Christians have a paradoxical mission. We are to be working for the greatest shalom possible in the world with the full realization that perfect shalom will not be achieved until the consummation of the new creation. We are to tell of Jesus and tell of what God is doing in the world. Peter exhorted, in 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” But one might ask what it is that would inspire someone to ask about the hope that lies within us. Is it not that we live our lives differently and purse different aims?
My read of the New Testament authors, building directly on Jesus’ teaching, is that they want us to live shalom-filled lives and seek the shalom of others. That applies to our decisions ranging from interpersonal to global relationships. We are to tell of the one who is reshaping the world according to his purposes and we are to be actively seeking greater shalom for the world. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is heaven.” That is both an invitation for God’s intervention and a pledge or our commitment to work for the outcome.
This post inaugurates a new series I’m calling the Cycle of Prosperity. There is no English word that captures the richness of the Hebrew word shalom but peace and prosperity are close. As we will see, shalom includes (among other qualities) health, economic abundance, and human flourishing. I will focus on these qualities for this series but they can’t, in the final analysis, be lifted out from or above other shalom qualities.
The reason I want to focus on these qualities is that over the past two centuries or so we have been living through the most astounding advances in health, economic abundance, and human flourishing in human history. I’ve documented these changes in my previous series about World Social Indicators and I will not recount that discussion here. The question is what can we learn from our recent past in order to extend this trend?
Unfortunately, when it comes to Christians evaluating these events, too many Christians are filtering issues through unhelpful lenses. Some are looking through the lens of New Testament writers writing to a Greco-Roman audience living under a totalitarian empire. Others look to ethics developed by later scholars living during an era of European feudalism. Still other Christian scholars, locked in an age old distrust of markets and those who make them work, rely heavily on Marxist, liberationist, and Niebuhrian socialism in their analysis, generically condemning anything that doesn’t comport well with these philosophies as neoclassical neoconservative mischief. Yet others seem willing to baptize neoclassical economics as a gospel, despite that fact that all the major Western powers rose to prominence practicing significant degrees of protectionism (the U.S. being among the most protectionist.) Only in the last forty years have we seen a substantial embrace of free trade.
I believe we can draw some conclusions about how widespread human prosperity emerges. Societies and their economies are much like organisms. They have subsystems that interact with each other and they grow best in certain optimal environments. What I want to do here is try to articulate, at a rudimentary level, what I understand to be the interplay of subsystems that generate a healthy flourishing organism (i.e., cycle of prosperity.) Once we have explored the cycle of prosperity, I will then turn to those who are being bypassed by cycles of prosperity emerging throughout the world. I’ll be relying heavily on Paul Collier’s The Bottom One Billion for that analysis.
As we begin this series, I think we need to acknowledge that far too frequently when we talk about prosperity we are virtually equating prosperity to growth in gross domestic product (or some other purely economic measure.) This leads to distortion. Yet many who appreciate this distortion resort to another distortion, which is to discount the significance of economic growth for a flourishing society. A good place to begin our discussion is with a brief review of the biblical concept of shalom, setting economic issues in a broader context.