Preachers and the Economy

The financial turmoil of 2008 has brought forth a lot of commentary from my fellow Methodist preachers.

Some of them have used the crisis as an opportunity to remind Christians that they cannot serve God and mammon – that where their treasure is, their heart will be also – that moth and rust destroy and thieves steal the treasures we lay up on earth, but there is a treasure in heaven that no thief can steal – that there is no need to be anxious about life, food or clothing, for the Father knows that we need these things, but we are to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given us as well. Point well made. These are certainly important things to remember in both good economic times and bad.

Most of the preachers, however, can’t resist pointing their words at the usual suspects – capitalism, consumerism, business owners, corporations and their executives – and accuse their ideological opponents of greed, malice, callousness and all sorts of other vices. For some reason, many Methodist preachers seem to think that a seminary education makes them experts in economics.

J. Richard Peck has written a commentary on “John Wesley’s Advice for the Economy” for the United Methodist News Service. Peck’s article some very interesting historical observations. For Mr. Peck, however, the review is not only descriptive, it is prescriptive. Raise taxes on the wealthy. Pass more environmental laws. This, according to Mr. Peck, is what Wesley would have us do. Based on Mr. Peck’s own selection of Wesley material, however, he could have just as easily – perhaps more easily – argued that Wesley required us to reintroduce prohibition, put as much land into agricultural production as possible, reduce both government spending and taxes and replace the income tax with a consumption tax.

Peck continues, “John Wesley believed that most of the economic problems of the day were caused by a growing disparity between the rich and the poor.” Perhaps, but Peck doesn’t supply a quote to that effect. Rather, he supplies a fragmentary quote of Wesley’s desire to repress “luxury, either by example, by laws, or both.” Wesley’s disdain for luxury is well known. For Wesley, luxury was a spiritual danger in and of itself. Even if everyone could live in luxury, I doubt that Wesley would have favored it.

But does it really matter what Wesley thought about economics any more than what he thought about “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes“?

Writing for the Acton Institute, Ray Nothstine responds to Peck’s article and asks, “Is John Wesley’s Economic Advice Sound?” Nothshine answers, “While some of Wesley’s economic advice is certainly sound, especially his views on the danger of debt, his understanding of basic economic principles in a free economy is severely limited.” He points to Kenneth J. Collins’ The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace. Collins wrote:

Arguing ostensibly from a larger theme of proper stewardship, Wesley posited a ‘zero sum’ world in which the maxim, ‘if the poor have too little it must be because the rich have too much,’ by and large ruled the day. As such, not only did he fail to recognize how capitalism actually works in a growing economy, even in a mercantilist one, but also his concern for stewardship, of what he called robbing the poor, often developed upon such petty matters as the size and shape of women’s bonnets (and he forgets that poor workers often made these accessories) or upon his favorite moral foibles of censure, the consumption of alcohol.

Nothstine notes that Peck curiously closes his commentary with a reference to Wesley’s medical views, some of which frankly are quack cures:

…there were suggestions like rubbing your head with raw onions for curing baldness and holding a live puppy on the abdomen as a recommendation for intestinal obstruction.

Nothstine concludes,

The point is that we would not take medical advice from Wesley over more advanced modern medicine, nor should we take economic advice from somebody with little economic understanding. It’s important to note that Wesley’s passionate assistance to the poor is certainly an effort to emulate.

The best advice Methodists can take from Wesley is to be rooted in the Good News he so passionately preached and spread across the globe. When United Methodism as a whole fully recaptures Wesley’s chief suggestion to his followers which was to ‘preach Jesus Christ and him crucified,’ his followers will then again be aligned with the ancient truths.