The Common Good
November 2004

Free People: A Christian Response to Global Economics

by Elizabeth Palmberg | November 2004

One of the big lies of the modern age is that economics is uninteresting.

One of the big lies of the modern age is that economics is uninteresting. In reality, what is boring is the way economists write (Joseph Stiglitz, the Tom Clancy of economic prose, is the one notable exception). In contrast, no one thinks that, say, murder trials are dull just because legal briefs are dry and technical.

What the global church today needs is a book that both demystifies economists’ jargon and clearly points out why Christians should care. Free People: A Christian Response to Global Economics tries both but is most successful at the latter. Its opening chapters on the global economy have all the virtues and failings of an anecdotal account - they convey the suffering of sweatshop workers and displaced farmers, but they sometimes fail to bind into a coherent whole the key topics of liberalization, corporate power, structural adjustment, debt, and trade agreements.

Chapters four through six make up the best part of the book. They provide a concise and challenging overview of biblical views on money, which is an excellent starting place for readers unfamiliar with biblical economics. The chapters lucidly outline the starkly stratified agrarian societies, with an increasingly landless peasantry struggling under taxes to political and religious rulers, in which Old Testament kings and prophets, and later Jesus, lived. Brown, who has a doctorate in New Testament studies, also gives an introduction to Walter Wink’s reading of the powers, with special attention to Mammon as a power.

More experienced readers also will find food for thought, particularly in Brown’s vivid description of Jesus’ call to avoid the idol of financial security. The radical generosity that Jesus asked of his followers, she points out, "was a presumptuous demand for Jesus to make: telling destitute and nearly-destitute peasants to live in a spirit of absolute generosity. He wasn’t merely asking them to give out of their excess. His followers and listeners had little conception of excess. He challenged them to put their very survival on the line...."

BROWN IS NOT as compelling when she addresses questions specific to today’s globalized economy - which demands as tribute not grinding taxes but simple ignorance about who makes the goods those of us in wealthy countries are endlessly urged to consume. The powers of globalization do their crooked best to make it easy to comparison shop, but it is seemingly impossible to find out whether the faraway workers who serve us are paid a living wage. As Brown puts it, "How do I relate in love to my ‘neighbors’ residing on the other side of the globe who make the products before me on the store shelves?"

Brown’s solution, by and large, is for people to publicly stand against and separate themselves from systems of domination. Her chapter on economics in the global north, for example, gives much space to street protests of various trade agreement summits. The final chapter of the book, case studies of "Christian resistance and witness to the powers...in the real world of global economics," focuses mostly on individuals or small communities who have tried to separate themselves from problematic structures by buying local, making things themselves, or going off the electric grid.

It’s a great idea to buy local produce and to contribute to microcredit projects overseas. Still, Free People would be improved by more material about ways in which we can directly challenge the powers - particularly, governments and international institutions - to live up to their God-given vocation of serving humanity. For example, she could expand her brief section on fair trade and include more material about public policy advocacy through means other than street protest.

One risk of Brown’s focus on consumerist refuseniks is that it may make resistance to the powers seem inaccessible, something that works only for people willing to grind their own corn and sew their own clothes. As Brown’s husband says after chopping firewood, "Doing the right thing is hard work!" But doing the right thing is also easy and natural - when you have found or made a community that encourages and accompanies you to take one small, accessible step, and then another. Such a community - a group of friends that meets for Sunday dinner and discussion - helped to inspire Brown to write Free People. This story of freeing community, briefly told in the preface, just may be the book’s best moment of everyday inspiration.

Elizabeth Palmberg is assistant editor of Sojourners.

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