Note: This is an excerpt of a chapter in the ON resource Economic Wisdom for Churches. See also Luke Bobo’s Race, Economics and Apologetics: Is There a Connection?, which was shared with attendees at Karam Forum 2020.
THESIS 50: Christians should be taught that if the pope knew about the exploitation practiced by the indulgence-preachers, he would burn the church of St. Peter to ashes rather than build it with the skin, flesh and bones of the sheep.Martin Luther, 95 Theses
Jobs, poverty, globalization, environment, debt, racism, trade – does the church have anything to say about these matters, of such vital concern to the people around us? I believe that pastors today do not lack the will to speak about justice; rather, our challenge is to find language pastors can use with confidence, a way of bearing witness for justice that does not make the church captive to partisan or ideological agendas…
Pastors Must Preach about Economic Justice
Speaking out for the cause of the oppressed and exploited is central to being a good pastor. This responsibility is part of the Christian life for all of us, of course; all Christians are called to be prophets, priests and kings, and the office of prophet involves exposing the world’s injustice. But this is particularly important for those who are professional spokespeople for the kingdom of God. The gospel call to repentance from sin becomes trite and superficial if the institutional church is not putting forward a powerful vision of justice that stands in sharp contrast to the darkness and evil of the world.
Economic issues are one of the primary places where the prophetic witness of the church against injustice is needed. This is clear in scripture; to take only one example, the prophets denounce economic injustice more frequently than any other kind of injustice. It is clear in church history; as we will see, heroes of the faith from the early church fathers to the medieval scholars to Martin Luther, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther King made justice for the poor and oppressed a central theme of their gospel preaching. And it is clear in our world today.
Most pastors today, however, seem reluctant to get specific in this area. They’re comfortable telling us to be just and fair. But few are able to articulate what a just society with a just economy would look like, or which specific aspects of our social order today are unjust.
It’s not hard to guess why. Our society is so politicized and its politics are so polarized that it is difficult to get specific about justice without appearing to take sides in bitter partisan and ideological conflicts. If pastors begin denouncing specific unjust practices or recommending specific kinds of social order, people may think they’re importing worldly political and economic ideologies into the church.
Pastors are right to be very concerned about captivity to worldly ideologies and partisan conflicts. But silence and paralysis are not adequate responses either. God’s holiness cries out for a witness to justice in the face of the world’s wickedness. And how foolish do we look, telling people that they need to repent from sin or that Jesus will make them righteous, while we remain passive in the face of the very injustices that these same people suffer daily?
Today we look back with grief, if not scorn and derision, upon those Christians in past ages who preached the gospel to slaves but had nothing to say about the evil of slavery. That was very wrong. But we should not allow ourselves to feel too superior to them until our own pulpits have more to say about justice than they do now.
Is there a real Satan and a real hell, whose evil is really and truly at work among worldly powers in the present age? Is Satan drawing the oppressors away from God through their greed and pride, while drawing the oppressed away from God through their resentment and despair? If not, the gospel itself can be called into question. But, if so, pastors should preach about justice – including justice in the economic structures that shape people’s daily lives so profoundly.
The church’s claim that hell exists, and that people are in peril of it, has little credibility if the church does not show people how the power of hell is at work in their world. The connection between economic justice and the gospel is not a matter of tenuous, abstract reasoning. It is immediate and palpable…
Legacies of Injustice: We Are Implicated
The new economic order and its explosive economic growth, while good in themselves, have created unique spiritual challenges, temptations, and occasions of sin. All blessings from God are double-edged, because he gives them into the hands of sinful humanity. We must consider how we are implicated in historic injustices and what opportunities exist to take responsible action to rectify them and their legacies…
Colonialism, Slavery, Racism and Segregation
Slavery and ethnic prejudice are universal practices in human culture. However, Europe’s colonization of other parts of the world in the early modern period, resulting in industrial-scale enslavement and the elevation of garden-variety ethnic prejudice (which was bad enough already) into the hideous delusion of racial manifest destiny, is a unique phenomenon. Few economic injustices have been as severe in the long, sorry roll of human wickedness.
However, in our rush to address this legacy, we must be careful not to oversimplify its complex relationship with the emergence of economic growth. Modern economic growth in Europe was not simply “built on slavery and colonialism.” To a large degree, economic and technological advances began to emerge first – they were already underway in the late Middle Ages – and gave Europe the power to travel around the world, conquering and enslaving people and setting up enormous systems of international slave trade…It is especially noteworthy that today, as the whole world embraces what [Douglass] North calls the open access order, the whole world is experiencing the same kind of explosive economic growth Europe and North America experienced two centuries ago…
Economic growth in Africa is especially noteworthy. Africa is caricatured by the world’s wealthy elites as an economic basket case, deserving of pity and handouts from . . . well, from the world’s wealthy elites. This narrative strives to keep Africa in a state of dependence and powerlessness, under the control of the international donor class.
As this chapter goes to press, I have recently returned from my daughter’s December ice skating recital, at which one student skated to the racist song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The lyrics assert that there is no snow in Africa; also “no rain or rivers” because “the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears” (there’s this little thing called the Nile, maybe you’ve heard of it?); “nothing ever grows” (then where is Starbucks getting all that coffee?) which is why we need to “feed the world” (Africans apparently can’t eat unless we feed them – you know, like infants or domesticated animals) to “let them know it’s Christmas.” The international donor class keeps remaking and releasing versions of this repulsive song because it helps them fleece a gullible public for donations.
Africa’s reality is different. It has begun growing and producing its own wealth, just like every other continent…Growth is occurring not only in the wealthier nations (South Africa, Algeria and Egypt) but also in extremely poor nations (Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania). Nine of the ten [largest] nations are growing; only the Democratic Republic of Congo, torn apart by civil war, is not.
The Global South didn’t start growing – in some cases like wildfire – by colonizing and enslaving other regions. It started growing because the decline of colonialism and the establishment of international markets allowed the Global South to participate in the liberation of human creative potential that Europe and North America have already partaken of. Now, we can all serve each other and grow together.
In other words, it happened because Africans, Asians and Latin Americans are made in the image of God, just like Europeans and North Americans.
The despicable legacy of slavery and colonialism is still with us in many ways. Although formal legal systems of injustice have been removed, their influence remains with us, primarily through unequal distribution of what economists call “human capital” (e.g. skills, knowledge, experience) and “social capital” (e.g. networks of relationships). Racism continues to influence many people’s thinking and behavior, and may be increasing as secularization and the weakening of social institutions leave people searching for systems of meaning and social solidarity. Even our very efforts to rectify these injustices can help perpetuate them by creating incentives to strengthen rather than diminish ethnic grievances based on historic injustices, pitting groups against one another in a competition for access to resources and opportunities to be distributed on the basis of victimhood.
As the inheritors of a civilization that perpetrated these injustices, we are responsible to do what we can to help our civilization free itself of their legacy. And, as representatives of the kingdom of God, we are responsible to promote the reconciliation of all people groups that is a core part of the gospel narrative.