The Gospel Economy

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The Gospel Economy

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Nov 24, 2019, 2:39am

From Catholic Franciscan Fr Richard Rohr:

The Gospel Economy

Jesus said to the host who had invited him, “When you hold a lunch or dinner . . . invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; and blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” —Luke 14:12-14

I’d like to begin this week’s meditations by contrasting two economies or worldviews. The first economy is capitalism, which is based on quid pro quo, reward and punishment thinking, and a retributive notion of justice. This much service or this much product requires this much payment or this much reward. It soon becomes the entire (and I do mean entire!) frame for all of life, our fundamental relationships (even marriage and children), basic self-image (“I deserve; you owe me; or I will be good and generous if it helps me, too”), and a faulty foundation for our relationship with God.

We’ve got to admit, this system of exchange seems reasonable to almost everybody today. And if we’re honest, it makes sense to us, too. It just seems fair. The only trouble is, Jesus doesn’t believe it at all, and he’s supposed to be our spiritual teacher. This might just be at the heart of what we mean by real conversion to the Gospel worldview, although few seem to have recognized this.

Let’s contrast this “meritocracy,” punishment/reward economy—basic capitalism which we in the United States all drink in with our mother’s milk—with what Jesus presents, which I’m going to call a gift economy. {1} In a gift economy, there is no equivalence between what we give and how much we get. Now I know we’re all squirming. We don’t like it, because we feel we’ve worked hard to get to our wonderful middle-class positions or wherever we are. We feel we have rights.

I admit that this position satisfies the logical mind. At the same time, if we call ourselves Christians, we have to deal with the actual Gospel. Now the only way we can do the great turnaround and understand this is if we’ve lived through at least one experience of being given to without earning. It’s called forgiveness, unconditional love, and mercy. If we’ve never experienced unearned, undeserved love, we will stay in the capitalist worldview where 2 + 2 = 4. I put in my 2, I get my 2 back. But we still remain very unsure, if not angry, about any free health care (physical, mental, or spiritual) or even free education, even though these benefits can be seen as natural human rights that support and sustain peoples’ humanity. All too often, we only want people like us to get free health care and education and bail outs.

Brothers and sisters, you and I don’t “deserve” anything, anything. It’s all a gift. But until we begin to live in the kingdom of God instead of the kingdoms of this world, we think, as most Christians do, exactly like the world. We like the world of seemingly logical equations. Basically, to understand the Gospel in its purity and in its transformative power, we have to stop counting, measuring, and weighing. We have to stop saying “I deserve” and deciding who does not deserve. None of us “deserve”! Can we do that? It’s pretty hard . . . unless we’ve experienced infinite mercy and realize that it’s all a gift.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Capitalist Economy and Gift Economy,” Homily (September 1, 2019), Italics as in original.

{1} “A gift economy, gift culture, or gift exchange is a mode of exchange where valuables are not traded or sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards. This contrasts with a barter economy or a market economy, where goods and services are primarily exchanged for value received. Social norms and customs govern gift exchange.” (

Nov 26, 2019, 3:51am

For a contrasting perspective, we could go with 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10: "For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”"

The modern capitalist system works. Large communist societies are filled with stories of famine; on one hand, it's hard to motivate people to farm and do other things without rewarding them appropriately, and on the other hand, they've wasted food and other supplies because there were no incentives to conserve them.

Gifts are often frustrating and problematic. Food banks would much prefer money to food donations, which are often of expired food or hard to prepare food or food that people don't want to eat. We've all smiled at a Christmas gift we've received that was completely useless or inappropriate. I would imagine that "gift economies" don't use that to distribute daily necessities, and that many gifts are wasteful or pointless. In fact, a potlatch is a historical gift economy, and the article says "A potlatch involves giving away or destroying wealth or valuable items in order to demonstrate a leader's wealth and power." and quotes Dorothy Johansen as writing "In the potlatch, the host in effect challenged a guest chieftain to exceed him in his 'power' to give away or to destroy goods. If the guest did not return 100 percent on the gifts received and destroy even more wealth in a bigger and better bonfire, he and his people lost face and so his 'power' was diminished."

Going back to the quote from the gospels, it actually reminds me of Judas's complaint: "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?" Most poor people would much rather have $100, even in food stamps, than a $100 meal set up for rich people. Feeding poor people at banquets may make the feeders feel blessed, but it's not the best way to help poor people. If charity is about helping the poor and not using them to feel blessed, a gift economy is less effective than a capitalist society with a strong safety net.

Edited: Nov 28, 2019, 5:44am

Great anecdote the other night on BBC Radio: a very hungry group of roving Bedouins, who, having caught a small rabbit, looked forward all day to having it for dinner. As they were about to partake, strangers appeared, and according to custom, the Bedouins graciously offered up their dinner.

Anecdote came from a Brit, but I didn't catch his name, only that he was researching the origin of locusts, ~ 1946. (Lawrence?)
(My dad, too, was impressed by Bedouin hospitality in late 50s. For him, it was a goat, I think--not a small thing to sacrifice for a guest.)

ETA: Think how far that goat-offering rippled--~50 yrs in my dad's memory, told to me (~30 yrs ago), and now to you.

Edited: Nov 26, 2019, 11:51pm

>2 prosfilaes: The modern capitalist system works.

Does it? For whom? And if it did "work" for a couple of centuries, did not that depend on unlimited expansion of markets and exploitation to resources? How long will that remain viable in the current climate and political circumstances?

Nov 27, 2019, 5:29am

A further reflection on capitalism in the light of the gospel:

For all the good it can do, . . . free enterprise capitalism has grave defects. . . . Capitalism stimulates and thrives on our human desire to possess more, a desire that instinctively gravitates toward greed, which tends to create disparities that make some rich, while leaving many impoverished. It is good at generating wealth, not so good at spreading it around. . . . There is nothing wrong with profit if it is obtained honestly and justly and used in a godly way. But the profit motive appeals to our acquisitive nature. It nourishes greed and can make us callous to the suffering of others. In short, the genius of free enterprise is also its central problem.

Left to its own devices, free enterprise capitalism would ruin the environment and let people starve. As a result, no nation leaves free enterprise entirely on its own. Every country will devise policies that, at least to some extent, guide free enterprise toward serving the wider public good, in this way acknowledging that while free enterprise may be a remarkable engine for driving economic growth, an engine is not the same as a steering wheel.

Every one of the fifty United States offers free public education and requires school attendance at least through the age of sixteen. Despite shortcomings, that policy helps to equalize opportunity and prepare young people to participate productively in the U.S. economy. By itself, free enterprise would not do this. But the public has decided to spread some of its wealth to all citizens through education, to the benefit of everyone, including private enterprise, which is rewarded with better trained and more innovative workers and leaders. . . .

Ironically, the success of free enterprise capitalism depends upon moral values, such as honesty and compassion, that are borrowed from elsewhere. Without such supporting values, free enterprise (or any other economic system) would eventually self-destruct through its own excesses.

To work its magic for the economy, free enterprise needs plenty of room and not too many restraints. But to achieve public justice, free enterprise, like the urge to consume, needs to be tamed and guided. That requires a delicate balance, one that is endlessly debated, but which touches the central nerve of justice—not justice as an abstract idea, but as basic opportunity for children and others whose lives frequently hang in the balance.

That kind of justice is an affair for the soul for each of us. But people of means have a special obligation before God to ensure justice for those who are poor and vulnerable. With greater affluence comes corresponding responsibility to make sure that a system that has been generous to oneself is also generous to others.

Arthur Simon, How Much Is Enough?: Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture (Baker Books: 2003), 18, 104-105.

Nov 27, 2019, 12:37pm

The love of money is the root of effective capitalism. Money is the solvent by which "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind" (The Communist Manifesto).

Nov 28, 2019, 4:58am

And another reflection. The concept of "sufficiency" seems to be at odds with capitalism, which profits from scarcity and seeks expansion.

We each have a choice in any setting to step back and let go of the mind-set of scarcity. Once we let go of scarcity, we discover the surprising truth of sufficiency. By sufficiency, I don’t mean a quantity of anything. . . . Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough and that we are enough. . . .

When we live in the context of sufficiency, we find a natural freedom and integrity. We engage in life from a sense of our own wholeness rather than a desperate longing to be complete. We feel naturally called to share the resources that flow through our lives—our time, our money, our wisdom, our energy, at whatever level those resources flow—to serve our highest commitments. . . .

Sufficiency as a way of being offers us enormous personal freedom and possibility. Rather than scarcity’s myths that tell us that the only way to perceive the world is there’s not enough, more is better, and that’s just the way it is, the truth of sufficiency asserts that there is enough for everyone. Knowing there is enough inspires sharing, collaboration, and contribution. . . .

Grounded in sufficiency, money’s movement in and out of our life feels natural. We can see that flow as healthy and true, and allow that movement instead of being anxious about it or hoarding. In sufficiency, we recognize and celebrate money’s power for good—our power to do good with it—and we can experience fulfillment in directing the flow toward our highest ideals and commitments. When we perceive the world as one in which there is enough and we are enough to make the world work for everyone everywhere, with no one left out, our money carries that energy and generates relationships and partnerships in which everyone feels able and valued, regardless of their economic circumstances. . . .

No matter how much or how little money you have flowing through your life, when you direct that flow with soulful purpose, you feel wealthy. You feel vibrant and alive when you use your money in a way that represents you, not just as a response to the market economy, but also as an expression of who you are.

Lynne Twist with Teresa Barker, The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Life (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: 2003, 2017), 74, 75, 87, 103, 119.

Nov 29, 2019, 3:46am

>4 John5918: Generally capitalism has brought up the standard of living around the world. There's no real rush away from capitalism anywhere I know of.

Does your system work? Saint Paul doesn't seem to think so.

>5 John5918: So? I'm not arguing for some sort of pure free enterprise capitalism. We're talking about "basic capitalism which we in the United States all drink in with our mother’s milk".

Ironically, the success of free enterprise capitalism depends upon moral values, such as honesty and compassion, that are borrowed from elsewhere. Without such supporting values, free enterprise (or any other economic system) would eventually self-destruct through its own excesses.

Ironically? The success of any successful system for humans depends on humans behaving how humans behave.

This seems like a lot of arguments I've found frustrating. Yes, the modern system has many problems. That doesn't make your system better. Let's hear about how a gift economy is supposed to work. Let's see some examples.

Edited: Nov 30, 2019, 2:17am

>8 prosfilaes: We're talking about "basic capitalism which we in the United States all drink in with our mother’s milk".

And of course we're all shaped by what we "drink in with our mother’s milk", and the mother's milk in the USA is different from that in many other countries. I'm from a generation in UK where the "mother's milk" we drank was a mixed economy, which I think was also true of a number of other northern European countries. It had elements of capitalism - profit, private property, etc - but it also had a healthy dose of what could be called the "gift economy" (although that term wasn't used then - I think we were proud simply to call it socialism) - the National Health Service, the Dole, council housing, free education up to and including university level, state control of key utilities (railways, electricity, water, sewage, gas, even coal and steel at one point), etc. We also had the benefit of strong trade unions and a credible left-of-centre political party to counter-balance the capitalist tendencies of the establishment. It worked, at least as well as the current brand of capitalism. Whether capitalism has brought a better standard of living is arguable, as the gap between rich and poor seems to be getting bigger, and there's an increasing number of people living on the streets, relying on food banks, etc.

As I understand it, capitalism has to keep expanding both resources and markets in order to survive. For most of its history it was able to do so through the exploitation of resources from colonies, and from seeking new markets in the developing world. You could ask them how "capitalism has brought up the standard of living around the world" and you might get a different answer than you would in the USA. It also benefited from exploiting natural resources as if there were no cost involved. The current climate crisis has demonstrated that this "free pass" is no longer viable. I think you'll find capitalism really struggling in the coming years and decades.

Edited: Nov 30, 2019, 2:15am

A short quote from Fr Richard Rohr (link which I think is relevant to some of what I say in >9 John5918:. Italics are his.

No servant can serve two masters. They will either hate one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon. —Luke 16:13

I encourage you to read Luke 16:1-13, which provides context for the final verse, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” Jesus creates a clear dualism between God and what he calls “mammon.” Mammon was the god of wealth and money, superficiality and success. Jesus says we’ve eventually got to make a conscious choice here.

Most of Jesus’ teaching is what we call nondual, for example: “Let the weeds and the wheat grow together” (Matthew 13:30); “My Father’s sun shines on the good and the bad” (Matthew 5:45). But there are some areas where he’s absolutely dualistic, either/or—usually anything having to with the poor or with money! I believe Jesus is dualistic on these topics because he knows what most of us are otherwise going to do, that most of us will serve mammon. We’re wired to focus on short-term, practical gains. And, of course, money often does solve our short-term problems.

But I hear Jesus saying that a long-term solution is to seek relationship over money. I saw this at work most clearly when I was able to preach in many “poor” countries that don’t have the same kinds of infrastructure and safety nets that so-called “developed” countries do. (At the same time, I must note that much of the poverty around the world is due to exploitation and colonization by industrialized countries. I refuse to romanticize the economic deprivation of much of the world’s population.)

Edited: Dec 1, 2019, 8:33pm

>1 John5918: Returning to Rohr's meditation in the OP, Rohr writes
But we still remain very unsure, if not angry, about any free health care (physical, mental, or spiritual) or even free education . . .
Really? People get angry about, as I take it, the provision of universal health care and education? How bizarre.

Dec 1, 2019, 8:33pm

When discussing the pros and cons of capitalism, I find it important to keep in mind that whatever benefits it has provided have at all times in its history involved children working looms and in mines, women dying in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory or the Rana Plaza, and the exploitation of agricultural workers. It shares coerced human misery with any other economic model, except perhaps hunting-gathering.

As an aside, I suspect that homo sapiens made a fatal blunder when it invented agriculture and with it the capacity to generate and store surplus food.

Dec 1, 2019, 11:07pm

>12 librorumamans:

Indeed. And from where I sit, also the exploitation of millions of colonial subjects and the resources of their homelands.

Edited: Dec 2, 2019, 11:23pm

>9 John5918: the gap between rich and poor seems to be getting bigger, and there's an increasing number of people living on the streets, relying on food banks, etc.

UK's six richest people control as much wealth as poorest 13m (Guardian)

Six billionaires at the top of the UK wealth league have a combined fortune of £39.4bn, which, according to analysis by the Equality Trust, is roughly equal to the assets of 13.2 million Britons...

At the other end of the scale, the Equality Trust estimated that about 14m people in Britain live in poverty. Four million of these are said to be more than 50% below the poverty line and 1.5 million are destitute.

“This report should shock anyone who cares about the state of the UK today,” said Dr Wanda Wyporska, the executive director of the Equality Trust. “Such a huge gap between the very rich and the vast majority of the country is dangerous. Such extreme wealth in the hands of so few people demonstrates just how broken the economic system is.

“Behind the numbers, the UK’s extreme inequality is the story of Ferraris and food banks. Families across the country are working for their poverty and unable to promise their children a better, secure future. The rich live longer and their children get the best education, the best jobs and a leg up on the housing ladder. The UK’s economy delivers billions for a few and poverty for millions. Destitution is the sad reality for millions this Christmas”...

And also from the Guardian, At least 135,000 children in Britain to be homeless at Christmas.

Capitalism and right wing policies in action.

Dec 5, 2019, 12:48am

Iceland puts well-being ahead of GDP in budget (BBC)

Iceland's prime minister has urged governments to adopt green and family-friendly priorities, instead of just focusing on economic growth figures.

Katrin Jakobsdottir has teamed up with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and New Zealand's PM Jacinda Ardern to promote a "well-being" agenda.

Ms Jakobsdottir called for "an alternative future based on well-being and inclusive growth".

She said new social indicators were needed besides traditional GDP data.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz is among several economists arguing that gross domestic product - measuring a country's production in goods and services - fails to capture the impact of climate change, inequality, digital services and other phenomena shaping modern societies...

Edited: Dec 5, 2019, 11:14pm

>9 John5918:

Gap between rich and poor grows alongside rise in UK's total wealth (Guardian)

Britain’s total wealth grew by 13% in the two years to 2018 to reach a record £14.6tn, with wealth among the richest 10% of households increasing almost four times faster than those of the poorest 10%...

The figures highlight the growing divide between those at the top of the wealth ladder, many of whom have retained their pension rights, property values and invested their savings since the 2008 financial crash, while those on low incomes live in rented accommodation with meagre pension entitlements and rising debts.

The Resolution Foundation thinktank said the wealth gap had opened up between 2016 and 2018 after the top 10%’s wealth increased by 11% in contrast to an increase in wealth for the bottom 10th of just 3%.

The different rates of growth documented by the ONS Wealth and Assets survey meant the top 10% finished 2018 with 45% of national wealth, while the poorest 10th held just 2%...