A Prophetic Pandemic?

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

In an article for the Canadian Council of Churches, I suggested this pandemic is an opportunity to reflect on God’s call for justice. I wrote that the public discussions seem to “pit public health against economic concerns. … While I understand that there are complex ramifications to businesses being closed long-term, it seems as though our worship of the almighty dollar has been revealed.”

Permit me to elaborate.

God loves justice (Isaiah 61:8), and prophetic voices call attention to political and economic injustices. Within our own Reformed tradition, Abraham Kuyper issued scathing critiques of Christians entrapped by political or economic ideology instead of a passionate pursuit of social justice.

In 1891 Kuyper condemned the growing gap between rich and poor. He called for Christians to recognize how their myopic desire for a growing economy was contributing to deepening poverty and alienation.

Kuyper wasn’t animated by politics or economics. He wasn’t conservative or liberal. He sought greater faithfulness to the gospel’s comprehensiveness. He knew that Christians adopting the same political or economic visions as everyone else would produce injustice. He warned that “if social developments continue to follow the present course, life on earth will become less and less a heaven and more and more a hell. Our society is losing touch with Christ; it lies in the dust bowed down before Mammon.”

This deep alienation between the rich who are getting richer and the poor who are getting poorer continues today in North America. Employers maximize profits by minimizing compensation; workers settle for low-paying jobs out of fear of unemployment. The injustice continues.

Now we’re in a global pandemic. But eyes and ears tuned to the gospel, recognize this pandemic as an opportunity to hear God’s call for justice. The need has become painfully obvious: truck drivers, personal support workers, migrant farmhands, and grocery store clerks are now widely recognized as our most essential workers. They keep us from literally starving to death while we’re isolated at home – often at great personal risk.

But our economics and politics don’t reflect this. We fret and worry about getting the economy re-opened while a biblical imagination recognizes that we may not want to return to “normal” because it would only perpetuate the inequality that’s rooted in our society’s economic and political assumptions and commitments apart from the gospel.

Faithfulness means transposing our worry and fretting into prayer, meditation, and action for how we participate in society. We must exchange our blind acceptance of devotion to Mammon for caring service for even the vulnerable. We say all people bear the image of God. This pandemic offers us a unique moment to mean it. But how can we if we’re drunk on otherworldly piety and moralistic spirituality that ignore the consequences for our neighbours?

We do need to have the important conversations about community health and economic sustainability. But rather than intoxicating ourselves with political or economic ideology, of either the right or the left, we need a sober-minded vision of our role as stewards of God’s creation.

Kuyper recognized that the growing gap between rich and poor was “the question, the burning life-question” because “where our Father in heaven wills with divine generosity that an abundance of food grows from the ground, we are without excuse if, through our fault, this rich bounty is divided so unequally that one is surfeited with bread while another goes with an empty stomach to his pallet, and sometimes must even go without a pallet.”

The most important theological reminder these days might just be that we worship God precisely by being our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.

About the Author

Mike Wagenman is the Christian Reformed campus minister and professor of theology at Western University in London, Ont., and part-time New Testament instructor at Redeemer University College. He attends Forest City Community Church.

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Comments

I disagree that wanting the "economy re-opened" (that is, relieved from mandates to shut down) "reveal" the "worship of the almighty dollar."  I have quite a number of clients, and other non-client acquaintances, whose (small) businesses have been damaged greatly by by the economic "shut down."  And in every case, I would be hard pressed, even slanderous, were I to suggest that their "worship of the almighty dollar has been revealed."

Those whose businesses have been shut down are largely people who are 30's to middle aged or older, who have worked very hard to get to where they are, are middle class (economically speaking), and owners of businesses that pay for their family's living, pay for their children's expenses and education (including paying the college tuition that in turn pays the salary of this author), and pay for the living of a variety of employees of varying ages and circumstances and their families.  

I understand that one can and some do "worship of the almighty dollar," but for the most part, the folks most economically hurt by the COVID-19 shutdowns are not those worshippers.  Rather, they provide income for their own families and others' families, not to mention to contribute to local churches, to local schools, to local Little Leagues, and other community causes. 

In other words, this article presents rather condeming but inaccurate caricature of the those who want and need the economy to "open up" again for some very good reasons that don't include their sinful "worship of the almighty dollar."

Contrary to this author, I think it is good to "fret and worry about getting the economy re-opened" for the simple reason that a continued shut down of the economy is as damaging to everyone, and especially to many of the economic middle class, as COVID-19 is.

I'm just fine with the economy "return[ing] to 'normal'."  A continuation of economic shut down will do little more than increase the gap between the rich and the poor that this author bemoans.  Walmart and Amazon owners will be just fine during this shutdown -- it's the many local shops down the street from me will die, and their owners and their employees that will move downward from the "middle class."

I would concur with Doug's observations.

Many of today's discussion's of social justice in the church, and without, are ideologically driven by those who are economically in a position to avoid sacrificing what the poor find it difficult to access, i.e. jobs, housing, financial security, education, etc. As COVID-19 slows down, the poor will probably have even less access as the economy re-structures to shed businesses and jobs which is occurring at this very moment. 

This is not about the 1%, but a false consciousness on the part of the economically advantaged regarding the real position of the poor.

Thanks for engaging Doug and Lubbert! These are important discussions for us to have. But I don't see how you've heard my point beyond reacting to the first paragraph. This isn't simply about getting the economy going again. It's not about a simplistic right or left political ideology. It's about how our faith in Jesus inspires our work on behalf of those in our society who suffer but who, just like us, bear the image of God. Like Kuyper recognized one hundred years ago, our society is still dominated by a primary concern for money rather than peoples' dignity - and this is seen in both conservative and liberal political camps. The gospel pushes us to transcend this false dilemma with a more radical love.

Hey Mike, thanks for engaging (not common for Banner article authors).  Yes, these are important questions.

To supplement my earlier comment, I had read your article's primary point as suggesting that the tension between 'we need to we reopen businesses for economic reasons' and 'we need to keep businesses closed for health reasons' should be answered with the latter response and if it isn't, then the "worship of the almighty dollar has been revealed."

But I probably differ with you in terms of your seeming, general analysis of the economic questions you maybe also take on in your article, although you take them on rather ambiguously. 

You say, "But our economics and politics don’t reflect this [hearing a call for justice]. We fret and worry about getting the economy re-opened while a biblical imagination recognizes that we may not want to return to “normal” because it would only perpetuate the inequality that’s rooted in our society’s economic and political assumptions and commitments apart from the gospel," and in so doing suggest that our (presumably US/Canada) "normal" political/economic rules are foundationally flawed.  I'm not of that view.  Indeed, I see the US/Canada rules for economic activity as rather just (comparatively) and as having had the result of greatly eliminating poverty and increasing human dignity generally, even recognizing that each person is an image bearer of the Creator.

What are the points of your article that you think I'm "missing" or not responding to?  I'd love to chat about them.  Again, these are important questions.  Indeed, in the US, some want to "transform" the legal system in ways that would move society's economic production to a far more "centrally controlled" system.  Advocates for that say that would be more "just."  I believe they would be less just and much less "productive" (appropriately defined).

Hi Mike...

I think I am responding in part to the way you've framed the discussion. i.e.

1. "our worship of the almighty dollar has been revealed;"

2. "growing economy was contributing to deepening poverty and alienation;" and

3. "may not want to return to “normal” because it would only perpetuate the inequality that’s rooted in our society’s economic and political assumptions and commitments apart from the gospel."

Notwithstanding the fact that poverty has not been completed eraticated in North America, industrial economies and social programs funded by those economies in the 1st, 2nd and even 3rd world have lifted many out of poverty despite ongoing concerns with distribution due to class, power, crime and war.

One only needs to look at a continium of similar economic and political structures in North America and Western Europe to realize countries in these regions have taken different approaches to employment and the distribution of socio-economic resources and benefits. 

I'm not certain that engaging someone who is in need of a job in a time of pandemic that at root of their problem is the "worship of the almighty dollar" helps either in putting food on the table or demonstrating pastoral care. They desperately want "normal." If anything, they will be worried whether their job will be there to go back to, and/or whether the number of jobs will be substantially less forcing them back into jobless poverty.

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