Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Is there a Christian economic ethic?

Apart from its (almost mandatory) snide headline, and a couple of "nudge, nudge" witticisms in the accompanying text, The Independent has published an article on Christianity and ethical investment which could be a useful discussion-starter.

The second paragraph reads,
Cash has always been a thorny subject for the devout. How can one be rich and pious? There can't be too many Christian bankers who are unaware that, according to Christ, camels have a better chance of passing through the eye of a needle than bankers do of getting into heaven. Yet the wealthy may be able to sleep more soundly following the creation this week of Europe's first "Christian equity index". The Stoxx Europe Christian Index is the brainchild of a German investment firm that has spotted a gap in the market to provide a list of companies that the faithful can happily invest in without feeling like they are sinning at the same time.
Of course, Christian interest in ethical economics has been around for a long time. In the 1970s and 80s evangelicals in this country were trying to think through some of the issues involved. Sir Fred Catherwood penned a number of works which I seem to remember were regarded as quite controversial for not saying that Capitalism and wealth-creation were bad (remember, this was in the days when Christians either worried about, or rather approved of, Marxism).

And there have long been Christian groups and companies developing means of 'ethical investment'. The Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, for example, has certain standards it maintains for its 'Amity' funds.

But back in the sixteenth century, Martin Luther and others were writing about what we today would call 'economic justice'.

In the last couple of decades, though, it all seems to have gone rather quiet. One of the few solid works I'm aware of on the subject is Andy Hartropp's What is Economic Justice? Biblical and Secular Perspectives Contrasted. This is a very solid work and deserves to be widely read and known. But the commitment in the 'Five Marks of Mission' to "seek to transform unjust structures of society" and to "strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth" don't seem to be translating into very much except (still!) a vague hostility towards and discomfort about Capitalism, which has meanwhile so richly blessed us in the West.

What the article in The Independent might usefully prompt is a discussion on precisely what is a 'Christian' view of economic life. Regulars on this blog, for example, will know that I have a 'thing' about the biblical mandate against usury in any form. (And, contra an opinion in The Independent, I did not take my cue in this from the Muslims, though I do think they usefully show that an ethical principle can actually have an economic application.)

Most of us are also dimly aware of the examples of past Christian entrepreneurs, especially amongst the Quakers.

I cannot help wondering, though, whether from a Christian point of view what matters is not the great scheme of things but the small - the 'insignificant' - details. It is surely as great a challenge to be personally honest in one's business dealings in the office as it is to come up with some 'macro-economic' theory.

Many years ago, I heard someone who was regarded as something of an evangelical leader advocate that Christians in the workplace should go along with the 'dodgy practices' and 'petty' dishonesties so that, when the time came for them to speak up in the Trade Union meetings, they would not have lost the respect and the hearing of their workmates because of their 'stand-offish' attitude. That has got to be mad, hasn't it?

Personally, I think that telling the truth at work because you are a Christian is just as likely to get you 'crucified' as wearing a cross - and I have to admit to being frankly relieved that my own form of employment lets me off most of these ethical challenges.

John Richardson
28 April 2010

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1 comment:

  1. Good question John. The key distinction most Christians miss on this is that ends don't justify the means. It's amazing what means politicians can get away with by stating the ends are poverty-relief.

    We had a Parliamentary hustings at church last week. The panel was unanimous that govt should be spening more on international aid. It seems to me, that most Christians would consider dissent from that to be wicked. Yet govt-to-govt aid is notoriously inefficient and open to corruption, and seems to me also to contradict NT encouragements to joyful, generous, VOLUNTARY giving - international aid is compelled from your pocket through taxes. That's just one example.

    It seems many Christians are economically-illiterate - FairTrade (which of course is not fair) is another classic example. Well-intentioned but wrong.

    Grudem's little book, Business for the Glory of God was excellent. Of course, for the in-depth, both extremes, full-blown argument, read Sider, "Rich Christians" alongside David Chilton, "Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators."