Jesus and the credit crunch #3

Well, after a rather sluggish start, the other Sola Panellists seem to have gotten on board the credit crunch boat (and, in fact, Lionel stole the content of one of my intended posts—grrrrr!) So I am not sure how much further to push this topic. However, given that it was my idea in the first place, and that Peter is up to #4 while I am only up to #3, I am going to continue with my present set of ramblings about a Christian response to the credit crunch.

Today I want to pick up on the whole ‘theology’ of the ‘free market’ economy. (Yes, I know that, strictly speaking, I should refer to it as a ‘philosophy’ or just possibly as an ‘ideology’ but it seems to me to that it is ultimately a theology. To quote Brian Rosner in Beyond Greed,

[T]he economy is mysterious, unknowable and intransigent. It has both great power and, despite the best managerial efforts of its associated clergy, great danger. It is an inexhaustible well of good(s) and is credited with prolonging life, giving health and enriching our lives. Money, in which we put our faith, and advertising, which we adore, are among its rituals. The economy also has its sacred symbols, which evoke undying loyalty, including company logos, product names and credit cards.

In other words, the economy is treated to all intents an purposes as if it is God in our modern world.)

What I really want to know is why we all seem to expect such great things from the economy. In fact, why is it that we all turn our brains off when it comes to thinking about the things that are at the heart of every day life? Unless I am much mistaken (and I know that, as with all things, the high priests of the economy are the only ones who truly understand its intricacies), the central theological premise of the free market is something like this: as long as everyone acts selfishly, the ‘invisible hand’ (to borrow Adam Smith’s famous phrase) will ensure that everyone is better off.

What exactly is the ‘invisible hand’? Again, at the risk of great over-simplification, it is the principle that everyone competing against each other will provide what is good for all. For example, the person selling wants the highest possible price, while the people buying wants the lowest possible price. The seller can ask a ridiculous price and never make a sale (which would be against his or her own interests), and therefore sets a price that is as high as is reasonable, given the market for the product. Apparently if all six billion of us act selfishly, it will ensure that the right price is set for everything, and we will all be happy!

Let me illustrate it in a slightly different way. Smith argued that when you go to get bread from the local baker, you don’t appeal to him to make bread out of his natural benevolence, but instead you appeal to his self-interest. If he makes more bread and sells it, life will be better for him. Smith argued (although he actually saw some of the limitations) that when people act out of self-interest, it tends to promote the community interest as well.

So why, I ask you, do we expect a system built on selfishness to result in good for all? It seems that a few moments’ thought should warn us against expecting ‘God-like’ benevolence from the economy. It may well be that a free market is (somewhat like democracy) the worst system, except for all the rest. But it remains only and ever that—a flawed system initiated by selfish human beings that will never solve the world’s problems. However, as I have been suggesting all along, maybe, for a while at least, people will stop and acknowledge the inability of the economy to deliver what people really need. And maybe, just maybe, it gives Christians the opportunity to point out that sin really is sin. We are so angry at all the ‘fat cats’ that got us into this mess, but incredibly reticent about admitting that we have all been willing players in the market. It suited everyone that I know to be a part of a system that was causing their superannuation to skyrocket. We were all part of the greed that fuelled the failure we are experiencing.

Similarly, we are all angry at the way those who brought this upon us are trying to weasel out of the implications. We want justice. We want them to stand up and say, “We were wrong and we deserve to be punished”. Perhaps there is an opportunity here for us to say that the gospel creates a different world view—a world view which allows you to say, “I did the wrong thing”. In a world driven by image and by the sense that my self-worth is based upon my performance, people naturally look for a scapegoat. But the gospel offers a different way forward: it says that because of the grace and forgiveness of God, I can afford to stop papering over the cracks. I can acknowledge that I am flawed. I can humbly accept that I am someone who sins, and I am freed to speak publicly about being someone who does wrong. I can actually apologize and ask for forgiveness. How refreshing would it be to hear a CEO of one of the failed Wall Street merchant banks come and out publicly acknowledge their greed, ask for people’s forgiveness, and express a willingness to take responsibility!

But, of course, there lies the double-edged sword. We can only ask of others what we are willing to do ourselves. Are we willing to admit that our greed is a part of the problem too? Maybe now is the time for Christians to be leading the way by expressing our own sorrow at our greed. As we do, we will challenge people to think about what is right and wrong in an absolute sense, rather than a ‘right-for-me’ and ‘right-for-you’ sense. For just a moment in history, it may be obvious to our relativist society that there is truth, and that justice needs to be done. So let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will work in our world so that people will come to the point of accepting that we are sinful. And let’s tell anyone who is willing to listen that we believe in a God who knows what we are like and forgives anyway.

9 thoughts on “Jesus and the credit crunch #3

  1. Another fatal flaw in the ‘free market theology’ is the underlying assumption that participants are rational and make decisions that are in their best interest/for their own good. 

    Clearly, looking at the state of the world reveals that many, if not all at some stage, act in their own best interest, whether emotionally, physically, materially and certainly not spiritually.  “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” – but not what is right in the eyes of God

  2. i really think you should get some christian economist to write on this topic rather than put vague comments about the crisis

  3. Paul, for me this post is fine.

    It’s more that I’ve noticed a few sola posts which seek to interact with current issues (good!) but do so with what appears to be superficial analysis (not good!).

    In other words, there hasn’t always been full engagement with movements or ideas. More a quick single-sentence argument claiming to show ‘they’re wrong’.

    The former is both interesting & useful. The latter doesn’t show much sympathy, and I reckon sympathy is basic to disagreeing well – especially in evangelism.

    Again, not in this case!

  4. Make things less vague by getting the opinion of an economist?! Now I’ve heard everything!

    (Sorry Kim Hawtrey. If you’re reading this. Feel free to weigh in and give us your expert perspective.)

  5. My default position generally is not to defend economists (!) but I’d like to share with you an interesting fact about Ben Bernanke, current Chairman of the US Federal Reserve.

    Earlier in his career, Bernanke made an extensive and specific study of the Great Depression, which, as you know, caused severe and protracted suffering worldwide.  It is also worth noting that references to the big “D” have begun to creep into economic discussions lately, and for good reason.  Recession is one thing, but the possibility of economic depression cannot be ignored just because we said nearly 80 years ago “never again!”.

    So, before we are too critical of those who are trying to steer the global financial system out of this mess, I think we should thank God that one man in a position of considerable power and influence also has the in-depth understanding of economic systems and human behaviour – and the will – necessary to do whatever possible to attempt to stave off a far greater evil.

    Both my parents were born during the Great Depression, and although they were only young, they were marked by that experience for life.  I suspect that most of us (myself included) contributing to this online discussion did not experience how terrible those years really were – especially for the average person.

  6. Hi All,

    Thanks heaps for the feedback. It is one of those constant challenges in writing a blog or preaching or talking to your next door neighbor. When is the right moment to throw your hands in the air and acknowledge the elephant in the room? Yes, we can all see that we live in a broken world. And when is it right to sympathize with the weakness of your neighbor and acknowledge that the pain that is going on is real?

    Chris I really appreciate your point about empathy. I have been thinking in a slightly different context recently about the nature of empathy. One of the things that strikes me about Jesus is that he manages to say incredibly serious and personal and socially awkward things that make real judgements and yet at the same time he has real compassion for people. I guess that we need to keep praying for the same wisdom.

    Can I say thank you to all those who have provided some criticism here about Sola Panel in general. We need to keep listening if we are to serve people well.

    In Christ,
    Paul G.

  7. have just been reading through your posts again, Paul, in preparation for preaching on God and Money at church.

    When you mentioned the freedom the gospel gives to say sorry and how rare it is to hear CEOs say sorry… I reflected, sadly, that I rarely hear denominational leaders, and parachurch organisation leaders say sorry either :-(

Comments are closed.