The Church and the Economics of Happiness

Earlier, in the passage from John, we heard Jesus talking about giving eternal life to those who listen to his voice and follow him. A more popular passage that conveys the same message may be John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

photo credit: William Bereza via photopin cc

photo credit: William Bereza via photopin cc

In his book “The Jesus Way”, Eugene Peterson talks about how “Jesus as the truth gets far more attention than Jesus as the way.”

Jesus as the truth, tells us that there is salvation to be had for all who accept the truth of his message; that we need to love, respect and care for those that society pushes to the margins.

We can all, I’m sure, think of examples of who these people have been historically and are today. The poor, people of colour, women, immigrants, disabled people, the sick, the elderly, those who aren’t thin, who aren’t “beautiful”.

As we gathered here Friday night with folks from Ralph Connor United in Canmore to watch the movie the Economics of Happiness, we learnt a lot about the ways our current economic system frames how we think and act. At the end of the film they put an emphasis on the importance of the local, and the importance of the local community. To me this also includes the local congregation, something that something that Eugene Peterson also looks at.

“The local congregation is the primary place for dealing with the particulars and people we live with. As created and sustained by the Holy Spirit, it is insistently local and personal. Unfortunately, the more popular [North] American church strategies in respect to congregation are not friendly to the local and the personal. The [North] American way, with its penchant for catchy slogans and stirring visions, denigrates the local, and its programmatic ways of dealing with people erode the personal, replacing intimacies with functions. The North American church at present is conspicuous for replacing the Jesus way with the [North] American way. For Christians who are serious about following Jesus by understanding and pursuing the ways that Jesus is the way, this deconstruction of the Christian congregation is particularly distressing and a looming distraction from the way of Jesus.”

So what is the way of Jesus? I’ve already mentioned loving and caring for those pushed to the edge of society, the outcast. What else is there to the way of Jesus?

If you look more at how Jesus lived, he not only loved, cared for and accepted everyone, including the outcast, he also welcomed them into his community. Those that joined were treated as equals, all contributing to the good of the whole with whatever they could offer. Money was shared, food was shared, shelter was shared. And while they sought to improve the lives of the marginalized their goal was not to continually acquire more as seems to be the case in North America today. For us in North America there seems to always be that something else to want. Even as Christians it’s hard to escape our roles as consumers. And so, some churches have embraced this.

Again, Eugene Peterson puts it wonderfully.

“The great [North] American innovation in congregation is to turn it into a consumer enterprise. We [North] Americans have developed a culture of acquisition, an economy that is dependent on wanting more, requiring more. We have a huge advertising industry designed to stir up appetites we didn’t even know we had. We are insatiable.

It didn’t take long for some of our Christian brothers and sisters to develop consumer congregations. If we have a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our congregations is to identify what they want and offer it to them, satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem solving, whatever. This is the language we [North] Americans grew up on, the language we understand. We are the world’s champion consumers, so why shouldn’t we have state-of-the-art consumer churches?

Given the conditions prevailing in our culture, this is the best and most effective way that has ever been devised for gathering large and prosperous congregations. [North] Americans lead the world in showing how to do it. There is only one thing wrong: This is not the way in which God brings us into conformity with the life of Jesus and sets us on the way of Jesus’ salvation. This is not the way in which we become less and Jesus becomes more. This is not the way in which our sacrificed lives become available to others in justice and service. The cultivation of consumer spirituality is the antithesis of a sacrificial, “deny yourself” congregation. A consumer church is an antichrist church.”

This doesn’t mean that we can’t be consumers at all, that we must deny ourselves and not participate in the economy at all. Nor should it condemn those that lead or worship in churches that have adapted to the current North American mindset. What it says to me is that as Christians, or those who are interested in the way of Christ, we need work to create an economy in which we are not insatiable consumers, but instead we are participants in a life giving system that respects the personhood of everyone, and that treats all elements of Creation as Holy. This to me is the way of Christ, and is the system he and his followers lived by.

In the movie, “the Economics of Happiness” their suggestion is that we move towards more local economies. Not that we ignore the world, but that we give preference to the work of those around us. They suggest that by doing this, we empower people to make a living doing a job they find compelling and that as we spend time in places and businesses that are created to serve the local community, that we are more likely to have conversations with our neighbours and thus to have fuller and happier lives. They also point out that this is true both in North America, but also around the world as people in other countries aren’t forced to work to provide for North American wants and desires. I don’t really do their thesis justice summarizing it like that, but I hope you get the point. That by creating local economies based on community, our lives will be happier than in a globalized economy based on the need to acquire more stuff.

The World Communion of Reformed Churches logo

The World Communion of Reformed Churches

The problems with the current global economy and its lack of cohesion with Christian principles has not gone unnoticed by the global ecumenical church. In October 2012, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches and the Council for World Mission gathered economists, theologians, and representatives from various NGOs to evaluate our current economic system, and talk about what an alternative global financial architecture might look like. Meeting outside Sao Paulo, Brazil, they wrote what has become known as the Sao Paulo Statement: International Financial Transformation for the Economy of Life.

In it they “reject an economy of over-consumption and greed, recognising how neoliberal capitalism conditions us psychologically to desire more and more, and [they] affirm instead Christian and Buddhist concepts of an economy of sufficiency that promotes restraint (Luke 12:13-21), highlighting, for example, the Sabbath economy of rest for people and creation, and the Jubilee economy of redistribution of wealth.

They “reject the economic abstraction of Homo Oeconomicus, which constructs the human person as being essentially insatiable and selfish, and affirm that the Christian perception of the human person is embedded in community relationships of Ubuntu[6], Sansaeng,[7] Sumak Kawsay,[8] conviviality and mutuality. Contrary to the logic of neoliberals, as believers we are called to think not only of our own interests but also of the interests of others (Phil. 2:4).”

They offer many ways forward but stress the importance of bringing the financial markets and economy under the control of democratic decision making principles stating that: “Economics has to be embedded in social, ecological and political life rather than the other way around.”

This gathering built on the work many others including those in the United Church of Canada. In November of 2011, the Poverty, Wealth & Ecological Justice unit of the United Church of Canada hosted the World Council of Churches North American forum on Poverty, Wealth and Ecology. This gathering heard from people within the United Church of Canada who have been working to identify the ways in which our current economic system creates structural inequalities within societies.

Structural inequalities are also something that Jesus spent his ministry working to dismantle in his society. In the passage from Revelation we hear about those “who have come out of the great tribulation”. The way I read this passage, these are the people who follow the way of Jesus. We are then told that
“‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
 For the Lamb at the centre of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ ”

Is a world where there is no hunger or thirst possible? Could we ever live in a world where there are no people at the margins, where all are cared for and find meaning? I believe it is. I believe we can. But I also believe that it will take courageous people making hard choices, and standing up for what they believe in.

In the movie the Economics of Happiness, they talk about creating local economies. In the Sao Paulo Statement they focus on creating global democratic structures that can reclaim control of the economic system.

What do you see as the most logical way forward? How do we change an economic system that focuses on the wants of individuals and make it focus on the needs of communities?


Allan Buckingham is a member of Rundle Memorial United Church, Banff. Learn more about current news & activities, our Thrift Shop, and how to get married in Banff.