Saturday, 30 April 2011

Conservatism and Economic Theory

How does conservatism and economic theory mix? I am going to argue that it is because of conservative views of economics that we struggle to redress the problems caused in the recent recession. As I write this, I have in mind Albert Einstein's quotes “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” and “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” We will make mistakes in searching for solutions to today's problems but we must not assume that because we make mistakes, we must go back to the old way of doing things. We must learn from our mistakes on move on. As Thomas Edison said “Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do in the first place doesn't mean it's useless ... . If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is just one more step forward.” We must have the courage to look for new alternatives that will address the problems that exist and bring the balance required between all the requirements of this world.

My thoughts here are influenced by three readings. From Gibson's (1985) commentary on Job, I am encouraged to think about the problems of conservative thought that influence our thinking and our assumptions about what makes a sound economy. From Daly and Cobb (1989) and Seers (1983) I am encouraged to think about how we might analyse the nature of an economic theory.

Starting with Gibson's commentary on Job 8 where Bildad presents a conservative or traditional argument on suffering. The foundation for this argument is that “God rewards the good and punishes the bad” (p 71). Job who had led an exemplary life and reaped the rewards now finds himself bereft of his wealth and his health in decline. His three friends struggle for words to encourage him. Bildad takes up his discourse by encouraging Job to repent before it is too late and seek the grace of God.

Gibson implies that we no longer support this view and maybe this is tru when it comes to natural disasters. However, the prosperity gospel still carries a lot of weight in some places. However, it isn't whether this belief still holds force that concerns me although it does underline my thoughts. Our society may accept that the good do suffer without deserving to and that the bad do prosper but I contend that we judge systems good or bad based on the rewards that they give us.

Capitalism must be good despite the current recession because nations operating under capitalism (and democracy) have tended to prosper. Communism with the possible exception of China has failed and is therefore bad. Since capitalism is good, all economic systems should embrace capitalism and we should not seek to challenge the fundamental mechanisms on which it operates. Although we see the current crisis, we will not look for new ways to solve the problem but apply austerity measures that operate within the rules defined by our capitalist economic systems. We are attempting to solve the problem with the same thinking that brought us to this problem state.

Daly and Cobb (1989) discuss a mechanism for assessing the nature of an economic system. They base their proposal on by Seers (1983). They contend that people primarily locate economic systems on a scale from left (socialist) to right (conservative). Seers modifies that by labelling the horizontal scale as egalitarian to anti-egalitarian and adds a vertical scale with anti-nationalist at the top and nationalist at the bottom. The top left corner (egalitarian and anti-nationalist) is Marxists socialists and the bottom right (anti-egalitarian and nationalists) is traditional conservatives. The top right (anti-egalitarian and anti-nationalist) is neoclassical liberals. The bottom left (egalitarian and nationalist) is dependency theorists, populists, and neo-Marxists. Daly and Cobb would prefer the vertical axis to be labelled communitarian and anticommunitarian but do accept that “nations are a desirable form of community” (p 9). They argue that the socialist – capitalist divide has its origins in the development of industrialism based on the ready supply of the necessary raw materials.

Daly and Cobb say “capitalism consists of private ownership of the means of production” (p 13). Socialism in contrast “is defined by government ownership of the means of production with allocation and distribution by central planning” (p 13).

Although Daly and Cobb say they favour private ownership with “the widest possible participation in that ownership” (p 14), they support “decentralization of political and economic power, worker ownership of factories or participation in their management, and the subordination of the economy to social goals, democratically defined” (p 15). They see this as “fresh thinking about the possibilities of human life in community” (p 15).

I wonder where Douglas' (1983) Economic Democracy would fall. One of his principles is that all “natural resources are common property” (p 110). This does not mean collective or communal. He is also concerned that the distributed purchasing power makes it possible to purchase all of production and that the creation of credit is the prerogative of the government and not the banks.

There is also another system that I would like to evaluate. This is what I have been calling shalom economics. The emphasis of shalom is wholeness and peace. In a shalom economy, the focus would be on ensuring needs are meet and that “all things” are able to prosper. It would involve a looking to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). Does this fit within the dimensions that Cobb and Daly describe. It certainly has a community focus but it is wider than human community but it isn't based on government or individual ownership. It possibly echoes more Douglas' concept of common property.

It seems that the question that we should be asking is what makes a system good? Is it the freedom that it gives people? Is it meeting the needs that exist in our world? We cannot judge goodness by prosperity or endurance. Such measures ignore those who struggle and the destruction that the charge to prosperity causes. Our base for goodness has to come from an understanding of shalom (peace, fullness, wholeness). Shalom economics therefore requires a focus on 'meeting basic needs,' establishing justice, and maintaining integrity. This isn't just for people but for all of the cosmos.

Reference

Gibson, John C.L. (1985) Job, Edinburgh, The Saint Andrew Press.

Daly, H. E., & Cobb Jr., J. B. (1989). For the common good: Redirecting the economy towards community, the environment and a sustainable future. London: Green Print.

Douglas, C. H. (1974). Economic democracy. Epsom, Surrey: Bloomfield Publishers.

Seers, Dudly. (1983) The Political Economy of Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friday, 29 April 2011

All Things

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether they are kings, lords, rulers, or powers. All things have been created through him and for him. He himself existed before all things, and by him all things hold together. He is also the head of the body, which is the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he himself might have first place in everything. For God was pleased to have all of his fullness live in him. Through him he also reconciled all things to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, thus making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20 (ISV)).

This passage places emphasis on God creating, maintaining and reconciling all things (Anvil Trust 2010, p 42) . Yes, the passage does talk of people as being the "image of the invisible God" and "the first born of all creation" but it is the repetition of "all things" that stands out. Other biblical passages also talk of "all things." We easily translate this to mean all people rather than all creation. These passages talk of God creating “all things” (John 1:3, Romans 11:36, Ephesians 3:9, Revelations 4:11), reconciling or restoring “all things” (Matthew 17:11, Mark 9:12), or “making all thing new” (2 Corinthians 5:17, Revelations 21:5). This Colossians passage emphasises God creating “all things”and concludes by saying “all things” will be reconciled to him. How can “all things” mean all that he created and then mean just people. God wishes to bring “all things” (i.e. all that he created) to its full potential. We need to be working for this purpose as well.

This emphasis on the inclusion of nature is also argued from the perspective of Jesus' teaching through the parables being "filled with images of nature." There is "an inward affinity between the natural order and the spiritual order" (p 42). There is the contrast between "the trust of birds and plants with the anxiety of humans (Mt 6:26-30)", "God's care and sustaining love for creation; the fragile life of sparrows rest in God's tenderness (Mt 10:29)" (p 42). Jesus saw God's hand at work in all of creation and he treated it with gentleness and yet robustly. This is further emphasised by seeing every healing miracle redress the balance of nature (p 43). This last point raises the issue of whether illness and many of our human problems come from the imbalance caused by our activities in nature.

The notes quote Richard Bauckham who observes that "The animals are treated neither as subjects nor as domestic servants... Jesus does not terrorise or dominate the wild animals, he does not domesticate them, nor does he even make pets of them... [He] lets them be themselves in peace, leaving them in the wilderness affirming them as creatures who share the world with us in the community of God's creation" (p 44). If we stopped seeing things as items to be used but rather as things created by God then we would be more careful with creation. Nothing would be treated as of little value.

This section ends by noting that "the eastern Orthodox tradition" sees Jesus as "the one who by his life sanctified all matter, and through his death and resurrection carries the whole creation up to God" (p 45).

In contrast, western culture and economics uses and destroys. It lacks values related to nature and matter. Through endeavouring to place value, we have lost sight of the unity that we share with all matter. I am drawn to think again of Asimov's novel and the planet that saw all life as equal. When we stop asking about value or cost and start seeing as essential and give equal status then we will give back all of creation, its true value.

Reference

Peace & Power: Being vocal, political and spiritual. (2010). Workshop - because faith is a journey. Course Notes. Anvil Trust.

The Questions of Job

According to Gibson (1985), Job asks God to answer three questions (Job 7). These questions are asked in the context of seeing the human condition as one of being a “conscripted soldier” or “hired slave.” In Genesis 3:17-18, man is told that he will have to toil for his food and battle to hold back the weeds. Yet I ask whether the enslavement of our system to work is what God really intended when he made that statement?

Through our economic mechanisms and personal greed, humans have sought to break free of the basic struggle for survival through enslaving animals and their fellow humans. The economic system is designed to enslave rather than set free.

If we truly believed in God's kingdom coming then we need to understand the nature of that kingdom, a shalom kingdom. In that kingdom, all needs would be meet and we would bow freely to worship before God and experience the blessings of his kingship. Any work performed would be done so with joy and enthusiasm and not by compulsion or need.

Here is the dilemma that we have as we seek to bring God's kingdom here on earth. We need to change from protecting what we claim as ours to seeking how to ensure that the needs of all are satisfied. We belong to the earth and not the earth to us. God's kingdom is about sharing, satisfying needs, and not about claiming for self. Are we prepared for such a change?

From the perspective of being conscripted by God, Job asks his questions. Does God see him as a threat that God needs to act to ensure that Job does not destroy God's creation? The answer for Job is 'No' but the answer for our human society is 'Yes.' Humans threaten the destruction and balance of this planet and the pollution of the solar system. We have taken for our own use and not considered the cost to other creatures of God's creation. We are the only creatures who wilfully destroy the habitats of others and our own kind for our own advancement. Our destruction threatens the balance of life on the planet and if we spread into the solar system, the balance of that system as well.

The answer Job sought may be 'No' but for humanity the answer is 'Yes,' we need to be reined in so that we do not destroy what God has created through our focus on self.

Job's second question asks whether humanity os significant enough that God should bother with us at all? What is puny man capable of that would threaten God's plan? Gibson answers this with 'Yes, he is as puny as that' but is he really? Man with his weapons is capable of destroying this planet many times over. Isn't this a very real threat to the created order? Yet blindly political leaders blunder on some how believing that more destructive power will put them in a greater position to control violence.

Do they not see Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya? Military might is nothing. Even if it could be targeted directly at the leaders whom the west seeks to remove, it doesn't remove the violent opposition and oppression of people. Do they not see the oppression brought on their own people made by their devotion to an economic and political system that seeks to enslave rather than set free?

Finally, Job asks whether if he had sinned does this harm God? Shouldn't God just forgive and let man alone? Humanity has sinned and continues to sin. If left to itself, humanity would destroy itself. Should God not act to bring an end to humanities attempts to enslave creation and to destroy all that has been created? Does God need to act when we bring such destruction upon ourselves? The problem is that it isn't those who bring the suffering who are brought to suffer but if God directly targeted those leading the destruction and enslaving who would be left?

Humanity seems incapable of seeing an alternative way without the input of a loving God. The problem is so many want to ignore him and claim that he is irrelevant.

Reference

John C.L. Gibson (1985) Job, Edinburgh, The Saint Andrew Press.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Wisdom and Revelation

Today, Christians celebrate Jesus' resurrection. Friends in New Zealand had already posted in Facebook “Jesus is risen” or “Christ is risen.” My response is partly “So what?” Not because I speak in disbelief but because like Keith Green, I want to say “Christ is risen from the dead but we can't even get out of bed.” What is the point of celebrating his resurrection if it makes no difference to the way that we live and work. Life will go on tomorrow as it did yesterday. This celebration will come again and make little difference unless we wake up to Christ's message to us and we begin to live it out on a daily basis. Christ rose from the dead and we need to stand up and live out his life amongst men.

I don't mean that we preach sin, repentance, and salvation but we live out “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We are Christ to this world; the shalom activist, who brings justice, peace, and equality to all of creation. Like Jesus, we bring release to captives (Luke 4:18), peace to the society (Matthew 5:9), and a challenge to the powerful. We need to be preaching new ways of living that are based on the Kingdom of God being in existence now and not simply calling for repentance and future salvation.

Behind this call lies the same tension as that is revealed in Job 4:12-21. How much of our call is based on the wisdom tradition and how much on revelation? God gives us insight to see things in a new way and through Jesus' resurrection to see that he is not bounded by the perceived rules of this world. If death could not hold him captive then why should we be held captive by human wisdom and rules. We need to break free of the shackles and learn to put God's way ahead of human created rules.

Gibson (1985) in his commentary on Job talks of how the wisdom movement “studied and deduced and observed, and did not need. Or so it thought, to look for guidance from on high” (p 39). Yet, as Gibson goes on to point out, revelation from God wasn't something just for the New Testament. Revelation played an important part in Israel's history. But it isn't revelation alone. Combined with revelation is careful study and a seeking of understanding.

The question is which takes precedence? Do we depend more on wisdom (study, deductions, and observation – I add peer review and critical evaluation) or do we allow revelation to guide our search for wisdom? I contend that in our search for wisdom, we can constrain our thoughts too much to what already exists and forget that we should be challenging existing wisdom.

My thoughts on this frequently come back to economics and the current recession. We will not solve the economic problems by holding fast to the current economic rules. I contend that we need to break the rules that create credit through the introduction of debt. However, credit cannot be created without limitations.

Governments need to use new measures to assess government spending and income. The way of filling the gap needs to be debt free credit but not an endless supply. The limit needs to be based on something other than desire. I contend that this has to be need, real need and not artificial need created by marketing campaigns and building for redundancy or waste.

Just to reinforce this last point, a digital camera is replaced by a new model every year (I brought my Canon EOS 300D on 2004 and since then there have been five new models). The iPhone and iPad have new releases annually. Our society seeks to upgrade with each new release but fails to ask what happens to the redundant models. We generate waste rather than meet genuine need.

We need to refocus our fundamental wisdom if we are to resolve this world's problems. Revelation and wisdom need to work together.

Reference

John C.L. Gibson (1985) Job, Edinburgh, The Saint Andrew Press.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Ecological Crisis

Having looked at Chief Seattle's response to the US government's attempt to buy the native American land, the Workshop notes looked at what has led to the ecological crisis (Anvil Trust 2010, pp 39-41). The author argues that the primary root is in western culture that is seen as being shaped by the Christian church.

Lyn White is quoted as saying that Christianity has "established a dualism on man and nature" and taught "that it is God's will that man exploit nature" (p 39). The implication is that in Christianity humanity is seen as unique and different from all of nature and that everything else in creation is there for the benefit of humanity. It is contended that in Christian theology, nature or the "natural world" had moved from being a mystery to "becoming a laboratory" (p 39).

People have taken centre stage and nature has been excluded. "God is the God of history rather than the Lord of creation" (p 39). It isn't simply that "God is the God of history" rather it is that God is seen as the future redeemer. God's kingdom isn't seen as something that exists now but something that will come into being in the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. As we begin to understand more God's desire for his kingdom to exist now, we begin to value nature and creation more.

The notes contend that "primal communities ... name things with a sense of sensitive respect and honour" while western culture claims and names based on control and prestige (p 40). The notes provide contrasts between names given by primal people (i.e. New Zealand' "Aoraki" - 'the cloud piercer') and the name given by western explorers / settlers (i.e. Mount Cook - the name of the British explorer Captain James Cook). The name that describes is replaced by a name the claims dominion or ownership.

It is argued that this is in complete contrast or opposition to scriptural teaching where creation is God's work that he sees as 'very good' and where God is the sustainer of all life.

The notes don't deny the influence of European 'Christendom' thinking as a major contributor to the development of 'secular materialism' (p 41). "The Enlightenment thinking and the rise of science laid the foundations for industrialization and secularism that are at the root of the crisis" (p 41). Like economic thought, it is our fundamental beliefs and thought patterns that determine how we view creation and how we treat others. Being pulled out of nature and placed in laboratories and offices, we lose that awe and respect for nature. However, I believe that in God's created order, nature fights back for its own survival. We see this through weather patterns, earthquakes, and the way that plants grow amongst uncared for buildings. I look at how plants are growing through the paving of our drive and at the back of the property, and I recognise how difficult it is to force our will on the natural order.

The notes argue for "a creation-sensitive theology" that sees the gospel as good news that proclaims the liberation and fulfilment of the whole creation" (p 41).

Reference

Peace & Power: Being vocal, political and spiritual. (2010). Workshop - because faith is a journey. Course Notes. Anvil Trust.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Ecology

What would happen if man considered all life as precious as human life? The answer is reflected in the efforts to save stranded whales by refloating them but is that really considering all life as precious? A New Zealand friend says that the whales are telling us to stop eating their food (Kai). Her argument is simple. The whales strand themselves because they have a food shortage. That shortage is caused by us over fishing their feeding grounds. If we really considered the lives of the whales precious, we would think more about what we do to the environment.

The rhythm of life involves life and death that includes for all humans. Why do we try to extend life at all cost rather than seek balance? In the "Peace & Power" notes (Anvil Trust 2010), James Lovelock is said to have made the assessment that "20% of humanity will make it beyond 2100" (p 36). Is this the reality of seeking balance as much as reality of having exploited creation? Can the earth and the universe (all of creation) sustain the increase in human population?

My economic thinking questions our unrelenting drive for progress. Ecological thinking also needs to question this same unrelenting drive.

The notes talk of ecology as "the study of plant and animal systems in relationship to their environment; with particular emphasis on the interrelationship and interdependence between different life forms" (p 35). The notes argue that "we are part of a delicate 'ball of life' in which everything is connected" (p 35). Here is my friend's interdependence. We take the whales food and they seek to die for lack of food. Humanity doesn't have the insight to see that placing its own existence ahead of the existence of other species is killing the planet.

The notes contend that to study ecology means encountering spirituality (p 35). They are linked and the understanding of shalom as "the wholeness, intergratedness and harmony of all things rooted in the creative and sustaining power of God" (p 35) echoes ecological thinking.

A Native American chief Seatle responding "to the US government's desire to buy their traditional lands" makes a number of telling remarks (pp 37-39). He says "If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?" (p 37). "This we know: the earth does not belong to people; people belong to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood that unites one family. All things are connected, Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth. A human individual did not weave the web of life; they are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves" (p 38).

The chief goes on to talk of not being able to own God, the Creator and that through our desire to own everything, we are in danger of extinction. He says "Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste" (p 38). The quoted passage ends "The end of living and the beginning of survival... One thing we know, our God is the same God. The earth is precious to him. Even the white people cannot be exempt from the common destiny" (p 39).

We cannot escape from our own failure to retain the balance of our world. The more we regard ourselves as superior, the more we put ourselves in danger. Yet we continue the drive to promote an economic system that exploits the planet and other people.

Reference

Peace & Power: Being vocal, political and spiritual. (2010). Workshop - because faith is a journey. Course Notes. Anvil Trust.