God and the Economy
from an essay series on Debt and Economics
By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 17, 06 Masa'il 165 BE
Economic excesses are always religious transgressions at the same time. When the world of finance divorces itself from faith, the habits and restraints conscience are loosed, charity and almsgiving are neglected and the lion's share of the wealth concentrates into the hands of a few. Meanwhile the majority are marginalized and reduced to some form of slavery, be it industrial or financial. Through the centuries traditional religious laws against usury kept indirect, monetary slavery in check until finally the scale and complexity of modern commerce made them impractical. But, although chattel slavery has been outlawed, economic slavery persists. Tolstoy wrote,
"Money is a new form of slavery, and distinguishable from the old simply by the fact that it is impersonal, that there is no human relation between master and slave."
Today more poor people are enslaved by money than there ever were chattel slaves. It is sad and ironic that the impersonal chains of money are so tight that the slave owner class had the effrontery to invoke the ideal of liberty in their defence. The ideology of big money, market fundamentalism, has for some fifty years promoted the absurd and self-contradictory belief that greed is always good. Absolutely free markets would bring unlimited prosperity if only government and its pesky rules were kept out of the way. The spread of such absurdity centralized wealth and power even further.
Until recently the pundits of materialism and economic liberalism seemed to have history on their side. They ignored the embarrassing fact that widespread economic injustice by nature creates a precarious imbalance notoriously prone to booms and busts.
During the 1990's the American economy expanded seemingly endlessly, and consumer spending followed suit. Jubilant with a false sense of ideological security and egged on by massive propaganda, the average worker ventured out into the dark, turbulent waters of the stock market. When they quailed from investing for themselves, their pension funds gambled their futures on their behalf. The boom and bust cycle that periodically crashes capitalist economies seemed like a relic of a quaint past.
As we all know, the crisis of the past six months has badly burned both individuals and fund investors. Consumer spending has dropped and layoffs spread like leprosy. A recession, if not a depression, seems almost a certainty.
Religion has been out of the picture for so long that it is useful to recall that it has a great deal to say about finance and economics. Most important, the world's faiths teach that economic life is at heart a spiritual expression. Charity, not greed or gain, is the key to prosperity.
"Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven." (Matt 6:1, KJV)
Thus begins a discussion of spiritual economics that continues throughout the sixth book of Matthew -- a gospel written, it is thought, by a scribe and former tax collector. Jesus here suggests that true charity is done anonymously for God's sake alone, rather than as a technique for inflating personal prestige or exerting indirect influence.
Islam was founded by a Prophet Who had spent His career as a merchant in charge of a caravan trading enterprise, which was that ancient desert society's closest equivalent to what we now call a chief executive officer. In the Qur'an, God warns against similar financial vices, implying that they boil down to various forms of ingratitude to God, Who is -- unbeknownst to most --, the ultimate source of all wealth, security and prosperity.
"Allah does not bless usury, and He causes charitable deeds to prosper, and Allah does not love any ungrateful sinner. Surely they who believe and do good deeds and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate they shall have their reward from their Lord, and they shall have no fear, nor shall they grieve." (Q2:276-277, Shakir)
Both of these principles of spiritual economics, Christianity's emphasis on anonymity in giving and Islam's prohibition of sharp financial practices such as usury are codicils to the fundamental teaching of all Abrahamic religions that the true basis of wealth is the law of God and, behind that, the fear of God.
"The fear of Yahweh is clean, enduring forever. The ordinances of Yahweh are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the extract of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned. In keeping them there is great reward." (Psalm 19:9-11, WEB)
Abdu'l-Baha pointed out that rejection of God's Will conditions the economy for violent dislocations and deprivation. Sin is actually embedded in the most fundamental industry of all, the food industry and agricultural system. Neglect of God's law unleashes a pandemonium of unfettered desires. These in turn become a root cause of disease, both financial and physical,
"It is certainly the case that sins are a potent cause of physical ailments. If humankind were free from the defilements of sin and waywardness, and lived according to a natural, inborn equilibrium, without following wherever their passions led, it is undeniable that diseases would no longer take the ascendant, nor diversify with such intensity. But man hath perversely continued to serve his lustful appetites, and he would not content himself with simple foods. Rather, he prepared for himself food that was compounded of many ingredients, of substances differing one from the other. With this, and with the perpetrating of vile and ignoble acts, his attention was engrossed, and he abandoned the temperance and moderation of a natural way of life. The result was the engendering of diseases both violent and diverse." (Abdu'l-Baha, Selections, 152-153)
Our present financial disease runs much deeper than most economists admit. Like all spiritual questions, money is a mystery that will never be fully grasped by us mere mortals. But some causes of the present disease are impossible to miss. One is the state of the family. Part of the reason for the increased economic frailty these days is the gradual ejection of the family from agriculture over the past century.
The family farm has been either marginalized or completely replaced by factory farms run by centralized corporations. Family members, both rural and urban, over the past century became passive, accustomed to being voiceless in decisions affecting them. Laws protecting the family were deregulated and "liberalized." It became the norm to exploit them with heavy mortgages for obsolete, inefficient, sub-standard and overpriced dwellings. It is not a coincidence that sub-prime mortgages were the trigger for this present crisis. So long had families been weakened and ignored that for years no alarms went off at the highest levels when it became obvious that granting junk mortgages to marginal families was a confidence game. Or, to put it more accurately, a lack of faith game.
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