A critical comment on ‘Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis’, a report from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
At Campaign Life’s request, Professor Robin Richardson prepared, on short notice, this critique of the Bishop’s report as a contribution to the public debate, which has begun. He welcomes a continuing dialogue with concerned Christians on the issues raised in the Bishop’s report and in this article.
Professor Richardson, a Salvationist, was P.C member of Parliament for Toronto-Beaches federal riding in the Thirty-first Parliament of Canada. He is commenting on the Bishops’ recent report as a Christian, a professional economist and a concerned Canadian.
Since the election of 1980 Professor Richardson has been on sabbatical in central Kentucky studying theology, reflecting on moral, social, economic and political developments in Canada and other nations and teaching at a Christian College. While in Parliament Professor Richardson argued that the spiritual deficit facing Canadians was far more serious than the budgetary deficit, that Canadians need to turn to biblical law and principles in setting our national priorities and policies and that we need to work for reconciliation and healing of our land or God’s judgement would be on us individually and collectively. Nothing that has happened in the past three years has caused Professor Richardson to change this view.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than in Christ.”
What does it mean to be biblically realistic about people and human affairs? The marks of a Christian mind are its supernatural orientation, its awareness of evil, its conception of truth, its acceptance of authority, its concern for the person and its sacramental cast. People are spiritual, physical and moral beings. They enter the Kingdom of God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and by no other means. But backsliding by a Christian is definitely possible and, alas, probably all too common. Therefore, it matters whether a person’s actions are good or evil because personal salvation is at stake. It also matters because human beings influence each other. Relationships matter. Christians are called to be living parables of the Word of God to our world. Insofar as we choose to obey or disobey God, we choose eternal life or eternal death, now and forever. It is the Christian mission to influence others. God offers free salvation to all people and full salvation from all sin. But He also commands a life of servanthood and stewardship in His Kingdom now and in His Kingdom to come. There is no other option. There is only one choice for the true believer.
The purpose of this article is to present a biblically realistic position on the concern raised in the recent Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CB) report on the economic crisis. In so doing I challenge Christians to think with Christian minds about secular issues. Christian insight, Christian instruction, Christian vision are desperately needed to address the economic crisis facing Canadians. A genuine Christian dialogue must begin now!
Critique of the Catholic Bishops’ Report
To think Christianly about the economic crisis is an important task. It demands sound methodology, proper biblical evidence and an appropriate personal response. Unfortunately the CB report is mainly secular in its philosophy and misguided in its economic analysis. It is biblically misleading and runs the risk of promoting a modern heresy known as liberation theology.
Historically, Canadians have purchased many things from foreign lands, but we must resist the importation of liberation theology. Liberationists begin with a secular ideology, usually Marxist, and then develop a theology through the use of selected biblical texts and special allegorical interpretations of these privileged passages. They claim that theology can only be developed as a second step after proper social and economic analysis. They embrace Marxism for its global world-view and “scientific” explanation of why people are poor. Whether they say so or not, liberationists are committed to violent revolution. Class conflict, even more unemployment, the eventual dictatorship of either the extreme right or the extreme left, and the loss of religious freedom are the inevitable outcome of the logic of liberation theology.
Biblical realists begin with biblical truth and then develop theology. They focus on the great doctrines of the Christian faith and search for universal principles to apply to modern problems. Realists are careful not to become mere apologists for any system, Marxist or Capitalist. Their methodology moves from scripture to theology to the contemporary situation. This is the classical method applied by sound Christian thinkers since the time of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
B. Biblical Evidences
Whereas liberationists begin with the Exodus event, realists begin with Genesis and John. Realists believe God created human beings for His divine purpose. We are His creation and are called to lead holy lives before Him and before our fellow man. Whereas liberationists focus on the prophets, especially Amos, and stress Jesus as being in the tradition of the prophets, realists see Jesus as the Son of God – fully human and fully divine. He is Creator, the supreme Lord of His workmanship and everything is subject to His commands. He demands obedience, as a matter for our own good. Disobedience brings judgement, now and eternally. No other standard exists except God’s Word, the sole yardstick of right and wrong. His law is the index of reality itself.
Realists believe that Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it. Consequently, the law of God is our standard for holiness and righteousness. Justice, mercy and faithfulness are impossible apart from God’s law. Necessarily, then, a just society is one based totally on God’s law.
Every civil authority has a responsibility to be God’s minister, administering the word of God in his sphere of authority. As God’s minister, a ruler at any level must do good and punish evildoers, adopting the standard of good and evil defined in the Holy Bible. To do less is to be unfaithful, just as a pastor would be unfaithful if he failed to apply God’s word to his congregation.
God’s total ownership is the basis for our limited ownership of property, as His stewards. Contrary to the liberationists, the private ownership of property is biblical. In fact, half of the Ten Commandments are prohibitions against theft: I must not rob my neighbour of his life, his wife, his property, his reputation, nor may I covet anything that belongs to him.
Loving my poor neighbour does not mean robbing my rich neighbour, as the CB report advocates. Whether intended or not, the CB report seems to encourage coveting and theft, in direct contradiction of God’s word. This does not suggest that the rich have no responsibility to help the poor, but does mean that the poor have a complementary responsibility not to steal from the rich.
The CB report’s so-called “preferential option for the poor, the afflicted and the oppressed” misses the purpose of the gospel message of salvation. There is no “preferential option” in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus offers free salvation for all men and full salvation from all sin. We are commanded to follow peace with all men and holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. We are to take the whole Bible to the whole world – rich and poor alike. Heart to God and hand to man – that is our evangelistic and social mandate as Christian believers.
God’s wrath and judgement come against sin – whether it be found in a rich person or in a poor person. Covetness and theft, immorality and laziness are no respecter
of income class. Marx’s wrath and judgement comes against the rich, who are, according to Marx, ipso facto, oppressors. His interest is in setting one economic class up against another, since he advocates violent revolution. This is underscored by Marx’s belief in chaos as a key to history. Is this “the voice of Christ, the Lord of History, in our midst” to which the CB report refers?
C. Personal Response
The Wesleyan revival of eighteenth century England inspires me as an example of creative social service coming from an evangelistic zeal for lost souls. The abolition of slavery, the humanizing of the prison system, the reform of the penal code, the origin of many foreign missions, the emancipation of industrial England, and the rejection of revolutionary war and violence (as in the French Revolution) stand as lasting legacies to the power of biblical Christianity in action. John Wesley’s dictum to “Earn all you can, Save all you can, Give all you can” is the foundation for a biblically realistic approach to the solving our economic and social problems today.
This is not to suggest that socioeconomic structures in themselves are sacrosanct. Where the structures are evil and cause distress, then they should be changed. But not by violent revolution as was the case in France, but when convinced Christians in positions of power act Christianly by changing the structures through legitimate means. By legitimate, I mean with due respect for lawfully constituted authority, but realizing that such authority itself is answerable to God. Violent social change, which is destructive never accomplishes good. One cannot do good by evil means. Witness the results in Marxist states, which have tried to follow this futile course of action.
As a Salvationist, I of course subscribe to the words of General William Booth founder of the Salvation Army … “The poor is the Army’s bride. We are married to the poor. Let us ever be true to our bride.” I believe that we are indeed saved to serve our fellow human beings. Although not a Salvationist at the time, “Service to others is the true essence of leadership” was the motto I followed in two Canadian general election campaigns and during my brief term of office in the Thirty-first Parliament of Canada. However, I cannot believe in “preferential options” as advocated in the CB report which suggests that the Lord sides with one group, or even one nation, over another. That smacks of secular politics, not biblical realism.
Rather than playing politics by talking about “preferential options” for any group of people, the CB report should have asked, “who is on the Lord’s side?” The biblical standard for the treatment of the poor acknowledges the fact that all men are sinners and that we tend to look down on those who are less well-off than ourselves, as well as those who are better off than ourselves. Both attitudes are wrong. The Bible therefore reminds us repeatedly to be fair in all dealings with all people.
The present economic crisis ought to be viewed as a defensive response of Canadians to the systematic destruction of their money as a store of value. The depreciation of commercial, moral and legal standards of value in society eventually brings chaos and disorder. The link between the value of money and the value of work has been broken. Biblical realism calls for honesty and fairness in weights and measures, in work effort, and in wages and prices. Inflation is theft and literally steals wealth from one group for the benefit of another. Money does not make wealth. Only hard work with appropriate technology creates wealth.
How much hard work is involved when central governments in most countries print money to finance massive budgetary deficits, or when big business and unions exercise raw power to fix wages and prices to protect their constituents? Where does that then leave the majority of Canadians? “Marginalized” is the awkward techno-term used in the CB report. “Alienated” is the term used by Karl Marx. A new and growing group of voters for extremist political parties is the more realistic answer. This is the true danger facing Canadians as a result of the economic crisis.
Importance of relationships, power and authority
Liberationists believe that man finds meaning in life in what he produces and that technology exploits man rather than increases his income. Somehow, to them, profits are evil rather than the engine of economic progress and the incentive for wealth creation. The CB report is rampant with this type of fuzzy thinking. It reflects a narrow, unrealistic definition of man and a Marxist analysis of the Canadian economic system. Both viewpoints fail even to approximate reality.
Biblical realists would agree with the CB report on the importance of relationships. Man’s basic identity comes in the midst of relationships – to God, and to other people. Technology can indeed contribute to the dehumanization of people in relationship to each other, and this is a valid concern of the CB report. Defining ourselves in terms of our function in a mechanistic society, we often see our lives as static rather than dynamic.
God is both personal and relational. Likewise, people are both personal and relational. God’s purpose is salvation for all people and He works through those who will obey. The medium is the message and the message is the medium for Kingdom of God people, and the work is done within communities such as the family, the church, the neighborhood, the city, the province and the nation.
We need a realistic theology of power and authority based on the biblical motifs of servanthood and stewardship. Furthermore, we need to live it out as Christians in daily relationships with each other and with non-Christians. This is what the church should be if it truly wants to do something tangible to solve Canada’s economic crisis. Above all, progress in this field must begin with a personal admission that as Christians we have failed individually and collectively in God’s call on our lives to meet the real material and spiritual needs of the world in which we live. We must humble ourselves before Him who made us and turn from our wicked ways. Only then will God forgive us and begin to heal our land economically, socially, politically, and most important of all, spiritually. I pray that this might begin now.