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Sep 08, 2009

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Travis Greene

"...we are always cognizant that, this side of the consummation of the new creation, no economic system will achieve shalom . Therefore, in critiquing it is insufficient to show that an economic system doesn't measure up to shalom. All economics systems will fail this measure. The question is performance relative to other possibilities this side of the fulfillment of the new creation."

I have to say, I really disagree with this conclusion. It is precisely because no economic system will achieve shalom that the church always has a prophetic role calling attention to injustice and calling all to repentance.

Michael W. Kruse

I'm not sure I understand your objection, or at least see a contradiction.

Example. Greed is with us until the culmination of the new creation. Freedom of choice is essential if people are to act as moral agents and choose the good. But the freedom to choose the good means giving some level of freedom to choose the bad.

Greed is evil. We call people to repent from it. But if there is free will in the system, no system will be free of greed. Therefore, to condemn a system because greed occurs is to condemn all economic systems and economic activity. It is to stand conveniently outside the fray, critical of all that happens, while offering nothing of practical help in how economic relationships might be constructed.

The question is which system best helps us approximate shalom as finite fallen human beings living prior to the culmination of the new creation.

JMorrow

Michael,

That's a dense post. I'm still thinking it through, but here are a few observations.

1. You offer a thorough treatment of many of shalom's biblical usages, particular Hebrew Scriptures. However, what I think is missing from this discussion and would add valuable resources to your analysis is the redemptive narrative found in the Gospels and Early Church. Where is their interpretation of Shalom?

2. You say: "The question is performance relative to other possibilities this side of the fulfillment of the new creation."

My concerns differ a bit from Travis'. Recognizing our various biases, if any of us were to use that measure of analysis, what is to stop "other possibilities" from simply becoming a strawman for what we dislike or would not prefer. "Other possibilities" can be read historically, in which case the most modern economy usually always wins because our demographic circumstances place harsh costs on reverting to earlier models. Yet, it can also be read culturally, in which our current model (American style capitalism) must answer to our national resources and cultural values, and even those outside our bounds who are effected by it.

The bigger question: Can we rightfully critique an economic system apart from its cultural context (i.e. the people it serves)?

Let's take your example of greed. If I know greed is pervasive in a culture, then as part of the application of Christian theology to economic life, I would need to take these behaviors into account. So I have to ask what the dynamic is between culture and economics or the individual and the system. If I determine that its necessary to focus on instilling virtue in the individual to avoid greed, shifting resources (i.e educational curriculum, market incentives, civil institutions) to that end will have economic consequences.

Conversely, if I determine that the system needs more safeguards (new laws, new business strategies) because greed is rampant and choking economic life, this too will require economic heavylifting.

Transforming culture always involves economic practices in the micro and/or macro. So the ability for an economic practice, in its particular context, to contend with greed or correct it might very well be a reason to reject or accept it. It will depend on the culture. And I believe more cultural imput will enhance your analysis.

3. If we only talk about capitalism or socialism in the abstract terms as seemless systems they will be impossible to relate to theologically. If we get down to the nitty gritty of economic practices, well that's where I think Christian theology will have more to say.

Michael W. Kruse

J, my short answer is that I want to get to some meaty stuff. Here I'm just declaring that I think shalom is the vision without building a case for it ... just describing it. I think my next post will flesh out the NT stuff more.

As to #2, excellent stuff. My mission here is to find ways we can bring the discussion of theology and economics together, not necessarily offer answers.

As to #3, I agree. But I think part of what gets theologians and economists crossways is some of this big picture foundational stuff. That is why I've begun there and I'm now transitioning toward some application.

Travis Greene

I guess I still differ on the question of whether we are only calling people (read: individuals) to repentance in regard to greed, and not also families, corporations, societies, and systems as well. (And I think capitalism/consumerism does a little more than simply allow greed to happen. The whole cultural apparatus encourages it. What were we told to do after 9/11? Go shopping. Communism clearly has it's own faults, but at least they were trying to build a communitarian ethic, no?)

But maybe part of the difficulty in communicating is that theologians (and little ol' me) are thinking not of capitalism, the theoretical economic system, but Capitalism!(TM), the socio-politico-economic principality that controls much of our corner of the world.

Michael W. Kruse

"But maybe part of the difficulty in communicating is that theologians (and little ol' me) are thinking not of capitalism, the theoretical economic system, but Capitalism!(TM), the socio-politico-economic principality that controls much of our corner of the world."

That is an excellent point! One I haven't made here. May have to make this a post Jesus Creed.

Capitalism, for economists, is a name for a system that basic assumes market exchange, private property rights, people saving and investing toward long-term results, and well-integrated markets. A variety of values can be fed into this system. It is a protocol ... a technology ... that amplifies whatever is fed into it.

For theologians it is an ethos with all sorts of values inherent in it like greed, consumerism, and survival of the fittest. Economists may agree that some people feed these values into the system, and they may even be the dominate values fed into the system we have in America, but they are not inherent.

Thus, the condemnation of "capitalism" for being based on greed and consumerism, is experienced by many economists as irrational ideological diatribe. The theologian who hears and economist talking about capitalism and the benefits it brings can't shake the idea that the economist is justifying greed and consumerism in the name of these other goods. It is a serious communication problem. That is why I now rarely refer to "capitalism" and instead refer to "market economies" unless I feel reasonably certain folks know what I'm talking about.

As to the 9/11 remark, that has always struck me as being blown out of proportion. My sense was that it was perceived that the aim of terrorists was to scare people out of their normal patterns of behavior, thereby destroying our social fabric. "Going shopping," ... continuing life as normal... was a way to be defiant of the terrorists intent.

I'd say communism is not communitarian but totalitarian. It attempted to run everyone's lives via a centralized entity. It is possible to be decentralized and be communitarian. I'd also add that being communitarianism is every bit as destructive of community as individualism. The challenge is the appropriate integration of individual and community.

One more rambling thought, I've come to conclude that the sin of consumerism is not greed but gluttony. Much of consumerism is about not knowing when or how to stop. As long as gluttons keep feeding their demand into the system, and their is nothing in the culture to counter those who benefit from those who feed the gluttons, then there may be a systemic problem.

JMorrow

Michael,

Thanks for your reply. I appreciate your distinction between capitalism and market economies. Concerning the big picture though, I think we need to question our acceptance of the present terms of discussion, because therein lies the beginning of the impass you're addressing.

In the abstract, economic systems get portrayed as tightly woven units that are essentially unbreakable; to accept one of a system's practices is to accept all of them. But are economic systems really like this? You even said, "A variety of values can be fed into this system."

If indeed an economic system can be broken down into cultural, political and transactional components then why not start the theological/economic conversation in the finite rather than the abstract. You could even say this was the rhetorical move Jesus often made in describing the ethics of the Kingdom. Otherwise, the way these discussions often unravel is when economists essentially tell theologians: 'Here is an economic system, take it or leave it, will you baptise it?'

In my view, if we are to think as both economists and theologians, we must frame the discussion at a different level. One where we are all given greater liberty to explore the connections between economics and culture. What the theologian doesn't want to do is to assume the universality of our own economic assumptions/practices. I'm not sure if economists are willing to start from the same point.

Travis,

I agree that alot of our problems here stem from speaking of capitalism theoretically vs. practically. But how practical is getting a system to repent? What does that even mean? As someone who was steeped early in my Xtian walk in mainline liberal churches, I'm sympathetic towards speaking truth to power, but what does this mean beyond shaving off the rough edges of whatever power happens to be in vogue.

How do we address individuals, professions and institutions that aren't built on Christian theology to begin with for being not Christian enough? I'm not sure what the answer is, but I think that identifies the problem.

Michael W. Kruse

JMorrow,

No, I don't think the systems are tightly woven. What we are calling capitalism could easily be seen as species that has been evolving almost a millennia ... though the breakout has been in the past century or two. I suspect that global information networks are about to cause further adaptations.

And you are right that economic systems do not exist independent of other cultural dynamics. That is one of the huge learnings from the attempt to radically install capitalism into developing nations that had not developed the other societal institutions and values that support it (ex., respect for private property, trust of strangers, just court systems, etc.)

"Otherwise, the way these discussions often unravel is when economists essentially tell theologians: 'Here is an economic system, take it or leave it, will you baptise it?'"

Here is where I need to make the critical distinction between positive economics and normative economics.

Positive economics is concerned with explaining and describing economic phenomenon. Economic hypothesis are developed and tested to see theories hold up in real world analysis. It tries to stay away from the "ought to be" questions.

Normative economics incorporates value judgments into its analysis and develops policy to achieve desired goals, based on whatever values are embraced.

So consider the question of homelessness. We decide that our economy and society should eliminate homelessness. That is a statement we can discuss in terms of values.

Now, based on our values we propose we should impose rent controls to making housing affordable for the homeless. Will that work? That is a question for positive economics. From years of research, there is a strong consensus that rent controls decrease the housing stock and actually increase homelessness. Where this often leads is to demonization of the economist for opposing the needs of the homeless.

I'm simplifying here to make my point but there are some things we know with high levels of confidence about economic behavior that can not be repealed because a theologian perceives things ought to work differently.

So the first thing I'm looking for in some of these disagreements is whether the economist is slipping normative assumptions into her presentation of economic realities and is the theologian seriously engaging the economic realities that constrain us.

Josh Rowley

"I'm simplifying here to make my point but there are some things we know with high levels of confidence about economic behavior that can not be repealed because a theologian perceives things ought to work differently.

So the first thing I'm looking for in some of these disagreements is whether the economist is slipping normative assumptions into her presentation of economic realities and is the theologian seriously engaging the economic realities that constrain us."

Is the Christian theologian called to witness to what ought to be, or is the Christian theologian called to accept what is as reality? If the church adopts this reduced mission, then how will it witness in the "now" to the "not yet" of God's kingdom? Perhaps being a sign and foretaste of God's kingdom means speaking and living a new imagination for the sake of a world that sees the status quo as the only possible reality.

Michael W. Kruse

Josh, if as I theologian I believe people should be able to levitate after stepping off a tall building because Jesus says he has overcome the powers of this world, and a physicist friend he tells me I'm wrong, shouldn't I just ignore this physicist as someone who is too constrained by his notions of reality ... who has adopted a reduced mission of the church?

God's direction does not come to us through intuitive leaps from Scripture alone. It comes from the mutual interaction of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, all engaged in through community and directed by the Holy Spirit.

With positive economics we are dealing with people who are trying to apply the God-given faculty of reason and experience to discerning the order that exists in the world. God does not just reveal himself in scripture but also through general revelation as well.

Economists are not infallible or entirely objective. Unquestioned deference is not in order. Postmodernism is correct in its deconstruction of science and social science in this regard. That does not mean that their work does not command our respect and serious consideration.

Listening to, and learning from, economists heightens the mission of the church, it does not reduce it. What reduces the mission of the church is uncritical ahistorical experimentation without having employed all of the tools of discernment available to us. That is what leads to walking off tall buildings and inflicting needless harm on the church and on the world.

As we seek to live proleptically for the Kingdom, there are constraints to what we can do. The never ending quest is to discern which constraints are inherent and which ones are of our own creation. The economist is a partner, not a obstacle, in this quest.

I'll add too, that folks commenting here seem to think that I'm purely advocating the status quo when I haven't even put my cards on the table about my take on normative economics. :-) The cards begin to hit the table in my next post.

JMorrow

Michael,

Thanks for the follow up. I think your presentation of positive vs. normative economics cuts to the heart of the matter that divides so many. To see this through a postmodern lens, where we draw the line between how much of economic life is objective (i.e hard science) and how much is subjective (i.e. soft science) can be a potentially value-laden and political choice itself. So for the sake of theology, when should we engage in a hermeneutics of suspicion when someone says their finding is just positive economics. Conversely, when should we just accept an economic finding as indeed simply "the way it is"?

Two analogies may be helpful in thinking about that question. The Church has a history of accepting certain aspects of local culture as objective givens, part of God's plan of cultural diversity. While at the same time it sees other aspects as candidates for transformation.

Likewise, society often accepts the findings of science as objective givens, but will occasionally insist on science or technology being pushed to its limits in order to accomplish an imperative goal. (think sending a man on the moon).

Perhaps theology can find a similar way to stoke and challenge the economic imagination while not asking economics to achieve something in objectively cannot.

Michael W. Kruse

"So for the sake of theology, when should we engage in a hermeneutics of suspicion when someone says their finding is just positive economics. Conversely, when should we just accept an economic finding as indeed simply "the way it is"?"

That is the big question. Economists have been criticized for making simplified assumptions about human behavior because it facilitates the working of their mathematical models. There is a joke where an economist is asked how a man who has fallen in a deep whole should get out. The economist begins his response with, "First, we assume a ladder. Second ..."

But theologians try to play this game too. Rent control is championed as a just response to homelessness but in doing so they are essentially saying, "First, we assume the laws of supply and demand don't apply. Second ..."

"Perhaps theology can find a similar way to stoke and challenge the economic imagination while not asking economics to achieve something in objectively cannot."

Bingo! And that requires honest careful intentional dialog by all parties for that to happen.

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