Christian Faith and Economic Practice

by Roger Shinn

Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 24-31, 1991, pp. 720-723. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Herb & June Lowe.


If the Christian church has something helpful to say to the present, complex economic world, how can it put together needed words and ideas that are more than cliches? Roger Shinn, writing from personal experience, responds to criticisms of the process, demonstrates the pitfalls of the bargaining that goes on in drafting groups, shows how hard it is to move from conviction to relevance, and tells why the Catholic bishops have often been more effective in creating documents that lead to lively controversy and educational excitement.

In 1984 James Gustafson, in his eminent Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, jolted religious professionals with a blast against “ecclesiastical moralizing” and “intellectual flabbiness”: in church “pronouncements.” The usually gentle Gustafson accused churches of failure to recognize the complexities of social issues, neglect of “sound theological and ethical arguments” and dogmatic refusal to recognize “the probability of reasonable dissent.”

How were we, his colleagues in the churches, to respond? Should we fight back, championing what we had said and done? Or should we thank him for verbalizing misgivings we had felt but not uttered? To me, Gustafson’s challenge was like a punch to the jaw. Over some 30 years I had helped draft documents in my denomination, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. I liked to believe that I so often landed on drafting committees because of an ability to listen to diverse views and help shape a consensus. But I suspected that my skill was in finding words to cover over differences. I half wanted to give Gustafson a counterpunch, half wanted to applaud him for exposing my own feelings.

What Gustafson did in general, Widick Schroeder, professor of religion and society at Chicago Theological Seminary, now does in a specific case. He puts his sharp mind to work on the economic ethic coming out of his (and my) denomination, the United Church of Christ. Apart from details his book may be paradigmatic for other churches and ecumenical groups. He assaults first the process and then the substance of the effort.

Schroeder and I both had limited roles in the process of creating the UCC pronouncement on economic life, but at different stages. If we had interacted, we would frequently have argued, frequently agreed. In any cooperative project, I expect to win some and lose some. In this case I lost quite a few, but never planned to go public with my discontents. Now, however, I find an unexpected invitation from the CHRISTIAN CENTURY to be an irresistible temptation to say a few things. I hope I can be honest without being grouchy.

The study was nine years in gestation. It began-appropriately, given UCC polity-with a few people forming a Theology and Economics Covenant Group in 1980. I was glad to join, because I suspected that the convergence of new ecological issues and old issues of social justice called for fresh ideas, more radical than those of the traditional left or right.

In 1983 the group got endorsement from the General Synod to prepare a study paper, leading toward a pronouncement to be submitted to the Synod. Enlarging our membership, we sought diversity of race, gender and professional competencies. But the group, Schroeder points out, was mostly religious professionals (mainly from denominational staffs, specialized ministries and seminary faculties), leavened by three university economists. A suggestion that there be some practitioners from business, industry, labor unions and government-people engaged in production, collective bargaining, payment of wages, and legislation-was dismissed. That, I think, became a fatal flaw.

The meetings led to lively interchanges, including some clashes that were moderated by friendliness and desire for consensus. Various members wrote position papers on a variety of issues. At one stage I was delegated to prepare a preliminary draft of a full document, incorporating elements from individuals’ prior drafts and notes from our discussion. I did so and added a detailed criticism of my own work. I had found it impossible at that stage to do a coherent paper that would be faithful to the diversity of the group.

I thought our task, though not hopeless, would require far deeper exploration of issues than we had done. But then we ran into barriers of time and money. Yes, group work on economic ethics requires economic resources. Our budget did not permit many meetings because of the travel expenses they entailed. Repeatedly we came up to an issue, discussed it too briefly, then contrived a formula that concealed differences. For example, the document criticizes the U. S. economy “not because we prefer an alternative form of economic organization, but because this is our household.” It would have been more truthful to say that some of our group did prefer alternative forms of organization and some did not.

At that stage I almost gave up on the process. Instead, in appreciation for colleagues whom I respect and cherish, I identified myself as the “loyal opposition,” who would raise questions in the hope of improving a document that I probably could not endorse. At one stage somebody suggested that the study paper include criticisms from members; I welcomed that opportunity, both for myself and for others who felt that their opinions were lost in the search for consensus. But that opportunity did not come, probably because of both calendar and costs.

With the completion of the study paper, I withdrew from the process. I could not honestly defend the document-with all its incoherences and internal contradictions-before proposed regional meetings, and I thought it did not provide an adequate basis for the pronouncement that was to follow.

The study paper. “Christian Faith and Economic Life,” evoked a shorter counter-paper from the Pension Boards. “The Market System and American Democratic Policy: Reflections in the Light of Covenantal Tradition.” Both went to the churches. The latter document was friendlier than the original to “the market system, combined with democratic polity.” Schroeder had a hand in developing this paper. His own view he describes as preferring “democratic capitalism to democratic socialism.” However, his book is not a contention for this position; it is an argument that the General Synod, rather than advocating an orthopraxis, should recognize that Christians may reasonably hold diverse opinions on such issues.

The original study paper led to a proposed pronouncement. It evoked a counterproposal from the Commission for Racial Justice and the Council for Racial and Ethnic Ministries, with heightened denunciations of racism, militarism and materialism. Both went to all churches with a request for discussion and reports back. Schroeder says that fewer than one percent of churches responded, and that neither proposal won majority support. The procedure agreed with the UCC constitution but, contends Schroeder, it showed weak local support in a denomination that so strongly emphasizes congregational polity.

Shortly before the General Synod, denominational staff combined elements of the two proposals. The compromise went to the General Synod of 1989 where, after limited discussion and amendment, it was adopted, with the title “A Pronouncement on Christian Faith: Economic Life and Justice.”

After a biting criticism of the process, Schroeder examines the content of the study paper and the pronouncement. He finds them “neither internally consistent nor systematically coherent.” They are “narrowly conceived.” “doctrinaire” and “limited in scope.” They are “indoctrination pieces” showing “little tolerance” for the diversity of opinion in the UCC. They represent a “sectarian” position with a utopian cast. They are wistfully trusting of government, except on militarism, where government is pernicious.

Rather than analyze Schroeder’s carefully argued position. I shall here make some observations that partly agree with and partly differ from his. I detect in the document three theological-ethical strands, uneasily joined. The first is a Christian perfectionism. which aspires to a communal sharing sometimes practiced in utopian sects but never remotely approached in a large-scale economy. We shrink from our economic responsibility, says the pronouncement, “because we are afraid to bear the suffering love of Christ in our own lives. We are unwilling to depend upon God alone for our security.” Such statements are understandable in, say, an Anabaptist “church of the martyrs.” They are a puzzling basis for a public economic ethic. Are they, taken literally, an argument against a Social Security system, since God alone gives security? If not, what do they mean?

The second strand is informed by liberation theologies, with their emphasis on class conflict and the need to overthrow present systems. Here the document appeals to the example of the biblical Exodus and God’s disruption of “the productive but deadly economy of Pharaoh.” But the sophistication of liberation theologies is missing-a point to which I shall return.

The third strand is an economic meliorism represented by a careful listing of the strengths and weaknesses of market economics. This was the position of the economists, who were moderately left of center in the American spectrum but who advocated a market economy modified by government regulation. This position tends to dominate the documents, jarred now and then by the other two strands.

All these strands have found expression in Christian history. I can respect all, when they are truly held. I can learn from all. But they are not easily merged into a coherent ethic. The documents show signs of the tacit bargaining that often goes on in drafting groups: we’ll let you get your point in if you’ll let us get ours in–even if the two don’t agree. Why is it so hard for churches to develop an economic ethic? It is easy to raise a cry of pain and outrage against the destructiveness of the American economy on our own poor people, on other societies and on the ecosystem. I share the anger that informs the UCC pronouncement. It is much harder to move to corrective policies. I see four problems in the journey.

The first and most general is the relation between faith and political action. Gustavo Gutiérrez, in his famed Theology of Liberation, states well the dialectical relation. We cannot separate the two, as though they were unrelated. A faith that refuses to express itself in action is unreal. But to seek “a direct, immediate relationship between faith and political action” is to encourage a “dangerous politico-religious messianism” that does not “respect either the autonomy [I prefer semiautonomy] of the political arena or that which belongs to an authentic faith.” For Gutiérrez, the gospel requires the church to strive for justice, to be an advocate for the poor and oppressed. But the gospel does not dictate the “rational analyses of reality” that inform a policy. That distinction, often neglected in religious ethics, makes possible authentic discussion.

The second problem is clarification of the ethical base for policy. A church can properly challenge members to act according to their Christian faith. How does it challenge wider publics? Think of the U.S. Congress, labor unions, multinational corporations, the world’s ten largest banks (seven of them Japanese, two French and one American), the United Nations Economic and Social Council. These are not likely to base policy on “the suffering love of Christ.” (Neither, in fact, is the church, but that is a different problem.) Schroeder argues persuasively that when churches address public policy, they must relate their biblical faith to a wide range of moral insight.

The third problem is that, even for the church, the path from Scripture to contemporary economic policy is arduous. The Bible’s insistent attention to economic justice and its concern for the poor are striking. But biblical remedies are more tentative. To take a familiar example, the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25) is a ringing declaration for economic equality; but the Levitical law includes canny compromises on sale prices, on differentiation between urban and rural properties, and on clerical privileges. Some of these are irrelevant, some ethically offensive in a modern society.

The New Testament heightens the problem. What does Jesus’ injunction against laying up treasure on earth say to church programs funded by income from corporate stocks? Should church agencies sell all their investments and distribute the proceeds to the poor? Why, after rhetorical gestures in that direction, does the General Synod draw back from any such proposal? In the absence of a thoughtful hermeneutic, we on the committee found ourselves ornamenting our drafts with biblical quotations, never saying why we chose them as we did. When somebody commented that we were engaged in sophisticated proof-texting, I had to reply that it was unsophisticated proof-texting.

The fourth problem is the understanding of the functions of an economy–or a political economy, to use the accurate traditional term. In 1926 John Maynard Keynes, not yet the most celebrated economist of this century, said: “The political problem of mankind is to combine three things: economic efficiency, social justice, and individual liberty.” Today we might add a fourth: ecological viability, in the double sense of reducing consumption of nonrenewable resources and protecting the ecosystem against disastrous pollution. It is easy to become an enthusiast for any one of these four functions. Religious groups usually neglect efficiency, partly because some other interests accent it alone. An adequate ethic takes account of all four, bringing them into a synergistic relation where possible, moderating the various demands where they compete. But that nuanced task does not lend itself to dramatic statements.

To take a contemporary example, how shall we remedy the painful lack of affordable housing? What combination of new construction techniques, market incentives, compulsory taxation, credit structures, voluntary organizations and self-help will be effective? No one of these alone can do the job. To discover an answer and then implement it among competing interests requires moral imagination, technical ingenuity and political skill.

No church pronouncements advocate coerced equality at the surrender of all freedom and all rewards for achievement. None advocates ecological restraint to the extent of intense poverty. None endorses sheer economic efficiency at immense human costs. But few enter into the complex issues that confront every economic and governmental enterprise that seeks to relate the various values that infuse any political economy.

These four problems confront all projects in economic ethics. They do not make efforts impossible. I think of such diverse writers of a past generation as Walter Rauschenbusch, William Temple, R. H. Tawney, Harry Ward, Denys Munby and E. F. Schumacher. I think of such contemporaries as Ronald Preston, John Bennett, Hazel Henderson, Philip Wogaman, Robert Stivers, Michael Novak, Robert Benne, Max Stackhouse, Douglas Meeks, John Cobb and Herman Daly. (I intend to make my own try one of these days, if I live long enough.) I do not commend any of these many writers as the voice of the church. Rather, I find in them, in all their contrariety, coherent arguments. You and I can get our teeth into them, knowing where we want to agree and where we want to fight back.

It is much harder, of course, to weave together a consensus, to harmonize warp and woof, to fit various patterns into a many-seamed garment. Schroeder objects that the UCC process and pronouncement designedly excluded much of the diversity within the denomination. I can concur with that, even as I make the opposite objection: the participants were too diverse to agree on a cogent position without much, much more intensive work.

Must churches then be silent? Not at all. They might-as Schroeder and I agree-show how a community with a shared faith and ethical passion can legitimately produce some agreement and some diversity in practical judgments. That would put on people the burden of coming to judgments of their own. For the churches it could mean more selective, more effective advocacy.

But the pressure in committees to come to consensus is tremendous. Any open confession of divided opinions is regarded as waffling. I suggest that the real waffling is finding clichés that cover up the differences.

Strangely, I must say-as I cannot imagine myself saying 20 years ago-that Roman Catholics often do better. Gustafson, in the blast that I cited at the beginning, exempted from his polemic the pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops on war and peace. At that time the bishops had not yet produced their pastoral letter on the economy, and I cannot speak for Gustafson on that. But I found I could use the latter in coteaching a course for theological students (Protestant and Jewish) and students in a graduate school of business administration. I could not so use the UCC pronouncement. The Catholic document had a clarity that led to lively controversy and educational excitement. Readers knew what it meant.

Why did the Catholic bishops do better? One reason is that they are a continuing body, who meet regularly and learn to talk to one another. Also, they have an expert secretariat that works between meetings, not making the decisions but shaping up the issues on which the bishops decide. However, there are three other virtues of their process.

First, although the teaching authority is located exclusively in the hierarchy-a polity I think mistaken-the Catholic bishops surprisingly take more account of lay opinion than do most Protestant bodies. They listen at length to specialists from many walks of life and interest groups. And they distinguish between beliefs that they urge on all Christians and beliefs that they offer for consideration in the public arena.

Second, they look for Catholic Christian insights (biblical and ecclesiastical) that are also validated by wider moral experience. Adapting their tradition of natural law without its past rigidities, they look for opportunities to address the body politic in terms of its values as well as their own.

Third, they are more aware of the hermeneutical path from biblical and historical teaching to a modern industrial world. Without acquiescing in that world, they show some skill in addressing it.

A portentous ethical agenda faces all of us who live in this world of rampant economic forces that shape life, often more quickly than we can understand them. Thinking new thoughts, we might-possibly-learn from our past successes and failures.