Biblical Justice and Christian Formation
- ISBN: 9780802875075
- Published By: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- Published: May 2018
Although economics is a key aspect of personal formation for Christians in the United States, common appeals to the Bible do not focus on the significance given to economics in scripture, Michael Barram writes in Missional Economics: Biblical Justice and Christian Formation. The contemporary economic climate in the US is marked by precarity (a combination of low wages, employment without benefits, and uncertain long-term prospects in a single role) and “hustle culture” (the attitude that every moment of a person’s life, and each hobby or passion, must be monetized). These phenomena influence the lives of workers young and old, inculcating mindsets and habits that make individual economic success—or at least stability—a primary value.
At the same time, Barram notes, the most publicly audible Christian discourse on personal formation in the US, identified with white, socially conservative forms of Protestantism, prioritizes matters of sexual morality and gender and couches its advice to individuals in prohibitions rather than in affirmative instruction. This mismatch leaves a blind spot in Christian visions of human flourishing by failing to offer sufficient attention to the Bible’s treatment of economic matters. By this omission, contemporary white Protestant biblical interpretation makes it difficult for Christian communities to offer a compelling counter-witness to the economic behaviors and patterns of reasoning that the present historical and cultural moment promotes as normal.
With Missional Economics, Barram develops a principle for Christians reading the Bible that centers economic behaviors and logics as matters for moral reflection and counter-cultural action. Barram’s general approach directs readers to follow a “preponderance of evidence” standard for recognizing that economic behaviors and systems are a priority in the Bible’s text and teaching. In response to that priority, Barram deploys the concepts of mission and justice as interpretive keys for articulating a set of habits responsive to a Christian understanding of the purposes of God, and ways of reasoning that allow those practices to be sensible in a local and historical context.
Barram’s work reframes “mission,” a term most closely associated by his audience with evangelistic preaching, as joining the work of God in establishing justice in human relationships. In the same way that Barram’s overarching project demands a shift in focus from sex to economics, his reframing of the concept of mission demands a shift in focus from individual striving (either in an economic or a spiritual sense) to communal thriving. Justice in the Bible, as Barram outlines it, presupposes responsibilities toward each other, and a recognition that from the Bible’s perspective, economic inequality stems from humans’ creation of scarcity out of a world of divinely granted abundance. Barram presses for Christian communities to orient their economic thinking and practice around compassion and generosity, but not limit themselves to charitable efforts, instead modeling decision-making methods that prioritize the poor and vulnerable and challenge systems of labor, production, and distribution of goods in society that assume or require poverty and vulnerability in the first place.
Central (if often implicit) to the task of vernacular biblical interpretation is the question “how is the Bible to be considered authoritative for Christian thinking and action?” Barram’s answer—that the Bible’s through line of teaching on economics should inform Christian practice in concrete ways—is likely to be provocative among the communities to which he directs the book. Yet Barram’s focus on the text and interpretation of scripture leaves a blind spot, one that is admittedly common to much Protestant biblical interpretation.
The biblicist preoccupation of Protestant theology tends to obscure the ways of thinking and ways of life that have, over the course of Christianity’s history, discerned the need for a Christian economic counter-witness. When Barram writes, “In our economic decision-making, we must consider how the poor are faring. Such consideration is, to a significant degree, the divine metric for a just society” (118), he offers a succinct summary of Catholic Social Teaching, but without an acknowledgement of that body of material. “Resignation and complacency in the face of widespread and chronic poverty are inadequate responses to the sufferings of the poor. The burden of responsibility rests squarely on the ‘haves,’ not the ‘have-nots’” (108) has analogues in the preaching of John Chrysostom and the autobiography of Dorothy Day. And historically, the recognition that “we are deeply formed, more often than we may realize, by economic paradigms, theories, ideologies, priorities, policies, social norms, and behaviors, as well as by our experience with poverty, wealth, money, finance, debt, and the like” (11) prompted the formation of the Franciscan order and the contemporary call by Pope Francis for “a church that is poor and for the poor.”
Barram’s work correctly points out the irony that an idea that runs through the majority of scripture receives a minority of attention among certain Christian communities. Barram’s interpretive method for correcting this imbalance is a helpful one. And like the Bible itself, Barram’s book is best read alongside others that draw on history and autobiography, illustrating the strength of his reading by demonstrating that he is not alone in offering it.
Isaac Arten is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University.Isaac ArtenDate Of Review:August 31, 2023