Babel, Economics and the Duty to the Neighbor

The Economics of Honor: Biblical Reflections on Money and PropertyThe Economics of Honor: Biblical Reflections on Money and Property

by Roelf Haan

Geneva: World Council of Churches. 1988



Book note: Read the earlier version of this book, published 1988 by the World Council of Churches. This version has a different translator, plus new information.

Roelf Haan addresses the question of economics in the specific context of the authoritarian states of South America of that era, in particular that of Argentina. His meditations turn further to the consideration of the marginalized agrarian poor — those still working in subsistence or commodity-based economies. As noted below this later turn is something of a weakness for his approach.

Although published by the WCC, the rhetoric is solidly in the Dutch Calvinist tradition. Haan shows an evident debt to the earlier work of Jacques Ellul and the general exegetical approach that sees in the biblical text a lens through which one can see this world and its arrangements more clearly (a good example of this sort of theological reading would be NHK Ridderbos’ discussion of Genesis 1 in the old New Bible Commentary, IVP). It is a very different approach than the more biblicist model of present Evangelicals, or of the more social science determined pattern of many social justice folks.

For him, economics is seen principally through the lens of the “city” as an alternate place from that which God has provided. So Cain and Enoch both go off to found cities. In this, it is not the City as the New Jerusalem of Revelations, so much as the Augustinian City of Man. Economics with its focus on gain and power is constituent of this City.

The fulcrum of the book is his eighth meditation on the meaning of the Fifth Commandment (Honor your parents…), appropriately titles The Economics of Honour. Haan points to how this commandment links the two tablets of the law, the first being our duties towards God and the second, those towards our neighbor. Parents are both the ones who name us like God, and who also become the face of God that we encounter in our neighbor; thus the turn to honour is the turn to God and to our neighbor. As the Apostle John tells us, we cannot see God if we do not first see our neighbor — we must see both, and we see both in our parents.

Moreover, for our ethic, the giveness of our parents becomes a type for the giveness of our neighbor. These are the people in front of us, in our lives, to whom we must respond.

By way of commentary, this is some remarkable exegetical/spiritual sleight of hand. The result are a series of provocative ways of considering our own social duties, our “economics.”

Trouble arises in the last third of the book, as Haan considers the specifics of my neighbor in the guise of the poor. Until this point, the meditations have been on our responsibilities towards God, how we must have a new way of thinking, of seeing. Now he turns our gaze toward the poor, where he considers the politics of money and food, of an agrarian commodity economy. This is less satisfying for two reasons.

First, while Haan writes of the world he knows it becomes an elevation of the particular circumstance to the universal. So the agrarian problem and the distrust of market solutions are seen as the normative framework. But in the 25 years since the questions of urbanization have substantively altered how we are to think of the poor. In this time, the number of those living in such subsistence economies has drastically shrunk; the realities of urban live pose new challenges. For this social landscape, market approaches, both of land ownership (so Hector DeSoto) and of entrepreneurialism play an important role in alleviating the burdens of poverty.

Second, the focus on the poor as an object of our action, or our ethical duty, our “social justice” imports our own class frame. We’re still in the land of Nimrod, still relying on our own power, still caught in the web of our own social-technological technique. We think we can fix it. Here, Haan’s thinking could be reasonably expanded by Jacques Ellul’s own meditation on the inutility of human action (Politics of God and the Politics of Man). The Christian approach is kenotic (see Philippians 2), open — the opposite of that of the City of Man and Babel.

As Haan demonstrates, our practice of economics and our seeking the betterment of our neighbor are alike spiritual tasks.

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One thought on “Babel, Economics and the Duty to the Neighbor

  1. If you aren’t committed to an ideology that paints ‘market economics’ (as if that were what we had) as “alleviating the burdens of poverty”, then one ends envisioning substantially the same religious-&-economic universe as the first Christians found — with the bulk of private ‘wealth’ seen (not as God’s reward for benevolence and worthy practices) but as the spoils of mammon-worshipers preying upon the vulnerabilities of everyone else.

    Whether you arrive at that conclusion does depend on who you trust for information. But if I were investigating a vast financial crime… and the most widspread information about it was provided by people who had somehow acquired vast sums of money — and used that to buy up news publication services, and ‘public relations’ services — Where should be the logical place to look first?

    I find the most coherent takes on these matters from sources like (where you can incidently find a pretty good piece on ancient precedents for the Biblical jubilee laws), also from his colleagues at the University of Missouri-Kansas City economics site (at “NewEconomicPerspectives” .org ):

    “This website offers policy advice and economic analysis from a group of professional economists, legal scholars, and financial market practitioners . We started this blog in order to weigh in on the serious challenges facing the global economy following the financial meltdown in 2007. We aim to provide an accurate description of the cause(s) of the current meltdown as well as some fresh ideas about how policymakers — here and abroad — should address to the continued weakness in their economies. Our approach, which has been dubbed “Modern Money Theory” or “The Kansas City Approach,” builds on the work of Abba P. Lerner, John Maynard Keynes, Hyman P. Minsky, Wynne Godley and other important figures of the past. Above all, we are careful to provide analyses and policy recommendations that are applicable under a modern, fiat money system.”

    Or do you find the “mainstream” vision plausible?

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