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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: why they are marks of the church, and how we can practice these values in our congregations and mid councils

Economics can be an important component of a church’s faithful witness

by the Rev. Samuel Son for Presbyterians Today | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Torfiqu Barbhuiya via Unsplash

This article, which first appeared here, is a continuing series on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Church. In the first and second article, we recalled how the values practiced intuitively in the early church were a response to their understanding that Jesus proved himself God’s anointed through the resurrection. This article argues for the importance of economics to the church’s faithful witness to Jesus’ resurrection.

When we read about the first band of Christ followers selling their possessions and “distributing the proceeds to all, as they had need,” (Acts 2:45), we clap our hands, lauding such noble sacrifice, but snicker under our breath, whispering, “Now that’s a bit too much!” We eye their sudden dispossession as fanatical, what uncouth cults do: they sell everything and go up to the mountains because they are cocksure of Jesus’ return date and time. We have (and have had) many Christian-freaks/fringes who abandoned human society to welcome the end of the world, only to return poorer. Here we are, 2,000 years later, and the human society is still humming, and money still matters, so let’s live out our faith in “decency and order.”

The early church’s dispossession only makes sense, we reason, if they believed in the imminent end of the world because in the apocalypse, money is as valuable as a toilet paper. The early church got a lot of things right, but dispossession is not an imitable plan of action. We are good with breaking bread and making sure no one is left out of the dinner invitation. But opting out of the economic system on a belief that Jesus is returning and going to blow up the whole global economic system doesn’t sound reasonable or Christian.

It is one way of dismissing their actions. But they weren’t motivated by the imminent end of the world. They had a contemporary Jewish movement who prepared for the end by not just dispossession but by leaving it all. The Essenes left land and money and went to the mountains to wait for the great washing of the world. The early church, however, didn’t follow their lead and leave the “unrighteous” society. They embedded themselves even more. They radically sold their possessions, but they also totally assimilated and prayed at the temple.

The disciples weren’t waiting for the end of the world because they were already living in the end of the world, the end of the worldly reign. In a previous post, I argued that the end of the days started with Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus’ return is simply the official coronation. Jesus was firmly ruling, and it was this reality that led this Jesus-community to create a different economic system aligning with Jesus’ new policy of equity. In those ancient Middle Eastern days, when a new ruler sat upon the throne, one of the kicks of being an emperor was you get to have your “photoshopped” profile stamped on coins (having time count from your reign was also another cool benefit). As Emperor, not only did you change the tax code, you also got to change the currency with which your subjects paid your tax. So, like other emperors, with Jesus’ rule, economics changed. The disciples were not dispossessing their lands out of fanaticism. They were taking the most reasonable actions to live by the new ruler of the Earth.

With Jesus as Lord, the old economic system based on hierarchy and oppression simply wasn’t tenable. The early church saw that possession isolated, ruined mutuality and distorted one’s view of self, others and moral responsibility. It created power dynamics that made any attempts at mutuality a farce. With the proceeds of possession in one shared account that belonged to no single individual, they were wrestling with the root of hierarchy.

And when the proceeds were shared according to needs, the situation of need (or abundance) was no longer tagged to the value of a person. Receiving was no longer a matter of deserving. And to be in need wasn’t judged as a curse from God or individual deficiency, but temporary impact of the many shifting fates of life. Removing “deserving” out of the equation was another way to protect the value of a human person out of the whims of an economic system. The early church’s economic practice, much like the preaching, baptizing, and breaking bread, are the regular practices of the people of resurrection.

The Rev. Samuel Son, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s manager of Diversity and Reconciliation, preached during Synod School put on by the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. (Screenshot)

I don’t think that today’s church works on economic equity in the same way the early church did. We live in a different economic system — a more complex one for sure — so it calls for different and variety of responses, for imagination. But that commitment to economic equity must be equally strong because we still live in the same end of the days, the rule of the resurrected Jesus.

Below are some ways we can seek more equitable economic practices:

  • Capitalism is not God’s economics, and socialism is not from the devil. But socialism and communism are not God’s economics either. Kin-dom economics is not so much a single economic system, but how love and mutuality are core values that challenge and reform the current economic system we live so it can produce equity for all people. As churches in America, our prophetic and pastoral call is to the system we live in, capitalism. We must confess the truth of the history of American capitalism and how it grew in the stealing of labor and land from people of color.
  • Read Dr. Jonathan Tran’s “Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism” to see how racism, and its various forms of oppression like slavery, is a product of and service to capitalism. If we are to dismantle racism, we must deal with the inequitable processes and the inequitable outcomes of capitalism.
  • Read “Decolonizing Wealth” by Edgar Villanueva. It shows how our current economic system formalized and normalized “colonizing tactics of division, control, and exploitation” (page 42). Villanueva offers wisdom from his Native heritage to shift our economics towards connection, relationships, and belongings.
  • While large systemic changes are part of the solution, attempting to change large, complex systems can demoralize and demobilize us. Instead, think of local and regional economic systems. This is the model the early church offers us. They didn’t take on the Empire from Herod’s palace or Caesar’s Palace. They started with their own possessions. What economic decisions are being made in local zoning? School board? Homeowners’ associations?
  • There’s a lot of power/resources in presbyteries and synods. Enormous shifts can happen simply by how the congregations already living in community (our mid councils) design the allocation of resources. For example, the massive gap between churches’ budgets, and among pastors’ salaries within any of our presbyteries. That gap is a product of a long historical, racist and colonial economics. Is there a more equitable way to “dispossess” of these gaps, and share that as there’s need? Can we start with the equity of the pastor’s salary? Of course we can. If we are committed to it by faith and love, then we have enough “imagination” in our mid councils to find our way to it.
  • Join and learn from Restorative Actions, which is “an economic equity initiative born from the intersection of theology, justice and economics. It allows U.S. Americans who benefit from institutional racism to provide a credible witness for justice by surrendering ill-gotten gains toward the establishment of just relationships with our Afro-American & Indigenous communities.”
  • What are some radical, innovative and simple ways you and your congregations are dispossessing and sharing?

The Rev. Samuel Son is manager of diversity and reconciliation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency. 

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