an introduction to the series
Christians know that God's commandments are good for all of life. And thus also for the economy.
In the series Economy in Ten Words the Dutch daily 'Ned Dagblad', tried to find the economic relevance of the Ten Commandments. And discovers it goes beyond relevance. In a culture where laws are seen as something that confines us, is restrictive in nature, it may be hard to understand that laws are supposed to set us free. Laws create the conditions for something to be possible. Laws enable. In that sense we have to understand the Ten Commandments as enabling life as it is supposed to be.
"In the reformed tradition the economy is a social network that keeps the community going. But the present economic order rather contributes to the disintegration of society".
These lines come from a declaration put together at a Thai Symposium about globalisation held a couple of years back. The meeting organised by the World Council of Churches and the World Society of Reformed Churches, made a strong appeal to all Christians:
"The time has come to return to the fundamental and true teachings of the Gospel. It is time to make a choice : God or Mammon, the one true God or the idols of wealth."
The declaration wanted to make people conscious about the choices they make. The call is now eight years old, but hasn't lost any claim to actuality : Economy is about the use of resources,wealth and affluency and the distribution of it.
Investing in the economy of the developing countries?
Or rather in the building of new care facilities?
Or rather in the construction of extra industrial complexes?
Far reaching choices that have to do with justice, because economy is not value free. That Europe for instance -built on the judeo-christian tradition- has an extensive network of social services, has a lot to do with the moral issue of the distribution of wealth, the task of government and the care for the neighbour.
For Christians the Ten Commandments and Jesus' summary of it, come into play here. (You shall love God and your neighbour as yourself).
If everybody would keep the Ten Commandments, it would have a positive influence on our economy, according to an intriguing thesis from Lance Bovenberg, Economics Professor at the University of Tilburg. Many of Bovenberg's colleagues find this nonsense, but biblical norms and values can quite well be connected to economic practice. Maybe it could be stated that the absence is cause for grave concern.
A few years ago professor Bovenberg -active in an Evangelical congregation in his hometown Breda- emphasized that we cannot do without norms and values in our economic practice.
" You see recognition of this in social-communal responsible entrepreneurship"
But also for instance in a system of social services. Of course EI and Old Age Pension have a practical reason: people who have no money, have nothing to spend, don't consume and that is bad for the economy. But the foundation of it is an ethical choice of taking care of one another.
Thus in a system of social security we discover the elements of the great commandment of loving your neighbour. And is it by accident that countries with a lot of corruption have the lousiest economies? Where blackmail and bribery is a common given, room for healthy development gets smaller. The eighth commandment as formulated in Exodus 20 appears to have long reaching validity and implications.
For a long time Economic Theory embraced the notion of the homo economicus: man acts in his own interest and thinks about it rationally. In the mean time we have discovered that the homo economicus does exist, but is not very rational. That the irrational human psyche dominates also his economic practice, has been proven extensively by psychologist Daniel Kahneman ever since the seventies. He received the Nobel Prize for Economics for it in 2002. Our instable psyche is responsible for signing too expensive insurance policies, buying the wrong shares, according to the Israeli-American scientist. And also that we work to burn out is to be added to it.
The Ten Commandments are there to rein in our sins, digressions, they are good commandments for a life that is no longer in the power of sin. However there is a lot more to it that we will only discover if and when we practice, meditate and in general live those commandments.
He who takes the Law serious, will prosper, is a recurring theme in the Bible.
The question in this series is therefore how observing the commandments affects our economic practice. That practice is about sharing the scarcity, about distribution of our needs and thus also distribution of wealth. There is nothing nothing wrong with that. Striving for wealth is not a sin and poverty is not a virtue. Not for nothing in Proverbs the writer asks God not to become rich , but neither poor.Both wealth as well as poverty can pull people away from God.
That however exactly the striving for wealth and affluence, fulfillment of needs and economical growth can be destructive and ruinous, history shows time and time again.
Just think of the slave trade in the 18th century, the abuse of factory workers in the 19th century and the immense destruction of nature and the the environment in the 20th century. In the final analysis it is of utmost importance to not turn wealth, affluence and economy into ends in itself. Sooner or later it is going to lead to new forms of slavery, whereas God -in the introduction to the Commandments- presents himself as Liberator:
I am the Lord your God, who has led you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Christians have to realize that also in their economic practice, they have to confess in whom they believe and put their trust.
Economy is in the end nothing but an instrument to honour God and to love our neighbour as our selves.
And by honouring God we make society livable and enable all participants with the exclusion of none.