online book group: Practicing our Faith, chapter 4

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In this chapter we join Sharon Parks in considering practices of economics–remembering that the word “economics” (like ecology and ecumenism) comes from the Greek word “oikos” meaning household. SO economics is about how we arrange our household for the well-being of the whole.

There’s a lot to consider in this practice, because what we do in our own households is not confined within our individual private homes. The choices we make affect others and the planet, both near and far, now and future. The global economy seems designed to profit some and use others. The realities of the Global North and Global South (or “developed” and “developing” nations/economies) can be uncomfortable, but they nonetheless intrude on the choices we make every day, whether about what kind of coffee or chocolate to consume or where our clothes are made or what kind of environment we want to leave for our children and grandchildren. Add in the latest statistics on slavery (there are more slaves today than at any time in human history, and they produce everything from chocolate to jewelry to makeup to electronics) and we have a complex issue–how might we arrange our individual households for the good of the whole–both our house and the global oikumene?

Many of us have heard the statement “show me your checkbook (or credit card statement) and I will show you what you believe in”–ie, we tend to put our money where our faith is, despite what our mouth might say. It’s a modern way of saying “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6.21) In a culture where having things is equated with happiness, it’s even more true. We are constantly torn between the idea that there won’t be enough so we have to work harder and make more so we can get more and be more secure … and the fact that our lives are so full of stuff already. Parks quotes Douglas Meeks who calls this the sense of simultaneous scarcity and satiety.

Parks also talks about a concept the early Quakers called “cumber.” It used to be that we went to the market, but now the market comes to us, advertising is everywhere (including on us), and it has worked miracles–“Americans now spend more time shopping than citizens of any other nation, and we spend a higher fraction of the money we earn.” That means we’re out accumulating stuff–stuff that requires energy and attention to “secure, maintain, and finally discard” and also, often, stuff that has advertising on or built in, which takes more of our subconscious and conscious attention and shapes us in ways we don’t even notice.

All of this is not pointed out to make us feel guilty–most of us have plenty of that already. It’s to make us aware. Parks says that “for Christians, the move that is faithful is not from the material to the spiritual but rather from materialism to incarnation.” There’s no divide between material and spiritual–all is created by God and called good. How we use it is the heart of the issue. Incarnation is about Spirit being IN matter (made-flesh), not being separated from it. Parks puts it beautifully: “Every being participates in the household of God and is included in the economic imagination of God. The great gulfs we have created between the spiritual and the material, between religion and commerce, between businesspeople and environmentalists, are products of a false consciousness, an unexamined and inadequate economic faith.”

An adequate economic faith is not only to participate in charity–though that has been the church’s response most of the time, taking “you’ll always have the poor with you” to mean that it’s inevitable so we should just help where we can, piecemeal. But looking at our history there HAVE been things we’ve done that created structural change in various systems. “For example, the call to the desert, the development of religious orders, their subsequent renewals, the Protestant Reformation–all were fe-formations of life that gave rise to new economic patterns and structures. Likewise, in the 20th century, from the establishment of settlement houses in Chicago tot eh bus boycott in Montgomery, religious insight prompted changes in economic arrangements.”

So what can we do–in our own households and in our participation in the global household? What practices might help us align more closely with God’s vision and bring us more fully into God’s house?

Simplicity: a practice that re-orients our lives to foster a sense of right proportion. Of course, this practice isn’t as simple (ha!) as it seems. It’s not only about “streamlining” or “doing without.” How might you simplify your life and bring it into right proportion with the rest of the world? With God’s call to aid others? Can simplicity be both about material goods and behaviors? What would it be like to practice simplicity in speech? In eating? In travel?

Right Labor: a practice that allows us to participate in creating a more just world through our purchasing decisions. Where do the things you buy come from? Who gathers the material, makes them, transports them, sells them? What kind of working conditions are those people laboring in? Try creating a map of where all the elements of your favorite meal come from, and learning something about the work and people who bring it to you. Or do the same for your favorite outfit or favorite item in your home. How can you help create a more just working environment for people and the planet?

Asking yourself questions: many Mennonites (most of whom have given up the agrarian way of life but still maintain their spiritual understandings) ask themselves “what does it mean to live as a sign of the kingdom of God?” What does it mean, in your life, to live as a sign of God’s kingdom? How does that kind of living affect what choices you make?

Joining with others: It’s hard to change something in the global system or even in your own household all on your own. People are created to be in community, and economics is, by definition, relational. What group (family, church, social, business, etc) are you a part of that can also join in these kinds of practices of just economics?

What did you think of this chapter? Does it make you uncomfortable to think about your faith and money at the same time? What do you think God asks of us in relation to our economic lives? How can we work toward using our money and time in a way that brings glory to God?

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One response »

  1. Our church recently participated in Bread for the World’s Offering of Letters. Our perspective on our possessions changes when we have our eyes opened to the needs of the world around us. Those cheaper goods that allow us to buy more stuff ought to be rejected when we see the conditions of the workers in other countries must experience to satisfy the American appetite for purchasing things. David Platt, in his book Radical, states, “The Biblical Gospel and the American Dream are ultimately antithetical to each other. We can’t walk this religious road with its grandiose promise of God’s grace for only a minimal cost. If we are truly going to take up our cross, die to ourselves and follow Jesus, we need to be giving our time, talent and resources greater than 2%.” Art Simon, founder of Bread for the World, sums it up this way: The critical question is no longer “What do I want?” or “What can we afford to do?” but “How can we use what God has given us to carry out God’s will?” Jesus answers the question with his words, “Follow me.”

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