Preaching economic opportunity
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. While justice is complex, I argue that expanding opportunity provides one valuable organizing concept for economic justice that allows us to bring together theological integrity and contemporary applicability.
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.
Justice in our time: opportunity
Expanding opportunity is one key concept we can use to articulate and practice our witness for economic justice. The church can fight to expand opportunity for everyone, but especially for those who have the least opportunity now. This isn’t the only thing we need, but I believe it should be at the forefront of a new effort to bear witness to justice in economic activity in the coming generation.
Although it seems intuitively simple, opportunity is actually a complex concept. By “opportunity” I mean effectual access to more and better options for engaging in voluntary work and exchange. One advantage of a focus on opportunity is that people have a strong intuitive sense that they know what it is, yet its underlying complexity makes it a culturally flexible and contextualizable concept rather than a rigid ideology.
Opportunity includes a legal aspect, centered on the rule of law. Under dualistic systems of oppression, the rich and powerful take away others’ rights to engage in economic activity – to own and control their own property, to engage in business and exchange, to demand legal protection and the enforcement of contracts when they have been attacked or wronged. The rule of law, which protects all people’s rights equally, is essential to economic opportunity.
But expanding opportunity involves more than legal reform. Informal (non-legal) systems and practices that circumscribe access to work and exchange, such as ethnic prejudice, need to be challenged. People’s capacities to engage in more valuable forms of work and exchange can be built, by helping them increase their human and social capital. This can include everything from stronger discipleship systems in local churches to proactive relationship building in communities to better education and finance policies.
Opportunity as one focus of economic justice fits with the biblical story and law. It increases human capacity to exercise stewardship over the creation order and support their households through work and exchange. It also strengthens relationships based on love and mutual service.
It fits with historic Christianity. In every era of the church, expanding effective access to work and exchange, particularly for those on the margins who have the least access, has been a concern of great theologians and reformers. The great economic revolution Christianity helped bring about, from the old order that was explicitly based on the dominance of the leisure class to the new order in which the economic rights of all people are at least theoretically affirmed, has the expansion of opportunity at its heart.
A focus on opportunity helps address the greatest particular injustices of our time. It provides an approach to ethnic reconciliation that challenges the paternalism of the dominant class and affirms the dignity of all, and, by building relationships based on cooperative value creation, it creates a context for reconciliation. It also aligns with the need to strengthen sexual norms and restore family structures. These disorders are among the most important causes of low levels of human and social capital among the economically poor.
Perhaps most important, a focus on opportunity challenges the materialism of worldly economic ideologies of the Right and Left, while also connecting with the qualities in these ideologies that are good. Like the Right, it affirms property and contract rights; but it challenges the Right to see that free markets by themselves are not enough. Like the Left, it affirms a proactive concern for the poorest; but it challenges the Left to rethink the limits of what can be accomplished by expanding the technocratic state and moving money around.
This trans-partisan quality may be the reason why – at least in my experience – a strong consensus exists in the church today that expanding opportunity is a good and very needful thing. Polarization in the culture tends to create paralysis in the church, as we spend more time fighting each other over what to do about justice than we do actually pursuing justice. If expanding opportunity is something we can all agree on, even in the present polarized atmosphere, that alone argues for giving it a central place. We might actually get off the blocks and get to work on it.
This is an excerpt from the author’s chapter in the Oikonomia Network’s minibook, Economic Wisdom for Churches: A Primer on Stewardship, Poverty and Flourishing. A PDF version of the book is available on the Economic Wisdom Project webpage.
Topics: Justice, Preaching