By Robert Owens Scott and W. Mark Richardson
Social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson of the University of Nottingham Medical School made a startling discovery when he analyzed more than two hundred studies correlating public health and income distribution. Whether he examined differences between countries or among the fifty United States, he found that the societies with the least inequality had the best physical health, longest life expectancy, lowest homicide rates, and smallest prison populations.
Economics professor Sir Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge University experienced "the most dramatic event in my intellectual life…when I realized that there was a hidden assumption in economics: that people trusted one another." His research leaves him convinced that if two islands had identical resources, people, and infrastructure, but on one island the people trusted one another, while on the other they did not, the economy on the trusting island would flourish, while that of its otherwise identical twin would fail.
Wait a minute. Social justice? Human relationships? Aren't those things the Church talks about? Aren't economists and other social scientists supposed to be "values neutral"? Even such a robust public theologian as William Temple, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, needed encouragement to believe that the disciplines shared common ground. While writing Christianity and Social Order at the beginning of World War II, he exchanged letters with the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes, seeking intellectual support for his project. The economist assured the archbishop that, from the start, "economics…is a side of ethics."
Posing the Questions
The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has taken up his predecessor's mantle, addressing the global economic crisis much as Temple responded to global war. "Public theology is something I define as trying to put to the society around you basic questions about, 'What's human? What do we expect of human beings? How do we make human beings flourish?'" he told us in a recent interview at his home in London, Lambeth Palace.
"I think it's absolutely essential for the Church to be talking about economics," Williams asserts. "Not that the Church has economic expertise which will give miraculously right answers to all the problems that defeat the experts and governments all around the world. But the Church, I think, is in a perfectly good position to say, 'So what do you mean by growth? What do you mean by wealth? How do you understand your responsibility in this?'"
Williams does not believe that God is specifying a new global economic system. Rather, "God is saying, 'Remember to be human.'"
Another Story, Another Economy
In this light, the question becomes: How can our system evolve and transform to meet more human needs? "Certainly it doesn't appear that the present formation of global capitalism works very well, in that the majority of the people on the planet are not doing very well," theologian Kathryn Tanner said in a recent interview.
If economics is a system for the production and distribution of goods, Tanner sees "the story of God's dealings with the world as creator, sustainer, and redeemer as laying out a potentially alternative economy. Human beings are not God, but there is a continuous story being told that includes human beings and their responsibility to other people and to the natural world." Using God's gift of creation — which cannot be merited and is available to all — as a starting point, Tanner calls for an economy based on noncompetitive relations. "That basically means that everybody is benefitting at the same time."
She acknowledges that her concept of the theological economy sounds bizarre in today's world. "Your impression as part of a capitalist system is that that's impossible. If I benefit, I gain something, and that means you lose something." But she's quick to point out that "even with a capitalist system, there are points of intersection where you can get traction."
One such intersection is what economists call "public goods." Classic examples are lighthouses, bridges, and public parks, which everybody can enjoy without diminishing other people's ability to benefit. "Maybe public goods should be more salient or more primary in our economies than they might otherwise be in, say, neo-liberal economic views," Tanner suggests. She points to Amartya Sen's research on famines. The Nobel laureate found that the cause often is not a lack of food, as is commonly thought, but rather a system under which people cannot purchase the food that's available. So the solution is not to produce more food, but to transform the system so it serves more people better. The goal, both theologically
and economically, is to create situations of mutual benefit.
That ability to see beyond our own immediate interests is one of the themes that theology addresses, says Rowan Williams. In a speech on the economy, he proposed that the root of our problem is not greed, as is often said, but pride. "I was looking back to that early Christian tradition that sees pride as the root of all sin," he said later, "pride as the view that, somehow, my concerns, simply because they're mine, take precedence over everyone else's. I ought to be capable of running my own world. I don't want to be dependent on anyone."
Not only does the Church preach a theology of interdependence,says Williams, but local churches are in a position to help their communities think beyond narrow self-interest. "Churches, ideally, are not just interest groups. They are there on behalf of the whole human enterprise." Thus they are able to model what economists call public goods and Tanner calls the theological economy. "They can say, 'Our space, our resources, are open to all of you,'" Williams observes. "That's an important thing."
Economist Dasgupta also sees the value of the daily work of local churches in economics. "One reason why I admire religions," he says, is that they "inculcate in us the inner need to be not only just, but truthful to one's self." From an economic perspective, the Church's success would mean a huge savings in resources. "We wouldn't have to have locks. We wouldn't need police. We wouldn't need to have armies. That's probably thirty percent of GDP!"
He's joking, but underneath lies a serious and essential point. Rather than feeling stretched to address economics in their ministries, faith communities should realize the value of the work they are already committed to, work for which they possess deep resources, skill, and passion. When Christian formation nurtures communities of trust, acceptance, and inclusion, it is building up the very things that enable an economy to thrive. When churches advocate for social justice, they are working for the very thing that makes for a healthy society.
The task of responding to the economic crisis and helping to build a new and more ethical economy is not limited to professional economists or even archbishops. "Nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all," wrote William Temple in 1942.
For Rowan Williams, that witness is equally important in 2009. "The Christian, I think, is going to be saying constantly, 'Well, there actually is an alternative,'" he says. "It may begin very locally. It may begin in a cooperative enterprise in the community, in a credit union, in a farmers' market. It may begin in very small ways of just showing that not everything is a zero-sum game in economics. We can put our energies, put our imagination behind those local enterprises and simply show it can be different."
Robert Owens Scott is the director of Trinity Institute and the Clergy Leadership Project. The Rev. W. Mark Richardson, Ph.D. is professor of systematic theology at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church and Senior Theological Fellow of Trinity Institute.