Over the last couple of Fridays I have reviewed “Theonomics: Reconnecting Economics with Virtue and Integrity”, edited by Andrew Lightbown and Peter Sills.
Two weeks ago, I questioned a phrase quoted from Pope Leo that calls the nature of common ownership into question. Last week, I looked in-depth at the contribution St Benedict offers to our understanding of community.
This is not an easy book to review. The problem is not so much particular chapters, some are interesting and challenging but the idea there is such a thing as theonomics.
Christians and Usury
Some time during the late middle ages, the Christian faith abandoned its condemnation of usury. Presumably this was around the time capitalism became the dominant economic model. I suspect from this point the Christian faith could no longer lay claim to a distinctive position on the economy.
Islam still maintains the ban on usury. It has developed approaches to funding businesses and financial institutions that do not involve charging interest.
At the time Christianity abandoned usury, early capitalism offered a radical departure. It promised to enrich all by allowing ordinary people to become wealthy and not concentrate wealth in the hands of the aristocracy. Despite the religious divisions of the time (several centuries!), the churches completely adopted capitalism. Only a few sects distance themselves from the economy, eg the Amish.
It is hard to adopt a radical stance to the economy, when you have a stake in an inherently unfair system. This is not in any way to devalue the ideas in the book but it is to question the value of labelling it as theonomics. Most of the values in the book can be found elsewhere.
Perhaps one of the most searching ideas in the book is that of Virtue. The book contrasts virtue with values. Everyone in business is aware of values. They are self-selected values and standards that we claim shape our work. They can be chosen as self-serving attributes for a business or organisation. So, you may genuinely believe in your commitment to honesty in your dealings but in practice are you?
Virtue is an external quality we are born with and it enables us to live a virtuous life.
“Virtue is the agent of inner change and growth, and the pursuit of virtue gives us a moral strength to live by higher qualities and standards than those that simply serve our self-interest.” (Page 70)
The idea of virtue relates to Benedict’s teaching in a monastic context. The point of the monastic community is to develop people not so much for their skills as their character. The point is of course bad faith governs economics today.
Capitalism in Good Faith
Does this mean capitalism is always bad faith economics? It depends on which alternatives you count as capitalism. Mostly alternatives to mainstream capitalism are reforms of capitalism, not really alternatives to it. Capitalism in good faith is possible although an economic system governed by good faith would be nothing like the system we have now or indeed many of the so-called alternatives we have seen.
Whilst welcome, the book’s insights raise the question whether most churches have surrendered virtue to the prevailing economic system. When the banks are able to survive the 2008 financial crisis at the expense of just about everyone, when financial decisions made every day take wealth out of the economy, concentrating it in the hands of barely 1% of the world’s population and at the same time banks will not make loans to poor people on the specious grounds that they are unable to repay them; whither virtue, character or integrity?
You don’t need to be a Christian to see there is something seriously wrong in a society that allows this to happen. Some of the most effective approaches to tackling poverty through alternative financial systems have in fact originated in Islam and I shall return to this in a few weeks time.
Christians can and do make a positive contribution to the economy, challenging its excesses and devising alternative economic systems. But it’s a long time since it was possible to claim a single view from the Christian faith.
Still this book is a significant attempt to find some common ground and if it fails to convince, I would not want stop the search. You never know what might be uncovered in the next book!
Do you believe faith contributes significantly to economic debate? What roles do people of faith have in economic systems?