The Divine Economy (3)
“You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Leviticus 19.18
Looking to government
In an economy based on material prosperity, people increasingly look to government to ensure a “fair” and “just” distribution of available wealth. This is increasingly so in our day, in what Christopher Caldwell has dubbed The Age of Entitlement.
Taxes and tax breaks, welfare and other forms of public assistance, set-asides of various kinds, special consideration in matters of hiring, firing, and promotion—these are ways people whose primary devotion is to getting-and-spending look to government to help maximize their wellbeing.
Politicians delight to play this game, for it allows them to explore endless possibilities for gaining the support of various constituencies through the manipulation of public policy. In the American economy, government presumes to be the arbiter of all things “good” and “fair” and “just.” It possesses the power to enforce its views and to shuffle and distribute resources according to its preferences and policies.
Governments thus compel those who have means to yield those means to the State for its purposes in “spreading the wealth” around. The State thus violates individual responsibility, taking away the freedom to steward personal property as people see fit and, especially, as accountable to God alone.
In an economy based on material prosperity, governments can nevertheless do much good. But government policies can also result in loss of freedom and the cancellation of individual responsibility. Thus, we need the influence of the divine economy to check and guide public policy.
Love your neighbor—freely
In the divine economy, people seek the wisdom of God to use their resources in a manner consistent with His instructions and commandments. Love for God and neighbor, as we have said, are the guiding economic principles. People stand or fall before God according to the economics of justice and love outlined in His Law. They must be free to exercise stewardship unto God, and government should pursue policies that allow this to be so.
Christians can be moved to exercise proper stewardship and responsibility by the loving instruction and example of their fellow believers. Those beyond the pale of faith are still accountable to God for the use they make of His good gifts—time, strength, property, and wealth. However, if they cannot be moved to do good by the teaching and example of the Church or the fear of public disapproval, they may be required to do so, at least in certain areas, by government, as it serves God according to His good purposes. For example, someone may prefer to exercise their supposed freedom by driving however they like on public highways; good government, however, will enforce laws that require drivers to take responsibility for the safety of all.
Of course, any use of property or individual freedom which directly transgresses the Law of God and assaults the freedom or usurps the responsibility of one’s neighbor should be regarded as a breach of justice, and appropriate redress must be made. We must love our neighbors as ourselves. Respecting our neighbors’ freedom and encouraging individual responsibility are nothing more than what we would like for ourselves.
The road to justice
In other times the hard work of those within the divine economy, together with the “peer pressure” they have been able to bring to bear, have exerted strong influence. Against steep odds, they have encouraged people to respect their neighbors and exercise individual responsibility in ways consistent with the requirements of the divine economy, even when people may not have been eager to do so (cf. Ps. 81.15). The abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement are prime examples of how public policy can be changed to reflect the values of the divine economy over those of the materialistic economy and thereby to create a more just society.
The movement to free slaves and to reform public manners in early 19th-century England, led by William Wilberforce, and in America by abolitionists North and South, and the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—each of these largely supported by Christians—demonstrate how the courage, persistence, and persuasion of the believing community can move a society toward a greater measure of goodness and justice. As Dr. King wrote, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail). Through the efforts of abolitionists and civil rights advocates, responsibility for respecting—if not loving—one’s neighbor was restored, albeit gradually and grudgingly in many quarters. Unjust laws were identified and replaced by laws more reflective of the teaching of God’s Word through a combination of lawful public procedure and just acts of civil disobedience.
In America, copious amounts of blood and treasure were expended to achieve justice for the enslaved—an example of a just war, of government wielding the sword for good. And more sacrifice was required on the part of those, including Dr. King, who understood that unjust laws and policies, restricting individual liberty and discouraging neighbor love, must be replaced.
The road to justice, following the tenets of the divine economy, is not always an easy way.
Over time, minds and hearts changed to reflect new public policies. Those movements have so affected the public outlook that we look askance on any who seek to perpetuate the evils those movements overturned. Of course, in a sinful world, much abuse and injustice remain. This will always be the case, thus heightening the need for a people whose economic interests are moral and spiritual more than material.
In the divine economy people are responsible to act in loving and just ways toward their neighbors. Governments and other policymaking forums can do much good by encouraging citizenship that promotes individual responsibility and mutual respect in line with the teaching of God’s Law. But they will need the counsel, energy, and persuasive power of those whose first commitment is to God and the economy He intends for a good society.
1. How does individual responsibility operate within the divine economy? What is the basis for individual responsibility?
2. Why must government sometimes curtail individual responsibility? What standard should guide it when it does?
3. Where does the Christian turn to understand the limits and obligations of individual responsibility?
Next steps—Transformation: Which economy—materialistic or divine—provides the guidance for your life? What examples can you cite to support your answer? Where do you see the need for more of the divine economy in your life?
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.