The Common Good

Smashing Economic Idols

So I've been having a few interesting conversations about my book Everyday Justice recently. I was being interviewed for a very conservative Christian talk radio show, and when I mentioned that a simple way to define biblical justice was "the practical outworking of loving God and loving others" I was told that I need to be careful about encouraging people to love their neighbor because that could lead to socialism.

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In the soundbite world of talk radio, there wasn't a chance to challenge that assertion, so I changed tactics and tried to talk about the need for Christians to embrace the spiritual discipline of simplicity and not be overcome by consumerism. Once again I was contradicted by the host who told me that I shouldn't suggest that people stop or lower their consumption because it is our duty to support the economy by buying stuff. At that point I realized that we were on totally different planets. I civilly made my way through the rest of the interview trying to speak a language he might understand, and then choose not to listen for the next hour as he proceeded to tear apart everything I said.

I'm fine with people disagreeing with me or not liking the book. I get that. But his mindset reminded me of the economic idolatry that has crept into our faith. More and more I find Christians who, instead of letting their faith influence their economics, interpret their faith through their preferred economic system. I've had to listen to sermons where the pastor went off on how capitalism was the only biblical economic system. I've read the books where the guys say stuff like "because the Bible doesn't talk much about economics we need to bring economics to the Bible." I've encountered those who play the "socialism" card at the first sign of any critique of capitalism. And I've heard those claiming that economics are absolute, we can't change the market so we shouldn't bother trying even for good biblical reasons.

I get that it's complicated. I get that we like to have our pet philosophies. I get that socialism can be evil, too. But none of that excuses making economics into an idol. When our economic theory leads us to make excuses for the oppression of workers, we have a problem. When modern-day slavery is justified as being "just the way the market works," we have a problem. When making a profit becomes more important than the dignity of human beings, we have a problem. When the words of Jesus Christ are dismissed because they might support an alternate economic system, we have a problem. It is as simple as that. When our allegiance to an economic system has us making excuses for injustices, that economic system has become an idol. And idols need to be torn down.

I'm a capitalist. I'm not anti-globalisation. I don't have any problem with people making money or looking out for their own interests. I don't think communism or forced socialism are better systems. But there comes a point when we have to say to a system that oppresses -- this is wrong and must be changed. This is difficult if not impossible if we have allowed economic theory to become an idol and usurp our faith. We need to be able to "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." (Colossians 2:8) Loving God and loving others has to come before Wall Street or Adam Smith -- there's no way around it.

So as inspiration to smash the idols that need smashing, I want to include the following verse. Brian Walsh, co-author of Colossians Remixed, recently posted a targum of Romans 1:16-32 over at the Empire Remixed blog. A targum is a means of interpreting scripture by rewriting it for a particular cultural setting. Traditionally a Hebrew practice, some use the practice today to apply the Bible to contemporary life. This Romans 1 targum addresses this tendency to make idols of economic systems. I highly recommend reading the entire piece, but I wanted to highlight this short section:

So here's the sad truth, my friends:
this empire of greed,
this narrative of economic growth,
this whole house of cards is based on lies and deception.
This whole culture of consumption,
this whole empire of money,
is based on self-willed ignorance.

Creation proclaims a better way
because creation bears witness to a God of grace.
But we have suppressed this truth,
engaged in denial and cover-up.

Refusing to live a life of gratitude,
refusing to live a life of thanks to the God
who called forth such a rich creation,
refusing to honour this Creator God,
and embracing a culture of entitlement and ingratitude,
we abandoned the God of light and embraced the dark.

And in all of our complex theories
in all of our sophisticated and incomprehensible economic talk,
we became futile in our thinking
we ended up with lots of talk but no sense,
theories that are empty,
vanity of vanities.

And we thought that we were so wise,
we thought that we had it all figured out,
but the joke has been on us,
and it is now clear that we have been fools.

You see, that's what happens when you get in bed with idols.
That's what happens when you don't image God in faithful justice,
but embrace graven images,
cheap imitations,
that look so good,
look so powerful,
but will always fail you,
will always come up short
because they are impotent.

Empty idols, empty minds.
Dumb idols, lives of foolishness.
Betrayal and disappointment.
Fear and terror.

Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.

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