The idea of steward (oikonomos, “household manager”) by definition means control over resources by a steward. It is not ultimate control. It is control subject to the will of the one who appointed the steward in the first place. But it is control that is relatively free from interference by other persons or entities. Otherwise, the steward can neither truly develop the resources entrusted nor be held accountable when there is failure. Let me highlight again that stewardship is not equated to our spending, consumption or conservation of resources. This is a part of stewardship. Like the stewards in Jesus parable on the talents, God expects a return on his investment with us. Let us not over spiritualize this “return” to apply only to spiritual matters. Jesus said to love God with all our “strength” which better translates to everything we have at our disposal.
I wrote in an earlier post that the only two relationships we can have to the material resources is to be stewards or forgoers. As stewards we can be good stewards or bad stewards. The defining difference is the degree to which we handle the resources according to the desires of the one who entrusted the resources to us. Forgoers can be people like monks or nuns who devote themselves to some special purpose and chose to go without material resources. However, more typically, forgoers are people have been denied control of resources.
Some totalitarian governments insert themselves as owner of all resources and to the degree people own anything, they do so as stewards of the state, not as God’s stewards. What is entrusted by the state can be withdrawn by state. What is produced by individuals can be taken without justification. Individuals have no control or ownership and therefore are not truly stewards. Even softer forms of government control like democratic socialism create some of the same effect.
A similar situation is a society where there is rampant corruption and anarchy. Bribes, arbitrary decisions by authorities, and unclear property rights discourage any risk taking or long term investment. This discourages any attempt by people to exercise their stewardship mandate because they have no reasonable assurance that they can get a fair price for the products of their labors. The simply work to get by from day to day.
Therefore, someone who lives in absolute poverty or in a totalitarian society has been denied the opportunity to answer God’s call to stewardship. The question becomes about how we transform the absolute poor into stewards?
From a Christian standpoint, I think the place to begin is with the message of the Word. People need to now the story that God is unfolding in history and his call to each of us for creation stewardship, Kingdom service and employment of gifts. They need to know that what is, is not what always must be. In other words, they need hope of different future. Someone has to deliver this message. When people have fully embraced this message, watch out! Care for neighbor emerges. Demands for justice arise. Grace is extended. All create an environment of hope improving well-being.
Very few of the absolutely poor live in developed nations. They are overwhelming located in nations where corruption (i.e., anarchy, tribalism and totalitarianism) are present. The first and primary focus should be in getting governments to develop and enforce property rights and facilitate business formation. Where you or I can go to the city clerks office and get a business license for a minimal fee and open up a business in one day, many of the poorest nations have processes the take weeks and months to complete, often with fees and bribes built in all along the way that prevent all but the wealthiest from legitimately going into business. That means that a majority of business is done outside the law. This makes the development of credit institutions impossible. Well defined and easily transferred rights to property and legitimate business arrangements are essential for prosperity to take root.
Increasing widely shared prosperity starts a cycle of demands for other changes. When people have enough property at stake to be concerned about its loss, they begin to demand property rights, just legal systems and democracy. When prosperity increases a little more, they become more concerned about their natural environment and working conditions. This leads to greater health and productivity which leads to more demands for quality of life improvements and so on. Increasing prosperity tends to be the engine that drives the demand for all the other institutions and social arrangements that we take for granted in our developed nations. Pressure should be applied to developed nations and institutions like the World Bank to do what they can to get nations to set this upward spiral in motion. Technology transfers and financial aid for building infrastructure can also help advance growing prosperity.
Developing economic and democratic institutions is something that developed nations have had a long history with and can be helpful in advising developing nations. However, this only holds true when a commitment to rule of law and an end to corruption is in place. Too often, aid from developed nations has served to prop up and reward corrupt leaders instead of generating this upward cycle of prosperity.
Microfinance, the practice of making very small loans to business people, might be one way to jumpstart the road to prosperity. Organizations like Opportunity International have been doing this for some time. Just last year an organization called Kiva started that allows any individual to make loans to people in developing nations through the internet and PayPal.
Another key aspect to developing prosperity is literacy. People who can read, write and do math are able to equip themselves and learn new things on their own. They are also able to better monitor and understand what authorities are doing and to hold them accountable. Transfers of technology like by organizations like One Laptop Per Child and Green Wifi are just a couple of innovative ways to increase access to knowledge that are happening. It is essential that these efforts include women and girls.
The poor also need clean water systems, reliable energy sources, vaccinations and in tropical areas something as simple as mosquito netting could make radical improvements in reducing mortality rates. When it comes to Africa, clearly a cure for Aids is desperately needed.
We need to work on developed nations to end protectionist policies of their own that prevent developing nations from competing in the markets where they might have the most to contribute. Free trade needs to be expanded and we need to find ways to more effectively integrate developing nations into the world economy. However, this goes back to the rule of law and property rights issue. Until a commitment to these practices emerges, these nations will not prosper from being connected to global markets.
This is a suggestive list, not a comprehensive one. Yet a common piece that ties them altogether is the need to respect property rights and the rule of law.
For Christians it is not enough to merely redistribute wealth to poor people. This falls into the trap of seeing poverty as only material issue. It isn’t. Poverty is a deeply moral and spiritual issue. The world is filled with material resources but the most precious resource of all is the stewardship potential of each human being on the face of the planet. Denying literally billions of people the opportunity to develop this potentiality is the greatest “environmental” disaster of our day. The mission of the Church must not become reduced to “saving souls.” It is about the redemption and transformation of every person into creation stewards, Kingdom servants and the employers of gifts that God has called them to be. It is about becoming God’s eikons filling the earth.