Co-creators and Partners in Our Own Provision
Over the last five posts I’ve made the case that economic freedom has generated unprecedented abundance. People acting on what they believe to be in their best interests bid for goods and service, and people acting on their perceived best interest freely chose to provide goods and services to others. Without self-interest (i.e., being interested in one’s self) there would be no way for the market to coordinate the many needs people have with supplies. The market integrates us into a community.
Regrettably, there are those who pit the market economy against something called a gift economy. In theological circles, the reasoning goes something like this. God created the world with abundance. It is his gift freely given to us. Therefore, giving in expectation of return, much less profit, is counter to a godly character. Gift economy is godly, market economy bad.
But as we saw in the second post, this “gift economy” or “God’s abundance” mindset utterly ignores issues of production. How is a society to answer the questions of how much of which things to produce? In the third post I explained how markets have produced abundance through free market exchange. But is market exchange in keeping with godly character? I would answer strongly in the affirmative.
Lost in so many discussions about these matters is the commission given to humanity by God in the opening chapters of Genesis. Humans are charged with exercising dominion over the earth. They are to “work the garden.” Dominion is neither about rampant destruction nor pristine preservation. It means bringing the earth to its fullness, and that includes humanity. Theologians have understood the stewardship mandate to include the development of culture that facilitates human flourishing and community.
The scriptural narrative begins in a garden but ends, not in some ethereal immaterial spirit world, but in a new creation, the New Jerusalem, a garden city. Cities were the symbol of human achievement in ancient days, including as they did the highest expressions of government, commerce, art, education and community. The biblical narrative shows God adding that which humans have created to his created order, purging it of all impurity, and making it his new creation.
If we were made purely for relationship with God and with each other, then why would we need a material existence? Our materiality is not some peripheral quality. We were made material beings for a material world, which we are to work and exercise dominion over. This co-creative stewardship of material matters is intrinsic to out being God’s image bearers. We will be raised with new material bodies (although apparently transformed in some way) to work a new material world.
Individually and collectively, we are called to stewardship. Private property, held in trust for God, is a given among Old and New Testament Christians. One of the constant refrains of the prophets was denouncement of the failure to protect property rights (i. e., there was no justice for the poor in the "city gates," or courts, who were being deprived of their property and liberty; unjust scales were used to measure grain.) The Jubilee Code in Leviticus 25 ensured (if obeyed) that no Israelite would be permanently alienated from his land and labor. (For more, see my brief series on Leviticus 25.) Each person was to work their land in service to God and to each other. They were partners with God in their own material provision and in the provision made for their neighbors.
Jesus and Paul make several allusions to Christians being the oikonomos, or the household manager. The wealthy Greco-Roman householder had a slave or free servant that he trusted above all others who served as his household manager. In his absence, he would place his oikonomos over the whole household. He had the same authority as the master but he was always to do his master’s will. Keep in mind that these households were not just domiciles but major business enterprises. The idea of doing economic labor in provision for one’s self and others in service to God is present throughout the biblical narrative.
Most people understand that transforming matter, energy, and knowledge from less useful states to more useful states creates something of value. As individuals we can relate to this process. But many fail to see the enormous wealth that is created through trade and it is in trade that we see communities integrated into each other’s lives and enhancing each other’s existence. Let’s take a moment to illustrate this.
There is grade-school game used to teach economics called the Trading-Game. There are three phases to this game:
Phase 1: Each member of a class, say thirty students, is given at random an item worth about $1. Each student is told to right down on a scale of 1 to 10 how much they value the item with ten being the highest value. The teacher polls the class and gets and aggregate score.
Phase 2: The class is divided into six groups of five. Each student is allowed to trade with any other student in their group. Sally got a pack of baseball cards and Joe got wrist bracelets. They make a trade. Other students do likewise. The teacher has each rate the value of what they now have. She aggregates the score and the new score is always higher.
Phase 3: Students are now allowed to trade with anyone in the class. More trades are made. The final aggregate score goes still higher.
Notice that nothing was produced here, but because people had different values and wants, trade enabled most folks to increase their wealth at no loss to anyone, thus increasing the wealth of the whole community. It was win-win (or at least break-even) for each trader and a great win for the whole community.
Personal responsibility (looking after one’s own interests), working to produce something of value so you will have something to exchange, and then exchanging the fruits of our labor creates, integrates each of us into a wealth building community. The dynamic information exchange between buyers and sellers, and the competition of people to better serve each other’s needs, drives the economy toward an ever more efficient use of resources. We individually and corporately are pressed to be good stewards of the resources in our care. Thus, a market economy where people see themselves as stewards of God’s resources is thoroughly compatible with the Genesis image of humanity exercising dominion and being co-creators with God in caring for human needs and the needs of all creation.
The operative words are, of course, “where people see themselves as stewards of God’s resources.” Without this, the powerful integrative forces of the market are bent toward creating an economic city of Babel, unifying and magnifying our distorted images of who we think we are and what we deserve.