Contempt, the Commons and Justice: Two Economies

by Brian Walsh

Kentucky poet, farmer, essayist, novelist and profoundly wise man, Wendell Berry once said that there were two kinds of economy:

There is the kind of economy that exists to protect the “right” of profit, as does our present public economy; this sort of economy will inevitably gravitate toward the protection of the “rights” of those who profit most. Our present public economy is really a political system that safeguards the private exploitation of the public wealth and health. The other kind of economy exists for the protection of gifts … and this is the economy of community, which now has nearly been destroyed by the public economy (Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, p. 138).

So what is it: the rights of profit or the protection of gifts? The private exploitation of public wealth or the economy of community?

Wouldn’t it be interesting if such distinctions were on the table at the Gang of Four debates this week? The reality is that by locking Elizabeth May of the Green Party out of these debates, we bring into question the very democratic legitimacy of this election. What’s more, Elizabeth May might be the only leader who would understand the distinction that Berry is making.

If you understand that economic life is found in the tension between the rights of profit and the protection of gifts, then you’ll have to find a different way to conceptualize the relationship between the rich and the poor.

Not to put too bald a face on it all, biblical faith is pretty clear. If there are severe discrepancies between the rich and the poor in a society, then there is always (yes, always!) injustice involved. If some are over-housed in monster homes of ostentatious luxury while others live in precarious housing, emergency shelters or on the street, then there is always (yes, always!) injustice involved.

When prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Hosea get talking about these things they are not known for their ability for compromise or nuance.

With all this in mind, if we’re going to think about this in light of the Kingdom of God; if we are going to remix normal economic common sense and turn it on its head, then we have to begin by insisting on an economy of gift. There is no such thing as entitlement. There is, ultimately, no private ownership either. We are ‘tenants’ in the land of an Other.

The earth is the Lord’s and not under the proprietary control of any human person, state or corporation. And the earth, in all of its richness, is given as a radical gift to humans to care for and develop. But that development is always as stewards of a creation that belongs to God and must always be for the benefit of all the inhabitants of creation – human and non-human.

I know, I know, it all sounds so hopelessly naïve. It all sounds so out-dated and out of touch. I know, I know, people are greedy and driven by self-interest. So we might as well abandon such sentimental dreams of the “commons” and an economics of care and inclusion for all as the utopian fantasies that they are. Right?

Well, not so quick. You see, classic economic theory is correct. Humans are self-interested, indeed, deeply selfish creatures.

But here’s the kicker for a Christian approach to these things. Greed is still greed. It is still a vice, not a virtue. Yes, humans are driven by self-interest. But that is (dare I say it?) sin! And we should never take human sinfulness as the normative foundation for economic life (or anything else, for that matter).

A biblical economic vision responds to such selfishness by prioritizing the needs of the poor and restraining the appetites of the rich.

That’s right, we are called to prioritize the needs of the poor and restrain the appetites of the rich.

And biblical faith knows that if you don’t follow this pattern of prioritization and restraint, then the poor will always be oppressed and the rich will continue to rule with an agenda of privatization that will protect their rights of profit.

Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: a biblical economic vision “regards property as a resource for the common good, as a vehicle for the viability of a whole society, as the arena for the development of public responsibility and public compassion” (A Social Reading of the Old Testament, pp. 276-277).

When responsibility and compassion become public they take the shape of justice.

So let’s be clear. Economics is at the heart of this campaign. It all comes down to how a government collects money (that would be called taxation) and how it spends that money. If you have a deficient understanding of the “commons” you will likely have an economic vision that has little sense of the prioritization of both our most economically vulnerable neighbours and the common resources of our national habitat. You will protect the rights of profit through tax cuts, have a very weak and almost begrudging approach to social programs and you will cut the heart of environmental protection.

And then it will be clear that the “contempt” moves beyond the democratic institutions of Parliament to the poor who Jesus says will be blessed, the weak who will inherit the earth, and the earth itself.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

3 Responses to “Contempt, the Commons and Justice: Two Economies”

  1. John Deacon

    Thanks Brian for this incredibly succinct, insightful and challenge overview of God’s economy.
    It has me re-thinking my economics, businessman that I am.

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