By Dr. Arleen Westerhof
There can be no doubt that one of the major roots of the current economic crisis is that we have a crisis of the heart. Jesus said, “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit.” What is in our hearts determines what and how we think. These, in turn, determine our actions. The global economic crisis that we are now in is therefore only a symptom of something deeper. It indicates that we have a crisis of values and a crisis of the heart.
In order to change things we must be willing to see things as they are and not as we would like them to be. The people who made the decisions that got us into this crisis were, by and large, not bad people who got up in the morning intent on doing evil. Many of them were just normal people doing the best they could under the circumstances with what they believed to be true. The problem was that what they believed to be true was incorrect. The moral compasses of Christians and non-Christians alike failed them. What should we learn from this?
1. Repairing the current system will not work.
We should not underestimate the power of the current system to lead good people into making bad choices. Making minor changes or repairs to the system will not solve the problem since the foundations upon which the current system is built – unbridled greed, the invisible hand and self-interest – are destructive to the healthy functioning of society. We need a new system based on values that have been proven to be able to sustain social cohesion and prosperity for the many and not just for the few. History has shown that the Bible gives us a good and practical paradigm with which to accomplish this. We therefore need to start thinking seriously about what the Bible says about economics. As we do it is helpful to ask ourselves the question, “If Jesus were an economist today, what would that look like?”
2. We need to take seriously the Biblical mandates to have dominion (in Genesis 1:26-28) and to disciple nations (Matthew 28: 18-20).
We are called not just to go into all corners of the world geographically, but also to go into all corners of the world socially, culturally, politically and economically. We are called to engage in the different spheres of human activity and to disciple them. Taking dominion means to serve by using our influence for good and discipling the spheres means that we work to help them to fulfill their God given purposes.
Why did the moral compasses of so many Christians in the field of economics and finance fail? It is because our churches have disconnected themselves from these areas. They were not taught what it means to have a Biblical world view of economics. This became very clear to me at a recent meeting aimed at stimulating thought and discussion among church leaders and theologians about what the Christian response should be to the economic crisis. The only person who proposed engaging with the problem and trying to solve it was booed. The theologian who advocated protesting and warned against engaging got a standing ovation. We have to change the way we think. Christians are supposed to be problem-solvers.
The purpose of economics and business
Economics and business enable us to generate and share wealth, both for our own benefit and for the benefit of our communities. God does not separate the spiritual from the physical and when each sphere fulfills its purpose it contributes to the common good. Therefore business, done with integrity, needs no added ingredient before it can make a positive contribution to the Kingdom of God on earth. Likewise government, when it creates conditions for peace and justice, is fulfilling God’s purposes.
Challenges and opportunities
Both now and in the future we will have some challenges, but also some opportunities.
Even though there is a long way still to go, poverty is being reduced globally. Why? Mainly because business is creating new opportunities and new jobs, and therefore more wealth. This is happening on all continents, eg. China. The opening up of the economy to private enterprise, in exchange for on-going social by the government, has been largely responsible for China becoming the economic powerhouse that it is today.
A changing political map
We are now living in a multipolar world. In the past the USA and Russia (and Europe to some degree) dominated the global political scene. That has now changed and it is causing significant discomfort to those, who in relative terms, are losing influence. Democracy is also beginning to struggle in the west as the political debate becomes increasingly polarized.
Power of business increasing
The number of mega-businesses is increasing. Shareholders are continuing to make profits, but wages remain stagnant and no one is paying for the damage that we are doing to the environment. Communities and families are struggling. While governments are legally obligated to use their power for the benefit of society, businesses are not. This situation will have to be addressed in the future.
There is a big difference between the ways economies are working in the west and in the east. Asia is not spending the money it is making. Instead, it is lending it to the west. And the west is borrowing money (from Asia) to satisfy consumer demand. When you lend money you transfer power from borrower to lender.
The West is aging, but the emerging economies are full of young people and it is they who generally produce the most wealth. Urbanization will continue and rural areas will continue to grow poorer.
With all of these challenges what should our response be? Firstly, we need to remember that the dominant reality in all of history is God’s guiding hand. Our Lord is the defining agent in history. It is always tempting to think that government and business are the two most important factors shaping the world today. They are not! Secondly, the current crisis, the challenges we face in the future and continuing natural disasters will bring huge amounts of stress, anxiety and hardship for hundreds of millions of people. This will add to the hundreds of millions who are already suffering from disease, poverty and war.
Loving our neighbor as ourselves demands that we try to shape the world pro-actively and do our best to co-create a better future together with God. We do this by shaping nations, their institutions, beliefs, cultures and behaviors. As we engage we will start to be able to more fully display in practice what it means to “love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength” and to “love our neighbor as ourselves”.