Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12.32-34).
There’s no doubt. We are in troubled economic times. News outlets herald the collapse of Wall Street, the crumbling of the mortgage industry, the impending death of the automobile industry, the credit crisis and the billions of dollars stolen in fraudulent pyramid schemes. Companies are going out of business and hundreds of thousands of people are being laid off from their jobs. Families are losing their homes and struggling to make ends meet.
The news of economic crisis is not really news to those who are homeless living on Skid Row in Los Angeles1, or to families in the Bronx, New York, working double shifts in minimum wage jobs unable to cover the basics2, or to men in California living seasonally in migrant labor shanties hoping to earn just enough extra to send a little back to their families across the border3, or to the 14-year old girls who have been working 16-hour shifts for pennies an hour in a toy factory in Fouzhou, China4, or to families eking out an existence by recycling trash in the flavelas that ring Sao Paulo, Brazil5, or with the young daughters who cart water on their heads for miles in the massive Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya6. If we’ve paid attention to our brothers and sisters on the margins we’ve known for quite some time now that we are living in troubled economic times.
Do not be afraid! A crisis is also an opportunity for repentance. We have been given a chance to see more truthfully that which our relative privilege has shielded from us: We are caught up in an economic system that is fundamentally evil. We have also been given a chance to turn and act more faithfully in the radical economics of our faith.
Do not be afraid, even in the depths of our challenge. We are caught up in a system that economists call late-modern hyperconsumer capitalism. It is a system that assumes scarcity and greed, depends on perpetual, unsustainable growth, profits from the exploitation of people and the earth and celebrates massive accumulation for some while others go without.
Do not be afraid, for we have been shown another way. Christian theology and practice is an alternative to the theology and practice of modern consumer capitalism. Theirs is a theology of meritocracy where you earn your way through life; ours is a theology of undeserved grace where all we have and are is a gift from God. Theirs is a theology that assumes “competition in scarcity,” that we have to fight one another for the little that exists; ours is a theology of thanksgiving (Eucharist) that assumes “all are welcome at the table,” where what we have is received as a gift and is also given as gift. Theirs is a theology where the fittest survive; ours is a theology where the strong become weak and the rich become poor. Theirs is a life that seeks profit by manufacturing desires and products for everincreasing levels of consumption; ours is a life that desires to love God and to give sacrificially to one another. Theirs takes seriously the reality of sin and selfishness and seeks to capitalize on it; ours is a theology that takes seriously the reality of sin and selfishness but believes that God in Christ overcame sin and is indeed in the process of making us into a holy people.
Consumer capitalism involves the worship of private wealth accumulation; as we learn in Acts 2 and 4, a Christian economy involves a life of eating and drinking together where none go without. Theirs is a life where the central mode of economic activity is the sale, where everyone seeks to maximize value for themselves at the expense of others; our life together is one where the central mode of economic activity is the gift.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). God is love, and that love moved God to give. Jesus, God’s self, was THE Gift. THE Gift is the economic model that reflects the very character of God. THE Gift is God’s incarnation, God’s coming to earth, a gift that cost Jesus his life. THE Gift makes life possible for all others. It is a sacrificial gift, a gift that cuts deep, a gift that embraces intense pain and suffering…and a profoundly hopeful gift that reaches into the depths of death itself and offers a word of hope. Do not be afraid.
God’s gift of Jesus is a gift of solidarity, a gift that leads Jesus to walk with the “least of these,” to be treated like an outcast, and suffer torture and death at the hands of the established powers and principalities. It is a gift, one that is very material and earthly, that turns upside down human notions of justice by tying justice and forgiveness inextricably together. Christians are called to “turn the other cheek,” to “go the second mile,” to “give to everyone who begs from you,” and to “not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Luke 6).
Notice the link between theology, economics and politics in the incarnation. THE Gift of Jesus is motivated by God’s love for us (a fundamentally theological concept). It is a gift that flies in the face of the dominant economic systems of consumption, debt and accumulation – the one owed something becomes the gift giver (a profoundly material and economic concept). This then results in an “upside down kingdom” (in Donald Kraybill’s words7), an inversion of power dynamics where power is found in giving up power, in giving up the right to retribution, in forgiving debts as we have been forgiven.
Students and staff at Point Loma Nazarene University have taken this moment of crisis as an opportunity for repentance and turning. To see their confession and attempt to more faithfully live out this radical economics of the Gospel, please check out their website, Returning to the Roots of Giving at www.pointloma. edu/roots_of_giving.
Imagine living in this “upside down kingdom” where “the gift” is the dominant form of economics and forgiveness is the dominant form of politics. Imagine living in a world where the poor and the marginalized are blessed, where the weak become strong, where the last shall be first. This is not the world that dominates our lives. We cannot even see this upside down kingdom when we are so easily seduced into thinking that our dominant culture and its commitment to consumer capitalism is simply “just the way things are.” It is too cynical of us to say, “We know it may not be the Kingdom of God, but it’s the best economic system out there.” Ours is not to ask, “Is this realistic?” but to follow in hope the lead of THE ONE who gave us life in the first place.
by Jamie Gates
Center for Justice and Reconciliation
Pt. Loma Nazarene University
7 Kraybill, Donald. The Upside-Down Kingdom. Herald Press (25th Anniversary Edition). 2003.