On sin and economics

By , 30 January 2009 6:57 pm

I was advising a student this week about potential university subjects. Normally I stay within my own science specialisation but somehow she had ended up in my tutor group despite her geography, sociology and economics A-levels. I realised I found it astonishingly hard to be positive about economics in the present climate. ‘It doesn’t seem to work’, I said, and she nodded with sad agreement. But were we being unfair to economics? Or were we simply asking too much of it?

It is interesting isn’t it, how hard it is to know whether the present appalling economic crisis is due to bad economic theory or bad economic practice. I suspect the problem is a combination of both. I remain unconvinced that we have a full understanding of the way a global economic system works. (If we do, why were there not greater warnings of disaster ahead?) I am definitely not convinced that we had enough safeguards to stop greed and corruption taking over. There seems little doubt now that we have sown not just the wind but a variety of winds and are now reaping the perfect whirlwind. Why did it happen?

I think that our churches must take some responsibility. It may not be attractive but I think it is our duty to repeatedly labour the fact – so basic to the Gospel – that human beings are sinful; that even the best of us find power so corruptive that we need the most rigorous safeguards to prevent abuse. Of course, such a message, even coupled with redemptive grace – is appallingly unattractive. But the fact of the matter is that good breeding and good education are utterly inadequate to give any protection against financial abuse. In fact, as we have always known, education merely makes for a smarter class of sinner. I used to work for a university which could easily have boasted that it had educated more Lebanese warlords than any other academic institution.

Anyway, it is to be hoped that the economic downturn is brief and it is equally to be hoped that we learn our lessons from it and institute global checks and balances that prevent the greed of a few producing the misery of the many. But I trust that I’m not being unduly pessimistic when I say that unless our churches preach more boldly the fallen and sinful nature of man I have doubts about the outcome.

Still let us rejoice. The exchange rate of the Bank of Heaven is unaltered and our investments there are utterly unshaken. That leads me to a final and more upbeat thought: maybe we need also to preach more, not just about sin but also about heaven.

Have a good week.

3 Responses to “On sin and economics”

  1. Catherine Brislee says:

    Hello Chris,

    I must say I find this whole crisis horribly fascinating, but I’m very cynical about the Churches preaching the sinfulness of man at this point. Do you hear anyone saying “it’s all my fault – I was too greedy!”? No – everyone is looking for someone else to blame.

    And by the way, there were warnings from a few brave people. I refer you to ‘The Grip of Death: a study of modern money, debt slavery and destructive economics’ by Michael Bowbotham, published in 1998. He explained it all and gave very clear warnings 10 years ago!

    But I guess you are right. It’s not about systems going wrong – it’s just basic human nature out of control again. And we are all part of it. I’m fascinated by systems. I love the idea of a world economic system that works. But there’s never going to be one.

    (On a lighter note, I still have questions about how the Assembly of Worlds ran their economy:)

  2. Boaz says:

    Perhaps it is a state of our fallen nature, but I’m of the opinion that some small measure of selfishness or greed ends up being a benefit. After all, the entire concept of trade is due to people being better off after the trade than before. This leads to specialization and innovation as the rewards for those activities are greater than the costs. Because of this, and because mankind is generally selfish, I think capitalism does a better job than other models of providing a foundation for economic understanding.

    However….it is best understood with many simplifying and idealizing assumptions (like all social sciences and even some hard sciences…does the same thing hold in geology)? Some of these are: perfect information (everyone knows everything for free), no transaction costs (no fees, taxes, surcharges, etc.), and that people are rational in their decisions (this last assumption is used to find out what people actually think is more important based on how they act). So all of the laws and regulations take us further from the ideal form of capitalistic economics, but into the real world.

    Further, neither laws that impact the economy nor economic policy are generally written by those who have an understanding of economics such as we can have. For instance here in the States is a law set to go into effect on February 10th that requires many new tests on materials and finished products of each line of childrens’ goods produced in response to quality control failures in some large companies. The net result is to cause the large companies to drop some of their lines which are now too expensive to produce (which is a minor inconvenience at worst to them), while putting many small businesses (like a dollmaker who custom-makes each doll uniquely) under. So the net result is completely different from what the stated intentions of the law were. When you get into labyrinthine tax codes that not even the Chair of the Tax Committee or the new Secretary of the Treasury understand (which is their defense as to why they filed massively incorrect tax returns for years), opaque banking regulations, corruption among officials that is either overt (in many third world countries) or covert (in most of the industrialized world), then it is decidedly messy, and most of the time we don’t even know where to get the information we need to make sense of it all.

    And Catherine: regarding the Assembly economy, I would suggest that they essentially ran a voluntary commune as the early church did in Acts. And a commune that actually works as intended can only come about through divine working in my opinion. I wonder though where the stipend goes…who makes things for sale like the gifts or services the stipend purchases, and if some people save it…if a saved stipend could be transferred as an inheritance…this sounds like a topic for the fan group. [And this capitalist has no problem with a voluntary commune (as opposed to one that coerces people to join and participate) since the people involved are doing with their own property what they wish.]

    Blessings to all,

  3. bdwlf says:

    Boaz, as you have mentioned the communal nature of the infant Church, I think it is interesting to note that not many years later, the Church found itself persecuted and eventually scattered throughout the Empire, and beyond — taking their faith with them. It brings to mind Jesus’ instructions to “go.” While voluntary charity and community should be synonymous with the Christian moniker, I have to wonder if the early Church went too far? Did God find it necessary to nudge the Church out of its nest? Perhaps the Church was beginning to focus inwardly too much and risked loosing it’s evangelistic nature. This is what has happened to groups like the Hutterites and Old Order Amish, who feel that their best Christian witness is by building a “fence” to keep the world out, rather than engaging the world as salt and light.
    Please advise if you feel I am in error, but I haven’t found Scriptural evidence that the communal lifestyle was an explicit, divine instruction. That begs the question of whether is was a God idea, or a man idea. Or most likely, a divine concept that man dogmatized to the exclusion of other contradictory instructions (i.e. “go”).

    Anyway, my prayer is that in “fixing” this mess the world is in, we don’t go too far. And if we do…than maybe Pre-Trib theology doesn’t sound so bad…

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