By Ray Waddle
Redistribution of wealth! The nanny state! The heartless free market! Greedy Wall Street!
Never in my lifetime have such words so electrified the air or so moved people to debate the aims of the economy or the values of society.
WWJD? Which would Jesus denounce?
It's a trick question.
Despite all the point-counterpoint, I don't think any modern economic system is specifically enshrined in the Bible. There we find kingdoms, commonwealths, foreign occupation and, in the primitive church, the sharing of possessions, but no detailed principles of monetary regulation or tax policy.
It stirs a prickly controversy these days even to suggest that Jesus wasn't a free market capitalist. We've forgotten history. A century ago, socialism attracted American voters as a Christian model of government —especially in rural towns. Times were hard on farmers, who blamed corporations for a bad economy. Socialists preached against big landowners and extortionist banks. Socialists elected small-town mayors, aldermen and justices of the peace. To them, socialism, not capitalism, represented Christian values of peace on earth and the Golden Rule. Bankers were the enemy Jesus drove out of the temple.
Only after brutal Bolshevism in Russia gave socialism a bad name did homegrown religious socialism subside. It turned out to be a god that failed.
The point is: Stock markets, economies and the fortunes of nations all rise and fall. Economic theories are always being trumpeted, revamped or abandoned. Social trends are fickle, unreliable.
The Gospel refuses to be claimed, embraced, domesticated and smothered by any business plan. Churches should be pro-people, pro-neighborhood and pro-society, not the handmaidens of ideology. Christians are in business to humanize the economy whenever they can and denounce it when it fails people or promotes unfairness and cruelty. [See the arguments in Rebecca Blank's 2004 book Is the Market Moral? A Dialogue on Religion, Economics & Justice (The Pew Forum Dialogues on Religion and Public Life).]
Jesus' opponents couldn't trap him in debate. He turned the tables on them, or made them see things in a fresh way that renewed their feeling for life. That should be the way of faith: Be nobody's fool, nobody's mouthpiece, neither for libertarian Ayn Rand nor for liberationist Che Guevara.
Utopian ideas of economy, left or right, are ruinous. God's economy —love of God and neighbor, responsible citizenship in God's creation transcends—overshadows and outlasts all dazzling, faltering rivals.
—Columnist Ray Waddle, author of two books published by Upper Room Books, lives in Bethel, Conn.