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Justin Welby’s critics are wrong: Christian leaders should have an opinion on our economy

Evan John says he agrees with the Archbishop's recent report on the UK economy and explains how the biblical practice of gleaning could help create a more equal society.

When a great preacher like Charles Spurgeon reportedly described something as “the best news since the gospel”, you could be forgiven for thinking that he was talking about a new translation of the Bible or the launch of a great missionary endeavour.

He was responding, in fact, to the establishment of a new trade union for agricultural workers.

Had he been around to hear the Most Rev Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking to the Trades Union Congress, I suspect he’d have joined in with the delegates’ rapturous applause.

Predictably, not everyone was quite so happy with Archbishop Justin’s political intervention. The Sun slated it as “a left-wing rant”. The Telegraph’s editorial was similarly hostile: “Stick to religion and stay out of politics”, ran the headline.

Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley, went even further, saying that the Archbishop should “take off the dog collar and put on a Labour rosette”.

Party politics

I can understand why someone would object to a Christian leader’s decision to take such clear stances on political matters.

As the Archbishop himself recognised, it is dangerous for either the left or the right to claim that God is on their side.

Thankfully, most Christian leaders here in the UK have managed to avoid being sucked into party politics, while Christian politicians have made positive contributions to each of the main political parties.

We must respect the fact that even Christians committed to the same biblical principles may have different ways of putting them into practice.

It is, therefore, legitimate to ask whether Justin Welby’s most recent intervention fails to respect the diversity of opinion within the Church.

It is simply wrong, however, to claim, as the critics do, that Christianity has nothing to say about the way we run our economy.

It’s something that became apparent to me during my recent internship at the Trades Union Congress.

I started my internship thinking that there was a stronger argument for Christian engagement with charities than with trade unions. I quickly realised I was wrong.

As I learned about the failure of major companies to pay their workers the minimum wage, I couldn’t help but think of the Apostle James’ warning to those who hoarded wealth while treating their workers unfairly: “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4, ESV).

I wonder if the Roman press would have dismissed this as a left-wing rant and advised the Apostle “to stick to religion and stay out of politics”.

Of course, you could stay true to the spirit of this verse without being a trade unionist. But it certainly puts paid to the idea that God doesn’t do economics. The Bible is clear: there is such a thing as an economic sin.

Gleaning

The Bible goes further than merely condemning specific acts of injustice. While it is curiously silent on the specifics of economic policy, the Old Testament provides us with an underlying principle that should change the way we see the economy. It’s embodied in the biblical practice of gleaning.

Gleaning, for those of you who have better things to do with your Friday nights than read Leviticus, is the practice of collecting leftover crops after a harvest.

Under Old Testament law, landowners were forbidden from harvesting to the ends of their fields. Instead, the corners were to be left “for the poor and for the foreigner” (Leviticus 19:9, ESV).

To think of this as an act of charity misses the point. Let’s be clear: God commanded the farmers of Israel to make less money so that the economically disadvantaged would have a means of providing for themselves.

The farmers were not allowed to harvest the corners of the fields because those crops did not belong to them. Instead of receiving the gleanings as a gift, the poor claimed them as their right.

You could argue that, since Christians are no longer under the law of the Old Testament, we don’t need to listen to what the Bible says about gleaning.

It’s certainly true that there is much in Leviticus that, thankfully, we do not need to implement today. But Christ has fulfilled the law rather than abolished it. We are still bound by the principles behind the law, even if we are free to apply them differently.

Of course, with so few people employed in the British agricultural sector, it might seem difficult to apply the principle behind gleaning today.

But so much of the injustice we see in our economic system stems from the fact that too many companies see profit maximisation as their only guiding principle.

In biblical terms, they want to harvest to the ends of their fields. When Amazon makes millions of pounds in profit, but structures its business to avoid paying tax, it is harvesting to the ends of its fields.

When Uber describes its employees as self-employed, and therefore doesn’t have to pay sick pay, it is harvesting to the ends of its fields.

When Apple pockets billions while using employees so overworked that some factories producing its phones come equipped with suicide nets, it is harvesting to the ends of its fields.

If these companies acted in line with the principle behind gleaning, we would live in a very different world.

As consumers and as employees we bear some responsibility for the choices we make.

For employers that responsibility is even greater, and, if we follow Christ, we can’t ignore what the Bible says on this topic. As Christians we have a duty to listen – even if it makes us uncomfortable.

Evan John works as a policy advisor for a charity in London. 

Premier Christianity magazine is committed to publishing a wide range of Christian opinion on a variety of subjects. Click here to read an alternative viewpoint.

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