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Theological Reflections on Econmic Values

by Barbel Wartenberg-Potter Tuesday, Jul. 12, 2005 at 3:33 AM

"The quality of a society is measured in its relations with the weakest..The economy exists for the sake of people..God's economy aims at the survival capacity of planet earth and its people..Our life is connected with all life.."


By Barbel Wartenberg-Potter

[This address from the 30th Evangelical Kirchentag in Hanover, May 26, 2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Ms. Barbel Wartenberg-Potter is an evangelical bishop in Germany.]

1. “The church should stay out of politics.

The church shouldn’t always speak critically on economic questions. It should keep to its cause.” This opinion is heard often even within the church. But what is its cause?

2. No, we cannot and may not stay away.

Globalization has its victims. Persons suffering with Aids are one example. The pharmaceutical industry denies them valuable medicines. Our meddling is necessary wherever there are victims. There is no free trade, no unquestionable space, in ethical questions. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and those who dwell therein,” says Psalm 24,1. That is our starting-point.

The New Testament even speaks literally of “God’s economy” (Eph 1,9-10). The Greek word Okonomia consists of two words: “oikos” means house, area, family generation or earthly circle. “Nomia” is the management, care and rules that determine life in the house. “God’s economy” focuses on life in the “house of the earth,” literally the ecumene. Everyone should have bread, dignity and just peace. Justice should come to all living persons. “All things will be united in him” (Eph 1,10). God-fearing and respectable persons are needed for God’s economy. Structures, laws and orders of life must make possible just life, protect the weak and preserve the creation.

On the background of his time of national socialism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasized binding up the victims of a social order fallen under the wheel and falling into the spokes of the wheel if necessary. The just organization of globalization is God’s will (as was the land occupation in Israel) and is our task today. The vision of God’s economy that leads all things in heaven and earth to their goal through Christ makes us instruments of God’s justice here and today.

3. We live and yet don’t live in the Christian West any more.

Secularization tells us Christians: Your values are not practical or rational but are outmoded, superstitious religious bonds. You have no right of determination any more over contemporary life. You hinder progress (for example in embryo research).

Pluralism says: Your opinion is fine but you stand alongside many others. You can tell us what you think but you cannot require anyone to follow you.

The economy says: The economy has its own legitimacy. Effectiveness and growth are its goals. No exodus is possible. Globalization brings new possibilities and pressures. Moral standards and ethical demands underestimate the pressures of the market. “Whoever joins market prices with justice goals will be bitterly punished” (H.W. Sinn).

The dialogue between theology and the economy must be conducted openly.

4. Where do we orient ourselves as Christians when we speak about the economy? In the Bible, more exactly in the ethos of the Bible. The Bible is full of stories with instructions on economic conduct. Its interest focuses especially on the weak, the poor, outlawed and strangers because they are very needy, not because they are very pious. “And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you” (Lev 25,35). The quality of a society is measured in its relations with the weakest.

The year of release of the Hebrew Bible, the 7th year, and the jubilee year, the 50th year, encouraged merciful relations with the poor and restoration of life possibilities. The debt slavery should end; debts should be cancelled. One could not impound the necessities of life from debtors. Tithes should fill the poor chest. Wealth could not be gained unjustly and obligates to social conduct.

The rich tax collector, the rich young man, poor Lazarus and the laborers in the vineyard are all examples of this obligation. Everyone’s soul is injured when the economy is not just to everyone, binds all human energies to self-interest and silences human relations. Then there can be no peace in the long run in a community of people. The Jewish-Christian tradition always argues from the double commandment: love God and the neighbor. Therefore we expose the economy to God’s view. An economy pursued for the sake of people would be God’s economy.

5. Many questions of theology and the economy should be discussed. Is economic conduct responsible according to the standard of humanliness? Are economic decisions just to people or only to things, capital yields and goods? Can the goals of the economy be questioned? Do they serve the “oikos earth” or only the interests of a few? Are people treated like things? When the economy no longer faces these questions, it is structurally atheistic.

6. The Ten Commandments, the instructions of Sinai, begin with the command: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods beside me.” Worship of God means God has the highest place in life. God is worshipped. Everything is sacrificed to him. God deserves all loyalty and all readiness.

In our present society, we can no longer easily speak about God and the gods. Dogmas often take the place where God stood in the past. The God of the Bible liberates people from bondage and gives them instructions on the just life. God in Jesus of Nazareth has shown his most merciful and compassionate face.

The highest value today is “growth” although the Club of Rome forty years ago formulated the irrefutable sentence: “No infinite growth is possible on a finite earth.” The current slogan is the economy must grow more and more. No one really questions this slogan. However the belief in the job-creating power of growth is refuted by new technologies. People are pushed aside by new technologies. The Darwinian law of the stronger is in effect on the competition market. Everything is accepted in the name of growth: human rights violations, destruction of the environment, child labor and wars over securi8ng raw materials. What God do we serve?

7. The catholic social ethicist Oswald von Neil-Breunig said: “The money spent…for the tasks of the social state and for social services fulfill the goal of the economy and are not costs deducted from the profit of the economy diminishing its progress.” The economy exists for the sake of people.

At the world economic synod in Davos, a leading economic analyst said: “To be a global citizen it is not enough to do no damage.”

Shock and reservation abound. In fact the shock over tsunami and AIDS and the forgetting of the African continent have strengthened the awareness that there is only one earth. God’s economy aims at the survival capacity of planet earth and its people. It is always open for alliance partners from the worldly economy. We are all “global citizens.” Enlightened self-interest is no longer enough. The compassion of God’s economy should mark global citizens. Against Descartes, we must not make ourselves masters and owners of nature. Rather we are only a part of a great whole. Our life is connected with all life.

Every person is entitled to his or her bread and rice, dignity and respect, childlikeness and joy in life. These are important goals of human justice for the global economy. To this end we develop global instruments of responsible political conduct and given them priority over the autonomy or inherent order of the economy.

Therefore we cannot stay away from the questions of the economy. This is established in God. God was a person for the sake of humankind. The economy serves people for the sake of God and humankind. We say this as people of faith.

We cannot offer less.

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