November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
April 4, 2005
The fact that we need a better understanding of economics in relation to how the Christian faith encounters the world in which we live should come as no surprise. The traditional metrics of wealth and poverty have been found wanting and the current upheaval in relation to the ever-growing rift between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ is not slowing. In short, something has got to give. The church’s call to witness is continually compromised as it forgoes embracing this important tension that effects every living person on the planet—how do we (as the body of Christ) embody a responsive economic repose in the world that moves beyond rhetoric and into praxis, that reflects the call of Phil. 2: emptying ourselves and taking the form of servants?
Postmodernism and “the New Poverty”—‘that which has ceased to be…’
As Carl Raschke has pointed out in his book The Next Reformation, postmodernity has raised, not lowered, the bar for the body of Christ as to what ‘form’ our collective lives should take that is humble. Some have been dismissive as to the role postmodern critique can bring to the current questions brought forward with ‘the new poverty.’ Comments that see postmodern critique as merely “intellectual Velcro dragged across culture” which “can be used to characterise almost anything one approves or disapproves,” or as Umberto Eco quipped “it is applied today to anything the users of the term happen to like,” doesn’t take the time to engage and listen. American evangelicalism has been reticent to utilize the tools of postmodern critique to retrofit the Gospel for the zeitgeist and, in the end, has only reinforced systems of economic slavery in the name of Gospel and whispered as ‘the prayer of Jabez.’
This Kuhnian paradigm shift in western philosophical tradition called ‘postmodernism’ has made ready our culture for encountering the challenge of the ‘new poverty’—poverty that is not measured solely by conventional economic indicators such as GNP or cost-of-living indexes, but a deeper understanding of ‘poverty’ that has financial uncertainty as the symptom to a deeper spiritual and psychic crisis in our time that includes loss of hope, lack of support, and gross marginality of people groups. This is the ‘new poverty’ in so much as it is the ‘old poverty’ made new in our time—the authentic poverty that Jesus spoke of that occurs when we turn our back on God and neighbour that had been eclipsed by a century of unbridled capitalism that successfully numbed our culture to the holistic questions of body, mind, soul, and strength. The old party tricks don’t cut it anymore and people of the 2/3rds world have torn down the curtain to see the Wizard for who he really is.
Daniel Adams made this point clear: “It is obvious that modernism as an ideology of Western culture is in serious trouble. At the present time, however, no one knows for certain what will arise to take modernism’s place. The post-modern is the name given to this space between what was and what is yet to be.”
As we attempt to frame the global aspects of a new measure for poverty and grounded economic reflection, it is helpful to review some of the characteristics and themes that are prevalent in our post-modern context:
Four Characteristics of Postmodernism in relation to ‘the New Poverty’:
Given this shift away from a western economic and philosophical dominance and a move toward a more diffused global economic platform, scripture does provide some important guidelines that provide vectors for establishing a measuring line for what God values in relation to our economic view of the world.
“Only in the unbroken awareness of God is humanity’s technological mastery safe. Only in the acceptance of creaturehood can humanity’s dominion over creation be prevented from becoming raw domination. Being answerable to God, humanity remains answerable for their fellow creature and for the soil of the earth.”
“Are the people of God truly God’s people if they oppress the poor? Is the church really the church if it does not work to free the oppressed? [Regarding Matthew 25:41] The meaning [of Mt. 25] is clear and unambiguous. Jesus intends that disciples imitate his own special concern for the poor and needy. Those who disobey will experience eternal damnation… Regardless of what we do or say at 11am on Sunday morning, affluent people who neglect the poor are not the people of God… God is not neutral. His freedom from bias does not mean that he maintains neutrality in the struggle for justice. He is indeed on the side of the poor.”
What are some of the challenges that remain before us in striving toward an authentic and humble biblical economics? We are reminded of the Lausanne Covenant (Article 9/1974): “All of us are shocked by the poverty of millions and disturbed by the injustices which cause it. Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple lifestyle in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.”
In many respects, little has changed in the 30 years since the Lausanne Covenant was drafted, but the challenge before us as people of integrity is still there.
The challenge of the Church is to develop into a ‘Community of Loving Defiance’
Ron Sider puts it this way in Rich Christians in An Age of Hunger: “The church should consist of communities of loving defiance. Instead it consists largely of comfortable clubs of conformity. A far-reaching reformation of the church is a prerequisite if it is to commit itself to Jesus’ mission of liberating the oppressed.” There is a need for intentionality among the faithful to form a new vision of the church as ‘communities of loving defiance’ in a world moving with the inertia of consumerism and an ego-born appetite that shows no natural hope of slowing. The time for a spiritual reassessment of economics—and the ‘new poverty’ where the deficits of the soul are acknowledged on the balance sheet alongside the deficits of the checkbook—is now needed. Bonhoeffer made this all too apparent as a factor for authentic discipleship:
“Earthly possessions dazzle our eyes and delude us into thinking that they can provide security and freedom from anxiety. Yet all the time they are the very source of anxiety. If our hearts are set on them, our reward is an anxiety whose burden is intolerable… When we seek security in possessions we are trying to drive out care with care, and the net result is the precise opposite of our anticipations.”
What are some helpful points to actively reflect on? Ron Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger uses these criteria for decisions regarding a Kingdom-centric economics:
– Does this purchase move toward globally sustainable personal lifestyle?
– How am I distinguishing between necessities and luxuries in my economic priorities?
– Work toward eliminating ‘status expenditures’—can a Walkman do the job that the iPod can?
– Work toward distinguishing between expenditures for creativity and recreation and excessive self-indulgence.
– Try to encourage expenditures on occasional special celebrations rather than when the whim hits you—i.e. Plan ahead for spending.
– Strive toward severing the connection between what you earn and what you consume. This is by far the most difficult task for many. The reality that ‘downsizing’ is incredibly difficult shouldn’t surprise anyone—but the call to do so is certainly central to our faith.
In closing, the challenge before us as post-modern Christians is to live out an economic program that draws from both a Philippians and Colossians perspective. In the letter to the Philippians, there is that marvellous and breathtaking description of Christ, the son of God, who gave up all aspirations to power in order to be servant of all, emptying (kenosis) himself on the Cross. Ministry in the city and the workplace is about being the servant to everyone—the equalising power of respect. That is the micro-focus of economic responsiveness to the ‘new poverty’ where we begin from a ‘Kenotic stance’ by ‘emptying’ ourselves, freeing ourselves from the debt that binds, and walking into the world free to give and free to receive. The letter to the Colossians speaks of the Christ who is the head of all things and in whom all things hold together. He is the head of the new creation, the Church. He is the one who has reconciled all things to Himself through the Cross. He is the hope of glory within us. Ministry in the city and the workplace is about seeing Jesus as Lord of the city and the systems as well as the individuals—the empowering vision that means there are no exclusion zones for Christian presence and influence, working to see the “powers that be” honouring the God by whom and for whom they are created. That is the macro-focus of ministry. We acknowledge with confidence that the world and all that dwells in it is God’s—there are no owners, we are all ‘leasing agents’ in creation. As such, we claim the right for marginalised voices in the global market to be not only heard, but listened to, and their words acted upon. Ultimately, we need to have our collective eyes and ears on both the Philippians paradigm and the Colossians mandate. This is living in true stereophonics and responsive economics. It is in the tension of the micro and macro needs of the coming Kingdom of God, that we are indeed called and certainly cared for by the Gifting Hand of God.
Carl Raschke, The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity(Baker Academic, 2004).
Tyron Inbody, “Postmodernism: Intellectual Velcro Dragged Across Culture,” Theology Today57, no. 4 (January 1995) p. 524.
Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (San Diego/New York/London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), p. 65.
Daniel J. Adams, “Toward a Theological Understanding of Postmodernism,” Cross Currents, Winter 1997-98, Vol. 47 Issue 4.
These are elaborated upon in Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity, pp. 35-52, 96-101. See also John W. Cooper “Reformed Apologetics and the Challenge of Post-Modern Relativism,” Calvin Theological Journal28, no. 1 (April 1993) pp. 109-10.
These are briefly outlined in Shin Kuk-Won, “Postmodernism and a Christian Response,” Pro Rege22, no. 4 (June 1994): 15-25. See esp. pp. 17-18. http://www.dordt.edu/publications/pro_rege/crcpi/95097.pdf
John Taylor, Enough is Enough, p. 53.
Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society(New York: Vintage, 1967).
Ron Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger(London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990) pp. 70-1.
The Lausanne Covenant – http://www.perspectives.org/about/lausanne.html
Ron Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger(London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990) p. 200
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleshipp. 154-7.
Jeff Keuss is professor of Christian ministry, theology, and culture at Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of A Poetics of Jesus, The Sacred and Profane: Current Demands in Hermeneutics, and Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity, and Mission at the Crossroads. Keuss is the co-chair of the Paul Ricoeur Consultation for the American Academy of Religion and serves on the editorial board for the journal Literature and Theology (Oxford University Press). When he is not blogging at Theology Kung Fu (http://senseijfk.wordpress.com/), he is often playing Scrabble with his wife and losing horribly.