God’s Economics

A financial advisor and a scripture professor offer advice on how to navigate the current economic crisis

Whether it is the rising cost of your weekly grocery bill, water cooler rumors about layoffs or the nightly news, everyone is reminded about the downturn in the economy on a daily basis. Last month, the Pope was quoted as saying, “We are now seeing, in the collapse of major banks, that money vanishes, it is nothing.” While that may be true on a spiritual level, money is an inescapable aspect in our daily lives. If money vanishes, so does our ability to feed, clothe and house ourselves.

For most of our generation, this is our first experience of a global financial crisis. What should the government do? What should we do as Christians? Busted Halo interviewed Timothy Sandoval, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and the author of the book Money and the Way of Wisdom: Insights from the Book of Proverbs . We also interviewed J. Michael Brown, an advisor with a major wealth management firm who is also Christian, to ask them some tough questions about how to navigate the financial storm.

BH: Does Christianity have anything to say about economics?

Timothy Sandoval (TS): Christianity, in my view, has some very important things to say about economics, but not so much about how to understand or negotiate today’s extremely complicated economic landscape. Although the Bible does offer some instruction on concrete or particular economic practices, what it really offers us today is a set of principles, a kind of moral compass, with which we can think about how, as Christians, we ought to relate to our material resources and the broader economy in which we inevitably find ourselves.

BH: You work in the financial sector. Do you think Christian values make any sense in your workplace?

J. Michael Brown (JMB): I don’t think of them so much as Christian values, because they are the same values that our Muslim friends have and our Jewish friends have. Values about respect, honesty, treating people justly. In some sense, yes, you could call them biblical values: love, respect, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But I know those values are in Judaism and Islam, in addition to Christianity. So do I think these values have a place in the workplace? Absolutely, because they are so inclusive.

BH: We know that Jesus was all about helping the poor but what about today’s economic structures?

The candidates talked about putting the “middle class,” not the poor, first. Such a priority doesn’t seem to me to mesh with the biblical witness. And it’s a tough norm, especially for those of us who are in the middle class and are experiencing significant financial pressure. — Timothy Sandoval

TS: Jesus’ concern for the poor is a very important point and one we shouldn’t pass over too quickly, as a kind of impractical idealism for tough financial times. Caring for the poor, literally, is one of the concrete economic measures that the Bible holds up for us… for people of faith who want to take the Scriptures’ ethical guidance seriously the fact that this concern is so widespread in the Bible means one can argue, as I do in the book, that this concern for the poor ought to function as a moral norm for us today—a principle that can guide our actions and thinking when it comes to our money and economics.

But this norm is in sharp contrast to much of what we heard recently, especially in the rhetoric of both presidential candidates. The candidates talked about putting the “middle class,” not the poor, first. Such a priority doesn’t seem to me to mesh with the biblical witness. And it’s a tough norm, especially for those of us who are in the middle class and are experiencing significant financial pressure. What I think this biblical norm or principle can do for us, however, is force us to think about another aspect of what Christianity and the Scriptures say about economics, namely the question about where out ultimate trust and hope for security lie. It asks us to ask ourselves where we believe ultimate value and well being is to be found. Is it in economic material accumulation, in money? Or is it with God…?

BH: How does our view of the economy differ from the Bible’s perspective of the economy?

TS: I imagine the biggest difference between the way biblical communities perceived the economy and the way we generally do today has to do with the fact that for us today, the economy is viewed as separate from the rest of life—it is something out there that we hear about on the news or can try to control…. I don’t think the ancient communities made such a sharp distinction between the economy and the rest of life. Economic activity was part of the whole of life, not something separate. Taking to heart this distinction between the ancient and modern ways of imagining the economy, I think, might have profound implications. It seems that for us today, economic activity is merely a means to an end—a tool “out there” that we can use to acquire wealth, which is supposed to be the key to our happiness. The ancient view, I suspect, lends itself to understanding economic activity in a more integrated way, as an important, indispensable even, aspect of life, but not the sole or even most important key to well being, or what biblical communities would have called shalom.

BH: How does your faith affect the way that you view the reasons for the economic crisis? For example, did our neglect of the poor or did big companies’ ambitions for big returns perhaps lead us to where we are today?

JMB: Don’t get me started. I think this Bush administration has represented what is wrong with America. For America to get back to where it needs to be, we need to be brought to our knees. Through the Bush administration we demonstrated America’s greed, elitism; we’ve seen it through our tax structure; in the adoption of the Bush preemptive doctrine toward other nations; we’ve seen it through the treatment of prisoners and torture. All these things are not congruous with Christian, Islamic or Jewish values. Until we are brought to our knees, we are not going to see any change. This comes from my Southern Baptist roots, that idea that “we reap what we sow.” I think we got exactly what we deserved….