As we have watched the economy collapse in recent months, some Christians are asking whether there is something wrong with the dominant economic system and whether there are any alternatives to it...

James is in debt. The housing market crash has left him with mounting repayments on his mortgage and his job in the City is looking insecure. His credit card debts, along with his mortgage, which once looked so manageable, are starting to worry him. He is not sleeping at night.

Every morning he looks at his cupboard full of designer clothes and his apartment full of gadgets that once seemed so entertaining and important to have, and sees only meaningless clutter that provides no solace from the stress he is under. The company James works for is not doing well. He is putting in 12-hour shifts to make sure he is not one of those who will ultimately have to be let go. He is grateful that he doesn’t have children because it means he can spend more time in the office than the family men can. His feelings of guilt over their futures are overshadowed by his anxiety over the future of his relationship with is wife, from whom he feels increasingly estranged because he never sees her. Every weekend in order to make himself feel better, he goes shopping, further adding to his debt but feeling that it makes no difference. He is depressed, anxious, and feels like something is missing from his life even though he became a Christian two years ago. The current economic crisis is not when he started feeling like this, but it has intensified everything. Lately he wonders why it is that the harder he works, the less happy he feels.

James is like many middle class first world office workers. His driving motivation is not money, it’s just success and a comfortable life. But every week, advertising tells him that to be comfortable and to feel successful, he needs to buy more and more things. No matter how many salary increases he gets, he never has anything to spare at the end of the month, and no matter how hard he works it never feels like enough.

James might be fictional, but his situation is not. “We’ve got to states of debt at every level – personal, local authority, corporate, national, international – debt is at a scale that is almost totally impossible to comprehend,” says Rev Canon Peter Challen, chairman of the Christian Council for Monetary Justice, and the effects on people’s lives – as any number of debt management charities will testify – have been catastrophic.

The current financial crisis has brought sharp criticism on the economic system.

It’s not as simple as saying capitalism is all wrong – burgeoning middle classes in Europe, China and parts of South America are a testament to the fact that millions of people are enjoying unprecedented levels of wealth under free market economies.

And yet there are now thousands of people like James in the UK alone, not to mention the three billion people in the developing world living on two dollars a day, for whom life has got worse.

Economic engagement

So what has any of this got to do with ordinary Christians? There are some in the Church who are becoming increasingly convinced that discussion about economic justice, in terms of the basics of how we structure our economy as a society, should be on the Church agenda, in the same way that trade justice, the environment or people trafficking has been in recent years.

In fact, the absence of any discussion about free market capitalism is seen by some as a serious failing. The neglect of economics is “a wound in the side of the Church” according to theologian Jurgen Moltmann.

“I think there’s a tiny number of people who take really seriously that our faith must be about a just economic and a just financial system,” says Challen. His theory for why this has happened is that the faith has drifted into allowing a kind of dualism – a separation of the spiritual and material worlds. “The Church deals with the spiritual and leaves the material to go its own way. I believe this to be a disastrous interpretation of the scriptures.”

There are other explanations for why the Church has not fully engaged in a discussion about the free market system and whether it is biblical. John Cobb, director and investment manager at Trinity Wealth Management, says, “I think today Christians have accepted what there is, ie a capitalist society, and are just living out Christian principles inside that. One looks more at a micro level than a macro level at those kinds of issues. I don’t think anybody, most Christians anyway, would know of any other way.”

Morality and markets

The principle of capitalism (also known as the free market) – the dominant system by which the global economy operates – is relatively straightforward. Goods and services are traded on an open market, and there is relatively little interference from governments (unlike other systems such as total socialism or communism). Prices in a free market are dictated by supply and demand from the market’s participants.

So does it work – practically and biblically?

“Primarily I think capitalism works,” says Cobb. “I think it encourages hard work, I think there is nothing wrong, from a biblical point of view, with making an honest profit.” “I am certainly not against the free market,” adds David Boyle, a fellow of the New Economics Forum. “I think it underpins other freedoms, including spiritual ones, that people should be allowed to do business with each other. But that’s not quite what we have at the moment. We have a system, certainly recently, where the most powerful people are allowed to ride roughshod over the most powerless. And that is not the free market.”

He lists the three main reasons for thinking that the current system is breaking down as: “One, it’s destroying the planet; two, it’s creating poverty; and three, it’s undermining people’s lives, even the relatively well off, because it makes them work too hard, it drives them away from their family and it corrodes community.”

So while there is nothing unbiblical about buying and selling, some identify profound injustices within the current, broadly free market system.

Peter Challen: “I don’t attack capital. Capital has a tremendous value in society. What I attack is the possession of capital by a tiny minority on the face of the planet. The tinyness of that minority is utterly obscene.”

“I think capitalism does work, but, of course, where it falls down is in the fact that it is run by broken human beings,” adds Cobb. “As with markets, it’s fear and greed that drives everything. And sadly greed does play a big part and in that sense wealth is disproportionate, how it is spread. And that is something that is very, very wrong.”

Brian Hodgkinson, a tutor in economics at the School of Economic Science in Oxford, calls the current system “profoundly unjust”, most obviously because of “the gross inequalities of income” it creates. “We have enormous differences in income that are getting bigger and bigger in the western world and the disparity in India and China is growing rapidly,” he says. He blames the commodification of land and labour, and says it is unjust that the largest income of the richest people is not obtained from work, but from asset ownership. “We call it ‘earnings’ but it isn’t earnings at all. It’s just income from assets of some kind, either property and land or shares or claims of some sort.”

However, not everyone shares the view that the capitalist system is flawed in this way. Eammon Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute, which champions capitalist ideas and opposes socialist interventions in the economy, doesn’t agree that the system helps the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

“That’s absolute garbage. If you look at places like India and China, the reason why they are moving up the prosperity ratings and why China is now the fourth largest economy in the world is that they adopted the principles of the market. There’s absolutely no question that the market economy is the very best way of helping the poorest people.”

However, others are concerned about the market’s lack of moral ethics. “Without ethics,” says founder and president of the Sojourners movement, Jim Wallis, “economies run on simple statements of profit and loss and winners and losers.”

God’s economics?

So, if the commentators are right and the free market system does breed injustice, how should Christians respond? For Stephen Rand, co-chair of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, the system of free market capitalism is “one in which a child dies every three seconds”.

“I just can’t stand by and say, ‘Well I’ll give some money to a charity and hope that stops one or two children dying,’” he says. “I have to keep saying, ‘What can I do to see that the way in which the system embodies the sinful nature of human beings can be improved and the worst effects can be changed?’”

He is talking about people like Nandi. Nandi is dying. Her mother does not have food to feed her. The farmer who used to employ her has gone out of business because cheap imports of grain from a wealthy first world country have undercut his prices and made it impossible for him to compete. Those imports were so competitively priced because international trade rules imposed on Nandi’s country prevented it from subsidising local farmers while at the same time allowing wealthy first world countries to do just that.

Aid agencies would argue that what is needed is a change in international trade rules. They are right. But the reason why those rules exist is to protect the interests of businesses in wealthy first world economies. These businesses are based on a model that involves constant growth, and the pursuit of profit as their only guiding principle. Their own need to pay labourers’ wages, rent, and interest on the loans upon which developments in their business are based, as well as the laws governing capitalism’s dominant institutions (limited liability corporations) mean that, even if they wanted to, such businesses could not avoid pushing for such measures to be implemented on their behalf.

Nandi’s predicament may look like it is a million miles away from the world of economics and high finance. It is an easy mistake to make to attribute her suffering to the whims of selfish or evil individuals alone. But some would say that what she and many others, including the underclass of wealthy nations and even the psychologically and emotionally overworked materialist middle classes, are are symptoms of a larger systemic problem.

It is a desire to address these issues at a system level that has started Christian economists, leaders and activists thinking about what a ‘Christian economics’ might look like.

Jim Wallis’ thinking on pursuing a more just economic system is in terms of changing corporate behaviour, ie, encouraging the major players in the markets to play more fairly.

“There are two main ways to do this. One is to demonstrate that there is a better way to do business – for example, many talk today about the green economy. There are jobs in going green. There is new technology. There is not just a clean environment but there are better jobs for low-income people than flipping hamburgers in McDonalds.

“The other is regulation. The government has a responsibility to protect the common good from rampant and negligent profitseeking. There’s a public responsibility to expects standards of accountability.”

Others cite Old Testament principles of economy as a model for how Christians should be directing their thinking. “We have to be quite careful how we apply them because clearly the Old Testament was written into an agrarian economy and so on,” says Rand. “But I think we too readily assume they don’t have any relevance. Written into them are little lines like ‘You won’t exploit other people’. Now there’s a very basic value.”

The Old Testament also contains 17 direct references to the idea that there should be no interest on a loan. “That’s all kinds of interest, not the modern interpretation of usury as excessive interest, but all usury was wrong because it was allowing the curse of commodity money to take over,” says Challen. “That means if money becomes a commodity, then it starts an insidious process of dividing society between the rich and the poor. Because money makes money and those without it have to go into various forms of serfdom in order to make the money to live by.”

Challen’s idea of what ‘Kingdom economics’ should look like is based around mutuality and reciprocity. “Giving and receiving is the constant ebb and flow of life. And that must be held in a balance that allows everyone’s potential to develop. And by that I mean the potentiality of their real gifts, not the skills and gifts they’re forced to develop in order to survive in the present society. For instance, a mother will often have the greatest gift of all, which is the nurture of a child, and there is no cash nexus to that.

“One of the fundamentals that I believe Christians should be crying out for is a universal basic income so that people could do those works of the soul – that real contribution of nurturing or serving – whether or not there’s a cash nexus.”

David Boyle has a different perspective. For him, it is not about governments or big businesses controlling the amount of wealth we have, it is about giving individual people the maximum amount of independence – an idea which is reflected in the Catholic social doctrine, laid down by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. “Some of the things they developed then still stand,” he says. “[The principle is that] the best society is one in which decisions are made at the lowest possible level. That implies that people have, where possible, smaller systems, enterprising systems, that underpin people’s independent lives, rather than giant systems, either giant government systems or giant corporate systems, which give people no choice and no freedom and no independence in the end.”

Another alternative economic theory looks at the ownership of land. A theory developed by Brian Hodgkinson and the School of Economic Science encourages taxing the value of the land, rather than income or anything else. So land can still be privately owned, but if someone ‘owns’ a more economically valuable part of the land, they pay a higher tax. They believe that by doing this, enterprise would be encouraged and unjust disparities of wealth reduced.

“We take it for granted that land is held as absolute private property, or, under a communist system, that it is all held by the state,” he says. “But there’s no reason why land cannot be held by individuals and firms as it now is, but subject to conditions under which it’s held. Because land, after all, is God-given [and] ultimately it belongs to everyone. The idea that a minority of people should hold land exclusively and exclude other people from it is one of the roots of the injustice that we have.”

Can we change things?

Is there really any point in having this discussion? Will embracing alternative economic ideologies get us anywhere beyond an intense discussion? Even if the Church develops a coherent theology of economics, will anyone ever listen to it?

Jim Wallis thinks so. “It’s always the grassroots movements of ordinary people that get mobilised and then the elites and the politicians have to pay attention to that. It wasn’t just Wilberforce [who brought about the abolition of the slave trade], it was a prairie fire that swept the UK of ordinary people not having sugar in their coffee or tea because slaves made it in plantations in Jamaica.”

“I remember campaigning about apartheid in South Africa,” adds Rand. “I actually didn’t believe it was going to end. But I thought, ‘I cannot go through my life not having said this is wrong, something ought to be done.’”

There are no conclusions to this as yet. For some people we have spoken to, the answer to finding a fairer economic system lies in improving the way the current free market operates through tighter regulation. For others, less regulation and less interference from governments would mean that the markets could operate more freely, and thus be fairer. Others still are thinking about alternative models to the free markets.

Before we begin to look at which of these is the right way forward, there are some very basic questions to address: does the free market system breed injustice or not? Does a person die every three seconds from poverty because the free market system is flawed in some way or is it actually their best hope for improvement? To what extent is the current capitalist system we have governed by greed (which is unbiblical) or by honest work in return for remuneration (which most Christians consider to be completely acceptable)?

None of the answers to these are straightforward. What is required of the Church is to begin to engage with the questions.

“There are global issues where we do need to be involved,” says Stephen Rand. “Part of the Christian responsibility is to have a clarity of vision as to how God intended the world to be, and wherever we have that opportunity, to inch it, to edge it, to call for it, to nudge it, to move in that direction.”