Last March, the online headline in The Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch (03/28/2013) read, “U.S. corporate profits soar in 2012. Workers get little of it.”[i] To quote: “Last year , the profit of corporations rose to 12.4% of gross domestic product – the value of all goods and services produced in the U.S. That . . . marked the highest rate since 1943.” The story goes on to report that U.S. worker productivity continues to climb but worker compensation (as a percentage of GDP) has slipped to the lowest level since 1955.
Investors, including 401k holders and pension funds, may be encouraged but, as optimistic as the profitability numbers might be in the world’s view, getting a 1:8 return falls far short of the thirty, sixty, and hundredfold returns of Jesus’ proclamation about how “investing” in the Kingdom of God would turn out (Parable of the Sower, Matthew 13 and Mark 4).
Some will likely accuse me of applying “spiritual truths” to temporal practicalities but I align myself with John Wesley’s sentiment: “The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.”[ii] Wesley’s statement comes as argument against the isolating practices of desert ascetics but the spirit of what he says applies: the power of the Gospel, especially as Good News to the poor, is released in how we live unto holiness in relations with all those around us, even unto all the world (Mark 16:15) and especially economically.
Of grave concern to all God-followers throughout time has been the misery of the poor. God’s concern for the poor is stated and re-stated throughout the Bible. In fact, the treatment of the poor is one of the greatest tests of true holiness. How we treat the poor, how we combat poverty to alleviate the physical suffering and mental anguish that accompany it, may be the greatest litmus test and witness of the Church in the world today.
So the obvious argument goes that since God is concerned for the plight of the poor (which tends to also encapsulate the widow, the orphan, the lame, the blind, the migrant sojourner, etc.), we too should be concerned for the poor. We take it upon ourselves to do what charitable giving that we can but spend more of our time in prayer for the poor than actually doing them good. We tend to wring our hands and shake our heads in resignation that “the poor shall always be with us” (Matthew 16:11).
It is a challenging contrast to juxtapose Jesus’ words on the ever-present poor to God’s assertion in Deuteronomy 15:4 – “However, there shall be no poor among you, since the LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess.” It appears that Jesus’ words are a reflection of resignation, or perhaps even an indictment of Israel’s failure to follow God, because the promise of Deuteronomy 15:4 rests entirely on the condition given in the very next verse – “if only you listen obediently to the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all this commandment which I am commanding you today.”
We accept the theological truth: God loves all and has special concern for the poor. We nod our assent to the biblical truth: God expects his people to help the poor. But do we understand the temporal truth: the Kingdom was inaugurated on earth in the earthly ministry of Christ and Kingdom advancement is now the responsibility of the Church, convicted, informed, and empowered by the endowment of the Holy Spirit? It is our call to action.
The passage from Deuteronomy above comes as God is explaining his rule over Israel and how they will fare as they adhere to his commands and guidance in the land of promise. The promised land was a foreshadowing of the Kingdom now (actively) coming. Sound eschatology (the study of the last things) leads us to believe that God is working in, through, and around us to bring about his universal rule on earth as it is in heaven according to Jesus’ prayer (Matthew 6:10). History bears out the testimony of the civilizing influence of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Modern scientism, public healthcare, liberal (in the classic sense) governance and economic policy, reductions of war, public education, and much, much more owe a great deal of their advancement to the influence of Christ in the world over the past two thousand years.
While we may not see the world being changed, it is more due to our shortsightedness than it is to it being not true. God is at work, reaching out to all nations, changing hearts by the invitation of the Gospel to follow Jesus, influencing the spheres of individual influence toward greater peace and prosperity for all, toward the ultimate shalom of the Kingdom. The world is being reformed, being consumed in almost indiscernible increments, by the holy fire of God’s presence. The day is coming, upon Christ’s return, that that Kingdom shall culminate under his rule, but the work toward that culmination is being carried forward in our own day.
There has been a movement in recent history concerned with the reclamation and reformation of the seven mountains of human culture – family, religion (or, ideology), government, education, arts and entertainment, media, and business. The point of our focus here is on the last: God’s movement in the marketplace.
In previous writings, I have identified twelve dominant models of marketplace ministries, not the least of which is the business-as-mission (BAM) movement. Under the BAM umbrella is to be found hundreds, if not now tens of thousands, of initiatives undertaken by mission agencies, development corporations, and churches seeking to stimulate small business and job creation in impoverished urban and rural communities domestically and abroad. These efforts include those aimed at helping the poorest classes through the creation of micro-lending institutions and opportunities. Often the investment necessary to stabilize the daily sustenance of poor proprietors and their households is almost laughably small by what most of us would consider startup costs of a new business.
But, as mentioned above, while we have the theological and biblical truths to agree with, there is an argument to be made that might even sway the world to the practicalities of following God’s lead leading the Church: the thirty, sixty, and hundredfold return.
The world (and even some Christian financial counselors) see a consistent financial return of twelve percent as good enough. But that involves a fear-based strategy of creating our own safety nets. Jesus warns rather strongly that our worldly safety nets are not safe at all. The first warning comes in his admonition against laying up treasures in earthly things, preferring that we invest ourselves and our riches toward Kingdom building (Matthew 6:19-21). The other is when he teaches about the rich man planning to build bigger barns to contain his wealth while not realizing that his soul will be demanded of him by God that very night (Luke 12:16-20).
Our financial “safety,” wrapped up in so many material things, even leads some of us to live behind heavy locks on our doors, in gated communities, and under the watchful eye of home security systems. But our material wealth, extending to our stock portfolios, will not protect us when our Lord calls us home. How we have invested ourselves and our wealth will be of far greater importance than we might suspect when the time comes to review our lives before the judgment seat of God.
The lever is considered one of the six simplest machines in human experience. The language of leverage, the means by which we increase power by the use of an intervening tool, is common in the marketplace today. The lever increases the potential of whatever power is applied to it.
In business, capital is the lever to unleashing the productive potential of the labor (physical strength and endurance) and ideas (mental acuity) of humankind. The leverage of capital invested in conventional strategies in developed economies is not yet completely tapped but the reduction from a hundredfold return (Kingdom principle) to an 1:8 ratio (12.5% market reality) should make Christians rethink how we are living financially in God’s Kingdom now.
The key to Kingdom investing is potential. Global productivity hinges on the output of highly developed economies – the United States, Europe, and Japan, as mainstays in productivity and size. Removing those three from the global picture, which represents about one eighth of the global population, reduces global per capita output to about one eighth of the standard in those developed economies. That is, workers outside those three produce at one eighth the level of U.S. workers.
If American, European, and Japanese workers can produce at the purchase parity power (PPP) standard of more than $50,000 annually, the other seven eights of the world’s population represents a quadrupling increase of global GDP if raised to the same productivity level. The last twenty years, through the far reaching consequences of globalizing business, have seen the greatest reduction of global poverty in human history. Imagine if global GDP, now about $82 trillion, grew to more than $300 trillion. That’s potential.
Put another way, think of capital as the heat under a boiler. Water tends to be inert unless acted upon by an outside force – heat, gravity, pressure, etc. If capital is invested in the poor, the upside of output is far greater than trading stocks on the future profitability of blue chip securities and government bonds. All GDP, ultimately, is labor. Unleashing the potential of idle labor requires capital. But it is more than dollars and cents, it is intellectual capital as well. By applying our financial resources as well as our intelligence, gleaned from decades of best-practices development, the plight of the poor may be ameliorated through growth economics at increasing speed.
What will it take for the Church to act? First comes self-denial. Western Christians are far too comfortable with the amenities of their comfortable lives. Many have surpassed necessity and now live lives of self-indulgence – luxury automobiles, fine dining, expensive entertainments, homes with the gadgets and expensive finishes, multiple home ownership, golf club memberships, luxuriant vacations, and the list goes on and on. Self-denial is repentance, turning away from ensuring one’s own comfort and ease and turning to consideration of the plight of the poor.
Second, the Church needs vision. According to Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained (or perish materially and / or spiritually), But happy is he who keeps the law.” The Law was the condition of Israel’s prosperity, of its shalom, a word connoting communal well-being. The Law is the promise of the absence of poverty in the Deuteronomy passage cited above. Jesus fulfills the Law by truly changing the hearts of those seeking to be obedient to God, those willing, like Jesus, to sacrifice for the sake of those in any and every kind of need – spiritual, mental, physical, and financial.
Investment in the poor is Gospel testimony, that is, by our good works, we reveal the glory of God – our good works are the shining light of our witness (Matthew 5:16). Charity has its place when needs can be met no other way. But our allegiance to and fellowship with the poor need to go beyond bread for a day to means for a lifetime. The old adage about teaching a man to fish has been updated. Knowing how to fish is insufficient if there is no access to a pond or the fisherman has no gear.
The success of microlending agencies has been hit and miss thus far but those agencies are maturing. The strategies they employ can be adapted to larger scale enterprises working with thousands, or even millions, of would-be entrepreneurs throughout the world who lack both intellectual and financial capital. The rich do not have a corner on the cumulative cleverness of humankind to make a better way of life for themselves and their families. But, as recent trends in wealth accumulation make clear, the rich are increasingly controlling (even hindering) the potential of global workers by acting as an economic oligarchy, making product and service availability decisions for the masses. Mega-corporations actual hinder and restrict human choice by dominating market strategies rather than encouraging the flourishing of innovation at the lowest levels where creative destruction sorts the bad from the good and the good from the better and best.
The Church has a great opportunity to demonstrate its presence and power in the world by living into the wisdom of God’s nature, character, and will. The abundance of the Garden of Eden, the original plan for human prosperity, is overshadowed by the staggering wealth of the New Jerusalem (a city built of precious jewels and gold). God created humankind to flourish, to prosper spiritually and materially. But those two, true spiritual and material prosperity, only occur in league and for only one purpose: glorifying witness to the goodness of God. If we Christians can get our economics right, coming alongside the poor and releasing their potential, investing ourselves and every form of capital in them, living with them as a true covenant community, the world will take notice of God’s people as a wise and understanding people with God in our midst (Deuteronomy 4:6), and his kindness will draw them unto repentance (Romans 2:4).
But if we deny God’s leading in ministering to the poor, specifically as a means of confessing witness that we believe the promises and obey the commands of God, denying Truth [the Sprit of Christ manifest] before men, we shall find ourselves denied before his throne (Matthew 10:33).
Love acts and it always acts according to love. There is no love at all without action (James 2:14-16), only a false religion devoid of meaning and power (2 Timothy 3:5).
[ii] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley Volume XIV p321 preface to poetical works; Hendrickson Publishers.