Covenant with the Poor: Toward a New Concept of Economic Justice

by Yong-Bok Kim

Kim Yong-Bock (family name Kim), Ph. D., is President of Hanil University and Theological Seminary in Chonbuk, Korea (Wanju-Kun Sangkwan-Myun, Shinri, 694-1; Chonbuk, Korea 565-830).  He received his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton University.  He has been a teaching fellow at Princeton Theological Seminary, an international consultant to the Commission on Ecumenical Missions and Relations, National Board of Missions, of the United Presbyterian Church (USA), and is founder and Director of the Christian Center for Asian Studies,  and  Director of the Doctor of Ministries Studies, a joint program with San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Used by permission of the author. This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


The Biblical history of the Old and the New Testaments, and church history testify that the people of God live within the process of history. Furthermore, our faith that God created the whole world and all its peoples therein dictates that they are all people(s) of God. Therefore, it is necessary that theology discern the political economy of the people of God. We cannot relegate the Christian faith to an other-worldly life.


The people of God live within the process of history. The Biblical history of the Old and the New Testaments, and church history testify to this reality. Furthermore, our faith that God created the whole world and all its peoples therein dictates that they are all people(s) of God.*)

*)Some people might dispute this all inclusive notion of the people of God; but it is our contention that it should be all-inclusive, and any limitation is against all-encompassing sovereirnty of God over the history and universe and the people
therein. A certain ecclesio-centrism, prevalent in the established churches, dictates that the people of God mean only Christians. In Asia, this inclusive concept of the people of God challenges traditional eccesiology and theology in profound way.

We are concerned about the whole life of the people of God, not merely the "spiritual" life or life after death; but the present total and whole life of the people of God. The whole life of the people of God may be defined as OIKONOMIA TOU THEOU(MANAGEMENT OF THE HOUSEHOLD OF GOD), which can be termed as political economy.* The TA OIKONOMIA or TA OIKONOMIKA is political economy, which is management, administration and ordering of household life and resources.


*)The notion of the political economy is used here to refer to the God's rule over the political and economic life of the people of God. It happens that Kyongse Chemin( ) in Korean means exactly the political economy.


The concept of the OIKONOMIA TOU THEOU(Eph 2:19) should be clarified in contrast with the imperial household of Pharaoh(Gen 50:4) and Caesar's household of empire(Phil 2:22) in the Bible. In the foremost sense the political economy of God is concretely pitted against the political economy of the empires.

Therefore, it is necessary that theology discern the political economy of the people of God, a political economy that is inherent in human history on earth and yet at the smae time involves God as the partner of the people of God. This means that theology is directly concerned with the political economy of this world which involves the political economy of God - God's management of the household of the people of God.

We cannot relegate the Christian faith to an other-worldly life. We must reject the position which confines Christian faith to the religious and spiritual dimension, neglecting concrete human life in its wholeness. The Christian faith should be concerned with the whole life of the people of God, and accordingly, the political economy of the people of God must be the central concerns of theology. If God is not involved in the political economy of the peoples of this world, and, therefore, theology do not concerned with the political economy in concrete and real terms, Christian faith become ahistorical.

Modern Economic Theories, Capitalist or Marxist, Detatched from Christian Faith

Christian faith is now being seriously tested with regard to its implications for the economic life of humanity in the context of the present economic orders. Economic life has become an autonomous domain of human life, which religious faith cannot interfere. Economic theories have been "secularized" thoroughly; and they have ruled out the implications of Christian faith for explanation of the economic life of humanity. Scientific reason have claimed its autonomy and become the basis for self-authenticating theories in all the fields of scientific inquiry. Economic theories claim the same scientific autonomy.*) Economic laws are independent of moral laws; and they are ethically neutral. This is the claim of the modern economic theories.


*)C. B. MacPherson, Property, Oxford: Basil Blackwell,1978. A history of economic theories since Adam Smith which describes the development of autonomy of economics.


Christian theology has effectively withdrawn from the realm of economic life and economic science; it has relegated itself to a supra-mundane domain upon which it focuses its interest. Christian theology has isolated itself from the world and from the area of the sciences and theories about the life of this world.*) But this trend is both unbiblical and ahistorical, and it has created a crisis for in theology, in that theology no longer does any effective thinking about the economic life of the people.


*)Autonomous reason since the Enlightenment has robbed theology of its place in historical life, particularly in the sciences, natural qand social.


In the West the secularization of economics since the Enlightenment, being separated from all theological and other religious premises,allowed economic theories independent of theological and ethical considerations. This is true of both capitalist and socialist theories. Even both economic systems are distinctly "atheist".

The philosophical development of rationalism and the treatment of economic life in scientific terms, academic specialization, the ascendency of the economic doctrine of laissez faire, and the fragmentation of modern life without the

integration of values; and the materialist understanding of history are an integral historical development of the Western history in which, some theologians claim and even celebrate, the role of Christian faith in God the creator has been decisive.*


*)Charles West, Harvey Cox, Lynn White and Gogarten are some who advocate the secularization thesis in historical and theological terms.



The manifestation of the secular scientific reason in the economics took the form of the scientific planning of the economy, that is, the use of science and technology not only in the production, but in the entire process of economic process, the formation of the capital, financing of the production, the supply of the materials, demands, distribution and so on. The giant corporations and the nation states have capacity to plan and control the process through their scientific and technological capacity. This could be termed as total planning.

Unlimited Economic Power is a Scandal to the Christian Faith

Moreover, economic power in the world today has become an absolute entity,needing no justification other than its unlimited and unrestricted power.*) Economic theories are used to justify the existence of this power, and its unlimited growth and expansion. The economic powers now dominating the world allow no place for the claim of the Christian faith for justice in determining the economic reality. This is not merely a question of the intelligibility of Christian beliefs or the social relevancy raised by Christian teaching on economics; rather, it is a historical denial and rejection of the "power" of Christian faith to shape the economic life of humanity.


*)The giant transnational corporations and state economic systems are prime examples. They have justifies their own existence in ideological terms.


In the Christian churches, some moral and ethical influence of the faith on economics is granted as it applies to individuals; and the influence of faith in the corporate life of society is only generally recognized without specific theoretical expressions about the corporate reality.*) In other words, the autonomy of economics and economic powers has been tacitly and liberally granted. Therefore, the theoretical implications of the Christian faith for economic life have not been taken seriously and work on this issue has been grossly neglected.


*)The notion of "corporate responsibility" has been applied to criticize and pressure the misconduct of the multinational corporations. For example, the role of these corporations in South Africa has been widely questioned by the churches.


Christian Faith Linked To Capitalism

In fact, the history of Western theological development has been closely related to capitalist development. Max Weber's thesis*) has validity as an historical, not causal, explanation for the development of capitalism and its relation to the Protestant ethics of the West. Christian ethics never disavowed this historical and ethical connection in either historical or ethical terms. Moreover, in many developing countries Christianity even boasts of its connection with Western capitalism as the agent of the modernization process.


*)See "The Weber-Tawney Thesis" in the Appendix of H.F.R. Catherwood, London: The Tyndale Press, 1964. Max Weber, Prtotestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism; Tawney, The Rise of Capitalism


Only recently has the question of economic life been taken seriously in relation to the Christian faith. The test of the Christian faith. The test of the Christian faith is its relation to the poor in the world, particularly in the third world. Faith can be restored in the Gospel of the poor and oppressed, by going back to the biblical faith and articulating it into the present reality in concrete terms of political economy.

The history of the Christian socialist movements in the last two centuries has not made sufficient progress in dealing with the question of the relationship between Christian faith and economic life, although these movements have criticized capitalist excesses.*) The 18th and 19th century christian socialists in England, the theologians of social gospel and the religious socialists of early 20th century Europe did not elaborate the implications of the Christian faith for political

economy in human community. They carried out their prophetic function, but they failed to "incarnate" the Christian faith into the concrete economic life of the people and to meet the challenges of the capitalist and Marxist economic powers in theory and practice.


*)Peter d'A Jones, Christian Socialist Revival, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968.


Christian theology has tacitly condoned capitalism and reacted negatively to the socialist economy without examining its implications and relations with the Christian faith; and more seriously, the Christian faith has grossly neglected the proclamation of the gospel to the poor. The Gospel to the poor has been distorted and even repudiated by Western Christianity, which is in captivity to the capitalist economic powers. For the same reason, the Gospel to the poor was impoverished and never creatively shared with people who live under the socialist state economy.

Christian Faith and Capitalist Powers

The capitalist economic powers in the world have manifested themselves in global dimensions. This is already shown in the reality of the giant transnational corporations, which seek to maximise their profits and to expand their power to control the world economy.*) The unlimited expansion and concentration of economic power in the corporate form and in the state-controlled form is the major problem of humanity.**)


*)Muhler and Barnet, Global Reach**)Galbraith, New Industrial State


Forthright criticism of the giant corporations has been very difficult, for they are closely associated with Christian churches in the West. When the World Council of Churches has taken a critical stance against big corporations in the West for their roles in South Africa and elsewhere in the third world, this has become very controversial among the Western churches.

Economic growth, conspicuous consumption, waste of resources, worship of mammon, division between rich and poor, injustice and exploitation, concentration of economic power and domination, ecological destruction and cultural erosion are some of the symptoms of the present economic disorder, which makes the people

spiritual victims as well.

In this kind of political economy the Christian faith is seriously challenged to witness to the Gospel. Ecumenical efforts have made some progress; but there is still a long way to go to meet these challenges.

Socialist State Economy and Christian Faith

It is widely claimed that the evils of capitalism can be overcome by the socialist economy. Communism has been the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith in terms of economic justice. But it has also been pointed out that economic collectivism is intolerable to the human spirit, which longs for freedom and creativity. Genuine community based on justice and agape should be established. The political economy of the socialist state has been politically dictatorial and economically collectivist, with property monopolized by the state power for planning, production and distribution.

The monopoly of the state has been substituted for that of the giant corporations in the capitalist economy. The citizens are not allowed to participate in the planning, production, and distribution process; rather, the people are controlled in their own name. There has been no development of theological reflection on economic life as a witness to the Gospel in the socialist states. The attitude of the churches, by and large, has been negative with regard to socialist developments. Churches in the socialist states are not in a position to witness to the reality of the Gospel in politico-economic terms, this is due to historical reasons as well as to the church's own political status.

There have been developments and elaborations of the "socialist" political economic theories in different circumstances; and some practical applications have been made in several third world countries in varying degrees. Some theologies have opted for such socialist theories and even practices of the political economy. This demands an examination in detail, which we cannot carry out here. It is not certain how much organic relations can be realized between Christian faith and the socialist political economy of any sort.

Marxism and Christian Faith

Liberation theologians in the third world has chosen the option of Marxist socialism as Christian economic option. Social alayses of dependence and class exploitation have played an important role in the formulation of the liberation of theology in the context of the third world people. Given the historical ties between the capitalist societies and Christian churches and given the absence of the viable Christian economics, it is understandable for the concerned Christians to take the Marxist option of some sort in their revolutionary situations. Much work has been done to combine the Marxism and Christian faith in the third world situations. Marxist analyses has much contributed to the biblical hermeneutics as well as Christian praxis in the revolutionary third world situations.

Marxism as a critique of the capitalism, Marxist economics as the alternative model of economic development, Marxist social science as tools of social analyses, and Marxism as philosophy of history and society can be differentiated in the use of Marxism in the liberation theologies. However, one can say that Marxism has played an important role in the theological development in recent years. Perhaps its role can be compared to the role of Aristotle in in the theology of Thomas Aquinas.

There is much to learned from the theology of liberation about the theological approach to the political economy of the present age and the political economy of God.

The Christian Message: Tested By The Poor And The Oppressed

The Christian faith is challenged by the poverty and suffering of the minjung. This challenge comes not only from the Marxist and capitalist powers in theory and practice, but also from the people themselves, the hungry and poor who are the majority of humanity, particularly in the third world. Capitalists and their economic theories disdain the Christian faith for its irrelevance in seeking to rescue the poor. Socialists and their theories charge that the Christian faith justifies the capitalist rich.

The capitalist and socialist-state economies, in theory and practice, have not only been unable to meet the basic human needs in the third world; but thConfucian Dynasties. One of the outstanding modern example is the T'aip'ing Peasant Movement church had carried out the land reforms, which is one of the crucial questions in any Confucian regime.

In Korea we find one of the finest example of the Confucian land reform in the Realist School of Korean Confucianism. A Korean Confucian scholar, Chong Yak Yong(1762-1836), advocated "YOJON" land system, which is a community ownwership, community production and common sharing. Thirty households own appropriate amount of land; and the whole community do cooperatively the production and the whole community share the produce according to the needs of the people for the security of the whole community. owever, the reform could never be carried out for there was no political backing for it.*)


*)Shin Yong Ha, "A Idea of Yojonje Land Reform System by Chong Tasan(Chong Tasaneui Yojonje Tojikaehyuk Sasang)" in Han U Keun et al, Present State of the Study on Chong Tasan(Chong Tasan Yonkueui Hyonghwang), Seoul: Mineumsa, 1985. pp.192-217.


Chong Yak-yong's Confucian Reform is an example of the political economy of the Confucian rule in a particular social and historical situation. This is instructive for the Christian faith for its implication that a Christian political economy can be worked out in a particular historical context.

People's economic traditions such as Kye and Ture can also inspire minjung economics to formulate political economy of the people. The people accumulated the wisdom-the economic wisdom-to insure the collective security of the community by protecting its poor and weak. Invariably the peasant movements created egalitarian social traditions to realize the full and whole life of the people, overcoming the greed of the rich and the powerful.

Economics of the people

In the tradition of the people there habe developed popular economics as a part of the cristalization of the their wisdom to survive and prosper. In Korea there were develped a system of "KYE", which is a cooperative system to alliviate major finanical burdens coopertively among the members of the KYE.* "TURE" is another such scheme, in which the members share the work to be done in a cooperative manner to uneven labour problem and shortage. These popular economic wisdoms were never taken seriously by the prevailing the economic forces, for they benefit from the existing political economy. But these popular economic wisdoms can be developed into a vial political economy. At least we need to take seriously basic wisdoms of the people for our elaboration of political economic thinking. The economic theories claim unversal validity, but they represent dominant economic system, and therefore, the peoples' economic aspirations are not directly reflected.

Political Economy of A Minjung Confucian Tradition

Confucian ideal of the Prosperous Age of the Great Peace(T'aip'ing) has manifested itself in the popular tradition of the Confucianism as well as in the ruling ideology of the Confucian Dynasties. One of the outstanding modern example is the T'aip'ing Peasant Movement church had carried out the land reforms, which is one of the crucial questions in any Confucian regime.

In Korea we find one of the finest example of the Confucian land reform in the Realist School of Korean Confucianism. A Korean Confucian scholar, Chong Yak Yong(1762-1836), advocated "YOJON" land system, which is a community ownwership, community production and common sharing. Thirty households own appropriate amount of land; and the whole community do cooperatively the roduction and the whole community share the produce according to the needs of the people for the security of the whole community. owever, the reform could never be carried out for there was no political backing for it.*)


*)Shin Yong Ha, "A Idea of Yojonje Land Reform System by Chong Tasan(Chong Tasaneui Yojonje Tojikaehyuk Sasang)" in Han U Keun et al, Present State of the Study on Chong Tasan(Chong Tasan Yonkueui Hyonghwang), Seoul: Mineumsa, 1985. pp.192-217.


Buddhist Economics

The Buddhism is originally a Minjung religion, in spite of the historical fact that it has been appropriated by the ruling regimes of many Asian countires. The Buddhism reflects much of the Minjung economic aspirations. A modern economist, E.F. Schumacher has a imaginative look into the Buddhist economics. He observes, "'Right Livelihood' is one of the requirements of the Buddha's Noble Eighthold Path. It is clear, therefore, that there must be such a thing as Buddhist economics." For example, the Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a person a chance to utilize and develop one's faculties; to enable the person to overcome one's ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and bring forth the goods and services needed for a becomming existence. Thus, the Buddhist economics can realize such truths and simplicity and noniviolence into concrete theories for the economic life of the people.*)


E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, London: Harper and Row,1975,pp.53-62.


New Definitions

The fundamental point being made here is that the political economy of the Sovereignty of God in Biblical history should and can be the real foundation upon which the people of God live out their faith in contemporary economic life.

Examination of economic life in the light of the biblical faith has, most often, taken the form of a simple reiteration of certain aspects of the economic teachings that are spelled out in the New Testament, especially certain of the teachings of Jesus which have direct reference to the acquisition, possession, and use of material goods. Moreover, the sharpest and most demanding of these are frequently dismissed as eschatological sayings or as hyperboles. Structural and institutional manifestation of the faith in economic life has been ignored, and economic ethics has taken the form of highly individualistic morals.

Stewardship is the responsibility before God and the people to secure the full and whole life of the people. Talent is to be used to secure both one's own full life and to serve God by serving the people for their full and whole life. Vocation, glorifying God through one's calling: this concept has brought about diligence inn work and thrift in expenditures, but originally it is dedication of one's work and possessions to the glory of God and the service of one's neighbors.

Private Property

Property is defined by the class that uses it. The meaning of property has changed continuously, according to changes in the purpose which the dominant classes in society expect the institution of property to serve.

This definition of property, and its various definitions in the past, clearly have served the wealthy and powerful. The Sovereignty of God over property liberates the definition of the people, as the basis of security of the whole community. In the context of the covenant of God and the people of God, property and its definition cannot serve the rich and powerful, for that would justify the greed of the political and economic powers and thereby threaten the full and secure life of the people. This challenges any absolutist or ideological concept of property that

justifies power, whether socialist or capitalist. It opens the door for concrete definitions of property that will support the realization of security for the whole life of the people.

The traditional position on property has been that of justification of private ownership:

"Within the context of absolute ownership0 by God alone biblical faith assumes the necessity of some measure of individual ownership although it is keenly aware of the moral and social dangers of wealth and imposes severe limitations upon its

acquisition and use in order to protect the welfare of less fortunate persons as well as that of society as a whole. In the Old Testament, the very existence of the commandment 'You shall not steal' presupposes the right of individual ownership. Similarly, frequent protests made by prophets against the infringement of the prohibition of stealing implies that they assumed the right of individuals of own property. Also in the New Testament some measure of private ownership is presupposed as normal. Even the communism of love which was practiced for a

time at Jerusalem after Pentecost (Acts 2:44-45; 5:1-5) does not provided an exception to this rule, for all were free either to place or not to place their property at the disposal of the community; moreover, there is no evidence that such communal sharing of goods was followed in the other Christian communities.

This practice at Jerusalem seems to have been looked upon as a product of Christian fellowship rather than as a blueprint for the economic order."*)


*)Gardener, p.286.


But, this position is untenable in the political economy of the Reign of God.

Economic justice is not merely the undoing of injustice and exploitation. It is the liberation of the slaves and the protection of the poor and others who are robbed of their economic means to enjoy a full and whole life. Economic justice is more than economic production, economic growth, equal distribution and a socio-economic welfare system. It is the political economy of the people, whose life is fully and wholly secured and enjoyed in their concrete situation.

The fundamental needs of the poor neighbor should be met; but these needs are to be secured as God has promised, and therefore, the neighbor's needs are not merely needs, but his or her RIGHTS. To allow a situation to continue where by needs are not met, is a violation of these rights and thereby the violation of God's will.

When church can take form as a genuine community that transcends social ad class lines this is one of the most important contributions to the resolution of economic problems and conflicts in the society.

The political economy of the household is that of sharing, whereas the political economy of corporate capitalism and state capitalism in its international and national forms is that of profit maximization and domination by power.

The Christian churches ave not taken this position very seriously, due mainly to their conformity to the capitalist world. now is the time when the reality of the political economy of the Sovereignty of God must find its expression in the

concrete socio-economic life of the peoples of the world, especially those of the third world.

Christian Community as the Gardener for a Full and Whole Life of Justice and Shalom

Christian community as an ecumenical movement for justice, peace and integrity of creation, is a movement to cultivate justice, koinonia and shalom in the universe. In this context we recognize that the subject of the gardening work is the people of God, and at the same time, that all created things, not merely humans, are participants in the Garden. The sin of the Leviathan and Dinosaur has been to make not only all humans but all created things the objects of exploitation and oppression, and this sin has turned God's created Garden into a jungle.

This theological perspective has profound implications for the correction of the scientific epistemology which tends to regard itself as an objective and objectifying process, although nowadays there are some efforts to correct this situation among scientists and philosophers of science. Perhaps the analytical method needs to be corrected, that is, its tendency to make fallacies by generalizing limited hypotheses beyond their proper scope. These fallacies distort the integrated whole of experience in which the created order, human and natural, is involved all together as active participating agents in the drama of God's Gardening.

Technocracy should be conceived a new as creative work to cultivate justice, koinonia and shalom in the universe, as God has created it and continues to create it. It should not be an instrument for simple profit maximization or survival of the mightiest. Perhaps this requires a radical reorganization of the human community in which science and technology become agents to garden the universe.

In the light of the Biblical vision of the Garden of Justice, Shalom, and Harmony (Integrity) of Creation, these religious and cultural resources, particularly those appropriated by the poor and oppressed, can be revitalized to become the flowers, fruits and even roots of various elements in the Garden of God, in which humans are also gardeners.

The Garden has been turned into the Jungle. Now the Dinosaur and Leviathan have to be subjugated to God the Gardener, the injured human community and natural order have to be healed and revitalized, and the Spirit of life must fill the world so that there may be true justice, Koinonia, and shalom in the Garden. This is the task of the people of God in God's Oikoumene, which is God's dwelling among the people of the created world.

In this garden the shepherd replaces the leopard, the servant replaces the master, and the Leviathan is replaced by the Lamb, who is the Sacrificial Lord. In this way the oppressive political order, unjust exploitation, war for security and survival, and destruction of nature will be expelled from the created order of God, and justice, peace, and integrity of creation will be fulfilled in the Garden.

The covenant with the poor thus guarantees the Shalom of the human community, genuine community based on justice and agape. This is the manifestation of the Sovereignty of God.

Faith in God is the source of freedom from the self-centeredness of hubris and power and freedom for the covenant. This faith is the social imagination that seeks actualization through social theories and social experiments that practice the radical freedom of faith in the fulfillment of the covenant with the Minjung. 

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