Ecumenical Babel: Economic Ideology and the Church

Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness, Jordan BallorWhen we survey today’s global economic environment, there are few observations that all of us can agree on.

Here’s a start:

  • Gigantic transnational corporations are out of control, exploiting their workers and rendering consumers and governments powerless to their manipulative forces.
  • Venerable local cultures, along with their esteemed mom-and-pop shops, are under attack, besieged by an ever-homogenizing monster, eager to suck away their uniqueness and transplant it with Western saliva.
  • Economic globalization — the root of such evils — is fattening the pockets of the rich, emptying the pockets of the poor, and threatening earth’s most vital life support systems in the process.

On the whole, modern-day capitalism and free trade have resulted in rampant greed and moral depravity, leading society to sacrifice its most vulnerable members on an altar of economic neoliberalism.

Oh, and when I say that all of us can agree on this, I mean all of us Christians.

I wish I could say that the above rant was constructed from articles in the Daily Kos, The Huffington Post, or The New Republic. Unfortunately, it was compiled from ideas found in the recent proclamations of three major ecumenical organizations: the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). (Yes, I did have a bit of fun with them.)

The problem, of course, is that all of us don’t agree — a point not lost on theologian Jordan Ballor, author of the new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

For Ballor, the ecumenical movement has become far too narrow in its ideological underpinnings and far too politicized in its public stances. Although its role should be focused on fostering church unity around a set of grounded beliefs, the movement’s overt participation in ideologically driven banter has led to Babel-esque disorder, confusing the roles of economics and the church in the process.

But should the ecumenical movement at least be striving for unity on such matters? Is it the social imperative of the church to assume an absolute perspective on matters of economic policy, particularly one that aligns with a progressive worldview? Are ecumenical creeds and confessions the appropriate venues for socialist Christians to sing their merry Marxist tunes?

Ballor explores each of these questions in detail, but he begins the discussion by taking us back to a more overarching query from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Is the ecumenical movement, in its visible representation, a church?

From surveying the most advertised features of today’s ecumenical movement, the church is far from visible in any accurate or holistic sense. Is the church most truly and effectively represented through the advocacy of government force and foreign interventionism? Is the church’s mission only achievable through the use of government aid and coercion? Is the proclamation of a “right to clean water” really what Jesus called us to preach?

Ballor identifies this misalignment as follows:

In the ecumenical world, economic narrative has become identical to ethical imperative, and deviation from this whole-cloth worldview is anathema…Religion in large part now consists in an economic worldview, with ethics as the middle term.

Yet Ballor proceeds graciously, challenging readers to a “critical engagement” of the movement — one that takes into account its legitimacy as an ecclesiastical entity while remaining critical of its defects. For Ballor, the ecumenical movement holds great promise and is capable of achieving a wide variety of good things for the Gospel. It cannot, however, capitalize on such potential without maintaining clear and constructive thinking about its overall role — and necessary restraint — in the church at large.

After surveying the history and current state of the ecumenical movement, Ballor proceeds by offering his own critical engagement, chronicling the three ecumenical texts referenced previously (1, 23).

For the bulk of the book, Ballor focuses on the specific ideas promoted by each respective group, focusing his attention specifically on the overarching economic implications. From explaining the errors of zero-sum thinking to the subtle materialism of neo-Marxist ideology, Ballor exhibits an impressive ability to cut through frivolous fluff and expose economic fallacies and spiritual distortions.

Ballor concludes his critical engagement with a chapter on “avenues for reform,” which is filled with thoughtful suggestions for restoring proper thinking to the ecumenical community. From discussing service and subsidiary to law and dignity to wealth and work, Ballor outlines a unifying model by which Christians can engage in earthly endeavors while maintaining a clear focus of the core Gospel message.

In the end, this is not a book about economic ideology or some new political fusionism with the Gospel. This is a book about the church. Ballor’s economic critiques are certainly valuable for those of us traversing the current ecclesiastical terrain, but they are less about promoting unabashed free-marketism than they are about illuminating the inevitable disunity among Christians on such matters. In fact, Ballor argues that making economic ideology a priority of the church will inevitably lead to what Paul Ramsey calls “fruitless combat.” In short, says Ballor, “economic and political opinions should not be turned into articles of faith.”

As Ballor concludes:

Let our confession be not “I follow Marx,” or, “I follow Hayek,” or “I follow Rand,” or, “I follow Keynes,” but rather, together, “We follow Christ” (see 1 Cor. 1:12). Ultimately our hope for unity lies not in ourselves or in any feeble human efforts, but in the power and providence of God, “who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ” (2 Cor. 1:26 NIV).

The Tower of Babel was conceived in worldly ignorance, and our ideological struggles are marred by the same limitations. Let us not descend into disorder and confusion, but rather, let us “stand in Christ,” disagreeing where we may and standing unified where we must.

To purchase the book, click here.

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