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An economic system nesting in God’s household

Examining the underpinnings of systemic poverty focus of new Matthew 25 webinars

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — The presenter during Monday’s first of four webinars on the Matthew 25 focus of eradicating systemic poverty framed the road ahead with this question: How can we work together with others to bring the United States and the larger global economy more in line with our theological commitments?

The economy “is about more than money, math and markets,” said Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, professor and chair of Theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. “Statistics don’t tell stories.”

In fact, the Greek root of the word economics is “oikos,” meaning “household.” In the Bible, Hinson-Hasty said, “money and markets exist within the sphere of God’s reign. How do we provision for life in God’s household so everyone can flourish?”

With nearly 100 people in attendance, Monday’s webinar was the first of four to examine this focus of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Matthew 25 invitation. A previous series delved into dismantling structural racism. Stony Point Center and Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary developed the webinars along with the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty. (Photo courtesy of Bellarmine University)

Hinson-Hasty asked participants to situate their conversation on eradicating systemic poverty “in the experience of the most vulnerable, and to take seriously the conversation as informed by the world’s great faith traditions.” In biblical times, she pointed out, nearly everybody struggled for land, food and housing.

Participants were asked to read the Accra Confession ahead of Monday’s webinar. “This is a global system that defends and protects the interests of the powerful,” states the confession, adopted by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (now the World Communion of Reformed Churches) in 2004. “It affects and captivates us all. Further, in biblical terms such a system of wealth accumulation at the expense of the poor is seen as unfaithful to God and responsible for preventable human suffering and is called Mammon. Jesus has told us that we cannot serve both God and Mammon (Luke 16:13).”

The dominant form of wealth creation today, Hinson-Hasty said, is neoliberalism, the modern-day resurgence of 19th century ideas associated with economic liberalism and free-market capitalism.

The Accra Confession points out the core beliefs of proponents of neoliberalism, including the ownership of private property with no social obligation, capital speculation, the deregulation of the market, lower taxes on the wealthy and, to Hinson-Hasty, what’s most alarming about the philosophy: the disinvestment in institutions of public education.

The good news in all this, she said, is there are alternatives. Eco-centric and theocentric visions of the economy keep six fundamental social values at the center: reciprocity, cooperation and collaboration, interdependence, accountability to the commons, sustainability, and the inclusion of diverse peoples and experiences.

Earlier in the webinar, the Rev. Nicholas A. Johnson, pastor of Raritan Valley Baptist Church in Edison, New Jersey, led participants in a Bible study focused on Luke’s gospel. His talk, “Making it Plain and Leveling the Plane,” was based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, recorded in Luke 6:20-36.

the Rev. Nicholas A. Johnson (Photo courtesy of Raritan Valley Baptist Church)

“I want us to expand how we understand salvation, justice and righteousness,” Johnson said. “We often spiritualize these concepts and words of Jesus. Luke is talking about real and physical transformation.”

Many Christians, Johnson noted, are more familiar with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew 5-7. “In Luke, there’s a shift in who is blessed. We probably wouldn’t call the poor and hungry blessed, but Jesus has a shift: those who are hungry now will be filled,” Johnson said. “It’s easy for us to gloss over some of these teachings of Jesus.”

The word translated “woe” in Luke’s gospel “is not merely a word of condemnation and damnation,” Johnson said, “but of grief and lament.”

Jesus is asking his disciples for an ethic “that calls forth a different way,” Johnson said, one that involves loving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, lending without expectation of return (“That doesn’t make capitalistic sense,” Johnson noted) and being merciful. “They are not merely spiritual practices,” he said, “but have direct implications for socio-economic lifestyles.”

“We have to ask ourselves hard questions when we confront these direct words of Jesus,” he said. “How do we follow faithfully in the way of Christ, who asks for a commitment?”

The Rev. Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, drew the two-hour webinar to a close with a prayer that included this request of the Almighty: “Bless us with restful sleep — but agitate us tomorrow so we can make wrong things right, standing on the incredible teaching, faithfulness, stewardship and example of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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