The Wrong End of the Telescope

I am really wondering how there could be such a thing as explicitly “Christian” economics.  I bumped into this question in a blog where the writer, Roger Olson, surveyed major strains of economic thought in the context of distributive justice and gave examples of prominent Christian proponents.  But what especially caught my eye was this assertion:

Every Christian church ought to be an “intentional Christian community” that practices distributive justice within itself by making sure no member suffers from loss or lack of goods needed to live a life of well-being and no member hoards wealth above and beyond what is needed for a comfortable life of well-being.[1]

This idea has some resonance.  The modern church in our materialistic culture pretty much ignores John’s question highlighting the discontinuity between indifference to need and the love of God [2].  But I don’t think you can get at this by adopting the lens of a societal-level political idea.  Thinking about the organization of society and looking from this to the behavior of the Church is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Contributed to Flickr by Charles Nadeau. Creative Commons
Charles Nadeau – Flickr C.C.

Christians should think about organization, economics and politics.  But the problem is that broad concepts necessarily spawn structures and mechanisms to implement them.  But the process of organization grows the structures into institutions.  Institutions leverage our influence and can accomplish a lot of good.  But the under-girding organization also create routines that channel thinking in terms of resource allocation and who reports to whom.  Which means using the wrong end of the telescope can result in the conflation of Christian practice with functional processes and societal norms.

This happens because the systems of organization used will inevitably tend to reinforce certain personal traits and behaviors at the expense of others. Some of these will be negative and the flavor will vary with the nature of the system. And sooner or later one or more of the negative traits will inevitably come to serve the self-interest of the leadership. Once this happens the processes for advancement and retention will start to advantage people with those negative traits.

Which, for example, is why authoritarian systems accumulate sycophants, and part of why corporate systems become fodder for Dilbert cartoons.  As organizational growth weakens mechanisms that hold people accountable, a feedback loop forms that favors the selection of leaders who benefit in some way from their subordinates’ misbehavior. This reinforcing effect is the same, whether the system is used by a government, a business, or a church.

To be clear, we need organization.  Forming institutions increase the reach of what groups of people can accomplish.  But the ethics of the individuals in the institutions are the key.  It is the only way to fight the tendency for organization to aggregate human vice and frailty.  Otherwise, before we know it, the organizational forms in the institutions we’ve created allow the broader culture to colonize our faith.

The tendency of organization to aggregate our weaknesses suggests that creating explicitly Christian economics might be impossible in principle.  My suspicion is that we might be better served by concentrating on the Christian ethic governing our personal behavior.  This ethic ought to inform both how we treat others both inside and outside the church, also ought to inform how we interact with whatever economic system we happen to find ourselves in,  including whatever systemic evils it might bring.  It is the other end of the telescope.

New Testament writers seem zeroed in on this personal ethic, as is apparent in Paul’s letter to Philemon:

I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)  I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart…

…perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother…(Philemon 10-15, Revised Standard Version)

Some Protestant pastors and theologians in the 19th century clearly used the wrong end of the telescope in relation to this passage.  They started from the standpoint of their culture and as a result stood the text on its head, and turned it into the “Pauline Mandate” for slavery.[3]  The intellectual gymnastics used to achieve this are baffling,  but the results are a clear image of what results from the conflation of social and economic norms with what Christians ought to do.

It is impossible to know why Onesimus was with Paul.  A traditional interpretation is that he was a runaway.  But the lack of any reference by Paul to the customary harsh treatment of escaped slaves  argues against that.  It is more probable that he was sent for some now unknown reason.  Slaves in the Greco-Roman world were viewed as tools and the owner clearly didn’t think much of this particular one.  Paul’s use of “beloved brother,” however, says absolutely nothing about the formal relationship of master and slave.  It is wholly focused on personal behavior, to the probable discomfort of Philemon.  We have no record of how Philemon actually responded, but the preservation of the personal letter argues in favor of some fundamental changes.

Such changes make us uncomfortable.  It is actually easier to think about Christianity in the context of big ideas of the broader culture.  We would much rather blame whatever system we are in, rather than engage our personal behavior within it.

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[1] Olson favors “justice as fairness,” as articulated by John Rawls. Roger E Olson http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2016/04/is-there-a-christian-economics/

Rawls was an American political and ethical philosopher, whose major work was A Theory of Justice (1971), a defense of egalitarian liberalism which contained arguments later revised in Political Liberalism (1993). A decent overview of his thought is available here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/.

His thought was highly influential and I’ve found it attractive. But his fairness theory is in part dependent on an idea about free, equal, reasonable citizens who can agree to cooperate at the expense of their own interests. My reservations about this, however, originate in a career that involved significant contact with the public. I have met very few people whose real-world behavior suggests they might be able to act in a way that supports Rawls’ ideals. Most folks just don’t seem to have that much give in them when in conflict over their interests.

[2] “…if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”  I John 3:17

[3] Larry R Morrison.  The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830.  Journal of Religious Thought; Fall 80 / Winter 81, Vol. 37 Issue 2, pp 16-29.  Retrieved from http://www.kingscollege.net/gbrodie/The%20religious%20justification%20of%20slavery%20before%201830.pdf