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:: By Lydialyle Gibson

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Investigations ::

God’s economy

After the Twin Towers fell, theologian Kathryn Tanner decided to revise her personal reading list. It seemed like a good idea, she says, to “have a global sense of economics. A lot of what’s going on in the world has to do with money and resources.” She boned up on free markets, international investment, global monetary policy, and third-world debt. Refreshing her knowledge of heavyweights John Maynard Keynes and Adam Smith, she also studied contemporary globalization theories by economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, and Robert Gilpin. She digested stacks of data from United Nations Development Programme reports. “I was looking for principles of economic exchange that could be brought into conversation with principles of the Christian story,” she says. “I wanted to expand the horizons” of today’s global capitalism.

An accountant’s daughter and the Divinity School’s Dorothy Grant Maclear professor of theology, Tanner has long sought to connect this world with the next. Her books examine the practical weight of Christian thought and belief in culture, social justice, and politics. Theology bears an obligation to wider society, she says. “It’s not just an intellectual exercise; theology engages with broad issues on the ground.” Published last December, Economy of Grace (Fortress Press) makes the case for an alternate system of producing and distributing goods and wealth. Tanner calls, in short, for an economy modeled on God’s allocation of grace—His favor, forgiveness, salvation, and rescue from sin—in which giving is unconditional and universal, and competition does not exist. It’s not as much of a stretch as one might think, she argues. “This is not a utopian vision.”

Instead, Economy of Grace offers a manual for specific, concrete “theological intervention.” Arguing for more generous welfare, for example, Tanner suggests that such a government safety net would allow for greater worker flexibility and encourage employee retraining in a world of shifting skills and demands. Less hardship would lead to more social stability. Rebuffing as a “dubious” assumption the idea that guaranteed handouts drive down worker productivity, Tanner offers the example of Scandinavia, where comprehensive welfare has not led to higher unemployment or job-vacancy rates.

Similarly, Tanner criticizes the restrictions that developed countries impose on the loans they offer third-world nations. Tariffs and domestic subsidies for raw materials and food—which constitute the sum total of what many poor countries have to sell—lower the value of these commodities overseas. Even as prices fall, though, developing countries have no choice but to glut the market, Tanner writes, “because of their desperate need for foreign currency to pay back international loans.” Richer nations further deplete third-world economies by raising tariffs on goods that have been processed more and tightening their property rights on technological advances. Both actions, along with capital flight from poor countries, make it harder for small economies to diversify.

“Global capitalism is a system in which only a small minority of the world’s population has the highest standard of living,” Tanner says. “One can argue that profit is generated off the backs of people who are not profiting from the system.” Outsourced labor is cheap, and inexpensive imports are made by people who could not afford to buy them. In the end, she says, the long-term effect of depressed demand worldwide might be stagnated growth and profit generation. As she writes in Economy of Grace, Henry Ford was wise enough not to pay auto workers so little they could not buy a car. Instead of tariffs, why not an international movement to raise third-world wages?

Tanner also would like to see an end to unrestricted financial markets, along with bridge tolls and fees for incoming cell-phone calls. Companies that benefit at the expense of others, by depleting or polluting common resources, ought to pay higher taxes, she argues, noting that the attendant jump in price might lower public demand or lead to changes in production methods. “The idea is not to get rid of capitalism,” she says. “But with the decline of the Soviet Union and China’s movement toward capitalism, there doesn’t seem to be any option beyond the capitalist system as it presently exists.” Tanner points the way to a few alternatives, and her recommendations echo those of prominent economists like Stiglitz and Sachs. “I’m not making things up out of whole cloth.”

Although rooted firmly in Christianity, Tanner’s arguments also endeavor to appeal to non-Christians. Most religions promote similar principles, she says, when it comes to wealth and poverty. So does secular humanism. “Even if you have no religious commitments at all, the underlying values here are pretty universal. I just happen to come at them from a Christian theological perspective.”

Looking at the broad history of biblical thought, she lays out the economy inherent in the creation story and in God’s relationship to humanity. “God distributes goods to human beings on what principles?” she asks. “Life and material well-being. You might say grace is distributed to human beings apart from merit.” God gives salvation ceaselessly, expecting nothing in return and exacting no punishment if grace is unused or misused. Human sin, not heavenly whim, Tanner says, disrupts the flow of godly goods. If people dealt with each other the way God does, grace—and wealth—would abound. “In noncompetitive relationships, everybody benefits from the same good at the same time,” Tanner says. “Fulfillment is mutual and universal.” The theological economy requires no saints, only ordinary, earthly reform.