What causes poverty? Countless volumes have been written over the ages trying to answer this question. The fact is, it is one of the simplest questions of all time. It can be answered in two words: Being born. We have nothing when we come into the world . All that we have comes through investment others make in us and through investment we make in ourselves. Poverty is our natural human state. The real economic question is, “What causes prosperity?”
No topic is more frequently discussed in the Bible than the topic of material possessions, and yet the Bible gives us no economic system for implementation. It speaks a great deal about prosperity being of God but how do we achieve it? That is something the Church has been left to discern as it lives in community with God through the ages.
Economics is central to our life together. Unfortunately, I believe that economics is frequently misunderstood by the Church. I recently read N. T. Wright’s otherwise excellent book The Last Word where he wrote,
The greatest of the Enlightenment-based nations, the United States of America, has been left running a de facto world empire which gets richer by the minute as much of the world remains poor and gets poorer. (p. 13)
There are several things that need to be unpacked from this sentence:
1. Enlightenment thinking by extension is responsible for our economic systems.
2. The United States is the primary cause, or at least a major culprit, in world poverty.
3. The world is getting poorer.
This characterization of the world is a widely shared among theologians and seminarians, but it is wrong:
1. Free markets and capitalism are direct extensions of Christian thought and a moral good.
2. There are cultural and economic dynamics at work that play a much bigger role in persistent poverty than the actions of the United States.
3. The world outside the West is experiencing an unprecedented outbreak of prosperity (though it is unevenly spread.)
Over the coming days I am going to layout a rudimentary theology of economics and the causes of prosperity. I will tap into the biblical narrative to see what scripture has to say to us. I am particularly going to emphasize the eschatological implications for economics. I am going to reflect on what capitalism is, on where captialism came from, and on its promise for the future. I will reflect on what this means in terms of how we view our everyday lives and the implications this has for how we envision being the Church. Furthermore, I will tell you the ending now. I do not believe that the decline of morality in the marketplace or morality in general, is primarily a function of Enlightenment thinking. Nor do I believe it is a function of the Western political and economic systems. The primary locus for the decline in morality is in the Church, and as it relates to economics, in the Church’s marginalization of work in the marketplace as godly service.
I hope you will join me on the journey.