As Christians we are accustomed to living in overlapping worlds. We are here and we are elsewhere, material and spiritual, ambassadors of God’s future here in the present. Jesus outlined this to his disciples on his last evening with them, telling them that “you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.”
The apostle John uses similar language in his letters. In one section he explains to his readers how to listen to the spirit of God, and discern it from the chatter of other forces:
You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us.
This is what it feels like to me as a campaigner for a new economics. We are all embedded in the old economy. We have bank accounts, pensions and mortgages. We know that our banking systems all too often reward greed and benefit the rich over the poor. But they are part of life, virtually unavoidable. At the same time, we can see a fairer, more democratic economy. Perhaps we can use a local currency, contribute to crowd-funding platforms, or join an energy cooperative.
The spirit of the old economy will tell us that this is pointless: we’re all rational maximisers pursuing our own interests. It will whisper that people will game the system, and that trying to share better will only result in less to go around. It will cite ‘the tragedy of the commons’ and declare that cooperating never succeeds, ignoring the Nobel prize-winning research that proves that it can.
We need to ignore this chatter and listen for the spirit of God at work in economics. It’s there to hear, because the kingdom of God is not just a spiritual reality. It is material, political, and economic. It calls us out of self-interest and towards the common good, away from the pursuit of more and towards contentment.
When our economic structures create competition, winners and losers, and extreme inequality, that’s not what God wants for us and those structures are not of God. And where we see cooperation, compassion and care, perhaps we can see a little of the kingdom of God touching the earth.
What is our role in this? We need to listen and to ask questions. What are ‘the spirits’ at work behind our business and our banking institutions – the vision that is offered, the values that are implied? Do they lead to human flourishing, and the ‘life in all its fulness’ that Jesus came to bring? Or do they push us apart, and encourage selfish ambition? Where economics does not reflect God’s character and purposes for us, then we need to mark Jesus’ words, and remind ourselves that ‘I am not of this world’.
Instead, where we find businesses and initiatives that are working in the right direction, we can support them, and live them into being. By moving our money out of the high street banks and into a mutual, we can prophetically reject the debt and avarice of the City of London, and support something better. When we switch our energy provider from the Big Six to a renewable energy cooperative, we reject the exploitation of the earth for shareholder profit, and choose a cleaner, fairer future. All those little actions amount to something bigger: they are building blocks, shaping a new world order in the midst of the old.
As Paul Mason says in his book Postcapitalism,
When we create the elements of the new system we should be able to say to ourselves and others: this is no longer my survival mechanism, my bolt-hole from the neoliberal world, this is a new way of living in the process of formation.
Mason writes as a secular journalist, but there’s a distinct echo there. Isn’t that what we see as Christians? We are here in the overlap, in the now and not yet, as God builds the kingdom. We are a new way of living in the process of formation.