As portions of the United States begin to “reopen,” Americans are being forced to choose between two priorities: public health and personal safety, on the one hand, and saving “the economy” on the other. These questions are not limited to the US alone. In every context, how are faith leaders called to respond?
On one side, health experts and business leaders worry that states are moving too quickly. On the other, political leaders like President Trump and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick openly state that “the economy” is more important than human lives.
In late March, Lt. Gov. Patrick said that he’s “all in” on being “willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves.” The next month, he reiterated his view that “we’ve got to take some risks and get back in the game and get this country back up and running” since “there are more important things than living.”
Human sacrifice for the sake of “the economy” isn’t a new thing. Workers’ bodies are sacrificed throughout our global economic system; necropolitical control is endemic to the modern state. Patrick’s suicidal offering of his entire generation confirms the market economy’s colonization of everyday political life.
Economy of the Real
A White House economic advisor recently said, “We’re going to be looking at an unemployment rate that approaches rates that I think we saw during the Great Depression.” This isn’t an abstract economic indicator like the Dow Jones Industrial Average. This is the real world.
2008’s Great Recession was fundamentally different. That crisis was manufactured within the finance sector. Banks saturated the market with inappropriate loans and suddenly … the gig was up.
This economic crisis was not caused by greedy excess. It is, instead, the result of a tragically real virus affecting the lives of real people. Real people deciding to stay at home, protecting themselves and others. Regular folks wised up to the situation faster than CEOs. People said “I’m not going to that Las Vegas trade show. I have a conflict that week.” Travel ceased.
The resulting economic crisis has resulted in the US losing nearly 27 million jobs, pushing unemployment past 20%. For many, many Americans, a lost job translates into lost medical insurance in addition to missed rent, mortgage, and credit card payments.
A glance at European countries shows us it didn’t have to go this way. European states have faced the same real-world challenges but people didn’t lose their jobs (a social structure was in place) and people didn’t have to worry about losing access to health care (because it’s not tied to a job). Democratic socialism sure is terrible.
Oil? Don’t Mention It
Somewhere between the abstract indicator of the Dow and the real world of an unemployed and now uninsured breadwinner lies the commodities market. Oil is tangible and real, even what’s actually traded are futures, basically bets on future demand.
On 21 April 2020, the price of American oil went negative. For the first time ever.
Oil went negative because demand has simply evaporated. Fewer vehicles are on the road. Globally, the number of domestic and international flights fell drastically. Two major oil-producing states—Russia and Saudi Arabia—were having a slap-fight just as this crisis went global. Global supply is far outstripping demand.
American television news outlets are barely mentioning this historic and ongoing development. President Trump’s musings on injecting disinfectants and light take up too much room.
Return to the Real Economy
What is “the economy” anyway? How might faith leaders promote the flourishing of human communities in the midst of this present economic crisis? Part of the answer is in the etymology of the word “economy” itself.
In both classical and biblical (koine) Greek, οικονομία refers to the management of a household. As the Google etymology above makes clear, the present sense of “economy” as a sphere or entity separate from the household (that is, abstracted) did not emerge until the 1600s and the advent of modernity.
The word was a favorite of the Apostle Paul’s. In one of the most dramatic scenes in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Silas comfort a distraught jailer with these words: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household (οἶκός)” (Acts 16.31). In his letter to the Galatians, the Paul speaks about “the household (οἰκείους) of faith” (Gal 6.10). Again, in Ephesians, Paul declares that believers “are no longer strangers and aliens, but … citizens with the saints and also members of the household (οἰκεῖοι) of God” (Eph 2.19).
As Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “The slave does not have a permanent place in the household (οἰκίᾳ); the son has a place there forever” (John 8.35). To be recognized within the economy (οικονομία) of a household is to have a certain status and privilege, a full person equal to others. The great reversal Jesus announced was that all masters would be slaves, and all slaves would be masters.
What does this mean for us today? It is a reminder that the real economy is about the real world. It is made up of people who are all of equal value. Moreover, it includes all living things and the entirety of creation: the word ecumenical (οικουμενέ) emerges from the same root (check out the logo of the World Council of Churches).
Here’s the point: politicians promoting competition between “the economy” and human wellbeing have it all wrong. There is no economy apart from humanity and God’s beloved creation. Tension between “the economy” and “the people” makes no sense because the economy is the people.
All persons of faith are called to concern for the economy. We are concerned not with abstractions but with the wellbeing of real people in their dwellings (ensuring that there are no people without homes) and in their families (ensuring that families are safe, without the abuse of children and domestic partners).
Moreover, when values are laid bare and there is talk of sacrificing lives for economic strength, we know which lives will be sacrificed. COVID-19 has again exposed the structural inequities faced by black, brown, and red communities in the United States. Blood sales are spiking. We know whose lives have been sacrificed and which ones will be sacrificed, in the United States and throughout the Global South. The question of justice is clear for all communities of faith.
We cannot deny the hardships faced by small business owners and restauranteurs. What we can see, however, is that US governmental programs are at least seeking to respond to their needs. This is not the case for so many other equal, beloved members of the household.
What Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick helps us see more clearly is that the “American way of life” he promotes already calculates an allowable level of human sacrifice. Our faithful response in this moment is to announce that we are finished with those systems. God has called us to move on: human sacrifice is finished.
Jesus died once, for all (Romans 6.10).
No more human sacrifice is required.
Any talk of sacrificing or endangering people for “the economy” forgets that our first economic concern is for the members of our human household. It is a false choice, and only a self-consciously evil system would put it in place.
In such a system, we know who gets shoved toward the door, who gets voted off the island. Hint: it isn’t Lt. Gov. Patrick. If people of faith can organize their voice and their action, none of the human household living within God’s economy of love will be forced to endure such evil.
The Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD, directs Briarwood Leadership Center (Argyle, TX).