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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Should This Economy Recover?

At a meeting I attended over a year ago on coping with the recent economic recession, one of the presenters asked, “Which do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad news?”

We all wanted the good news, which went something like this: If we can weather the current crisis, get the right kind of stimulus going and manage to restore consumer confidence, we should eventually see our economy recover and life return to normal.

I had to wonder, though, should we actually welcome the “recovery” of any economy so dependent on overconsumption, waste, and exploitation of the world’s poor? Is that really “good news,” and if so, for whom?

In the apocalyptic book of Revelation, chapters 17-19 introduce us to an image of a luxurious and powerful seductress named “Babylon,” a symbol of economic systems based on greed and oppression. In contrast to the Radiant Woman of Revelation 12, who represents the humble and holy people of God, this Great Prostitute is dressed in the finest purple and scarlet and sits elegantly astride the powerful “Beast” representing the world’s political powers (introduced in chapter 13). All of the nations are in bed with her, since “all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth” (18:19).

When Babylon finally collapses in disgrace, the kings and merchants of the earth “weep and wail” in anguish. They are desperate to have her recover so the status quo disparity between the very rich and the very poor can continue unabated. In the same way, we North Americans want to restore (and grow) our incomes, our institutions, our accustomed ways of life, to the level we’ve come to believe is our birthright.

But the Babylon of Revelation is doomed by God Almighty, is clearly beyond any recovery. And in the Bible, this is hailed as good news. At her demise all heaven breaks loose in outbursts of praise, “Hallelujah! The Lord God Omnipotent reigns!” (19:6).

I’m not suggesting that all of today’s entrepreneurs have sold out to Babylon. There are many business men and women who operate with integrity and who offer invaluable services to their community. They provide decent jobs at fair wages and don’t assume that their managing more capital wealth entitles them to a greater share of consumer wealth. Because they choose to live frugally and share sacrificially, they should be blessed and celebrated as signs of Jesus’ new order.

But to pray for the “recovery” of our current consumer-driven economy is to counter Jesus’ brand of “good news.” In his upside down kingdom, where his words about wealth represent both law and gospel, it is the world’s hungry who are to be filled with good things, and it is the too-well-to-do who are to be left empty-handed. In his new community it is the poor, and "the poor in spirit," who are truly blessed with happiness, whereas the rich (those who claim the right to ever more consumer wealth) are promised only woes.

This means that what is really needed is not a recovery of an old economy, but the restructuring of a new one, first through a radical reordering of our values (what we consider to be true wealth) and then through adopting lifestyles that represent fairness and justice for everyone on the planet.

Our U.S. economic downturn needs to be seen as a gigantic wake up call, reminding us that to continue to live like Babylon--instead of more like Jesus--is not only wrong, it is unsustainable. It would take additional whole planets to provide enough resources (and enough landfill space for our waste and pollution) for all six billion of the world’s people to consume at the rate most of us do who are among the top 5% of its wealthiest inhabitants.

In that light, does the recovery of a Mammon-driven, “trickle-down” global economy represent good news?

No. If it’s not first of all about good news for the poor, it’s not the kind of “recovery” Jesus has in mind.
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