Think about the activities you've engaged in this past week. Everything you did. How much of it involved economic transactions? If you think about it, even if money didn't change hands in the moment, a great many things we do in any given day are economic in nature or depend upon economic activity in order to occur. It is the result of the simple fact that in any complex society, no one can directly provide everything they need for themselves. We need other humans to work for us. This then requires exchanges to take place. These exchanges occur on a spectrum between being voluntary and involuntary. Because of the need for economic exchange for survival, there is tremendous opportunity for exploitation in this realm. Especially in the 21st century, the sphere of economic activity has become so extensive that it is easy for that exploitation to go unnoticed.
When such exploitation gets noticed our tendency is to remove it from the sphere of our responsibility. We, in effect, ask "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus answered that question by describing one who loves others without asking whether he ought to (and at financial cost to him). So in a global economy where we are all ultimately connected in a (seemingly) never-ending web of economic interactions, how far does our responsibility reach? Oftentimes as believers in a Western evangelical tradition, we approach our faith with an individual mindset. God loves me and sent Jesus to die for me and I believe in him and His Spirit lives in me so that I can obey Him and I will go to heaven when I die. In the realm of the stewardship of our finances, this individual focus can result in thinking that the only responsibilities we have are how we budget our money and to be honest in the transactions we are a direct party to. Scripture, however, always pushes us to broaden the scope of our sense of responsibility.
This is where balance becomes tricky. On the one hand, deep down, we know that ignoring the plight of oppressed people in the developing world (or downtown) is out of step with the heartbeat of Jesus. When we become aware of how many slaves there are in the world (45 Million at last count), the Spirit within us should be grieved. On the other hand, we can be overwhelmed when our sense of responsibility and our sense of impotence collide. What can we do about it? What should we be expected to do about it? Are we really accountable for the plight of those millions?
Recently I have been reading the prophets and I started doing some digging that led to a disturbing revelation. This issue of economic justice is often at the center of the prophetic message to Israel. Consider Isaiah 58 for instance. God rebukes Israel for its fasting in which it seeks to draw near to Him because "in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers." (Is. 58:3) The rest of the chapter calls on them to correct economic oppression as a "true fast". Chapter 59 continues the theme and pictures God strapping on his armor to go out and work deliverance for the oppressed since His people will not.
Ezekiel's famous reflection on individual accountability to God in chapter 18 (phrased as "the soul that sins) offers another insight into how central this concern was. In cataloguing the sins for which a soul would die, a series of lists are presented of righteous deeds and transgressions. By my count, 2 items pertinent to outright violence, 4 pertain to sexual transgressions, 7 pertain to idolatry and 23 pertain to economic injustice. Not only is that a striking disparity, it is the reverse of how we usually construct our sliding scales of sins. Among the 23 items in that category of economic justice are the following: oppression, extortion, retaining a pledge, robbery, withholding food and clothes from the needy, and perhaps most sobering for us in a capitalist culture, lending at interest and taking profit. Is it possible we've missed something crucial in our approach to sin and righteousness?
Jesus would seem to indicate that that is possible. When I was preparing to preach on his clearing of the temple in Mark 11, I studied the verse he quotes from Jeremiah 7:11 about the temple being a "den of robbers" (referring not to outright theft but to the economic exploitation both within the temple and by the religious leaders in their positions of power). The startling fact came to light that a den is where robbers go for shelter after they have robbed. This is in fact what Jeremiah says. In verses 5-7 Jeremiah catalogues Israel's sins which include oppressing the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. He casts those in the same light as idolatry and murder. It raises the concern that it is possible for us to engage in sincere worship and spirituality and be guilty of robbery through economic oppression.
If our calling as disciples is to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, then certainly our economic activity is included. Furthermore, if our calling as disciples is to also love our neighbor as ourselves then certainly, we must be attentive to how our purchasing decisions impact all of our neighbors as much as possible. Someone recently summed up this calling by saying that we must seek to carry out "everyday, just, right decisions." We may not be able to end every economic injustice singlehandedly, but we can be more vigilant to seek to ensure that our purchases are not offending our God by supporting oppression and economic injustice against our neighbors.