AT NOTABLE moments in history, Christian values have stood in stark contrast to the prevailing social or economic orthodoxy. This has invariably been followed by a crisis in which the virtues, previously sidelined, have then come into their own. We might think of the role of Irish monks who preserved education and learning during the Dark Ages, or the social impact of the Evangelical revivals of the 18th century.
We may now once again be experiencing just such a time.
Usury and consumption have long been considered not just necessary but desirable founda-tions for our economic system. Such activities come into clear conflict with gospel values of simplicity, generosity, and stewardship. But so fundamental to the system had alternative values become, that it was their absence which precipitated the financial crisis and subsequent recession. It became an evil not to have enough people willing to charge for their lending. The Government urged greater consumption and spending, not less, for the common good.
Even inflation of the value of money, a process that hurts most those who have the least, has become a route to salvation. Many are still banking on a substantial increase in prices to devalue the cost of our accumulated debts. [PULL QUOTE]‘We are emerging from an artificial age’[PULL QUOTE END]
But as is now becoming all too apparent, the control of the economy which economists and politicians thought they could exercise through tax-and-spend, and control of the money supply through interest rate changes, is largely an illusion. Actually, the system controls us — at least, all those who have bought into its values. We may be able to steer the economy a little in one direction or another, but our inability to manipulate the good economy we hoped for is self-evident.
At this moment, we find ourselves with rising prices on the one hand, but stagnant or even falling wages on the other. Goods are costing more, but our ability to pay for them is not keeping pace. Tackling it risks the threat of a double-dip recession and even deflation. The true cost of both production and consumption is starting to emerge. And with this comes the realisation that we are emerging from an artificial age built on false virtues that were never sustainable. The illusory age of credit-driven growth appears to be at an end.
But what is also accompanying it is the growing acknowledgement that we need a change of approach — one that embraces simplicity, not consumption; sustainability, not the throwaway culture.
These are the values that have been powerfully present in the Christian tradition from the monastic movement to the Wesleyan revivals. Those within the Churches who have been faithful to them both in word and deed will have a great deal to offer, as we seek to reimagine our economic system in a new era in which the old orthodoxy becomes increasingly discredited.
But, as in previous ages, it will not be those Christians who have embraced the prevailing economic culture who will be the change-makers. A Church that has put its faith in currency hedging, stock-lending programmes, investments in commercial property, banks, and mining and oil companies will have little to offer.
As in previous ages, it will be the Christians and others who have remained faithful to gospel values who will be of most use, and have the greatest authority in the as-yet uncharted territory of the new economic era. It will be those Christians who have not just paid lip-service to spiritual disciplines, but who have resisted habituation to a system that stands in direct opposi-tion to them. But, as yet, it is hard to identify where that remnant is to be found.
Jonathan Bartley is director of the theological think tank Ekklesia.