In his extremely helpful book, The Economics of Neighborly Love, Tom Nelson argues that the church has an important part to play in helping Christians understand the value and place of economics in our everyday lives. In this illustration, he points out how some churches, like Chicago’s Living Hope Church are actually providing economic hope as well as the hope of the gospel:
Economists remind us the work we do matters much more than we often realize. Scripture also informs us that our productivity or lack thereof matters to God, to us, and to our neighbors. Recognizing the importance of fruitful productivity, Living Hope Church in Chicago is committed to creating opportunities for community members to increase their vocational fruitfulness. Located in Chicago’s South Side, Living Hope is pastored by Brad Beier.
The church serves a community with an unemployment rate of 23 percent. Recognizing an opportunity to care well for their neighbors, Living Hope has sought ways to provide meaningful work to those surrounding the church. Pastor Beier has also articulated a philosophy of benevolence that insists neighbors who want money or help should be given work to do by the church.
In addition, Living Hope has started a nonprofit economic development ministry called Hope Works. Hope Works focuses specifically on economic empowerment and job creation. The organization provides on-ramps for participants to engage in church ministry, relationship building, and discipleship. Lives are being transformed, families are being put back together, and the dignity of doing good work is once again being validated in a community where joblessness and crime has been the norm. Living Hope is increasingly seen in the community as a place where people find spiritual hope as well as economic vitality.
Living Hope is doing important work that affirms the goodness of productivity and empowers others to lead fruitful lives. As God’s image bearers we were created to be fruitful. We are not to worship our work, but our work is a vital aspect of our worship. Our hands and bodies were designed to work and to pray in a seamless life of God-focused and God-directed worship. We were made to add value to the world in and through our work, and to love our neighbor in and through our fruitfulness.
Differences in Economics from the Ancient World to Ours
At this point in the discussion some will remark that the Old Testament says a good deal about being prosperous and even occasionally speaks about wealth, but not about money per se. That is the case because ancient economies were not money-based economies, and they were certainly not free market capitalist economies…money was beginning to play a larger economic role in Jesus’s era, but even then it operated mainly within the context of a barter or “bargain and exchange” economy. Money was used for paying taxes and tolls, but less frequently for everyday business.
There is another huge factor often overlooked in discussions of what the Bible says about money and wealth. All ancient economies, especially those of major empires and powers, were dependent on slave labor. One estimate even suggests that by the time Paul and Peter visited Rome in the 60s AD, 50 percent of all the workers in the city were slaves. Today we may jest that working for minimum wage is “slave labor,” but slave labor was literally predominant in the ancient biblical world…the point is that there are vast differences between our own world and the economic world in which the Bible was written. If we are to properly understand the key New Testament texts about money, we need to keep in mind the fundamental factors that economically distinguished those cultures from ours.
Income Disparity in the U.S.
In 2008 the CEO of Walmart made as much in one hour as many of his full-time employees made in a year. Are some people really worth that much more than others? We would most likely say no, but our economy says otherwise. We talk about the immorality of the poor but never the wealthy, and this is very much on purpose.
The Most Fundamental Assumption in Economics
The most fundamental assumption in economics is scarcity. This, in effect, assumes away abundance. Thus, most mainstream economists are not prepared to deal with abundance. They have few concepts that explain it. They have no equations that describe it. Confronted with it, they fall back on inadequate theories based on scarcity.
Rising GNP and Lowering GNH
There has been a paradigm shift going on in neighborhoods in the United States since the end of WWII. For decades before the 1940s, neighborhoods were places where people were known and were active. Whether a rural community, a suburban street, an urban block, or an apartment complex, neighbors commonly saw themselves as having a shared life in their neighborhood that naturally involved celebrating together, helping each other, and looking after the neighborhood.
But that’s been changing. The evidence suggests that “America’s dramatic economic growth during the post-WWII era has been accompanied by substantial increases in individualism and materialism.” We may be experiencing unprecedented levels of prosperity, but our social fabric is falling apart.
While our GNP (Gross National Product) has been doing quite well, our GNH (Gross National Happiness) has not. The GNH is an index of seventy-two indicators that seek to measure well-being and flourishing, and our country’s GNH has been dropping steadily.
Research shows we have lower self-reported happiness, poorer interpersonal relationships, higher levels of anxiety and depression, and greater antisocial behavior. As we focus more on material things and less on relationship, chronic loneliness has become more common in our neighborhoods. And because we are more isolated from our neighbors, we have turned to purchasing the care we once received from neighbors. The net result: neighborhoods are no longer places where we are known and active.
Taken from The Hopeful Neighborhood: What Happens When Christians Pursue the Common Good by Don Everts Copyright (c) 2020 by Don Everts. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com