God’s Economy (and ours)

Why should I fear evil days

When my foes’ sin surrounds;

Even those who trust their wealth,

who boast as it abounds?

No man can by any means,

Pay to God his ransom price;

For the purchase of his soul

No payment can suffice.

(from “Hear This All Earth’s Nations” – based on Psalm 49; The Book of Psalms for Worship)

The world’s economy is based (however loosely) on an exchange of “goods” and “services”.  The more desired goods we can produce, the more valued services we can provide, the greater wealth we can accumulate.

A purely “capitalist” philosophy holds that if this exchange is allowed to freely flow, and everyone is given the opportunity to produce as many goods, to provide as many services as s/he can, all will be as it should be.

A “socialist” critique of such a free market contends that greed infects the human heart such that a few wind up feasting on hoarded riches while many others are left to starve as they scramble for the scraps that fall from the table.  Wealth need be redistributed justly, according to a socialist, so that all might live freely.

I do not count myself either a capitalist or a socialist, but I have benefited from both philosophies.  For most of my adult life, I provided pastoral services, steadily rising through the ranks of my profession until I was “earning” a comparatively lucrative salary.  Then, when I went on disability for Bipolar disorder, I became a beneficiary of the “safety net” our system provides for those deemed unable to earn a sufficient wage.

Given what I have witnessed in my life, I have mixed feelings about what method is used both to accumulate wealth and to share resources.  On the one hand, crass capitalism consumes creation as short-term gain is favored over long-term investment.  On the other hand, steadfast socialism skews the scales and fosters debilitating learned dependency.

The good news for us is this.  God is not a capitalist.  Neither is God a socialist. What is God’s economic philosophy? In God, the world’s values are redefined.  “Goods” are not products we produce, but virtues we display.  “Services” are not deeds that meet desires, but loving acts that meet needs.

The best example of God’s goods and services is found in the life of Jesus.  Jesus displayed such “goods” as compassion when they brought to him a woman caught in adultery, and righteous anger when he found money changers perverted prayer in the temple.  Jesus performed such “services” as healing for a Samaritan woman pleading for recognition and teaching all who would listen about the nature of God’s kingdom.

The world’s economy is based heavily on consumer spending.  We are taught from the cradle to the grave to spend first (even if it means going into debt), then frantically scramble to earn enough to pay off our debts.  There is little or no room left over for giving.

In God’s economy, we are provided essential resources and taught to give the first and best and live simply on the rest.

Recently, I read a story on my friend Leanne Sypes’blog about a young African artist named Phumlani Mtabe who has a dream to open an art school in his village.  He’s been working hard and steadily to move toward this dream.  Tragically, a fire struck and he lost everything.  Phumlani writes –

We have to start from the beginning, rebuilding for a new hope that one day God will listen and hear our prayers. 

Reading this was, for me, an answer to prayer.  I’ve been looking for a way I might make an investment beyond my tithe to support God at work in the world beyond my small community.  I have contacted Phumlani and his art teacher and hope to help (in whatever way I can) to invest in his dream.

Personally, I would much rather invest my resources in dreams like Phumlani’s than in Big Macs at McDonald’s, coffees at the convenience store, cable television, even books from Amazon I could readily borrow from the library.

How about you?

Phumlani Art

Racial Attitudes in “Heart of Darkness”

The following was written by my daughter Grace… 

joseph conrad

Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness is one of the greatest books I have ever read.  It isn’t an easy read.  The language is complicated with long sentences and archaic words, and the plot itself, while flowing, does not have a good sense of the passage of time.  But it is a great book.  It is meant to be very dream-like – more of an ambiance than a story – to convey “that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams.”  And it does just that.  You may not understand the book, but you feel it.

One theme that caught my attention while I was reading Heart of Darkness was the attitude towards race relations.  Being set in colonized Africa, there is a lot of reference to the actions and reactions amidst white and black people.  From a simplistic outlook – and indeed this might be the final verdict- it seems clear, and historically accurate, that the white people’s view towards the Africans on the whole was patronizing at best.

The very setting that Marlow (the main character) is in, is that of Belgium setting up trade routes in Africa for the export of ivory. Belgium had “subdued” the areas and was hard at work, profiting on the African’s labor and resources.  The Europeans who came in to work at exportation – and those who came to stay just because – had a very high-minded, superior attitude towards the African natives.  Some people did not consider Africans to be human; others chose to ignore that they might have feelings and needs like their own.   Mostly the European interference was a reign of terror.

Others, including Marlow’s aunt who lived in Africa, had a slightly more humanitarian view.  She viewed the Africans as ignorant poor souls who needed to be “weaned from their horrid ways.”  The influence of English culture was considered for their good.  Even Marlow could see that she was very deluded about what was really happening.  Civilization in the sense of material things may have been being introduced to some degree, but the ones who were bringing it were brutal to the degree that they themselves became more savages than the “savages” they were exploiting.

Marlow touched on this idea more than once.  He traveled by steam boat, his crew consisted mostly of cannibals and a few Europeans.   At one point he had a shocking realization that the odds of cannibals to non-cannibals was 30 to 5.  The cannibals could have easily overpowered and eaten them at any time – and they had a reason to, for most of their food had been thrown overboard because some of the others couldn’t stand the smell.  But they showed a most remarkable restraint.  Marlow, at this point, admires them. And he is the only person who does.

Indeed, Marlow is the only person who pays any attention to the fact that the Africans are humans same as the Europeans.  He is saddened and infuriated, in turns, by the brutality that the white men show to the black – beatings, overworking, shooting for any reason.  He does not shoot any black man, even when being attacked – choosing instead to blow the steamboat whistle to scare them away.  He scares the natives away again when the white men on board are planning to attack.  He gives his dead black helmsmen a burial at sea – rather a hasty affair, but that ended up saving the dead body from being eaten by the cannibals.  Marlow gives a biscuit to a starving African.  He turns away from the sight of a chain gang.  And in this shows a remarkable sensitivity that one does not always see in older books.

And yet there are incongruences in his actions.  In many ways he treated the Africans with more humanity, but in his thought and speech, you can tell he did not think them equals.  He used many derogative terms, several times mentions them as lazy, and does not provide for his crewmen.  He expounds on the primitiveness of their ways in a way that is both belittling and wistful.  He says, “…you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of [their dancing], a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend.” In that he seems to call it savageness, yet wishes he could take part.  When asked why he didn’t go and dance with the natives, he replied that he might have, had it not been for the work on the steam boat, which required complete attention.

Needless to say, Marlow was alone in his sentiments. Even Kurtz – arguably the real focal point of the novel- who was the most intimately involved with the Africans, far more than any other European, viewed them as people to be manipulated, first for their own good, but later for his own.  And as I have stated, this was the common viewpoint. Unfortunately, this led to a long and cruel European reign in Africa which is still being healed.  May God, and Africa, be merciful for our sins.


(image “JOSEPH CONRAD//Józef Teodor…” from NCMallory, some rights reserved)