At Karam Forum 2019, we gathered an interdisciplinary panel to seek economic wisdom, drawing on scholarship in both theology and economics as well as the wisdom of pastoral experience. Our panel featured four pastors, three seminary professors and two economists – sitting on only six chairs! Through the conversation we discovered insights on topics ranging from technology’s impact on spiritual formation to the challenges of justice and hospitality in a globalizing and pluralistic world.
We’ll be continuing this pursuit of collaborative insight at Karam Forum 2020, so register today and mark your calendars to join Richard Mouw, Charisse Jones, Greg Jones, Rachael and Jacob Denhollander and many more in Atlanta on Jan. 3-4!
Update: You can now reserve a hotel room for the low rate of $129 at the nearby Emory Conference Center Hotel. The supply of rooms is limited, so reserve yours while they last.
At our 2019 panel, Tom Nelson served as host and moderator. He opened by reminding us that “John Perkins says two things are essential: Jesus and a job.” Thirty years ago, Nelson said, “I had a deeply impoverished theology” that did not connect much to economic concerns, “and that impoverished theology profoundly impoverished my understanding of the pastoral vocation – and the paradigm that drove it.” The consequence of any impoverished theology, Nelson said, is “an impoverished congregation and an impoverished culture – and mission.” After making connections between faith and work, Nelson realized that the scope of the connection would have to extend from “me-ness” to “we-ness” and include the economy. Paul, in Ephesians 4:28, expresses gospel life in economic terms. We need to make these connections to live faithfully and fruitfully in a complex global economy.
Pastor and economist Isaac Frere (The Font) spoke about the double-edged relationship between technology and our humanity. Advancing technology expands our power to steward creation, he noted, but it also threatens the relational side of the image of God in us, as we find ourselves less authentically connected. From childhood, Frere had always loved the future: “I loved watching the Jetsons.” He was drawn to science fiction because “it not only tantalized my imagination, but it also brought me to an anticipation of what is to come. And I think that is the story of the gospel…we await the consummation in eager anticipation.” But, he cautioned, the vast and rapid transformation of daily life by the smart phone illustrates the dangerous side of the future: “Technology has made us more productive….but I think that in this day and age we need to be more mindful about the new shift in technology…that moves us from the amelioration of life, or the augmentation of life, to…the replacement of human participation or the minimization of human experience.”
Technological progress also results in some people’s accustomed jobs or work roles being taken away. Frere said we need to be ready to help people, as the opportunity to work becomes more contracted for some. We need to be able to communicate morally “into this system.” Frere proposed that technology should not be used for profit maximization at the expense of the dignity of work, opportunity for all and “human participation in life.”
Theological educator and pastor Kevin Dudley (The Church at North Pointe, Ashland Theological Seminary and Trinity International University) spoke on the Christian virtue of hospitality, asking: What does hospitality mean for our churches today in the modern economy? “One of the things I’m convinced of is that we have a deficient theology of exile,” Dudley said. “We have become too much at home in the world the way that it is, instead of reaching to what the world can be.” There is growing tension in our world between individual responsibility and community accountability; it seems harder and harder to have both these things, rather than pitting one against the other. “Hospitality, for me, is entering into a sacred space where we create common space for us to be together, to operate together, to work together, to serve together,” he said. This is a contrast to our “default mode,” in which we work in the same places but “remain divided” and “everybody else becomes the stranger.” If we are relegating those around us into that “other space,” then Christ is no longer central for us: “People are only marginalized when we maintain a center. But if Christ is the center, we are all on the margins.” Thus, in the process of welcoming the stranger, “the stranger” is not just others, but also us.
It’s easy to keep defaulting back to being comfortable with the world as it is, Dudley said, because it doesn’t cost us much in the short term. But “it’s very hard to show hospitality to anyone else if we are entrenched in the places where we are.” He asked: “Can we maintain human life as sacred according to the way we are currently institutionalized and organized, or does it require that we step out of our comfortable spaces so that we can truly enter a common sacred space where we’re all strangers – where Christ is central?”
Economist P.J. Hill (Wheaton College) spoke about justice and economic systems. He observed that it’s a lot easier to recognize injustices than to define what justice is – it’s easier to find common ground on what is unjust than on what is just. The basis of justice is a universal imago dei that gives us human dignity and “equal moral standing.” Hill went on to argue that if we’re going to be equal before the law, as we are equal before God, we need “a system of rights.” The idea of human rights grows out of the Christian natural law tradition, and the mission to protect people’s rights legitimizes the coercive power of the state. This implies, he said that in the political sphere, our primary goal is the “negative liberty” of protection for rights under the law. However, this liberty also opens up opportunities for people to pursue “more positive visions of justice” in the economic domain and civil society. On the positive side of justice, the duties we owe one another are “much more nuanced, much more situation-specific.” The point is not to deny positive liberty, but to pursue it with non-coercive means.
Hill also addressed Christians who are wary of rights-talk: “The idea is, if we talk about rights, we’re ignoring duties or responsibilities to one another, the understanding that we are made…to relate in social situations – it’s a statement of hyper-individualism and radical autonomy.” But human rights don’t have to mean hyper-individualism and radical autonomy. Preventing human rights from devolving into mere autonomy is “an important role for the church,” he added. “The rights doctrine leaves us with a lot of space…but then what are we going to do with that space?” That’s where we have positive duties and responsibilities to one another. Hill pointed out that this balanced view of human rights was essential to the economic growth that characterizes the modern world; he said this growth is good, but threatens to become the end of our economic activity rather than the means.
Theological educator and pastor Larry Ward (Abundant Life Church and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) spoke on creativity and entrepreneurship. God is a creator and made us to be creative, he said. Creativity has always been a human response to challenges, but today especially “we need to think about innovation in a way that creates space where we can actually cause things to flourish, as God’s people.” This is how we use our strengths to confront challenges and bring about development. Millennials and Gen Z resonate especially with this, he said. Ward described how he teaches in churches that have economic development programs, such as support for entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs in the congregation. He also works with an entrepreneurship education program helping young people learn to start businesses.
The church often doesn’t connect well with entrepreneurs and people who are hungry for innovation, Ward observed. Business leaders are too often seen as checkbooks. Pastors, who are ministers of grace, need to see business leaders as ministers of grace. “Preparing people to be innovative,” Ward said, is as much part of the church’s mission as helping them have “a theological understanding of the scriptures.”
Ethics professor Brent Waters (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary) raised this question: “Is economic exchange a way of loving your neighbor, and if so how would you conceive that?” Exchange is necessary for our well-being, and we mostly exchange with strangers. It’s remarkable, he said, the extent to which we trust strangers when we buy and sell with them: “I think we are the only species that trusts strangers, and that is an art that needs to be cultivated.” Exchange can be a way of loving your neighbor because it provides for material well-being, “and that’s an important theological and moral task, because we have this thing called the Incarnation, which is an extraordinary claim.” If God himself became flesh, we need to care about our bodies; economic exchange is vital to tending to our material needs. However, a challenge to the social trust that exchange depends upon is that “increasingly, the strangers we encounter in our economic exchanges are invisible” because of the global economy. We enable one another’s well-being without knowing one another. We couldn’t survive without this mutual service: “Economic exchange destroys the fiction of autonomy. We need one another….We flourish when we get other people to do things for us because we do things for other people in return.”
Another challenge Waters addressed is the creative destruction of markets. This is disruptive and difficult to adapt to, but is an unavoidable byproduct of exchange. Christians should “enable people to respond to those kinds of changes,” Waters said – help them get skills and education and expand opportunity, not stamp out the changes themselves. The goal is not exchange for its own sake, but to facilitate koinonia, communion with God and neighbor – which is not economic exchange, but is made possible by it.
After their prepared remarks, the panelists engaged in discussion with one another and took questions from the audience. Topics discussed in this insightful conversation included income inequality, appropriate responses to unjust practices, the role of profit in both business and non-profit organizations, and helping young people have a bigger vision of how they can improve their world.