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Responding to an Economic Crisis as Church

April 15, 2010

Over a year ago I wrote about the church’s response to the economic crisis and the need to consider what our  ‘real assets’ were. That was before I started blogging and I haven’t posted it here, so here ’tis….

Just prior to the credit crash John Naish published a book entitled Enough: Breaking Free from the World of Excess. In his chapter on ‘Enough Growth’ he argues that the much publicised need to limit economic growth for the sake of a sustainable future is hampered by the way our brains operate mimetically. We do not operate rationally as homo sapiens or even homo economicus, but are driven by a kind of mimetic herd mentality and a insatiable drive for more such that we are better characterised as homo expetens (wanting man). This he sees as a kind of lower brain function which dominates in times of insecurity (like an economic crisis). Naish’s solution to the problem of economic sustainability prior to the crash was not to give up on the rational and spiritual possibilities entirely, but to focus on realistically harnessing the herd instinct in support of a sustainable ‘enoughism’ – creating a snobbery of trendy sustainability (‘an unspoken belief that nice, well-educated, caring people recycle and go to farmers markets. Nasty ignorant common folk don’t.’[1]) This, he thought, was not ideal, but the urgency of the situation called for it as part of the solution.

Maybe, thought Naish, this movement for sustainability would become so trendy that the bubble of unsustainable growth would burst and a new era of ‘enoughism’ would be born. With this in mind he went in search of economics experts who would offer him a model of what economic life might be like in that new era. He searched in vain. No one was addressing the issue of a model. However everyone pointed him in the direction of Tim Jackson at Surrey University (Professor of Sustainable Development). Jackson was sceptical about Naish’s view of how to get there, but their discussion of the issue of a model is very instructive. I will quote from Naish’s book

But what if we were to wave a magic wand, so that one morning we woke to find that suddenly everyone in Britain was living a personally and planetarily sustainable existence? Jackson is disarmingly frank ‘This is the hardest question of all. I’ve just raised this at our commission and was told by a Treasury official that switching to true sustainable development might mean that we have to go back to living in caves’ he says. ‘The government has a split personality on this. It keeps telling people to get out of their cars and consume less. But it would be up the creek without a paddle if everyone did. As it currently exists our economy relies strictly on increases in consumption.’

Jackson says nothing for a moment, then sighs and continues: ‘it’s extremely hard to find political space to have this discussion. It is closed down very quickly by the interests of economic stability – there’s a lot of “We have to protect the economy at all costs”. Eastern Europe during the collapse of the Soviet Union shows what can happen to people’s happiness during a falling economy. I don’t know the answer to this, but I feel it’s the only question worth wanting to solve. On my own I don’t feel that I’ve got what it takes to come up with the answer. It’s astonishingly difficult. It will have to entail a cultural shift with its own momentum[2].

All this was before the economic crisis in the days when some thought history had ended and our capitalist end-game had been realised. Now governments in their desperation have started to recover from their split personalities by telling us to consume more to save the economy. To save what economy, you may well ask? To save the post-war growth economy, which gives full rein to our saviour, homo expetens. All of which raises the question as to whether the big shake up we are now experiencing makes the cultural shift that Jackson talked about more or less likely. As a church we might reflect on that and we also might reflect on the nature of that cultural shift.

I believe one key question to be asked in this time of chaos is hidden in the title of this issue. It has to do with the assets which we as the body of Christ, fellow citizens and members of the household of God have to offer the world. What are our principle assets? The answer I believe is nothing less that an alternative economy. William T. Cavanaugh, in his groundbreaking book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire talks of the micro-economic practices of consumption and exchange made possible by God in the eucharistic life of the Christian community. So he is not talking about a model which is theoretically transferable to the global economy as a means of saving the world. This alternative economy is inseparable from worship. It presupposes a new humanity, which is (in part) a cultural shift. Of course this cultural shift only ever exists in the world of homo expetens as a piecemeal witness to God’s future economy – an economy that burst into that world with the raising of Jesus.

William Stringfellow[3] says that the principalities and powers (for example, the state and the market) rely on the dominion of death for their sway. This does not mean that they can be rejected as purely evil, but simply, that those whose economic practices are grounded in the resurrection, where the dominion of death is exposed and undone, should expect nothing more from the principalities and powers than their fearful response to the ever more obvious grip of death in time of crisis. In this context it is our duty to bear witness to the resurrection as a critique of the culture controlled by the principalities and powers.

In a world shaped by an economics of scarcity the assets of the Christian community are nevertheless enormous. They are the liberty not to need more, but to share more, since for us death has lost its sting. This is the most economically radical claim possible. Inasmuch as it is true, a fortaste of the future is possible. Inasmuch as it is true, we know that the future of creation is secure in the future of God. Inasmuch as it is true we know that although we cannot save the world, we can participate in God’s saving and in the sustainable world to come.

In the language of John Naish, the resurrection takes away the insecurity which feeds our evolutionary instincts to strive for more. The risen Christ is ‘enough’. The NT talks about its impact as that of a mind re-script (Romans 12: 2). Thus the discipline of Christ in worship should form sustainable economic practices. In the place of a herd instinct in which our neighbours are our rivals and covetousness leads up the ladder to murder and planetary destruction, the resurrection creates a new herd in which the self-giving of Christ is imitated by the power of the Spirit for the common life.

Such a radical (the atheist would say romantic or hypocritical) conversion/cultural shift is cold comfort for those who want to advise the principalities and powers on how to get out of an economic crisis. However advice is not our asset. What’s more, it’s hard not to wonder whether in fact the Christian community has demonstrated the sustainable practices of the kingdom, whether Christ is, in fact, risen.

I wonder whether this dangerous doubt is not part of the reason why the church so often retreats into the escapism of private, non-political and non-economic spiritualities. That might explain why the notion of the economics of the body of Christ seems like a strange idea and our theological imaginations shut down.

Bruce Hamill 21.1.09

[1] Hodder and Stoughton, 2008, p. 218

[2] Ibid, p. 221

[3] See in particular his book Free in Obedience (NY, Seabury Press, 1964)

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