As promised, here's the full version of my presentation at the Bank of Ideas this afternoon. We had an excellent time with some lively and imaginative thinkers who were keen to explore whether Paul the tent maker had any wisdom to share relating to changing the world. None of them were church-goers but all found Paul more interesting than they were expecting!
Anyway, here's what I said:
If St Paul walked into the building in the churchyard that bears his name, he’d struggle to make the connection between it and the movement he belonged to. So maybe he’d make a tent and pitch it alongside the others outside the Cathedral and pondered the paradox.
Paul was a craftworker who lived by making tents, shop awnings and other canvas and leather goods. He was never a religious professional; if he didn’t make and sell his goods, he didn’t eat and couldn’t pay his rent.
He lived like other craftworkers in the empire in a rented workshop, sleeping on a mezzanine floor above his bench, tools and canvas or in a room behind his workspace. He bought his food at a street café – a popina – if he’d made a sale and shared it with fellow craftworkers as they talked about Jesus and how they might embody his values in their lives.
Paul lived in a world where an elite 1-3% owned pretty much everything, called the shots and lived lives of hitherto unknown luxury. The other 97-99% got by as best they could. A few earned enough to enjoy a modest surplus – maybe a week’s cushion, a month’s in boom times; most scraped by a day at a time – if they got work today, they ate and kept the landlord happy til tomorrow.
So everything Paul says about money, he says against this background – a context that has a curiously modern ring to it.
Paul also joined a movement that already had some firm views about how the economy ought to be organised – certainly the economy over which they had a measure of control, namely their own churches. There were two abiding principles that seem to have been at work among those early followers of Jesus – mutualism and equality (the former arising from the latter).
In the opening scene of his story of the Jesus community in Acts, Luke twice tells us that the believers had everything in common and distributed to those who were in need (2:44f; 4:32, 34f). This form of social organisation is sometimes called 'love communalism', a community of shared or pooled resources motivated by love between its members. It is mutualism in practice, ‘the implicit or explicit belief that individual and collective well-being is attainable above all by mutual interdependence’ (as Justin Meggitt puts it)
Some scholars suggest that this was a social experiment that failed. Their argument hinges on the fact that when famine came to the region in the mid-40s, the Jerusalem and Judean believers did not have the resources to cope and were therefore dependent on support from elsewhere.
But such a view completely misunderstands the precarious nature of life in the first century. Few people had the resources to be able to cope with food shortages – the result of the prices of staple foods going up beyond their reach – let alone famines. The majority of Jesus followers were middling to poor people who lived at or just a little above subsistence and who were vulnerable to economic downturns.
It also fails to grasp the consistent teaching of the Bible, taken up and reinforced by Jesus and sitting at the heart of the movement that bears his name.
Economic justice, in the form of frequent acts of redistribution to ensure equality among his people – was at the heart of God’s agenda for his people from the earliest days on.
The Sabbath cycle ensured that the poor were not neglected. Every harvest was to be taken in such a way that the crops at the edge of the fields were to be left for the poor to glean. Every seven years, the land was to be left fallow, allowing anything that grew on them to be picked by those without fields to work (Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:2-7). On top of that, slaves were to be released (Exodus 23:10-11; Deuteronomy 15:12-18). And debts were to be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15:1-6). God’s idea seems to have been that no one, regardless of whether they’d brought it on themselves or not, was to be left in unsustainable debt and everlasting slavery. Grace was built into the economy.
Then every 50 years, everything was to return to how it was when the people entered the land. All the families would return to their portion of Israel. It was a reminder to the nation that the land belonged to God and they only worked it as tenants or stewards, managing it for their landlord, God (Leviticus 25:10-16).
The prophets emphasised the importance of the jubilee in the future God plans for his people (Isaiah 58, 61; Ezekiel 45:7-9; 46:16-18). At the heart of the prophetic critique of the people’s life was the fact that they had neglected justice in the land. For example, Ezekiel 16:48-50 likens Judah to Sodom, a city marked by greed and neglect of the poor; and Isaiah calls the leaders of Judah ‘Sodom’ (1:10) because they have neglected justice (1:17; 3:13-15 and especially 5:1-7).
Much of Jesus’ teaching about money and life in the Kingdom of God is rooted in the jubilee notions of release and restoration – especially his first sermon at Nazareth and the model prayer he taught his disciples with the line ‘forgive us our debts as we have already forgiven our debtors’.
Paul absorbed these radical economic values and they became the bedrock of his understanding of how the Christian community should work. And while he outlines how the principles of mutuality and equality should work within the Christian community, he does so because he believes this to be God’s blueprint for human society everywhere.
It’s interesting that Steve Keen, professor of economics and finance at the university of Western Sydney, has suggested total debt cancellation as a way of getting the global economy out of the mess it’s been pitched into by an over-reliance on debt-financing of everything! He argues that a debt jubilee is politically improbable because it would cause the failure of many banks. But the alternative is a decade of economic stagnation with the poor picking up the tab for the rich world over-dosing on debt.
I can see Paul nodding in the door of his tent…
When Paul talks about the mutualism of the small churches he wrote to, he has in mind the release from oppression at the heart of Old Testament jubilee ideas. In Galatians 2:10, 5:13-14 and 6:7-10 he outlines an ethic based on mutual sharing and seeking the good of others – especially those in the household of faith. In Philippians 2:1-4 he argues that we should seek one another’s interests rather than our own, since through Jesus we have been freed from sin and competition and he offers his own life as an example of being content with our economic circumstances because God will provide all that we need to live in the context of thanking them for sharing economically with him while he was in need (4:10-20).
And in 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 we have an outline of the heart of his thinking about money and mutualism that is based on the key jubilee principles of release and restoration. By the grace of God, the Macedonians have been released from the prevailing greed of the culture, freed to share their surplus with those in need, so that they in turn might have a measure of prosperity restored to them.
And at the heart of this vision is equality. Mutualism – which aims for those in surplus to share with those in need – is based on a fundamental principle that there should be equality between people. He says:
13Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (Ex 16:18)
For Paul the simple principle that everyone should have what they need and share what is left over with those who are in need determines our economic relationships. He was gathering support for believers in Judea because they were hammered by hunger and a crashing economy.
His model is that everyone should work to have something to share. So when he writes to a small group of believers in Thessalonica, he urges them to work with their hands rather than be dependent on hand-outs from wealthy patrons, so that they will have something to share. Indeed, his aim appears to be that everyone would want to be a benefactor, using their surplus for the good of those who were in need around them.
Paul’s economics are probably not directly transferable from his world to ours. But his was a world where government was weak and a wealthy minority called the shots; his was a world where the have-nots were hung out to dry by those who amassed wealth for themselves; and his was a world where the poor were squeezed by rising prices, high taxes and a lack of opportunity.
So perhaps his economic principles of mutualism and equality have something to say to our world. Perhaps he’d have spoken about this as he sat outside his tent in Paternoster Square.
Comments very welcome...