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The recent financial crisis, which began in the summer of 2007, resulted in what some economists have described as the near-death experience of the global economy. In a seminal review published by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) in March 2009, Lord Turner describes the crisis as the ‘greatest … for at least a century, indeed arguably the greatest crisis in the history of finance capitalism’. In an address at a press conference in 2011, US President Barack Obama described the aftermath of the financial crisis in almost apocalyptic language: ‘When the dust settled, and its binge of responsibility was over, several of the world’s oldest and largest financial institutions had collapsed, or were on the verge of doing so. Markets plummeted, credit dried up, and jobs were vanishing by the hundreds of thousands each month’. Much has been written about the financial meltdown that affected so many countries in the world, offering both diagnoses and cures. However, at a very fundamental level the crisis has to do with money (and everything that is wrapped up with this powerful symbol) and our relationship to it.

For many people, money is the most natural and indispensable means of exchange. Standard dictionary definitions of money include ‘current medium of exchange’, ‘wealth’ and ‘resource’. It is interesting to note, however, that Scripture is never satisfied with this portrayal of money as a neutral medium of exchange. It seldom looks at money solely from a monetary standpoint. Rather Scripture presents money as possessing a power and significance that could be described as ‘religious’ and constantly warns of its ability to corrupt. This is seen in Jesus’ description of money as ‘Mammon’ (Matt 6:24), indicating that money, in the hands of fallen human beings it can attain spiritual significance. That is why the Bible has so much to say about greed (Psalm 10:3; Proverbs 11:6; Luke 12:15; Ephesians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:5; 2 Peter 2:3; 2 Peter 2:14). And that is why Paul, following the trajectory of Jesus’ teaching concerning money, could associate greed with idolatry (Ephesians 5:5). Our attitude to money determines how we relate to God.

It is important that we understand how money fosters human relationships. Money creates a transactional relationship that promotes the view that everything in this world can be bought and sold. This includes human beings. The buying and selling relationship that is shaped by the symbol of money is seen acutely in the relationship between the rich and the poor in many countries in Asia and across the world. As the French Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul has perceptively noted: ‘Poverty leads to the total alienation of the poor, an alienation which puts the labour force at the disposal of the wealthy, permitting the wealthy to impose their own law and conception of life, their own thought and religion’.[1] What is alarming is that this transactional relationship has dominated our modern culture, even as the language of customer and provider has wormed its way into virtually every aspect of our social life. What this means is that human relationships are reduced to carefully calibrated and orchestrated ‘business’ transactions. The real significance of this is that people are seen basically as means by which our self-interests can be furthered. ‘[T]he most basic kind of assessment we can make about actions of another’, writes Archbishop Rowan Williams, ‘… is the evaluation of how much they can increase my liberty to negotiate favourable deals and maximise my resources’.[2]

The Bible has much to say about the destructiveness of self-interest. In the Old Testament, the people of God are constantly urged to take their responsibility towards others seriously, especially those who may be at a disadvantage: widows, orphans, the poor, the oppressed and strangers. In the Gospels, Jesus taught his disciples that all the law and the prophets hang on the commandments to love God and neighbour (Matthew 22:36-40). In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the neighbour is defined as someone whom God may bring us into contact. This includes not just people we know, but also the outcast and even our enemies. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul exhorts his readers not to be motivated by pure self-interest when he writes: ‘each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2:4-5).

When these moral considerations are taken seriously, we will come to realise that economics is not just about value. It is always also about values. The values that we embrace would determine the way in which we relate with one another in the economic community. Ethics and moral consensus are in fact vital factors for generating economic value. This brings us back to the most basic meaning of the economy, which simply means ‘housekeeping’. Economics therefore has to do with taking care of the household in such a way that everyone who belongs to it – children, adults, the elderly and the vulnerable – can enjoy their common lives together. Christians who are in business or who are able to influence economic policies can set the example. As salt of the earth and light of the world, Christians can demonstrate how economic pursuits can be conducted without ransacking the environment, promoting unfettered hedonism, and exploiting customers and suppliers. As Williams has again put it so well, ‘housekeeping is guaranteeing that this common life has some stability about it that allows the members of the household to grow and flourish and act in useful ways’. Such a vision can only be achieved if economics is not divorced from ethics.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today, July 2012.

[1] Jacques Ellul, Money and Power (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1984), 78.

[2] Rowan Williams, ‘Knowing Our Limits’, in Rowan Williams and Larry Elliot (Eds), Crisis and Recovery: Ethics, Economy and Justice (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 20.