Transforming Capitalism?

So our Taoiseach, Enda, says the cause of Ireland’s economic woes was that ‘people went mad borrowing’. While the opposition got all in a lather about his ‘insensitivity’, he does have a point. Unsustainable levels of private debt went through the roof in the ‘boom’ years.

Under pressure, he later rightly nuanced this a bit by talking about incompetent government, unregulated and out of control banking, unrestrained greed of property developers etc. This is why we are one of the worst ‘PIGS’ – not only due to inept government, but a corrupt political class within Fianna Fail and a cosy cartel of bankers and developers that operated in a bubble of arrogant invincibility.

Everywhere in Ireland today there are stories of people struggling – long term unemployment; unpayable mortgages; anxiety over the future; rising rates of suicide; businesses going bust; public services under pressure; huge company restructuring (i.e. redundancies); rising taxes and charges; a wave of emigration  …

And a huge factor in all this was Fianna Fail’s response to the crisis in socialising the debts of those out of control banks – Anglo-Irish above all.

But the global financial crisis is much bigger than Bertie and his cronies and their failure to govern.

It goes to the nature of modern turbo-Capitalism itself.

I’ve ranted about discussed all this from time to time. And while I’m no economist, but it’s worth stating the obvious – that the whole fiasco was preventable and unnecessary. It is a human created problem. It did not have to happen.

Humans sin. Greed is intrinsic to the human condition. Elites will profit from power. Raw capitalism has no inherently ethical basis, it needs boundaries and ethics. Values and morality (or the lack of them) lie at the heart of the Global Financial Crisis.

Christians should know these things. But for a Christian response to the crisis to be credible it needs to be thought out both theologically and practically.

What does an ethical reform of ‘turbo-capitalism’ look like? What needs to happen?

This is the question that Michael Schluter and Jonathan Rushworth have tried to address in TRANSFORMING CAPITALISM FROM WITHIN: A Relational approach to the purpose, performance and assessment of companies.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Michael and he’s a great storyteller. But he has been thinking and speaking about reforming Capitalism for years – way before the crash. He has serious street cred on this issue.

His big idea is to reintroduce ‘relationships’ into an impersonal, distant and often inhuman system. It is exactly this distance and feeling of impotence that is the source of outrage and injustice across Europe. No-one seems responsible, just the faceless system.

Schluter is arguing for limits on turbo-capitalism: through accountability by shareholders; by putting people before the system; by limiting pay differentials within a company (how much more is one person worth than another?); of a company having social responsibility to its employees, suppliers and the wider community where it operates.

If implemented this is revolutionary stuff. But if the there is one thing the present crisis is revealing, it is the desperate need of such reform within Capitalism, if the idol of mammon is to be dethroned and replaced by a human face.

So let me recommend downloading and reading the whole report here. And here are 10 bullet point summaries of the main arguments for a Relational Business Charter:

The Ten Points of the Relational Business Charter:

A company will be recognised for the purposes of the Charter as having a relational ethos and operating in a relational manner if it has the following characteristics:

1. Set relational goals. The company includes a Relational business objective in its constitution, and demonstrates commitment to implement it, providing appropriate training to investors, directors and employees.

2. Create stakeholder dialogue. Dialogue is promoted among all significant stakeholder groups, through regular face-to-face meetings and, where that is not possible, through regular on-line communication.

3. Demand shareholder transparency. There is direct and transparent (named) ownership of a significant proportion (perhaps 25%) of the shares by individuals (or family trusts).

4. Encourage long-term ownership. A high proportion of the shares are owned on a long-term basis (which may be incentivised by issuing additional shares to long-term shareholders).

5. Safeguard work-life balance. There is evidence of management having respect for the interests of employees (e.g. with regard to length of working hours, atypical hours, and other employment conditions).

6. Lower pay differentials. The dignity of all employees is respected by minimising remuneration differentials within the business (taking, for example, a 20:1 ratio between top and bottom as a benchmark)

7. Build supplier partnerships. Suppliers are treated fairly and with respect, paid promptly, and given support to develop their businesses.

8. Respect customers & communities. Customers and the local community are treated fairly and their concerns are respected (e.g. with regard to service provided and payment terms).

9. Promote financial stability. The risk of company financial instability is minimised to protect the company and its stakeholders (assessed with reference to debt:equity ratios and/or levels of interest cover).

10. Fulfil social obligations. Obligations to wider society are fulfilled, assessed with reference to the percentage of profits paid in tax in the country where those profits are earned and also the percentage of profits spent on corporate social responsibility.

What do you think?

Whimsical musings on Christian belief in post-Christendom

Please complete the following sentence ….

“Having faith in terms of historic Christian orthodoxy* in the 21st century post-Christendom West sometimes feels a bit like ….”

…. being a Tasmanian Tiger who suddenly reappears in downtown Hobart  … (OK I was reading a book on Tasmania a while ago – thks Sarah!)

Imagine the reactions:

Genuine surprise – I thought you were all extinct by now! Sorry, but there is no place for you in the modern world any more you know.

Mild alarm – (thinks) umm, are you the dangerous sort of tiger, you know, one of those nasty fundamentalist types who wants power to make everyone should live the way you want them to?

Pity – are you not rather lonely?

Bafflement – why do you exist? Are you not an evolutionary dead end? Would you not rather be a successful species like a possum, wallaby or even a Tasmanian Devil?

Anger – you are a danger to civilisation and need to be eradicated once and for all, and I’m going to get my gun …

Welcome back! – we miss you! (I’m feeling optimistic)

Other reactions? Feel welcome to add some ….

* You know the sort of thing = believing in the triune creator God who works his purposes out in the localised story of a particular people; incarnation – Jesus both God and man; miracles; the death and resurrection of the Messiah; his ascension; inspiration of the Word through the Holy Spirit; the future return of King Jesus; a new creation to come; future justice for all etc

Evangelical Journeys

I had the great pleasure of speaking yesterday at the Dublin book launch of Claire Mitchell and Gladys Ganiel’s Evangelical Journeys: choice and change in a Northern Irish Religious Subculture (UCD Press, 2011).

It is based on sociological analysis of interviews with 95 people: from those ‘deepening’ their faith (in fundamentalist/very conservative direction), to those ‘maintaining a steady faith’, to those ‘moderating’ and adapting their faith, to those that are engaged in ‘transforming evangelicalism’ (effectively post-evangelicals) to those that have left evangelicalism (and Christianity) altogether.

Gladys has put up notes of my remarks at her website. It is a very good book; easy to read and full of stories of people’s journeys of faith. It’s valuable for those in Christian ministry as a listening exercise to what people really think about God and especially their experience of church.

Some sociology of religion can be completely reductionistic. A bit like the science and faith debate, the assumption seems to be because we can explain how things work (in this case how humans behave in regard to religious choices and behaviour) that we have ‘explained away’  any need for God. Gladys (a Christian) and Claire (an agnostic) don’t do this.

They identify and describe a spectrum of evangelical (and post-evangelical) beliefs and behaviour and highlight how where you are on it is to a significant degree a matter of personal choice. And moving from one part of the spectrum to another is usually the result of a process over time – and this includes conversion and deconversion.

Often what appears like a sudden change has been building for quite a period.

Makes you ask yourself,  ‘Where am I on the spectrum?’






Urban Theology 16: an alternative ekklesia

It’s past time I finished up this series on David Smith’s book, Seeking a City with Foundations: theology for an urban world.

Earlier, Smith talked of the NT ekklesia as a counter-cultural community within a Graeco-Roman empire. To close he asks what sort of ekklesia might demonstrate an alternative model of being within a context of economic globalisation. He suggests:

1)      It will be missional. But not an old sense of urban mission – focused on narrow segments of society like the poor. But holistic,

“while ministry among the poor remains a priority, the most urgent and challenging tasks may be to bring the message of the kingdom of God to those people whose lives are lived in close proximity to the idolatrous systems we described earlier.” 234

2)      New forms of Christian ekklesia will be needed to connect with the social and cultural realities of our world. Old assumptions of cultural stability no longer apply. One example he gives is this,

“the networked, mobile ‘liquid’ nature of life in the postmodern city creates new patterns of behaviour and relationships so placing issues concerning the structure of the church, the nature of its leadership, and patterns of nurture of fellowship firmly on the agenda.” 235

3)      The emerging ekklesia will be catholic – in the sense that the exponential growth of world Christianity is a global movement that already reflects the eschatological hope of Revelation the people from every tribe and nation will worship the Lamb of God.

Many people, looking at the state of the world, its inequality, its violence, its urban crises, and its looming environmental crisis, are tempted to despair. Smith longs for Christians with a deeply theocentric vision that transcends a materialist, secular worldview.

 “Can we hope that a church which, for the first time in two thousand years is truly ecumenical in its geographical extent, can discover a catholic unity which will give credibility to its challenge of the idols of our time and would offer the world empirical evidence that the gospel can bring to birth a human family united in love and the practice of justice?” 236

Good question. Can we?

Some thoughts on suffering, the Spirit and Christian hope

I’ve just started teaching a course on the Holy Spirit and the question I want to explore in this post is ‘What’s death, sickness and suffering got to do with the Spirit?’

Short answer: Everything

A close friend of my wife’s died last Saturday after a long battle with cancer.

The witness and story of Sandra – her extraordinary courage, faith, honesty, her uncomplicated transparency, her gift as an evangelist right to the end, her fierce future hope – all speaks of the empowering presence of the Spirit in the midst of, and through, increasing weakness.

Often Christians pray against all hardship and suffering as if behind those prayers there is an assumption that being a Christian should be a guarantee of happiness and a trouble free life. The prosperity gospel takes this one step further – all suffering and hardship are outside the will and purpose of God.

Yet consider those most empowered by the Spirit in the NT

John the Baptist is filled with the Spirit – and embarks on a ministry of misunderstanding, opposition and marginalisation. His obedience to the Spirit loses him his head.

Stephen is filled with the Spirit who enables him to see heaven but simultaneously gives him the courage to face a violent, murderous mob.

Paul has profound and deep experiences of the Spirit (tongues, visions, revelations, healings, prophetic words, guidance and so on), but you’d be hard pressed to say he had a trouble free life (and death).

In all this they were only privileged to follow their Lord and to share in his sufferings (Romans 8:17).

Jesus is anointed in power by the Spirit for mission and ministry (just read Luke 4 ‘the Spirit of the Lord is on me’); obedient to his calling; deeply aware of his Father’s presence; and filled with the Spirit for the increasingly intense spiritual conflict that marked his public ministry. No-one before or since Jesus has experienced the Spirit like he did, yet his life too is cut short by violence, desertion, physical suffering and death.

I’m not at all saying that suffering and hardship are good things in themselves. That would be some form of spiritual masochism. But I am saying that for the Christian there is no contradiction between the cross and the Spirit, between suffering and power, between weakness and glory.

For it is in suffering and in weakness that the power of the Spirit can make manifest the glory of God.

Do we long for a deeper and more powerful experience of the Spirit? Well maybe we also need to recognise that such experience will most likely to be worked out in and through hardship and suffering. Because for the Christian, suffering can be, and is, redeemed by the Spirit. It is in suffering that the believer is strengthened, helped to mature and grow in their faith – and in such a way that onlookers can only say ‘There is the grace and power of God’.

That sure was the case with Sandra.

The power and gift of the Spirit is a paradox – the Spirit is given to believers to live out their faith in their Lord Jesus in a context of a broken world, full of injustice, opposition to the gospel, sickness and death. Suffering comes to everyone sooner or later and some seem to endure unimaginable suffering and others hardly any at all. (I’m all too aware that I’m not really qualified to talk about this subject at all).

The challenge of faith is to understand and see suffering as something that can be faced even with joy and hope because God is greater than these ‘light and momentary troubles’. (can you imagine a more counter-cultural perspective in the West than calling persecution and suffering “light and momentary troubles”? I don’t think I can).

And it is in and through suffering and persecution that the church has most often grown. And when the church is satiated and comfortable, it becomes complacent and spiritually dull. And I dare say the same can be said for individual Christians. The church (or individual) which does not suffer or experience hardship, and even thinks it should not happen, is a bizarre anomaly in the history of Christianity.

BUT it is the good news of the gospel that God has triumphed over suffering and death through the resurrection and ascension of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Death and suffering do not have the last word. Jesus, the present reigning Lord, will make sure of that.

But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. [Roms 8:10-11]

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Urban Theology 15: the gospel and Pentecostals in the Global South

We’ve reached the final chapter of David Smith’s Seeking a City with Foundations:  theology for an urban world. Part 1 engaged with urbanization; Part 2 with the biblical narratives, this section seeks to be an interpretative bridge between the two, working towards a theology for an urban world.

What then is a Christian response to our urban world?

Smith paints a crucicentric picture:

1) The death of Christ reminds us of the systemic evil confronted at the cross

– such evil has cosmic dimensions

– the cross is a victory over the powers of evil and is a reminder of the continuing power of evil and injustice

2) The cross is a reminder of the character of God and his relationship to the world

– the suffering love of God which reaches into the darkness to offer salvation, forgiveness and joy

– the cross reaches out across deep barriers in a divided unequal globalised world

– the cross reaches out beyond personal faith, to world transformation

3) The cross leads to the resurrection of the vindicated Son of God

– Urban mission brings hope, significance and meaning to a culture marked by a loss of hope and frequent boredom and meaninglessness

4) The cross and resurrection are followed by the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit which creates a new covenant community.

This leads to a new urban form of community, visible and public and attractive.

And Smith links Pentecost with the explosion of Pentecostalism globally. The new community of Acts 2 is found afresh in the favellas and barrios of Latin America and the Global South. It is the poor and dispossessed and marginalised who make up the majority of the world’s Christians. Who find community and hope in the 21st century version of the early church. The sheer scale of global Pentecostalism has the potential to effect massive social change.

Smith is not uncritical or naive – global Pentecostalism has its warts and they are big juicy ones (my language here!). But it has the potential to change the world in parallel ways to the first Pentecostal church. These are poor churches, but they contain seeds of hope.

How’s this for a challenging quote to us Christians of the rich West?

The testimonies of humble Christians  … bear compelling witness to the power of the gospel in creating hope in desperate situations, but they may also cut through the coldness and complacence of churches which have existed so long in contexts of material satiation that they have forgotten the liberative life-bestowing power of the gospel. 231.

Craig Blomberg: are Christians complicit in the Global Financial Crisis?

Saturday week ago Craig Blomberg, Prof of NT at Denver Seminary, spoke at the Living Faith Conference on God and Money. It was a well attended day, with good seminars from Irish leaders.

Craig’s second talk was on the question in the title of this post and he came at this with another ‘Neither…Nor’ framework – neither capitalism nor socialism.  And I’m summarising here – Craig has thought and written about this stuff at depth and had much to say.

It’s quite a hermeneutical jump to evaluate contemporary socialism or capitalism since neither system existed in Bible times. The Bible does not support a particular economic system.

Both systems can appeal to the biblical texts for support, but both are inevitably inadequate. Both have strengths and weaknesses. And both fail to take seriously the depth of human sinfulness, the danger of power, the need for a counter-cultural generosity and how the elites will use and manipulate the system for their own gain.

Capitalism has no inherent concern for the poor and marginalised. Socialism does, but it often takes the form of the powerful exploiting the powerless.

Craig sees a stalemate between the two in terms of a biblical theology of possessions. Capitalism especially downplays or ignores the way material possessions are a temptation to great evil.

Craig’s suggested counter-cultural responses by Christians include:

– administering help of all kinds to the genuinely needy

– developing a ‘theology of enough’ within a consumer society

– rein in indebtedness

– make provision for those for whom we are responsible and some surplus to enjoy life (which is good)

– give generously from the rest to those most in need, physically and spiritually

– keep an eternal focus that radically relativises our entire perspective on material possessions

It is when the church is failing to be counter-cultural like this that it becomes complicit with the idols of the surrounding capitalist system.

Time ran out somewhat here, but it would have been good to talk more about an answer to the question ‘Are Christians complicit?’  

But what would such complicity actually look like in practice? What do you think?

And a couple of comments here:

There can be a sense of Western guilt complex in answering this question:  we’re all complicit just by being Westerners. But that doesn’t get anyone very far. Are we complicit by shopping at Tescos? By owning a house? By buying an iPhone? By owning shares? What specifically is complicity?

There can also be begrudgery at work here too: those who are better off than me are complicit; I’m obviously not since I don’t have much money!

So, what’s complicity with the god of mammon look like?

And linking back to the previous post by David Smith, a localised call to individual Christians and churches to be counter cultural can leave the prophetic role of the church to one side. It can leave the system itself untouched.

IMHO what we need are Christian economists and thinkers who understand how contemporary ‘turbo-capitalism’ actually works and who can offer a prophetic critique and constructive alternatives that help promote justice.

For it is this out-of-control system that has led most of the West into what could easily now be another great Depression. And the more we’ve learned of how the system ‘works’ over the last 3 years or so, the more exposed it has become as a voracious monster propelled by greed, injustice and unsustainable myths of endless economic growth and prosperity, all supposedly effected without consequences.

And for a brilliant post by my friend Tom Gilliam on the financial crisis and the need to distingush what sort of capitalism we are talking about  see here

Urban Theology 14: a prophetic critique of the idol of Western capitalism

We’ve reached the final chapter of David Smith’s Seeking a City with Foundations:  theology for an urban world. Part 1 engaged with urbanization; Part 2 with the biblical narratives, this section seeks to be an interpretative bridge between the two, working towards a theology for an urban world.

Big important themes have been discussed throughout this book. I’m the son of a geography lecturer – someone who has not only spent his life travelling all over the world but understands the political geography of the places he’s been. I guess a little bit of that has rubbed off on me after years of geography field trips on every family outing!

What I’ve appreciated about this book is that it takes very seriously the political & geographical realities connected to urbanisation and globalisation and after doing that hard work, takes seriously the biblical text and how the two meet in our contemporary world. This book is rare – if not unique – in doing what it does. It deserves to be widely read.

Smith has a multiple themes going on in this chapter. I’ll try to describe what he says in offering a prophetic critique of Western capitalism. [I’m sure there are radically different views out there from other (Western) Christians arguing for the overall benefits of global capitalism in lifting all boats …  Call me a pessimist, but I think this is too convenient a position to take by those with the most to gain from leaving the system as it is].

Prophetic Critique: the idol of Western capitalism

A recurring theme of Smith’s is a critique of the idol of western market forces and their unquestioned god-like status shaping economic and social policy with global implications. Such economism holds out the promise of freedom and prosperity for all. The urban elites have prospered, but the cost Smith argues has been terribly high. Traditional ways of life that have existed for centuries are being ripped apart.

He quotes Vinoth Ramachandra saying contemporary European and American capitalism, with its sole criterion for corporate decisions being a return on capital, is acting more and more like Maoism and Stalinism in its entrenched ideology being propagated around the world. And in the current financial crisis, Ramachandra’s words sound truer and truer. Democracy is being sidelined in the desperate rush to save the system.

Smith links the system to power and military might: hence the use of ruthless force to ensure security and ‘our way of life’.

In the OT, the critique of the city was on the underlying ideology that it represented. For Smith, much of the contemporary urban forms represent unrestrained pursuit of materialism. Such ends lead to alienation and vacuousness.

Like Babel, does much of the contemporary urban form represent hubris, and a quest for immortality, reflective of a spiritual blindness, an idolatry that leads to meaningless labour?

The idolatry of making security and prosperity the goals of life reverses the biblical priority of practicing justice and love of neighbour as a condition of human freedom. This reversal has led to the 20th cent arms race, the myth of redemptive violence, nuclear proliferation, a multi-billion dollar arms industry, ‘permanent and boundless’ war, and perpetual insecurity.

And have Christians, like in John of Patmos’ days, bought into the narrative of Empire and worshipped false gods?

He says Christians should be the ones in ‘the vanguard of resistance to dehumanizing forces at work in our world.’ Yet too many Christians have ended up worshipping false gods.

What is a Christian response of hope to this bleak picture of prophetic woe? Or to put it another way, what is an alternative Christian vision for the city – and the world? I’ll sketch Smith’s says to this in a couple of follow up posts.

But between now and then, here is a good moment to bring in Craig Blomberg who has been with us in IBI all last week teaching hermeneutics on our Masters degree.

He also spoke at jointly organised conferences in Dublin and Cork on God and money and has written Neither Poverty Nor Riches: a biblical theology of possessions (IVP, 2001 and Stewardship: a biblical theology for life. (Zondervan 2013).

One talk he gave was on the title ‘Are Christians complicit in the Global Financial Crisis?’

I’ll talk about his answer in the next post.

Europe heaven, Europe hell

As Europe heads for apocalyptic melt-down, or not, in 2012, here’s something I came across to lighten the mood

“Heaven in Europe is a place where the British are the policemen, the French are the cooks, the Germans are the mechanics, the Italians are the lovers and the Swiss run the place.

And hell is where the British are the cooks, the French are the mechanics, the Germans are the policemen, the Swiss are the lovers and the Italians run the place.”  Anonymous.

Any suggestions for where the Irish fit in?