* Editorial Note: Emily Hill has been writing a fantastic series for Missio, entitled ‘Captive to Capitalism,’ over the past six months. Part 1 was “Examining How the Economy Disciples Us.” Part 2, called “Understanding Branding Before You Market Your Church,” built upon this introduction. Hill continued further in Part 3, critiquing core theological issues that arise when the Church diminishes the potential idolatry inherent in branding itself, asking “What’s the Matter with Church Branding?” Below, we present Part 4, the series conclusion, entitled “Economics Within the Reality of the New Creation.”
Missio Alliance is grateful for her important contribution to our understanding of how pervasively economics forms us as Christ-followers, and how we should thoughtfully respond.
Examining Our Economic Systems Theologically
In this series, ‘Captive to Capitalism,’ I began by describing some of the ways the Church is formed by our economic system without us necessarily being aware of it. I then turned to examine branding as a prominent tactic of capitalism, arguing that the Church needs to consider important theological issues as to how branding aligns with its nature and mission. To conclude, I want to reflect on some of our assumptions about how the economy works — and therefore what economics within the reality of the New Creation might mean for Christ-followers.
In critiquing capitalism, my goal is not to advocate for socialism. Though there are indeed a fair number of Christian socialists, capitalism and socialism are not the only economic realities possible. In fact, there are economists theorizing and arguing for alternatives. Rather than proposing alternative economic systems or baptizing capitalist ideas with Christian language, my goal is to bring theology to bear on our daily economic choices. I desire to carefully examine the economic assumptions most of us live by, in such a way that we can learn to follow Christ amidst whatever economic system we live within.
The Myth of the Barter Economy
A central founding myth of capitalism is Adam Smith’s notion of original barter.1 Smith argues that human beings naturally ‘trade, truck, and barter,’ meaning that we naturally trade and exchange goods with one another, and are guided by the ‘invisible hand’ of the market to allocate resources efficiently in the process. Inherent in this economic creation story is the existence of a natural, providential market for the allocation of creation’s resources. If this is the case, then human beings should operate according to the market principles of efficiency and competitive exchange. Optimization of material goods should take priority and the expansion of markets towards every area of society would naturally be a beneficial thing for all.
Historical and empirical evidence suggests that Smith’s notion is not the case, however.2 For example, in David Graeber’s book Debt, he has shown there is no anthropological evidence of markets or money arising from a barter economy either in history or in contemporary, so-called ‘primitive’ societies. Graeber and other anthropologists have found that barter only emerges after the existence of money, and that primitive economies had other forms of relational exchange. In fact, what Smith was observing came after 200 years of sustained economic development across Western Europe, in particular within England. Trade, economic relationship, and the whole concept of nation states were significantly different prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Regardless, the point here is not which economic system is better, but whether the mechanics of capitalism that Smith promoted are natural to human behavior. If they are not, then these systems are not intrinsically created by God. However, even though anthropology and history both suggest that the founding myth of capitalism is not true, as Christ-followers, we also need to critique this myth theologically. Here, the question is simple, but challenging:
What are human beings created for?
The point here is not which economic system is better, but if the mechanics of capitalism that Smith promoted are natural to human behavior. If they are not, then these systems are not intrinsically created by God. Click To Tweet
Created and Sustained by the Triune God
Human beings are created by the Triune God, not only long ago in the Garden of Eden, but continually to this day, in every moment. We have life from God who is life to the full — and that life is relational in its very nature. No life exists outside of God, and thus all of creation itself participates in the abundant life of God, which cannot be exhausted.
Therefore, since our life participates in the life of the Triune God, it is inherently a relational life. As the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in non-hierarchical relationship with one another, sustained by a mutuality of giving and receiving, so do all human beings. This means that life is a gift itself, and as a result, humanity does not have to create and sustain itself. We are created and sustained by the relational life of the Triune God, dwelling within our souls.
In Christ, God created in order to inaugurate a new creation, bringing everything together under Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:15-20). This means that there is a purpose, a telos to creation, and that telos is described well by the Hebrew word shalom. Shalom has a wide range of beautiful connotations, including wholeness, health, security, well-being, and holistic salvation. Shalom is ultimately a desired state of harmony between all of creation — a life where everyone and everything can flourish. This shalom is the telos of the new creation, the new age of peace ushered in by Christ. Shalom is ultimately a desired state of harmony between all of creation — a life where everyone and everything can flourish. This shalom is the telos of the new creation, the new age of peace ushered in by Christ. Click To Tweet
If shalom is the telos of creation itself, it is our telos as human beings as well.
To be fully human is to understand ourselves as God’s creatures, living and sustained by the gift of God’s overflowing life, in mutual relationships of giving and receiving, surrendering our need to make a life for ourselves.
In the gift of God’s overflowing life, we find our own identity and create our own stories in partnership with God. As we surrender to this created order, we find fullness of life with Christ, participating in the new creation of peace. To be fully human is to understand ourselves as God’s creatures, living and sustained by the gift of God’s overflowing life, in mutual relationships of giving and receiving, surrendering our need to make a life for ourselves. Click To Tweet
As we receive Christ’s freedom, we are freed from striving under the market’s fierce tentacles; freed for life in loving, interdependent relationships. But as St. Augustine has described, when we strive for life and freedom with no understanding of what our freedom is actually for, we begin to lead lives of domination. We dominate others and even creation itself, grasping at a scarcity of resources to secure the life we want. People become a means to our own ends. When we strive for freedom with no understanding of what our freedom is actually for, we begin to lead lives of domination. We grasp at a scarcity of resources to secure the life we want. People become a means to our own ends. Click To Tweet
Our New Creation Reality is Generously Hospitable
Given that we live in the tension of the ‘already here but not fully present’ reality of the new creation, we must confront one final assumption about the economic market: Namely, that it is necessary to restrain sin amongst competitive, power-hungry people who are primarily self-interested. While this assumption can also be interrogated from an empirical perspective, there is a theological assumption present here as well: that God is no longer at work in our world, and everything is left up to us. But as Christians, we know this isn’t true! In reality, the Spirit is alive and active in our world. Naturally then, the Spirit makes new possibilities open for us in our economic lives as well.
There isn’t an exact formula by which to embody this new creation reality, but as we open our economic lives to God, we can trust the Spirit to guide us. Here’s a small example from my own life: I live next door to several families that are close friends from church, and we have a garden with chickens that we share amongst ourselves. Working on the garden and caring for the chickens together builds mutual relationships of support within our community, and that support overflows to the rest of our neighbors when we share our produce and eggs. We also try to share things like lawnmowers and other household items that we don’t need to own individually. Of course, in a multitude of ways we are still participating in capitalism — it is impossible to fully extract ourselves. However, as we follow Christ in community, and as real economic opportunities present themselves, we try to live into the reality of the new creation in our midst.
For those who lead businesses or non-profit organizations, this new creation reality calls us to consider how we steward our leadership to not solely pursue our own financial gain, but to recognize the reality of our relational connection with all of humanity. For example, in worker-owned cooperatives, all workers share in the financial benefits of the business and have representation to make decisions about the organization. Therefore, the organization is much more egalitarian and communal, as are the benefits and outcomes.
No matter our cultural context, the reality of a new creation encourages us to trust God to provide for our needs and not to succumb to the logic of the market in every aspect of our life. The new creation shapes our relationship to our money and possessions, and leads toward fresh possibilities for generosity and hospitality.
May the God of creation, who gives life and grace freely, show us where God is at work in our communities and our lives, providing every good thing, reconciling us together with creation itself. May God guide us together to participate in the truest, deepest heartbeat of the new creation in our own unique circumstances. Amen. The reality of a new creation encourages us to trust God to provide for our needs. It shapes our relationship to our money and possessions, and leads toward fresh possibilities for generosity and hospitality. Click To Tweet
1 A solid but brief introduction to Adam Smith’s notion of ‘original barter’ within a capitalistic system can be found here: https://oll.libertyfund.org/quote/adam-smith-argued-that-the-propensity-to-truck-barter-and-exchange-was-inherent-in-human-nature-and-gave-rise-to-things-such-as-the-division-of-labour-1776. Accessed February 11th, 2023.
2 Ilana Strauss’s critique of Adam Smith’s economic theories in The Atlantic, “The Myth of the Barter Economy,” is a good example of how historical and empirical evidence simply doesn’t support the notion of a barter economy preceding Western forms of capitalism. Read her critique here: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/02/barter-society-myth/471051/. Accessed February 11th, 2023.
Emily Hill co-hosts the Theology & podcast with Jeff Liou. Theology & is a podcasting partner with Missio Alliance. More information about the wide breadth of podcasts in partnership with Missio can be found here.