We live in a capitalist economy, based on exchange of goods and services using the medium of money. When we buy or sell something, we make an agreed exchange of value. In theory nobody wins and nobody loses, but in practise the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Is there an alternative?
If we all valued other people as much as we value ourselves, a culture of giving could create a different sort of economy. An economy based on ‘loving our neighbour as ourselves’; where as we look after the interests of others, we can feel secure in the knowledge that others are looking after our interests. I know that this seems idealistic, but bear with me as we explore the matter further.
Bartering and money
Bartering has been around for thousands of years. It is generally fair to both parties, with comparatively little opportunity for one side to exploit the other. If I were a shepherd I might exchange a lamb for a sack of grain. The deal wouldn’t go through unless I and the farmer were happy with the arrangement. As civilisation advanced, bartering became too complicated and money was invented.
Historically, money had no real value in itself, and required some sort of authority to issue coins and eventually banknotes, and guarantee their value. Why would you exchange a sack of grain for a pile of coins unless you were sure that the coins represented value? The possibility of fraud, theft and exploitation greatly increased with the development of a cash economy.
Exploitation and Money
Money produces many ways that the powerful or the clever can exploit others. A group of land-owners can conspire together to pay workers the absolute minimum that they need to sustain life. A government that favours the rich in society can pass laws which institutionalise the status quo and enable the rich to become richer and the poor to become poorer.
An economy based on exchanging goods and services for cash does not create a fair society. When exchange by bartering was the norm, there was a limit to how much one man could accumulate. Now, with money held mostly in electronic form, it is possible for a person to accumulate vast fortunes at the expense of those who made that wealth possible.
I am quite happy with the principle that a hard worker deserves more reward than someone who is lazy. But do you really expect me to believe that an executive in an office is worth millions of times more than a subsistence farmer working 15 hours a day to support his or her family?
A political solution?
I am not idealistic enough to believe that there is a political answer to abuses in the exchange economy. Karl Marx was aware of the problem, but communism has failed miserably; it just replaced one elite with another elite and caused immense misery and death to millions. Now, in former communist countries the super-rich exercise enormous power over ordinary people in a way that is the envy of billionaires from countries with a more democratic history.
Socialism has not produced much better results. In Britain the early Trades Union Movement was beset with implacable opposition and met with violence from the authorities. But they did produce better working conditions for millions until they became powerful and their dominance taken away by successive governments. Today, zero-hour contracts and minimum wages which are insufficient for families to live on, have once again widened the difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and increased relative poverty.
The best a political system can do is to pass, and enforce, laws which stop un-bridled capitalism from concentrating money, resources and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people leaving the vast majority of people living at substance level.
Without restraining laws there is nothing to stop
one person eventually ‘owning’ the entire resources of our planet.
So, is there a better way? There is, but people need to change before is becomes the universal norm. The answer is for everyone to give whenever they see a need, if it is in their power to do so. If you need grain, and I have a sack of grain then I could freely give you some of mine, without expecting something in return. When I need someone to fix my plumbing, wouldn’t it be great if someone with that skill would say, “Hey, I could put a new washer in that tap for you”?
I know that this seems extremely idealistic, but we could certainly move towards it by practising it in our own lives. Giving is infectious. If we learn to receive as well as to give, a culture of giving could become viral, and multiply beyond our expectations. This is what Jesus meant when he said we should pray:
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10 NIV)
Giving in a family
If a culture of giving sounds impractical, consider how it works in a family. I have worked for many years to provide financially for my wife and children. My wife contributed financially for some of those years, but also gave of herself to making a home, and to bringing up the children. We do not try to measure or compare one another’s contribution to the family. We do not have a ledger to measure financial giving, or a diary to measure time given to the family unit.
We do not have a set of accounts which we will face our now grown up children. Our children have absolutely no obligation to repay a single penny, or a single minute of our time. It may be, as age takes its toll, that the day will come when we have needs which they can meet, but there is no commitment for them to do so, and that is not the reason we gave freely to them. And, who knows; when we have finished on this earth, there maybe an inheritance for them.
I say all this, not pretending that we are any better than anyone else. Indeed the same story is repeated billions of times, now, and through history! It’s all about love. Love that is God-given and perfectly natural in a family situation.
Love your neighbour as yourself
Jesus taught us to extend the love we have for our families to anyone we meet on life’s road. In the story Jesus told, when the Samaritan came across an injured man on the road to Jericho, he had compassion for him and that compassion demanded action. The man had been robbed, wounded and left for dead. The Samaritan did not just show sympathy, he bandaged his wounds, put him on his own donkey (which meant he had to walk), found accommodation for him and looked after the man’s future financial needs. He gave of his resources, gave his time, gave up his comfort, and gave financially. (Luke 10:25-37)
Love involves giving. Not just giving money, but giving time, resources, emotional and spiritual support; giving ourselves. Who is the neighbour we are encouraged to love? Jesus told us plainly that it is anyone we come across on life’s journey, even if from another culture. In today’s global village, where we are made very aware of suffering around the world, it may include people we have never met, living thousands of miles away, from a very different culture.
Imagine a world where we all looked after each others interests, with no regard for culture, race or geography. A world where the economy didn’t depend on our ability to pay, but where resources were shared according to need. A world where the rich and powerful did not exploit the vulnerable and powerless. Idealistic?
This world exists in the future. It is not tomorrow, next year and probably not in my lifetime, but it is the world envisioned by Jesus, when he said, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. This world we imagine is a world run according to the will of God, and according to his nature, which is pure love. Moses and the prophets got a glimpse of it. Jesus saw it, and the amazing thing is that I, as a follower of Jesus, can see it too.
The future starts now!
But this world I imagine is not just a future hope. It can be real right now, as people extend love for the family to love for the community. As we give of our money, time and resources to the community in which we live, we are bringing this ‘kingdom’ nearer. As we regularly support a girl in a far-off country, enabling her to be educated and fulfil her potential, we are doing what our Father in heaven wants, and enabling, “your will to be done on earth”.
I don’t know about you, but I am not content to sit back and wait for that kingdom, which Jesus said so much about. We have done that for 2000 years! Let us be ready to give. Let us be followers of Jesus Christ, not just Christians. Let us put religion aside, take the words of Jesus seriously, and impact the world with compassion, love and a culture of giving!