As printed in The Marketplace magazine
Missional Economics: Biblical Justice and Christian Formation By Michael Barram (Wm. E Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018, 283 pp, $26 US)
If North American Christians are guilty of biblical illiteracy, nowhere is this more so than in our failure to wrestle with and grasp God’s intentions around economics.
Most of us, Michael Barram argues, “are, at best, only vaguely aware of what the Bible has to say about economic issues related to justice and Christian discipleship.”
Our privilege makes it easy to overlook our blind spots, he notes. “The critical question — for Christians, at least — is whether or not the ways in which our contemporary economic world has and continues to form us are consonant with the economic logic of the gospel and faithful to the perspectives of the God whom we claim to serve in Jesus Christ.”
Alms-giving and charity is necessary but insufficient, he says. To be found faithful, we must work towards economic justice for all. If the poor are being mistreated, God is angry.
Barram, a theology professor at Saint Mary’s College of California, draws examples from throughout the Bible to build his case.
Not an easy read, Missional Economics is a dense, deep, and challenging volume.
“To love others as oneself requires a commitment to seek the best for others. Deciding to do no harm to them is inadequate. Polite avoidance is insufficient. Conscious, proactive goodwill is necessary.”
He weaves together an examination of the Beatitudes and the Exodus, the Pentateuch and the prophets in connecting “the community’s covenantal relationship with God and with one another.”
The responsibilities that come with that relationship are something that we need to recognize, particularly with regards to the marginalized.
“The Bible seeks to transform our moral imaginations, so we will reason economically from the perspective of abundance and gratitude as opposed to scarcity and fear.”
God’s people should be as concerned for the hungry as God has always been, he suggests. “Gleaning laws presupposed that there was an inherent dignity in working for one’s food. And the opportunity for such work was not a privilege, but a right.”
Barram’s arguments build on the work of renowned American Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who provides a forward to the book. Like Brueggemann, Barram draws a distinction between biblically informed, life-giving economic systems marked by a sense of abundance, generosity and fair dealing with a predatory economy that brings slavery and death, in both the spiritual and material senses.
He provides fascinating perspectives on difficult passages of scripture that have been long debated in small groups, sanctuaries and adult education classes.
Is Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler to sell everything that he has relevant to all believers?
Not likely, he argues, noting that early followers were not required to do so, and Jesus’ ministry was supported by people of means. The barriers to devotion to God may be material for some people, and familial for others.
Neither should we assume that such calls to give our possessions to the poor are only for other people, he notes. Instead, we should “be living as the kind of missional community whose God-given vocation involves a powerful new economic vision, one in which anything can and will be renounced, if necessary, for the sake of Jesus and the good news.”
North Americans often view suggestions of wealth redistribution to benefit the poor as coercion. In the early church, by contrast, voluntary redistribution “grew out of the love and grace experienced by the group.”
He dismisses the long-held view that the writings of James are in opposition to the teachings of Paul, or that James was promoting works over grace. “James’ discussion of faith and works is best understood as a vigorous argument that faith and works cannot be separated, something with which Paul would have undoubtedly agreed.” –MS