Jesus, the Economist

One of my favorite authors (John le Carre) once said, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”

I will add to that—a couch is a dangerous place from which to make a decision to vote for President of the United States. A recent Gallup Poll reveals that the number one issue for both Republicans and Democrats is the economy. If asked to describe Jesus, many words come to mind—Son of God, Savior, Messiah, Healer—but have you ever thought of Jesus as an economist? According to Gospel accounts, Jesus was on a passionate campaign trail addressing economics. Jesus discusses money more than he talks about love. Eleven of the nearly 40 parables are about money. Why was he so concerned? Because our relationship with money says quite a bit about who we really are. How we as individuals perceive money shapes our relationships with others and economic perspective. Fundamentally, the economy controls the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services not only in our community, but also in the United States, and the world. In the Old Testament, land wealth all belonged to God, who entrusted humanity not as owners, but stewards. Every 49 years, the land and wealth would be redistributed, known as the Year of Jubilee. Can you imagine that happening in modern times? Can you imagine the world’s wealthiest countries adhering to the Old Testament model of Jubilee?

It did happen! Jubilee Year 2000 the G7 members (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and US) agreed to forgive loans to 22 of the world’s poorest countries, amounting to 110 billion dollars. It was a vision started by two Christians, Martin Dent and Bill Peters, who saw debt as the new form of slavery, as 52 countries like Zambia, Uganda and Honduras owed $365 billion dollars to Western institutions. Worldwide attention focused on Jubilee 2000, but in the United States, it barely made the news.

And then 9/11 happened. And then the wars. And then our own economic collapse. Meanwhile, according to the Hunger Project, nearly 900 million people in developing countries live on $1.90 a day. While international trade is worth $10 million a minute, poor countries only account for less than one percent of this trade. According to a new report from Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam), if you take 50 percent of the world’s population and add up their net worth value, it equals the 85 richest individuals in the world. Talk about economic inequality.

This is not what Jesus campaigned for. American politicians are imprisoned by the economics of capitalism and feed not on our desire to care for one another, but on our temptation to focus on our own self-interests. And I think that if Jesus were asked about his economic policy he would tell this story (Matthew 20:1-16):

“God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work.
Later, about nine o’clock, the manager saw some other people hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.
He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o’clock. At five o’clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, ‘Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?’
They said, ‘Because no one hired us.’
He told them to go to work in his vineyard.
When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, ‘Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.’
Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they mumbled angrily to the manager, ‘These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’
He replied to the one speaking for the rest, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’”

It is about perspective. Every time I hear this parable I identify with the worker who labored all day. And I get a tad angry. It is a parable of reversals. The last will be first. However, I hear the parable from a perspective of privilege and capitalism. But capitalism is not part of the economics of Jesus. For the workers who felt treated unfairly, they complain and became angry, and it is so easy for politicians to feed on that grumbling and anger. The way of Jesus cannot be just within an unjust economical system.

In June of 1990 I had just graduated college, and had three weeks to do whatever I wanted before belonging to Uncle Sam and the U.S. Army. An adventurous friend of mine enticed that for $325 round trip we could go to a really cool country and it would not cost much—so we did. Awesome hotels for $10 a night, lobster dinners that barely cost five dollars, and we chartered a boat to explore an island and an airplane to explore the mountains—very inexpensive. And that brings me to a modern day parable:

Once there was a King who created a Common Bank to help the poor countries in the world. The Prince of a poor country went to the King for help from the Common Bank. The King said to him, “You are from the country with the Mountain of Gold, are you not?” “Yes,” said the Prince. And the King assured the Prince that if he shared his country’s Gold, then the Common Bank would help his country. And the Prince agreed. The people got poorer. But the King, the Common Bank and the Prince grew richer.

Beside the Mountain of Gold lived a young man who was saddened to see the Mountain disappearing. “One day, I will rebuild the Mountain,” he promised the people. The people elected him to replace the corrupt Prince, and the newly elected Prince restored the Mountain of Gold and helped the people. The King, who no longer received any Gold, became angry, and used the Common Bank to bribe the media to make the people’s Prince look like he was betraying them.
And it worked. The brave Prince who stood up to the King was taken to prison.

The King put in a new Prince who allowed him to again take from the Mountain of Gold. And the people became poor again. But this time they rebelled and freed from prison their elected Prince, who told the King and Common Bank to leave the country. And the Mountain of Gold was restored, and the people of the country were no longer poor.

The country my friend and I visited where I saw first-hand how the people were living in poverty is Venezuela; the Common Bank is the International Monetary Fund, the IMF, and the World Bank. The King at the time was President Bush, and the young man who ensured oil profits returned to the people, who stood up against America and therefore was vilified by our leaders and the media, was Hugo Chavez.

Perspective. Reversal of how many Americans may perceive Chavez as a tyrant because he was a revolutionary against the American economic system that pillaged his country. After his second term landslide victory in 2006, President Chávez proclaimed, “The Kingdom of Christ is the kingdom of love, of peace; the kingdom of justice, of solidarity, the kingdom of socialism. This is the kingdom of the future of Venezuela.”

In Latin American countries, the phrase “Yo soy Chavez, Tu eres Chavez, Todos somos Chavez” are statements of empowerment against economic injustice.

What perspective do we have and why do we have it?

In the U.S., one percent control 40% of America’s wealth—and this one percent influences political leaders. The IMF and World Bank, created in 1944, were supposed to create a stable and thriving global economy and help countries devastated by World War Two. However, the United States controls these two powerful organizations and has deployed economic hit men who use the IMF and World Bank to control other countries like Venezuela, while corporations seem to run our government.

During this political process, we may vote and elect leaders democratically, but economically we live in a ‘corporatocracy’ where very few make all the decisions and grow rich—and these very few are fueled by self-interest, unfettered materialism and greed, as the Pope noted when he addressed the United Nations. Corporations in our country now are what the East India Company was to the colonists. The colonists, like the people of Venezuela, rebelled. Jesus rebelled against the Roman oligarchs, and we must find that same courage of Jesus, of our nation’s founders and unite the wonderful people of our nation and transform the economic system into a model of stewardship. Several corporations thrive because they are not held accountable, and rely on Americans sitting on a couch to be deceived by our media and some of our own elected leaders. We have to learn, take action, and be aware. Like the parable Jesus told, a reversal is needed. The first have to be last, and the last first. We need to carry on the dreams and visions of Martin Dent and Bill Peters who until their deaths championed the economical ethics of the Old Testament Jubilee. As American former economic hit man John Perkins advises, we need a new vision from the one that we blindly followed post World War Two. This election is time for us to begin to truly change the world, and passionately campaign for economic reform, like Jesus did against powers of his time.