John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
The following paper was written in December, 1990.
The goal of increasing production and consumption profoundly misdirects energies. It is far more important to provide every individual a recognized and dignified role in the community and to find ways to work out the inevitable conflicts of community life without violence and alienation. Christ does not command us to avoid controversy. Nor does Christ insist that we be successful by the standards of the market. Christ does call us to recognize that we cannot serve both God and Mammon and to choose God.
III. CHRIST AND MAMMON
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, to which I belong, had strong views about money. In his later years, surveying the remarkable success of the movement he had started, he said that he had no fear about its continuation. His great fear was for its inner spirit. He had observed two things. First, although most converts to Methodism were poor, many moved into the middle class. Second, middle class Methodists divided their loyalties between God and the acquisition of wealth. For the latter I have chosen to use the word familiar to us from the King James and early revised versions of the Bible: Mammon.
The upward mobility Wesley observed with distress is easily understood. In the spirit of the earlier Reformers, Wesley taught that Methodists should earn all they could, save all they could, and give all they could. He himself earned quite a lot through his many publications, lived frugally, and gave away what he did not need. Hence he accumulated no private treasure to distract his attention from doing God's work. His followers became disciplined workers and lived frugally. Many of them were generous with their money. But this generosity did not prevent the accumulation of some capital and its wise investment. The security and growth of this capital became a matter of concern to them, competing for their attention with their service to God.
When we ask why Methodists have grown lukewarm, it is well to accept Wesley's own analysis as an important part of the answer. We have grown lukewarm because we have become rich. Despite Jesus' specific denial of this possibility, we try to serve both God and Mammon. I fear that, in this respect, we do not differ greatly from Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and even Lutherans.
If this is the case, then it may seem that I have been wasting our time by talking about our theological failures as causes of our decline. But I do not think so. Given that it is impossible for middle class churches to have the fervor of original Methodism (or contemporary Pentecostalism), nevertheless, they have their ups and downs. I have been comparing the lukewarmness of the end of the twentieth century with the health of the first part of the century. This may be due in part to the increased wealth of our membership, but not primarily. Our churches were already largely middle class by the beginning of this century. Yet at that time they had strong convictions and acted on them in a way that does not characterize us now. That is the change I have been trying to understand.
Although I do not think the lukewarmness of the oldline churches in our day can be explained primarily by increased wealth during this century, I do think that the ageold struggle of God and Mammon is important to its understanding. Mammon has achieved a cultural and political dominance in today's world that it has never had before. The failure of the church to speak to that change is one reason for its lukewarmness.
Our failure to address the growing dominance of Mammon is a theological one, somewhat comparable to the others I have discussed. We have acquiesced in changes during the past fifty years that are of enormous importance to the planet and all its inhabitants. These changes are in direct contradiction of clear Biblical teaching. In that context there is little possibility of wholehearted commitment to Christ.
On this topic the Bible is clear. It gives almost no support to the pursuit of wealth and has few good things to say about those who possess it and protect it. On this point Jesus himself is especially clear and emphatic. Furthermore, this consistent emphasis cannot be discounted as a mere reflection of the social mores of the time. On the contrary, it is a word spoken against both the common practice of the day and the ideology that supported it.
Thus the Bible has posed here a different kind of challenge to the church than the one posed by the tension between its support of patriarchy, on the one side, and of justice for all, on the other. The theological challenge from an early day has been to relate a teaching that is clear, but quite impractical, to the ongoing life of a community. This is the same challenge that we face today.
The solution would be easier if Christianity were, in fact, an otherworldly religion. But Jesus was focused on this life. He was by no means indifferent to human illness and hunger. He taught us to pray for our daily bread. When God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven, all will have their physical needs met. We cannot, and should not, be indifferent to the healthy working of the economy that makes this possible.
In all economic systems wealth is unevenly distributed. Although we should be more respectful that we are of the achievements Communism in its effort to move society toward equality, these efforts were never really successful. Given the apparent necessity of some spread in wealth and income, and given the extreme spread in the world today, what are we to say to those serious Christians who have more than others?
In much of the tradition the church has taught that the real sin is not the possession of wealth in a context where others are poor, but attachment to it. One should accept wealth as the gift of God, but always be ready to surrender it, should God call for that. Meanwhile, one should use it wisely and generously. If, on the other hand, one finds that this degree of economic responsibility interferes with one's spiritual life, and one desires to be perfect, one may renounce the world, take the vow of poverty (along with obedience and chastity) and become a monk or a nun. As a monk one's material needs are cared for by others, so that one is free to devote onself to spiritual practices.
The Reformers rejected the option of monasticism. Everyone should deal with her or his responsibilities in the economy and family structure. But the Christian should not be attached to wealth. And what one does not need should be given to meet the needs of others.
Throughout the period when Christian teaching shaped the thinking of the West, this teaching largely accepted the economic structures of the day. On the other hand, it also influenced them. Greed was uniformly regarded as a deadly sin. This certainly did not make greed disappear! But it reduced the public status of the rich.
The church, in continuity with ancient Israel, was deeply suspicious of money making money. Money should be earned by labor. The church tried to adjust prices so that there would be a fair return to labor. Of course, market forces of pricing according to supply and demand were also operative, but they were moderated by the church. Usury, which simply meant lending money at interest, was legally forbidden to Christians. This inhibited the rise of a capitalist system. But since the need to borrow money continued, nonChristians performed this service. The Jews were denied other economic opportunities and then detested because they performed a service regarded as profoundly immoral.
For other reasons, especially the belief that giving to the church accumulated merits helpful to the soul after death, the church itself became rich. Normatively this wealth was used for proper purposes of the church and for the sake of the poor, but there were also major abuses. The princes of the church were able to enjoy that wealth personally, even if it was not treated quite as a private possession. But this misuse of wealth by the church was not passed over in silence. It was the object of repeated and massive protests and major reform movements.
Wealth and power were separate. Power came through location in the feudal system. Of course, rank entitled one to rents and thus to considerable wealth. But this could be overspent, so that the noble could be short of funds. The wealthy, on the other hand, did not always have much political power. They were sometimes in danger of dispossession by the powerful.
This secondary role of wealth resulted partly from the moral judgment against it. The accumulation of wealth was associated with the sin of greed, and often with usury as well. Its possessors were envied and resented, but not admired. The leaders of church and government had higher status. The highest status was reserved for the saints.
I remind you of these familiar facts in order to sharpen the contrast with the present. Today neither social mores nor Christian teaching provides any significant inhibition to the acquirement of wealth. The system by which this is done is based on what was then called usury. The greed which drives people to gain wealth is respected as a proper motivation. Those who succeed exercise enormous power. And they are held up before the public as worthy of admiration and emulation. In general we are led to believe that it is wiser to trust the future to their hands than to those of elected officials. The latter are condemned for selling out to the rich, but there is little criticism of the rich for buying them.
My thesis is that today the religion of the world is the worship of Mammon and that the church protests very little. There is no lukewarmness about serving the economy. It is the call to serve God that fails to resonate.
We should try to understand this enormous religious change. It has occurred most fully in just those countries in which our now oldline denominations have played the largest role. It seems that we are at least complicit in letting these changes occur with so little challenge.
No doubt one step in the process was the easing by Protestant churches of the laws against usury and the heightened respect accorded merchants and bankers. This is a topic on which much has been written. I will not pursue it here.
But the most remarkable spiritual shift has been with respect to the evaluation of greed. Through most of Christian history it was assumed that when one person accumulated more, others had less. Thus the aim to accumulate, greed, was the aim to rob others. The evil of greed was not only that it was self-centered, and even for the self, distracted attention from more important matters. It was also that it aimed at harming others.
In the eighteenth century that view was challenged. Greed was renamed rational self-interest. It was shown that when each person acted in terms of rational self-interest, the economy as a whole grew. There was more for all. Hence, this behavior, instead of being condemned, should be celebrated.
The most influential exposition of this view was by Adam Smith. It is to him that we owe the idea that "an invisible hand" so adjusts the outcome that individual selfishness leads to the public good. Actually, Smith's total vision was far more nuanced. For him morality is based on sympathy, and sympathy generates community. Economic transactions take place within community and are checked by community feeling. That rational self-interest is the best way to price goods in the market by no means does away, in Smith's view, with the importance of community feeling. However, his work contributed greatly to the acceptance of the autonomy of the market and of the academic discipline devoted to its growth.
The major application of the new economic thinking was to the process of industrialization. It was largely because of industrialization that the self-interest of each contributed to growth of the whole. Of course, the growth of the whole also involved enormous losses for large segments of the population, especially skilled artisans who were replaced by machines operated by workers with minimal training. The growth of the whole also destroyed numerous traditional communities and made more and more people dependent on others for their access to a livelihood. It is a morally very ambiguous affair. Nevertheless, as beneficiaries of the process, who have come to take for granted conveniences and luxuries unimagined even by the rich of earlier days, it is difficult, and perhaps hypocritical, for us to attack it.
In face of these changes in economic thinking and industrial practice, the traditional teaching of the church became irrelevant. Christians failed to develop new teaching of comparable clarity and relevance. The church expressed concern for those who were hurt by the process and left aside. But it did not offer a critique of the system as a whole.
Our oldline denominations gave some encouragement to workers to protest exploitation and to organize. They supported efforts to end child labor and to make working conditions more humane. They directed some rhetoric against the sins of the rich. But they did not protest the emergence of an economy based money making money and on the rational self-interest that had formerly been called greed.
The protest that arose came from outside the churches and attacked the churches as well as the system. I refer especially to Marxism. Marx did not question the power of the new system to generate wealth, but he depicted its moral values as totally bankrupt and sided with traditional Christianity in his evaluations. He saw the churches of his day as acquiescent and even as supporting the capitalists against the workers they exploited. He saw that they used belief in God and an afterlife as an opiate to distract people from the quest for justice. Hence, he denounced them and called for atheism.
This association of atheism with the rejection of the capitalist system led the churches as a whole to continue their support of that system, seeking only to ameliorate its harshest consequences. In our oldline churches, however, there was also strong socialist sentiment. What was advocated was a democratic socialism in which popularly elected governments would take over major industries and use their profits for the sake of all. In fact, democratic socialism has played a considerable role in Europe, although it was discredited in the United States.
The relative health of the oldline denominations in the early part of this century was due in part to their serious engagement with the economic and social issues surrounding industrialization. It is true that they were divided in their thinking between those who wanted extensive public ownership of the means of production and those who wanted only to bring more justice into the system of free enterprise. But on many issues they could work together. People deeply concerned for the suffering of exploited workers could follow the leadership of the denominations with some enthusiasm.
Two changes have occurred in the twentieth century that have undercut this relative health. The first was the success of the churches' efforts. The New Deal implemented many of the recommendations of the churches, and a sympathetic government created a climate in which labor unions could exercise considerable power. After World War II this new legislation combined with the power of labor unions and general prosperity led to complacency about the economy on the part of the churches. Concerns were more properly directed to those who remained largely excluded from the benefits of the industrial economy, such as the Blacks. For this exclusion, labor unions shared responsibility with capital. Unions often abused their power in other ways and lost the sympathy of church people. Hence, the earlier alliance between labor and the churches ended, and church people ignored basic questions of the economy.
Second, the economy shifted from a national to a global one. This is not a simply technical matter. It involves a shift in fundamental loyalties and commitments, a religious change. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the loyalties of most Christians were deeply divided, but the division was not as much between God and Mammon as between God and nation. Lives were laid down for the sake of nations. Economies were conceived of in national terms and were also in the service of nations. Adam Smith's fateful book was entitled The Wealth of Nations.
This nationalism continued through the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed it reached its apex during this period. National Socialism in Germany carried nationalist feeling to its extreme point with horrible results. When Germany was defeated, Europe could not be reconstructed in terms of nation states claiming absolute sovereignty and devotion from their people. It was reconstructed instead as the European Economic Community.
Around the world there was something of a counter trend for several decades. Newly freed colonies established themselves as nation states and worked to transform their colonial economies into national ones. While Europe worked toward a transnational economy within its continent, the world seemed to be moving toward an international economy.
There were, of course, movements toward a global economy throughout that period. These took the form chiefly of a series of General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade, all seeking to lower barriers to trade. But it was not until twenty years ago that it became apparent that the goal was far more radical than had earlier appeared. The goal was to give free access to transnational corporations to all the world's resources and all the world's markets.
This entails a reversal of the relation of nations and corporations. Previously it was assumed that corportions were chartered by governments for the public good. Charters could be revoked if corporations did not service that good as determined by governments. Now governments were to be in the service of corporations. Their task has been redefined as providing the workforce and infrastructure for corporations as well as a good climate for investment.
What has this to do with God and Mammon? A great deal. The justification for this enormous shift is that it is the most effective way to increase wealth. It is argued that all other considerations should be subordinated to this. In short, the shift is carried through in the service of Mammon.
It might be argued that beliefs played little role in the change. Certainly there were other factors. The technological advances of recent years make national boundaries seem irrelevant and thus support globalization. Those who stood to benefit by the shift from an international to a globalized economy had great political power. Accordingly, one might argue that the ideas used to justify this shift were only rationalizations.
In my opinion, however, this would be a serious mistake. Even today as one speaks with people of goodwill who do not themselves benefit from the dominance of economic actors over governmental ones, one finds that the argument that this makes for economic growth has enormous power. Without the widespread discrediting of nationalism, on the one hand, and the widespread moral support for the global market engendered by the argument for growth, the shift could not have occurred.
Recently the methods that have proven successful in industry have been extended into other fields. Agriculture has been industrialized in this country, and we are pushing this process around the world. The ancient ideal of professions is giving way to industrial models. Teachers now unionize to negotiate contracts with management. We now speak quite easily of the health industry. Churches are told to study their "markets" and adapt their "products" to these. Thus the globalization of the market is being accompanied by the marketization of society. All this is accepted for the sake of economic growth.
Ironically, the moral support for the global service of Mammon has arisen at just that time when the argument justifying the acceptance of greed is proving fallacious. That argument is that when each pursues her or his rational self-interest, the community as a whole benefits. It was the apparent truth of this doctrine that silenced the church's objection to greed.
It is true that greed moves the industrial economy forward. When the market mentality is extended to agriculture and medicine, certain gains in efficiency are achieved. The growth of this market has produced great wealth for many. In the fully industrialized societies most have benefited. Those of us gathered here are deeply in its debt.
We have now discovered, however, that the old assumption that greed involves impoverishing others works on a collective, if not always on an individual, basis. As the global economy grows larger, the resource base is impoverished and the capacity of the environment to absorb our wastes is overstressed. The growth of our collective human wealth involves the impoverishment of other creatures now and of humanity as well in future generations.
Thus far, the recognition of limits has led only to efforts to use resources more efficiently. That, of course, is highly desirable. It can slow the exhaustion of the resource base, the poisoning of the environment, and the changing of planetary weather. But as long as the basic commitment is to the service of Mammon, it will not prevent catastrophes of ever growing proportions. Greed proves, after all, to be a mortal sin.
If this were the only problem with the service of Mammon, we would be caught in a profound moral dilemma. When Christians must choose between meeting the needs of those who are immediately at hand and acting for a more distant greater good, they find the choice extremely difficult. To ask the poor to suffer now for environmental reasons would indeed be painful.
But we have learned that there is another error in the analysis that shows the positive role of greed. When greed, or the service of Mammon, is given free play as in our present global economy, the poor suffer along with the environment. It is true that the pursuit of profit in the global market place increases market activity and the global product. But it results in a distribution of goods that increases the gap between the rich and the poor. Indeed, the truly poor seem to gain nothing even by strictly economic measures from increased economic activity. When we consider the total effect of this global market upon their lives, we must judge that their condition, and their prospects, decline.
What is clear today is that Adam Smith was right. A free market operating internal to an effective community can enhance the general good. But this is true only because the effective community can use some of the wealth generated by the market to meet the needs of those who do not otherwise benefit from it. An effective community can also set standards of pay and working conditions that insure that workers share in the increasing wealth.
None of this occurs in the global market. Poor nations compete with one another to make themselves attractive to investors by lowering standards. Labor cannot organize globally to demand its rights. No global body exists to regulate global wages and working conditions. We see, therefore, the effects of greed unchecked by community. It transfers resources from the weak to the strong, from the poor to the rich.
Now my question is, has the church anything to say about the service of Mammon? The silence is in fact deafening despite the clarity of the Biblical witness on this topic. Why?
Partly the answer stems for the longer history of our oldline denominations. Secularized society has excluded us from many fields in which the church was once a major player. What has been left to us are some religious gestures and the meeting of some personal and community needs. We are invited to address "moral" issues, but these are chiefly in the field of personal, especially sexual, morality.
Partly the answer stems from the extent to which we have accepted this narrowing of our role. Obviously, this acceptance has not been total. The relative health of our churches in the early decades of this century illustrates this fact. So does the relatively healthy response to Martin Luther King's campaign for civil rights. But overall we have acquiesced; so that evaluating political and economic developments on the national and global scene is no longer an evident part of our role.
Partly the answer stems from the fact that we are not among those who suffer from the ravages of the global economy. Indeed, we have ourselves, as a group, never been so well off. The global economy fattens our retirement programs and enables our institutions to secure the gifts they need for their survival. We know as Christians that we are called to look out not only for our own interests but also for those of the poor and oppressed, but when they are far away, their suffering touches us only a little.
Partly the answer is that we have been persuaded of the positive outcome of the service of Mammon. We do not really believe that we must choose between God and Mammon. We believe that we can serve both. Indeed, by giving free reign to the rational self-interest of all, we have been persuaded, in the long-run the poor will also benefit. Hence our very concern for the poor has been channeled into moral support for a world organized around greed.
Finally, partly because this persuasion is so comforting, and because it is so well supported by the media that shape our opinions and the experts to which they appeal, we have stopped thinking about these matters theologically. We do not want to listen to the counter-evidence that grows yearly more abundant. If such evidence were believed, we would be driven to fundamental rethinking about matters that seem far beyond our competence. If we are forced to reject our tacit assumption that what is happening is good, we fall back on the assumption that it is inevitable. As long as there is nothing we can do about it we are excused from thought.
Whatever the reasons, in this most determinative of areas, even more than in the others I discussed in the previous sessions, the church has abandoned its theological calling. For those who are sincerely seeking a way to save the world from its ominous prospects, it does not even offer a forum for discussion. It offers no encouragement to those who are struggling to save the world.
It seems rather obvious that a church that does not even discuss the salvation of the world will not claim wholehearted allegiance from those who deeply care. They may recognize that as the church goes about its regular activities it does make some contribution to the possibility of that salvation. The Christ proclaimed by such a church may be worthy of appreciation, but hardly of wholehearted devotion. We can hardly ask for more that lukewarm support.
But is a "Christ" who is not the savior of the world truly Christ? Can we name as Christ one whose service is compatible with greed and the service of Mammon? Can we serve Christ without caring deeply what happens to the world?
Obviously, my own answer is No. My answer is also that the church does not have to continue to ignore the most urgent issues of the day. It can decide to deal with them and to bring what it knows from its scriptures and tradition to bear upon them. If it does, it can validly claim a greater degree of commitment.
It is obvious that Jesus did not reflect on the danger to planet and its future inhabitants from an ever growing economy? He knew nothing of industrialization with its wonderful and horrible consequences. We cannot simply go to the gospels for the answers to our current questions.
But we can go to the gospels to learn what the most important questions are. We can learn from the prayer Jesus taught his disciples that we are to hope for the coming of a world in which God's purposes are fulfilled. We can learn that those purposes include the good of God's creatures, including their physical good, and especially that of the "least of these". We can learn that we are called to care so much for the coming of this world that we subordinate everything else in our lives to this end. We can learn that the pursuit of personal wealth is incompatible with that form of life, although if wealth comes to us as we pursue other goals, it is an opportunity and not an evil.
This leaves us in every generation with the task of determining what processes at work in our time move toward the world for which we pray and which move in other directions. From this we can make tentative judgments as to what it means to serve God in our time. We can submit our judgments to discussion among those who would serve Christ. And we can listen to the still small voice that prompts from within. With all this, there is no guarantee that we will be correct; nevertheless, we can act with strong conviction.
To what conclusions are we drawn today if we follow these procedures? I will offer my own reflections, inviting you to engage them critically at least in your own minds and when possible in interaction with me and others.
One conclusion that is fairly explicit in what I have already written is that the economic order should serve the community rather than control and destroy it. This leaves open the question as to how independent markets should be of community control. My own judgment is that the community should set the conditions of market activity and then provide a level playing ground for the players. The conditions would be those required for the well-being of the community.
The well-being of the community is judged in particularly by the well-being of "the least of these." Increasing affluence of the rich does not constitute a positive value if it separates the rich further from the poor. The community is only as well off as its weakest members.
Further, the measure of well-being should include income and wealth, but it should not be measured primarily in narrowly economic terms. The lot of the poor is improved by increased income, but it is improved more by their empowerment. The health of the community is to be measured by the number who participate in it. If some are simply objects of the charity of others, the community is to that extent unhealthy.
We know that in fact personal happiness correlates very poorly with the amount of goods and services consumed beyond basic human needs. Surveys show that relative standing in a community does affect personal happiness but that increased prosperity over time has little such effect on either the rich or the poor. This should not surprise readers of the Bible. The goal of increasing production and consumption profoundly misdirects energies. It is far more important to provide every individual a recognized and dignified role in the community and to find ways to work out the inevitable conflicts of community life without violence and alienation.
These general principles give strong support to one form of development now practiced against the other. The two types to which I refer are "bottom-up" development and "top-down" development. The vast majority of the money that has been spent on development has been of the latter type. This consists in corporate investments, in government-sponsored programs for education and health, and in public support of infrastructure such as harbors, highways, and dams. Some of these have certainly benefited considerable numbers of people, but some of them, especially large dams, have also displaced millions of people with appalling records of resettlement, been environmentally destructive, benefited the rich far more than the poor, and disempowered many of those they were designed to benefit. The record is very mixed, and some observers believe that overall this kind of development has done more harm than good.
"Bottom-up" development follows the principles I have derived from the Bible. It has commanded far fewer resources, but it has done very little harm and a great deal of good. Two types will give concreteness to this claim.
The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh pioneered in micro-lending. It makes very small loans to very poor people, mostly women. These loans are for the purpose of allowing them to initiate or expand tiny businesses. An astonishing percentage of the borrowers succeed in their enterprises and repay the loans. They are able to become more productive, thus adding to the total production of the communities in which they live. But beyond this narrowly economic measure, they also this program contributes to the self-confidence and self-respect of the borrowers. Typically they work closely with other borrowers providing one another mutual support. Much of what they produce is sold in their own communities, thus increasing the consumption of the poor rather than of the rich.
A second form of "bottom-up" development may be called Gandhian. Gandhi saw that the vast majority of the people of India lived in villages. Rather than an industrial-urban development that would concentrate wealth and power in fewer hands, Gandhi called for village development. He believed that simple technological improvements could be introduced into villages that would increase the productivity, and thus the income, of the villagers while strengthening, rather than destroying village life. The symbol of this development was the sewing machine which could be introduced into individual homes.
Village or community-development was not adopted in India as the major style of development. Nevertheless, many church and nongovernmental organizations follow this model. A typical approach is for a worker to live with the villagers for a while and then encourage them to identify their most pressing needs. These might be for firewood or water to become available locally. This availability would greatly reduce the time spent in obtaining the necessities of life and allow that time to be spent in more productive work.
The community designs a project to meet the need and may require some outside assistance. But in true community development, most of the work is done by the community itself. The community understands what is being done, takes part in it, and claims ownership of it. The community must be capable of maintaining what is built and be motivated to do so. When the project is completed the community will take pride in it. It may gain the confidence needed to undertake other projects. The project is successful if the community not only gains economically but also grows in its self-respect and ability to work together.
Any form of development may add to environmental stress. But in comparison with top-down development, bottom-up projects do so in trivial ways. Some projects may actually reduce such stress, as for example the development of nearby woodlots that end the need to strip distance forests. An enormous amount of bottom-up development is environmentally sustainable. Top-down development has long-since crossed the line into unsustainable forms.
The shift in emphasis from top-down to bottom-up development would have enormous implications for the overall economy. So many of our basic economic institutions are now justified only by their supposed contribution to global economic growth, that if that goal were replaced by that of development of, by, and for the poor in community, most of them would be dismantled or transformed.
Since the Jubilee 2000 program focuses on the question of the debts of poor nations, we can consider this as a place to enter the issues. How were these debts amassed? In the process of attempting top-down development? The structural adjustment programs that cause so much suffering around the world were instituted in order that these debts could be paid. Their effect is to squeeze the poor by lowering wages and raising the cost of goods. They also encourage the rapid exploitation of forests and other natural resources, another form of top-down "development." The reason that repayment of debts has been given so high a priority in the global economy is that otherwise the system of global trade will be impeded. The reason the system of global trade is so important is that it contributes to overall economic growth.
If we collectively decided that overall economic growth is not our goal, but rather the sustainable improvement of the lot of the poor, none of this would matter. Forgiving the debts would immediately allow for wages to rise and prices to fall and other taxes on the poor to be reduced. It would, of course, also release funds for health care and education for the poor.
Needless to say, matters are far more complex than this. Many loans have been made in honorable ways for valid purposes. Many Third World borrowers have been corrupt and are still living privately on wealth accumulated dishonestly. Without confidence in the integrity of national promises, trade would be reduced to the highly inefficient form of barter. Abrupt forgiveness of all debts would be unjust to many and lead to chaos harmful to many whose welfare is important to Christians. Debt relief is crucial to the well-being of the poor; but which debts are forgiven and how matters are handled is a matter to which our best thinkers need to give their attention.
Furthermore, with respect to the overall pattern of development, a change is not a simple or harmless matter. We have gone so far down the road of top-down development oriented to increasing global production that any new shift would have enormous traumatic consequences, just as have the shifts from traditional to modern economies and from national to global ones. This is not the time or place to discuss how a transition could be effected with minimal suffering. At present, indeed, no one really knows. Those with the resources to study such matters are devoted instead to keeping the global economy going and growing. The church has not entered into the discussion.
But the fact that a change is difficult is not a reason to reject it. The prospects of not changing are far worse. If the church encouraged serious analysis of our situation and helped people in particular Third World countries to think through how change could be effected, the Christ of that church could command deep commitment. Such a Christ would recover the right to be called the Savior of the World.
In my lecture on exclusivism I pressed for sustained re-thinking of the our Christology. That is not what is needed with respect to countering the service of Mammon. In many respects our traditional teaching suffices. Our failure, here, is to apply that traditional thinking in the context of a rapidly changing world. Such application, too, belongs to the theological task. If we pursue it seriously we may make many enemies. Some of our own members will leave us. But the curse of lukewarmness will be removed.
Christ does not command us to avoid controversy. Nor does Christ insist that we be successful by the standards of the market. Christ does call us to recognize that we cannot serve both God and Mammon and to choose God.