Theology is what God is up to in God’s creation. Economics is how God’s household organizes itself in response to God’s creative love. “Ubi caritas,” the chant that the Taizé community has popularized, says that “wherever there is love, there is God.” If God’s household rules economics, then economics should be rooted in love. Is it?
Recently I spent two weeks in Hong Kong attending the first Ecumenical School on Governance, Economics and Management (GEM), an initiative of the World Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the Council for World Mission and the Lutheran World Federation. GEM’s inaugural class was made up of theologians, economists, Ph.D. students and senior church officials from across the world. We met at a Lutheran retreat center and worshipped every morning in a Buddhist chapel now owned by the Lutherans. We were in a thick forest on the mountaintop, but were not spared the humidity of Hong Kong at that season.
After chapel, breakfast and morning walks by some, we gathered in plenary and later in the week in groups. A number of academic specialists presented lectures, and we engaged in robust exchanges with the material and with one another. What ran through all the presentations from the different groups was a commitment to advocate for a new form of global governance and a new economic model, sensitizing our varied contexts to the myths of capital markets as currently ordered, their illusions and their wrong assumptions. We pledged to seek practical ways in which the market economy will not be self-serving but rather have the goal of serving our environment and the world’s people.
Search for a better model
Challenged by this commitment, in the second week we worked in groups on an assignment, pledging in each of our small groups to take action in our varied contexts. Our group, which consisted of a professor from America, two Ph.D. candidates from Canada and participants from the Netherlands and South Africa, worked on what we termed “theological imagination.” We were committed to using our collective theological imagination as praxis for activism aimed at changing the current economic model through liturgy, writing journal articles and, where possible, advocating change to a more humane and inclusive economic model.
Our group characterized our mission, as theologians and Christian activists, to be that of serving the common good and ensuring that each human being is accorded worth. We became the victims in proxy of the developed and the global market economy, the villain. Consciously or sub-consciously, we created this dialectical tension. We asked: What should be the goal of any economic system? We were clear that it should serve humanity and our planet and not itself, not a few powerful individuals. We committed ourselves, in our spiritual and academic vocations, to critiquing and finally transforming current economic policies and practice, and to identifying liturgy, Bible studies, publications in reputable journals and media as the means we might use to advocate for transforming the outlook of others, especially leaders in influential positions in organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and G-20 nations — some of whom are members of our congregations.
Incarnation as a lens
This article flows from my own commitment to reflect on incarnational theology as a lens to explore theology and economics. Soon after our meeting in Hong Kong, I raised the issues it deals with in my charge to our church’s provincial synod, in which representatives of dioceses in six countries across Southern Africa meet every three years to evaluate and discuss the pressing theological and missional issues we face. In the charge, titled “Discerning, Developing and Directing the Resources God Provides for the Task God Sets Before Us,” I said that when I wrestle with the things that come across my desk each day, I need constantly to struggle theologically with the questions: “What does it mean to be the body of Christ in such a time as this? To what discipleship are we called? What does the cost of this discipleship entail?” I continued by referring to issues that arise from the deep economic inequality, which still prevails in South Africa and has led to student unrest across the country in recent years. (I might add that when it comes to inequality, the South African economy is a microcosm of the global economy.) I said in the charge:
“Anglicanism is often described as having a strong focus on the Incarnation and I have placed repeated emphasis on it since my installation eight years ago. Simply put, by Incarnation I refer to God in Jesus entering the everyday experience of human living to point us to God’s reign and to prepare and invite us through our everyday lives to enjoy the blessedness of this reign. My writing and advocacy on the theme of the Incarnation and politics is born out of the struggle of God’s people with political systems in Southern Africa that demeaned all of us and which were not designed to address the concrete needs and experiences of our daily lives or to respond to God’s call to human flourishing.
“Last year, in my capacities as chancellor of the University of the Western Cape and chair of the Church Leaders’ Consultation and the Church Leaders’ Forum of the South African Council of Churches, I was called with other church leaders to meet students protesting under the banner of the #feesmustfall movement. On the surface it seemed they were advancing a political cause, but when we went deeply into the issues over the course of many meetings, some late into the night at Bishopscourt, I came to appreciate the legacy of the inequality of South Africa’s political and economic system.
“That system has given birth to an intergenerational economic inequality, in which those who are likely to flourish in our society are the sons and daughters of the elite, and those who will struggle to break out of a vicious circle of poverty are the daughters and sons of the poor. One of the initiatives I have supported is the University of the Free State’s campaign to reduce student hunger. We listened, shocked, to the stories of students who had secured loans for tuition and accommodation off campus, but who either did not have the money to buy food or had used it for computers and clothing. The question before us is: What does the incarnate Christ say about the economy, about student debt, household debt, diocesan and parochial debt in a world which in which there is also bounteous providence?”
Violating gospel values
Pursuing the theme further, I added:
“As prophets we are economically illiterate. Yet the economic ordering of society and the question of how we develop our material resources is central to the crises that afflict us. In South Africa, the current ordering of the economy lies at the heart of the political crisis that is beginning to paralyze government.
“Inherited patterns of privilege and wealth, overwhelmingly associated with one racial group, have created an economy which spits in the face of Gospel values. Because of this injustice in the distribution of resources and economic power, there is a group in the ruling party which is carrying out a programme which it justifies on the grounds that it is necessary to redistribute the country’s wealth. However, the programme redirects resources not for the benefit of the poor but to a small elite group of individuals with links to a small number of politicians and officials. Private interests are capturing the public purse. Inflated tenders awarded to cronies drive up the cost of providing services. The worst-run state-owned enterprises are gobbling up billions of the public’s money, draining the fiscus and stalling the development of the real economy. The cost of nuclear procurement plans — the case for which has not been proven — threatens to become an albatross around the necks of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, plunging them deeply into debt for decades to come. We are told that 16 million South Africans depend on social grants. If we allow the looting of the resources and wealth of future generations to continue unabated, there won’t be any money to pay those grants in future and millions will lose their only means of existence.
“As the South African Communist Party correctly points out, the answer to the obscene inequality of our society does not lie in indulging the rapacious greed of a tiny number of politically-connected individuals … for Christians, challenging the skewed racial ordering of our economy must involve a new compact in society, driven by the values of the Kingdom of God, which creates a fairer and more equitable system. Perhaps Moeletsi Mbeki has a point when he calls for a new coalition for development between the very poor and the owners of capital on the basis that they are the two key constituencies who support sustainable economic growth. As religious leaders, we need to be intentional in building relationships between ourselves and with business and government to pursue these ideas.”
Soldiers of the poor
Subsequent to the synod, the South African minister of finance addressed religious leaders on the same issues, in an address in which he identified the need to reconceptualize economic growth, re-examining social solidarity, social justice, political arrangements and the alignment of the economy. He said that in an ever-changing global context, the question that has to be asked is how the economy is serving the common good, or put another way: “Who are the soldiers of the poor?” He suggested that South African society, in order to protect what we have, needs to change. The challenge is: Who will benefit from the change? In our young democracy, he asked, would the change be people-centered, or would it continue to promote the greed of a small elite club?
Following our synod, I invited the dean of the GEM School 2016, professor Martin Büscher, to work with the 30 bishops of our church, who represent five million people and more through our church and their national ecumenical formations, to plant a seed of learning, understanding and critiquing the current global governance of capital. As a member of the group in Hong Kong committed to exploring our theological imagination, I am attracted to the idea of commissioning the publication of a bigger thesis, which may later be a monograph for pastors in the public arena wrestling with economic questions and seeking to be prophetic in their space. This contribution is hopefully a start to this ambitious journey.
As I alluded to in my synod charge, Anglicans are often seen as having particular focus on the incarnation. I have found reflection on the incarnation to be a particular source of strength and encouragement. Incarnational theology is central to understanding the dialectical relationship of the power of God to the power of mammon. It succinctly sums up for me my ongoing grappling with the issues and questions which often arise from our need to discover what it is to be the body of Christ in our time, and who is God in Jesus Christ for us here and now. In answering these questions, I begin by recalling the Christmas proclamation, “Emmanuel, God is with us.” God is in the midst of us as we wrestle with our socio-economic and geo-political issues. God in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is prepared to “get his hands dirty alongside us.”
In a contribution to the “Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies,” I stated: “But in Christ, in this incarnate Christ, I can risk getting my hands dirty too and have confidence when I am faced with the complexity and messiness of life.” Because Jesus, present and incarnate, is, above all, the starting point of my engagement with the realities of life in Republic of South Africa, I am confident to address most ethical issues as a public theologian.
The incarnate Christ is God of all or no God at all (Psalm 24), present in created order and in economics too; present with millions of unemployed adults in South Africa, the economy of which continues to shed millions of job opportunities. The minister in the presidency for planning, monitoring and evaluation, Jeff Radebe, reports in the government’s 2014 report on development indicators, “positive trends includ[ing] increased life expectancy and decreasing infant and child mortality, improved living standards … improved adult literacy” as well as “sustained good international performance in budget transparency, more effective revenue collection.” But he also reports that “the domestic economy has remained in a low growth trajectory since 2012” and that “global economic growth remains weak, affecting South Africa’s major trading partners.”
Measures of prosperity
The questions South Africans need to ask Minister Radebe are: Why measure our welfare using gross domestic product? Why view us through the lens of international trading partners? In a country with high rates of unemployed youth, where about 2.5 million people lack access to proper toilets, are these measures the correct ones to use? Should we not devise appropriate development indicators and alternative measures for a domestic economy that includes myriads of informal traders over and above direct foreign investment?
Indaba is a word in isiZulu, one of South Africa’s major languages, describing purposeful gatherings in order to discern the needs of a village. The Anglican Communion used this concept at its 2008 Lambeth Conference to avoid the polarizing methodology of voting for and against resolutions. We need a global theology and economics indaba in which each field interrogates the other truthfully and robustly in service to humanity and for the common good. I belong to one such group, the Global Foundation, consisting of financiers, policy makers and faith leaders. We seek to ensure that no one is left behind and the common good is served better. With others, I have initiated a platform for the South African mining industry to conduct what we call “courageous conversations” including managers, unions, NGOs, the government and faith leaders on the industry’s role in society. These grapple with faith and economics, seeking to set up projects to distribute not only income but information, thereby bringing about healing in mining communities.
GEM School 2016 has encouraged me with the language, skills and attitude to act on Nelson Mandela’s concern for the persistence in the world of the terrible scourge of massive poverty. Dare I add, poverty for most whilst a few have excessive wealth.
Thabo Makgoba is the archbishop of Cape Town and the metropolitan of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.