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I hate to say this, but we’re going to have to talk about economics in church. I would not make this grim assertion without reason, and here’s my reason: we must unmask and dismantle the idols if we’re going to save the planet.

Now let me nuance that a bit. If we’re going to align our ways of life on the earth to preserve a liveable, thriving future for all people, then our current economic assumptions need to be examined, reassessed, and changed. The good news is that smart people are already on the job doing that work. However, are we paying any attention in church?

Nah. We don’t touch economic mythologies (I use that word deliberately) because to do so would be too dangerous, divisive, inflammatory, and let’s say it: blasphemous. Certain economic principles have become quasi-religious beliefs in American culture and we in the church dare not disturb them.

Before I explain further, let me assert bluntly: I am not proposing socialism or a communism. I know what those words mean. Let’s further take note that one way to protect powerful mythologies is to shout “blasphemy!” when anyone questions the tiniest part of them, and the current words for blasphemy in America are “socialist!” and “communist!”

Are you starting to feel your blood pressure rise as you read this? Yeah, that’s the sign that we are touching on ideas you might hold sacred without even knowing it.

Before going deeper into economics, we need a little more context. In an article called “Deeper Green Churches,” Jerry Cappel, an Episcopal priest and director of Deep Green Faith, writes that so far (this was 2014) in most American churches, “creation care” amounts to a small group of people who work on the church’s building and grounds and maybe recycling and energy use, maybe some social justice issues here and there. But that work remains on the fringes, not at the heart of church life. The “green” at church is an interest group, a club on the church’s overall menu, not rising to the level of a formation-and-discipleship matter for the whole congregation.

The recent Pew Research study on American churches and climate action, released in November, bears out the accuracy of Cappel’s observation with more recent actual data. (I wrote about this study here.)

While “green” remains a dilettantish concern at churches, the impacts of climate change accelerate, and we fail to reckon with the effects on the world’s poorest people, and even more so, we fail to hold accountable the gigantic corporations that extract resources and profits out of the earth and shove their “negative externalities” on others. Example: see Tim Van Deelen’s post this week. Another example: this week’s US Supreme Court ruling hampering the EPA’s ability to protect wetlands. Of course, because how dare government inhibit business or private owners? And who will pay the costs of diminished water quality and reduced biodiversity when businesses, developers, and private landowners pollute or fill in wetlands? Well, someone downstream, literally or figuratively. Not the people responsible for the damage, obviously.

Meanwhile, most churches just ignore it all. As Cappel writes, “As [the new poor] are left to bear the suffering and clean up the mess, the church remains silent so long as the prices on the shelves and at the pump remain low, profits remain high, and the resultant suffering remains mostly out of sight of the privileged and the powerful.”

Ouch. But why is this? Why is it so easy to ignore the massive foolishness and injustice going on all around us all the time?

Because we have imbibed economic principles that have become sacrosanct. A few examples:
– Constant GDP growth is essential: without it, terrible things will occur.
– Growth will fix all poverty. Well, eventually.
– Trust the market. It’s efficient and can solve all problems.
– Business is innovative. Don’t hamper it.
– Business leaders are gods. Do not question them on any topic.
– The state is meddlesome. Keep it out of the way.

We don’t necessarily even ponder consciously whether these principles are realistic or morally supportable. Yet they are touted all the time, especially as political dog whistles. In churches, too, we dare not question them. That is not our role, we say. We worry about spiritual things. And besides, what other possible system is there? This is the best one anyone has ever come up with!

Yes. So-called free-market capitalism has created enormous wealth for many. No question about that. Our lives are much, much better than in any previous generation. Well, some of our lives are. However, “the system” is also ruining the planet and creating massive wealth inequality. It cannot go on like this forever or for everyone. That’s simply a physical fact. Our wealth-o-sphere is outrunning our biosphere.

So what to do? I’ve just read an enlightening book called Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. Her credentials are impressive: Oxford educated, teaches at Oxford now, spent many years in sustainable development, serious scholar and also on-the-ground practitioner, has spent many years talking with business leaders and development people around the world. Raworth is not a crazy outlier. She is one among many innovative economists proposing a better way.

“The doughnut” refers to an idea Raworth has been working on and testing out with people since 2011. The idea is that there’s an economic sweet spot shaped like a doughnut. (She’s a Brit, so we’ll spell it the British way.) Inside the doughnut is poverty and deprivation, where people do not have what they need to thrive. But outside the doughnut is the kind of behavior that goes beyond what the planet can sustain: over-extraction, pollution, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, and so on. She writes: “Together, the social foundation of human rights and the ecological ceiling of planetary boundaries create the inner and outer boundaries of the Doughnut.”

Right now, unfortunately, “Despite unprecedented progress in human well-being over the past 70 years, we are far beyond the Doughnut’s boundaries on both sides.”

One of the best things about this book is that Raworth carefully traces the origins of our current economic assumptions. She’s critical of economics education—as are a whole group of younger economists who are busy overturning the stodgy establishment there. It’s fascinating to see, across the centuries, the influence of certain textbooks, certain graphs, certain politicians, and to place the rise of economic theories in historical context. It’s also disheartening to see how complex ideas get reduced to slogans and then those slogans become entrenched in people’s thinking, including people who create policy and run for office.

Turns out to be very revealing when you actually read the stuff that history’s economics theory giants wrote, which Raworth clearly has. For instance, even poor ol’ Adam Smith, Mr. Invisible Hand, was not a free-market purist. He clearly understood the way “market fundamentalism” (the current term) leads to all kinds of nefarious incentives. He also posited a strong role for central government. But we’ve forgotten all that. In fact, I learned from a podcast interview with science historian Naomi Oreskes and New York Times reporter David Gelles that in the 1950s, a professor from the Chicago School of economics, George Stigler, literally published a truncated edition of Smith’s Wealth of Nations in which he excised all the stuff that wasn’t about free markets. Seriously.

This is the sort of thing that flattens complexities and leads to distorted ideas and policies. When you learn how and when the complexities get flattened—and why—you are faced with the truth that no idea is dis-interested. Everyone always has an agenda. Ideas are circulated as well as suppressed for reasons. John Maynard Keynes, in the 1930s, was well aware of how people who think they’re smart are often enough actually spouting hand-me-down distortions: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

The bottom line here is that economic principles and theories are just that: principles and theories. They are abstractions, and thus we can expect to get things wrong. For instance, the whole “rational economic man” thing on which so much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century economic theory was based: plain old wrong. The GDP metric we obsess about in daily market reports: a blunt instrument whose creator, Simon Kuznets, said himself was not a great measure of a nation’s overall welfare. And of course, the world changes immensely. In a world of eight billion people, endless growth is a dangerous fantasy. The planet cannot bear it.

The good news is that we can correct our goals and principles. They are not dropped from heaven. To do so, though, we have to remain skeptical, informed, and attentive to realities. We cannot allow economic ideas or systems to become idols. Yet even in the church, where we are supposed to be on the alert for idols, we fall for them. One of my doctoral students commented to me that some people in his congregation believe so deeply in free markets that “they think the Invisible Hand is the Holy Spirit.” Yikes.

In case you’re worried, Raworth’s vision of a different way, “the doughnut,” definitely involves markets. It’s still capitalism. There’s still private ownership and business. However, markets are embedded in and chastened by a more realistic and holistic system of value, including households and the commons. And governments, too. She’s got it worked out in quite a bit of detail. Plus, the book is full of examples of people already pioneering businesses and communities who have “the doughnut” as their goal. Moreover, Raworth is a great writer and skilled at explaining to the non-expert.

Anyway, I can hardly believe that I’m reading with interest about economics these days. Not my favorite subject at all. Yet I’ve been dragged into it because as I go deeper into connecting my faith with the urgent moral and existential concern of climate change, I have to understand some of the economic drivers behind what’s happening. And Raworth wants non-experts to think about economics precisely in order to help upset the stodgy establishment.

We can dethrone the idols. We can question the mythologies. A lot of powerful people would love for religious folk to avoid talking about economics and simply accept the “religion” of unfettered free-market capitalism and meddlesome government right alongside a harmless, compliant religious faith. If religious people stay busy clawing at each other about sexuality, trans-rights, and book-banning, then we’re conveniently looking in the other direction while the “gods” of capitalism can go about their business and politicians can dog-whistle us into keeping them in power.

We can do better.

For Kate Raworth’s TED talk, go here.

For an example of a case in which regular people actually won a victory against Exxon, listen to this podcast episode.  

Image credit: Geekflare.com

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

19 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Excellent. Concise, thorough, strong. Thank you.

  • Lydia Frens says:

    How about denomination-wide study committees about THIS?!?

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    What Lydia said.

  • John Tiemstra says:

    From the “tooting his own horn” department, may I suggest the book “Stories Economists Tell” (Pickwick Publications, 2012). It is a collection of 15 articles I wrote about faith and learning issues in economics. If you have had a course or two in economics, you will have no trouble with it.

  • John Tiemstra says:

    I should add that several of those articles first appeared in the Reformed Journal.

  • John Paarlberg says:

    Thank you for this Deb.
    Are the seminaries addressing this issue at all? And how about some workshops and suggestions on how we can alter our own economic behavior to “unmask and dismantle the idols” and better care for creation?
    Some other resources to consider: Kathryn Tanner, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism; Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation; Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition.

    • Jen Holmes Curran says:

      I took a Christianity and Capitalism class at Regent. It was fabulous. But… that kind of thing is rare.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    Reflecting on idolatry, I always smile when I see the image of the bull outside the stock exchange on Wall Street, the ancient image of fertility that was so tempting to the Israelites.

  • Sharon A Etheridge says:

    Thanks for writing this
    I do not understand economics, so will be glad to read the book by Raworth.

  • Yes, economics. Free enterprise capitalism, I believe, would work IF all the cost were calculated. Too often we don’t assign costs that goes with longterm waste, pollution, etc up front. I was reminded over and over again when I recently revisited “Cadillac Desert”

  • Jack says:

    Speaking of doughnuts: Western Seminary solved its avoidable economic irresponsibility by employing the long john method, dumping three beloved, willing to work overtime staff, two of whom of course were women, out on the street offering no valid reason other than AI speak and no help with survival. Yes, Reformed Christians love to hide behind the scapegoat called sin and “The Fall” (kinda like trickle down “what can we do?”) So into the middle of the doughnut went these loyal and committed workers for poor Jesus while the rest of the disciples scattered. C’mon, quit with the sin bit. I never asked for all what’s wrong with me. God’s forgiveness? Give me a break. Saved? How does that feed my neighbor? My fault? That “I’m fallible” stuff is rhetorical permission to toss the “other” into a box along Main Street. How about you sell just a bit of what you have and give it to the now poor you tossed out of your sacred space? How about at least let them live rent free on one of the library’s floors? Maybe it’s they who would forgive. I like my doughnuts with sprinkles. “Jesus, how ‘bout you? Buddha? Neighbor? Let’s head to The Respite. Lattes all around. I’m buying’.”

  • Leana says:

    Yes. it is good to be informed on economic issues. However, the pulpit on Sundays is for God’s word and preaching about the Kingdom of God.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    One of the reasons I left a PhD program in economics at MSU was the fact that is was being taken over by the “rational expectations” school of thought which I could not accept given what I knew about human nature from Reformed theology and my life experience in the first, second, and third worlds. It just didn’t add up for me and real people disappeared from the equations as actual realities of life were not included in the initial assumptions. Glad that some improvements have been made. Too bad it took a climate crisis and so much rising inequality for us to take economics seriously again in Church. We over idolize free markets in the USA, Europe has a slightly better balance. Now if we can just get it reduced to a winnable campaign slogan…

  • RZ says:

    A late thought here. A free- market economy, it seems to me, is good in-so-far as it works to harness our selfishness and motivate us. But, it is not inherently right. Rather it is a concession and must be managed. It is not a pillar of democracy and certainly not of Christianity, as many treat it. Yes, it has become an idol. Thanks for pointing this out.

  • Dale Hulst says:

    Bravo! Thanks so much for writing this! I’ve imagined myself writing such a piece, but alas, haven’t made time for the kind of scholarship you’ve done and don’t have the same skill with words.

    My awareness of this idol has slowly grown over the decades, with a few “aha” moments along the way. I’ll note a few here in support of your challenge to the church.

    1. Hearing people, including friends, talk about the “free market” like it MUST be obeyed. Yeah right, I thought, kind of like gravity MUST be obeyed. If grandma falls on the sidewalk, we MUST leave her lie there, right? Because, well, it’s gravity; it’s the law! (As I observed middle/upper income people become more and more comfortable leaving “service workers” behind in our economy. This became personal when it was me who had to turn in the raise schedule for the new year for the whole team. There were limits to my ability to shrink the 6X gap.)

    2. Reading Robert Reich and seeing a convincing case laid out for how the “free” market is in fact a man-made mechanism, created by our laws and institutions, that has been increasingly favoring the rich for the last five decades or so. https://www.amazon.com/Saving-Capitalism-Many-Not-Few/dp/1785781766/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1685817586&sr=1-1

    3. Reading Jeff Van Duzer on the proper place of business (and how its place has become inflated in our culture): https://www.amazon.com/Why-Business-Matters-God-Still-ebook/dp/B004AM77DW/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1GCWEO7XT5D20&keywords=why+business+matters+to+god&qid=1685817830&sprefix=why+business+matters+to+god%2Caps%2C87&sr=8-1

    4. Receiving pushback on the environmental efforts I’ve made in my church. One of the most surprising was the accusation that I’m “worshipping the green dragon” (of environmentalism), a claim that I suspect originates with this book: https://www.amazon.com/Resisting-Green-Dragon/dp/188656857X
    I want to laugh, and say, seriously?! While you and the rest of our culture worships the oily, brown, dragon?! (A close cousin the almighty greenback dragon?!)

    Anyway, there’s a few refences that hopefully add to the conversation.
    Again, thank you for tackling this; I wish you collaborators from the business department to work with you on creative antidotes!

    And I leave you with this song I just heard for the first time. It lifted my mood and made me think of your Refugia work: https://emilybarker.bandcamp.com/track/the-woman-who-planted-trees-string-quartet-version

  • Jeff Raywood says:

    As long as pastors are paid through tithes and offerings this will be the case. Sorry. Something about biting the hand that feeds them? Do the “poor” pony up when the plate is passed. Too busy surviving in this cut throat world. Young families? You seen the prices of homes as of late? Health care, etc. Seems to be a self fulfilling prophesy. And that is so sad. We are super greens in my home and some of my fellow congregants make fun of that. My faith is in my son’s generation. We, the boomers, are one of Steinbeck’s “Lost Generation”. Store too many of our treasures here on earth and not in heaven?

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