How would God structure an economy? This may be an odd question for a Baptist who believes in the separation of church and state, but it’s a question that I can’t help but ask.
State religion does not have a good history of working out. The monarchies of our Christian past are riddled with violence and economies that produced more revolution than stability. In our modern American experiment, capitalist structures are continuing to create a small economic elite and a large race to the bottom with a disappearing middle class. The communism of China doesn’t offer a better solution, and the communist governments that attempted economic equality produced more dictators than moral examples.
Most arguments that I hear fluctuate between these two models and don’t pay much attention to more socialist models. What all of these have in common, however, is that they are completely secular experiences. America, as far as I know, was the first country in the world that was founded without an official state religion. I may be wrong on this, so my politico-historical friends can give me alternate examples. Communism, based mostly on Marxist principles, denies religion a legitimate social function for the most part, so there is no attempt at a theologically based economy. So, neither American capitalism, nor global capitalism for that matter, nor communism attempt to formulate an economy based on theological principles (and I’m not arguing that they should).
I am just raising the question: how would God structure an economy? Or maybe there’s an even more pointed question I have in mind: Does God promote economic equality?
While I live right in the middle of the financial capital of the world, I am from the poorest region in America. It is an interesting perspective to be among the financial gurus that lead hedge funds and investment banking entities. I’ve learned a lot here about leadership, trust and business; but the contrast between Fairfield County, Conn., and the Mississippi Delta cannot be exaggerated. It is hard to believe that these two places exist in the same country.
The contrast is a perfect example of capitalism at work in America. While the North American Free Trade Act was a boon to business leaders and owners, it completely decimated the fragile economy of the greater Mississippi Delta, which includes Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. In Mississippi alone, it is estimated that there was a loss of nearly 30,000 jobs due to factories closing and moving to other countries that had cheaper labor. Both factories that employed my mother and father closed and moved to Mexico. This may have provided jobs in parts of Mexico, but it looks like NAFTA hasn’t worked out so well for Mexico either.
When I go home, the devastated economy of the Mississippi Delta looks like the refuse of capitalism. There are hard working people in Mississippi that work their fingers to the bone and can’t pay all their bills. This is not because they are lazy; it’s because they live in a system that does not favor them. When I see this, I do not see the Kingdom of God. I cannot believe that this is an economy that God would endorse. I cannot believe that God would structure such an economy.
It’s is hard to look at communism as a good alternative. I may be too steeped in anti-Russian propaganda all my life as a child of the Cold War, but it’s hard to miss the failure of communism. I was talking about the ideals of communism with a friend who worked for a major Fortune 100 company, and he said, correctly, if the ideals don’t work, there’s something wrong with the ideals.
This has always tempered my Marxian drive. Other friends of mine who escaped Hungary before the fall of the Iron Curtain ensure me that the utopia of communism wasn’t as utopic as described. Life with food rations was not easy, and an economy that squashed the human spirit did more harm than good. This is an unavoidable truth about the failure of communism beyond the anti-religious sentiment deep in the heart of it.
As I write this, I am reminded of a Methodist pastor friend from Argentina who was abducted by the government and tortured for four months because he was a revolutionary. He said his favorite picture was his young daughter holding a picture of Che Guevara in one hand and the Bible in the other. He suffered for his beliefs, but overall, communism has failed to produce any high level humanitarian successes — as far as I can tell.
Is there a useful utopia? Is there a better way? I am really trying to think this through and put into practice the ideas that come to mind while seriously seeking alternatives that are popping up around the world — usually in micro enterprises. Working in rural poverty/development over the past 15 years I have been amazed at people’s ingenuity. How they can figure out a way forward through all the muck that life throws at them? In the poorest communities that I’ve visited, there is a deep-seated hope that there is a better way and that God has not abandoned them to destitution. This is one reason why the prosperity gospel tends to be so popular among the poor. They all agree: Of course God wants something better than this for us.
I’m certainly no proponent of the prosperity gospel, but I absolutely believe that God wants something better for us than this. I’m doing my best to pay close attention to the good people in our world that are working hard on what “this” may be. In fact, I’m working with them. God loves all of us too much for so many to live in destitution. God doesn’t want children going hungry or parents working to death to make sure their kids don’t go hungry. I believe God loves us too much for that, so I continue to seek new ways we can order our economy so that it may reflect the best of the Kingdom of God.