Where Would Jesus Invest?

December 18, 2008

jacket imageThe Bible famously states that Christians cannot serve both God and mammon, and that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a pin than for a rich man to enter heaven. But clearly, believers, as well as non-believers, benefited from the economic boom years just as surely as they’ve felt the pinch since the collapse. But how can Christian thought help us better understand the recession? To answer this question, we turned to religion and economic scholar Stewart Davenport, whose recent book, Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815–1860 examines how antebellum Protestants reconciled their faith with the developing American economy.

The Economic Crisis: What Would Jesus Do?
To begin, I’d like to point out the folly of asking this question in the first place. “What would Jesus do?”—although a catchy slogan—is obviously not a substantive ethical question. “WWJD?” makes for good bracelets to sell to teenagers, in other words, but is thoroughly inadequate for the serious reflection of complex ethical dilemmas. I only wanted to include it in the title here so I could have the opportunity to distance myself from it. In what follows I will briefly explain why, and then move on to what I hope are the real options for understanding our current economic climate from the perspective of Christian faith.

As one who takes the incarnation seriously—that Jesus lived in a particular historical place and a particular historical time for a particular theological purpose—“WWJD?” is nearly nonsensical. We simply don’t know what Jesus would do when faced with options that are unique to our modern historical moment. Should I drive an SUV? WWJD? Should I invest in the S&P 500? WWJD? Should I pay for piano lessons for my children or give the money to UNICEF? WWJD? We do not know and cannot speculate, and are in dangerous territory when we—or anyone else for that matter—claim to have iron-clad categorical answers to these thoroughly modern questions.
The same is true for the Christian’s ethical evaluation of global capitalism—an evaluation that always becomes more salient and more focused in times of crisis like the present. While the Bible clearly and consistently sides with the poor and disparages the rich, it has very little to say about whole economic systems—for better or for worse. What the ethical seeker is left with therefore are general evaluative guidelines and not simple answers. The Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr similarly reached the “general conclusion that there is no ‘Christian’ economic or political system.” Rather, he spoke of “a Christian attitude toward all systems” consisting of one part theological skepticism and one part earthy acceptance. In other words, Christians should hold at arm’s length all economic and political systems and ask “whether they will contribute to justice in a concrete situation.” But this distancing does not mean that Christians should entirely eschew such systems just because they do not (and never will) contribute to justice perfectly. In other words (and this is Christian realism encapsulated), the right answer is somewhere in the messy middle—avoiding on the one hand the ugly triumphalism that comes when believers mistake a political or economic system for the Kingdom of God; but also avoiding the quixotic self-righteousness of those who never deign to be involved in the often dirty affairs of the world. Such is the life of the Christian pilgrim, and such is the stance Christians should adopt toward the world of filthy lucre and global capitalism. We are undeniably in-between, working out our salvation with fear and trembling in the imperfect economic landscape of the 401k, the S&P 500, CNBC, and the regular booms and busts of the business cycle.
This brings us to the present global economic crisis, where hopefully some lessons from history will prove illuminating. Like today, the stock market collapse of 1929 and the financial Panic of 1837 had both individual and systemic causes. On the personal level, in all three instances, greed-driven investors over-inflated the market. In 1837 it was speculation in the lands of the American West; in 1929 it was the seemingly unstoppable stock market; and most recently it has been in real estate. So in this sense, it is true that we have reaped what we have sown, and we are suffering perhaps rightly for our past sins of avarice. But it also true that each of these economic contractions is not just the bad fruit that results after greed gone wild. Bad policy has its role to play as well. In 1837 it was President Andrew Jackson’s Specie Circular. In 1929 it was uninsured banks lending to market speculators, followed by the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff. Today, it appears to be the deceitful and unregulated practice of “bundling” mortgages for sale to investment banks, in addition to the well-intentioned but now clearly disastrous desire to increase low-income home ownership by lowering lending standards, thus swelling beyond systemic capacity the ranks of sub-prime borrowers.
So what is the earnest Christian to make of all this? After much reflection I have come to the conclusion that it is best to think about capitalism in the way that Winston Churchill thought about democracy—that it is the worst system except for all the others. Clearly it has not ushered in a paradise on earth, but neither is it an unmitigated hell, even in tough times such as these. Imperfect? Yes. Improvable? Yes. Replaceable? Not really—at least this side of glory. It is also worth pointing out that while our real hope should be in more than a resurgent market (“in Dow we trust”), these painful contractions do not last forever, and that just as other recessions and even depressions have ended, so too will this one. All we have to do is be patient—and who knows, maybe that is what Jesus would do.

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