of Jesus and his values revolution. Christians know something about values even if we frequently fail to live up to them. There have been numerous reports and many public calls to address inequality. In these times, they all seem to fall on perpetually deaf ears among our political and economic leaders. Yet I would suggest that inequality is but one symptom of the wider problem — we have forgotten the importance of “belonging.” In Matthew 25, when Jesus “gathers all the nations of the world” on the day of judgement, he will say to them, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (vs 40).
There is an old Jewish proverb that says, “Where there is too much, something is missing!” The growing inequality of those who are being forgotten today — the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely — points to what is missing: a commitment to ensure that everyone has a place at the table. Jesus’ values revolution means that everyone belongs at the table in the household of God’s good creation. And for those to whom much has been given, much more will be expected to get everyone there!
David Pfrimmer is Principal Dean and Professor of Applied Christian Ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary on the campus of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario