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Methodist Mission & Ecumenical
Occasional Paper No. 45 September 2009 Secretary: John Roberts

Responding to economic recession

In July the Auckland Sea of Faith community held a one day conference on the theme “Responding to recession: facing hard times”. Contributors were: noted local economist Brian Easton; Wellington based Commonsense Organics owner Jim Kebbell; and New Zealand church historian, Allan Davidson.

Brian Easton began his presentation with a quote from St Paul’s first letter to Timothy: “the root of all evil is the love of money”, noting that it isn’t money that is the root of all evil but the love of money. He then stated that most economic theory is built on the premise of an individual’s right to maximise a utility, that is to make a gain from whatever we can possess. The founding father of this view is Jeremy Bentham, a 19th century utilitarian philosopher and social reformer. Utilitarian economics holds that wealth leads to happiness, and the best way to maximise a utility, or increase wealth, is within a market economy. Now for some two hundred years the prevailing utilitarian economic philosophy has been ‘the more we possess the happier we will be’.

Easton went on to share some insights from a local study on incomes and happiness. The conclusion of the study has been that overall any gains in happiness as a result of increased incomes is marginal. He also said that in the latter half of the 20th century in the USA there was no increase in people’s levels of happiness despite a threefold increase in incomes over that time. In terms of GDP per capita there is no evidence that the richer a country is, the happier its citizens are. Although raising the standard of living in the world’s poorest countries does raise happiness levels. On the whole though, increased income doesn’t generate increased happiness. This is a setback to traditional economic thinking that still holds to the view that the more you have the happier you will be.

Easton contends that what a rise in income does is increase a person’s self esteem. More income is reflected in a greater sense of self worth. So the annually published ‘rich list’ is a way for the rich to show off, to make their wealth known. The rich typically acquire ‘positional goods’ such as flasher cars, and grander homes in well heeled localities. This is what sociologists call conspicuous consumption, a modern day version of the love of money. Acquiring positional goods is a way of seeking public esteem: “See how well I’ve done, I’ve got all these possessions to show for it.”

What the pursuit of positional goods does, however, is increase consumption without increasing happiness. For St Paul the answer was to shun riches and “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love endurance, gentleness.” Easton suggested that is good advice for these times.

Jim Kebbell spoke of the importance of traditional principles and values such as respect and care for one another. He contrasted this with the present where so often disciplines such as the physical and the social sciences, including economics, pride themselves in being values free. Economics tends to be all about growth. So we’re told we are well off when there is economic growth and badly off when there is economic decline. In this way of looking at things growth has become a great economic virtue. The challenge now is to reassert the traditional virtues or values we once admired that have been pushed aside in the pursuit of economic growth and the desire to be wealthier.

There are other forms of recession besides the economic, says Kebbell. He drew attention to environmental recession brought about by the steady erosion of our environmental capital. The industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries has led to a rapid consumption of the earth’s resources on a vast and unsustainable scale.

Kebbell questions an anthropocentric theology that allows people to justify what they do by saying God told them to do it. A responsible Christian ethic, he says, suggests we should affirm that creation is good, to be respected and treated with dignity, and what we earn or acquire is to be shared equitably amongst people. Kebbell calls these transcendental values.

It’s as if we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing, said Kebbell. Our values are disappearing. The churches are in decline and with that goes a diminishing of the significance of values. If we are to have a meaningful future we need to change our attitudes and show respect for the earth and its resources and share our wealth more equitably.

Allan Davidson began his address by focusing on the New Zealand churches’ response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. At this time a moralistic agenda prevailed in the churches. The churches’ response to the collapse of exports, mounting national debt, and considerable social distress was to call for prayer and the alleviation of suffering rather than challenging the prevailing social order. The churches’ direct response was to cut church budgets and reduce ministers’ stipends.

The government was ill-prepared for the economic hardships brought about by the depression, said Davidson. At the height of the depression 40% of the male workforce was unemployed. Riots occurred in Auckland’s Queen Street, a public catharsis on the part of the unemployed. The typical response of parishes was to provide food, clothing and other practical forms of assistance to those in need. In larger centres church agencies turned to practical social work. They responded to social hardship with relief depots and soup kitchens. Colin Scrimgeour (Uncle Scrim), the Auckland Methodist missioner, pushed the boundaries by providing medical and legal aid and calling for an investigation of the economic system. The high public profile of the likes of Scrimgeour helped keep the needs of the poor before the wider public.

In the 1930s the churches did not have a strong prophetic tradition. According to Davidson they tended to baptise the social status quo. However in 1923 the Methodist Church had adopted a wide ranging social creed which represented something of a watershed at the time. Rev Percy Paris had promoted monetary reform and the development of the welfare state. In 1933 the Methodist Church issued a statement on unemployment, calling it a hindrance to God’s kingdom on earth. Churches that acted in this way found they were frequently criticised for speaking outside their area of expertise. The pietistic and moralistic was giving way to a more prophetic and challenging response.

In more recent times there have been other attempts at prophetic responses. The church leaders prepared a social justice statement ahead of the 1993 election in response to finance minister Ruth Richardson’s benefit cuts. Five social principles were enunciated; however they were rather idealistic, and generating action on them proved difficult, said Davidson. In 1998 the Anglican Church launched the Hikoi of Hope, intended to be a wakeup call to the government about growing poverty in the country. However the reality is that since the 1990s the churches have been in decline, and their right to speak on social issues has been weakened. They now have to earn the right to speak and be heard all over again. But there are signs of hope. The emergence of the discipline of public theology which brings theology out of the ivory tower and into the public space to address important issues of the day is an encouraging sign, according to Davidson. Public theology is an effort to bring Christian insights to bear on how we should be shaping our society now and into the future.

In conclusion: in these hard times Brian Easton says we should shun the acquisition of positional goods and conspicuous consumption, pursue righteousness or justice, and support one another; Jim Kebbell holds that economic theory needs to acquire some transcendental values; while Allan Davidson says the churches need to develop a holistic theological response that embraces both the pastoral and the prophetic.

John Roberts