Skip to main content

Notes on Glen Stassen and David Gushee, ‘Economic Ethics’

[This post continues the focus on economic ethics.  Here are notes on a chapter by Glen Stassen and David Gushee on 'economic ethics' without comment.]

Glen Stassen and David Gushee, ‘Economic Ethics’ in Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003).

There are two distinct triads [a structural feature of the Sermon on the Mount, as Stassen argues] on economics in the Sermon on the Mount: Mt. 6.19-23 and 6.24-34.  Matthew 6.19-23 begins with a traditional teaching on not storing up treasures on earth and then addresses a vicious cycle of ‘where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal’ (cf. Js. 5.1-6).  The transforming initiative is ‘But treasure up for yourselves treasures in heaven’ (6.20).  There are three explanations for this.  First, ‘a life of economic generosity trades earthly treasures for divine approval in this life and the next, an exchange of ‘treasures’ well worth making’ (Mt. 6.20) (410).  Second, ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Mt. 6.21).  Third, ‘If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light (Mt. 6.21)’ (410).  ‘The transforming initiative is to invest one’s treasures in God’s reign of justice and love through practices of economic generosity and justice-making’ (411).

What is rejected is not property and possessions but ‘stinginess, greed, hoarding and lack of generosity’ (411).  ‘The ‘evil eye’ in Jewish teaching connotes stinginess and greed and the ‘healthy’ (or ‘single’) eye connotes generosity’ (411).  ‘A genuinely ‘impossible ideal’ would be to do what so many (including Christians) in wealthy cultures such as our own do: piling up wealth and extravagant possessions for themselves while at the same time claiming to give as generously to the needy as they ‘can,’ and living extravagantly while claiming not to be affected by such spending choices in their ‘hearts’.  Jesus’ teaching is far more realistic: invest your possessions generously in God’s reign of justice and mercy, and you will find your heart is invested there as well.

Mt. 6.24-34.  V. 24 is the traditional teaching: ‘No one is able to serve two masters.’  V. 24 also offers the vicious cycle: It is impossible to serve two masters.  Vv. 25-33 give four exhortations, the first being connected to the vicious cycle and the latter three offering transforming initiatives: do not worry, look at the birds, consider the lilies, strive first for the kingdom.  (412)  ‘It is important to read the exhortation against worry in light of the emphasis on economic generosity and the economic justice that characterizes God’s reign….  Seeing this can help comfortable Westerners avoid reducing Jesus’ moral teaching on economic life to something like the following understanding, so common in our churches: ‘Enjoy your material comforts and try not to worry too much if you don’t have everything you want’’ (413).  ‘This is a justice teaching, not a psychological teaching.  And it is a discipleship teaching, a summons to serve God’s compassionate reign through acts of justice-advancing compassion toward the most economically vulnerable and oppressed’ (413).

Corroborating this justice reading is the point that ‘practice of piety’ in Mt. 6.1-18 is better understood as practice of ‘righteousness/justice’, entailing alms, debt-forgiveness (according to the Jubilee—they follow Yoder here).

Five themes outside the Sermon on the Mount on money.

1.      ‘Possessions are intrinsically insignificant beyond the basic sufficiency provided by our gracious God’ (414).  Lk. 12.13-15; Mt. 25.31-46.
2.      ‘Misreading the value of possessions stimulates greed’ (415).  Mt. 23.25; Lk. 11.39; Lk. 16.14; Mt. 6.24; Lk. 12.16-21.
3.      ‘Greed encourages a lifestyle of luxury, pride, hoarding, self-indulgence, oppression and lack of generosity’ (416).  Mt. 25.31-46; Lk. 12.33; 14.33; Mt. 19.16-30//Mk. 10.17-31//Lk. 18.18-30.  Meeting basic needs (1 Jn. 3.17-18; Acts 4.32-37; 5.1-11; 2 Cor. 8.13-15).  Lk. 16.19-31.
4.      ‘The deceptive allure of wealth can choke discipleship and imperil the soul.’ (418).  Mk. 4.3-20//Mt. 13.3-23//Lk. 8.4-15.
5.      Jesus identified with the poor and promises abundance and justice in a coming ‘great reversal.’’ (418).  Lk. 4.18-21; Mt. 11.5; Lk. 14.15-24; 19.8; Jn. 12.5-6; 13.29; Lk. 7.25; 19.16-31; 6.20-21; Lk. 1.46-55; 14.7-24; 18.9-14, 22-24.

Key Themes in Christian Economic Ethics

1.      Property rights, work and the nature of ownership. 
Genesis 1.28-30 and 9.3-4 show that ‘all material goods, beginning with the most basic—food—should be viewed as God’s good gifts, divine provision for all humankind’—what Catholics call the ‘universal destination of goods’ (p. 420).  Yet this does not require opposing private ownership: it calls for just distribution.  ‘The right to private property is best grounded in a theological understanding of work, personal and familial responsibility, and human freedom’ (p. 420).  The 8th commandment (against theft) requires private ownership.  ‘Instead of equality of outcome, the better statement of the Christian norm of economic justice can be found in this definition offered by Stephen Mott and Ronald Sider: ‘Justice demands that every person or family has access to the productive resources (land, money, knowledge) so they have the opportunity to earn a generous sufficiency of material necessities and be dignified, participating members of their community’ (Stephen Mott and Ronald Sider, ‘Economic Justice,’ 40, italics theirs) (p. 421).  ‘Secondarily, all actors in a just economy will do their part to make adequate provision for a decent and dignified existence for those who are unable to provide for themselves, such as the disabled, orphaned children, the abandoned, thementally ill, the very old and so on (for the abundance of biblical texgts on this theme, see Mott and Sider, ‘Economic Justice,’ 40-42; e.g., Ex. 23.10-11; Lev. 19.9-10; 25.47-53; Deut. 14.28-29; Ruth 2)’ (p. 421f).  ‘Christians need to learn practices of economic spending, sharing and empowerment that lead the way here’ (p. 422).

2.      The Economic Systems Debate
‘World history has seen a wide variety of economic systems: agrarian feudalism, laissez-faire industrial capitalism, Marxist Communism, state socialism, democratic socialism, mixed or balanced economy, and now free-market globalizaiton, to name a few’ (422).

Problems with liberal capitalism include: ‘persistent and sometimes devastating income and wealth inequality both within and between nations, gross concentrations of economic and political power both stemming from and contributing to the exploitation of the poor by the rih, the stimulation of an ethos of consumerism and acquisitiveness with deeply problematic cultural and moral ramifications…, ruthlessness in economic relations, production of morally odious products of various types and environmental devastation’ (424).  The benefits include: ‘maximizes personal autonomy, encourages innovation, meets the basic human needs of most people in society, generates numerous jobs and produces great wealth’ (424).  The authors hold up 20th century Roman Catholic teaching as the best Christian teaching on economics.

3.      Business ethics, stewardship and Dave Ramsey.

‘Stewardship’ is often the way Christians speak of finances.  But this degenerates into a discussion of tithing.  ‘Sacrificial giving’ as a mandate in God’s Kingdom should be given more attention (425).