The mandates of stewardship.
In Washington, people are fascinated, even addicted, to the daily events of politics. They focus intensely on the headlines: what the latest poll discovered, what the President just said, what a foreign country has done. It is not unlike our fascination with waves of the ocean.
But in the flurry of these daily events we often neglect deeper currents, which are less visible, but which actually shape our future.
The Christian’s political involvement should begin, therefore, with a look beneath the surface at the broad forces shaping the events. Of particular interest are questions raised by our new awareness that the resources of earth are limited. This has striking implications in the realm of values, economics, and global justice.
This awareness helps us see that our society needs a new vision, because it reveals the flaws in many unquestioned assumptions of the past. A philosophic vacuum is growing, one that gives opportunity to exercise a decisive influence on our culture’s future.
To get a sense of where our society is coming from, we must look at the roots of our “modern” era in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Past ideas about man’s purpose and fulfillment in life were drastically changed by these special events.
With the Reformation came a strong individual reliance on God’s blessing and grace. But with the Enlightenment, faith was placed more directly in man and what he could achieve. People began to trust not religion, but science and technology, to free them through material abundance and unlimited economic growth. And further, it became an article of faith that the pursuit of individual self-interest would automatically benefit all society. Specifically, the more a person made and accumulated, the more the whole society would improve. Thus, faith in the intrinsic goodness of man was declared. If man were simply free to pursue what he naturally wanted, we could create the ideal society and achieve social harmony.
To Adam Smith and John Locke, man’s egoism was seen as a natural good. Morality was no longer necessary in economics or government; it would simply take care of itself. Progress became defined as satisfying all our material desires by giving free rein to individual self-interest. Environment was viewed as something to be conquered by science.
Several economic assumptions have thus been regarded as gospel since the time of the Reformation and Enlightenments. First, nature is generous, able to yield the necessary new wealth and resources continually. Second, the individual’s pursuit of self-interest leads to the social good. Third, the goal of economic order is constant expansion. Any negative results or side effects for which simple compensation must be made have been handled primarily by tinkering with such things as tax structures, trust busting, and establishing government regulations on pollution standards. But fundamentally, we are still living with the same world-and-life view we inherited from the beginning of the modern age.
These assumptions and structures have been made to look trustworthy by the experience of our country’s unsurpassed growth. But that growth has not yielded the results of social harmony, economic justice, and personal fulfillment it promised. It has not solved the issue of justice, either at home or around the globe. The gaps have increased and the poor have been left on the bottom.
We are, in fact, now reaching the fringes of the modern vision which has been guiding our culture. We are now confronting the finite limits of our economic and technological possibilities. We can begin to see how the guiding assumptions and values of the past are inadequate. This is creating a vacuum philosophically, politically, and spiritually. Therefore, the key question for our future is: What forces and what vision will fill this vacuum?
But have we indeed reached the limits of earth’s physical resources? The point is so important that we must examine its proof. Here are some examples worth considering:
Energy. This is the area where we all have experienced most concretely the limitation of national and global resources. Oil reserves are being depleted. Many experts estimate that at the present rate of use, the reserves we can probably tap will be used by the end of the century. Yet the use of energy in the United States is continuing to increase year by year.
Minerals. Today the United States uses 40 thousand pounds of new mineral supplies per person each year for transportation and for such projects as building homes, bridges, schools, and power plants. If the rest of the world were to reach the U.S. standard in per capita mineral use, it would consume 200 times its present use of nonrenewable minerals.
Forestry. Throughout most of the world, and especially the Third World, there is a worsening shortage of wood. In these areas forestry is not just a source of building materials; it is a primary source of energy for heating and cooking. The depletion of forests also results in erosion and upsets the ecological balance; land for growing crops is washed away.
Water. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has recently warned that the globe could be facing a serious shortage of fresh water by the end of the century.
Food. If world population increases by 73 million people per year, it will double by the year 2000—only 21 years from now. Just producing the fertilizer and fuel for machinery to grow the necessary food would require a tenfold increase of the energy that agriculture alone uses.
Fish. Even the oceans show that what they can yield has a limit. In the past seven years the international fish catch per person has gone down 11 percent.
Solid waste. By next year the United States will be accumulating eight pounds of solid waste per person per day—a total of 340 million tons a year. And much of it is not biodegradable.
Therefore, as we look at our resources we realize that limitations do exist; we are reaching the end of the line.
Options. We must conclude that it is simply impossible to continue our existing rates and patterns of economic growth. Many of the foundational economic assumptions that have guided us in the past cannot guide us in the future. Experts differ over how severe the problem is and how much time we have before these resources are depleted, but there is no doubting the fundamental issue: the globe’s wealth is finite.
Faced with these realities, we have two possibilities for the future shape of our social and political order. What does a Christian say to these?
The first possibility is for the privileged to hang on to their share of scarce and dwindling resources, both at home and abroad, with all the competition that entails. Those with power and wealth would become more defensive. Social, economic, and class divisions in our own country would intensify. We would witness rising political pressure for the United States to intervene abroad to protect our resources. In light of recent international turbulence, many people have stated that the United States should use military force to protect the flow of oil from the Middle East.
This option denies the reality of the globe’s finite limits. By insisting on our rights to continue our present course, we would inevitably strengthen the patterns of injustice, and that would lead to more conflict in the world.
But we have a second option, one that is more hopeful. This comes from within the Christian’s compassionate heart, but it would require the basic change of embracing the alternative of a nongrowth, steady-state economy.
To achieve this, we would need to change our fundamental idea of growth and progress. We would have to nourish a new value system and a new vision of human fulfillment. We would have to decentralize power, both politically and economically, diffusing it among the people.
We would have to alter basic components of our lifestyle. We would need to shift dramatically and swiftly to an increased reliance on renewable energy resources, and govern our use of energy accordingly. Solar, wind, and other such sources that can be decentralized would play a major role, rather than such alternatives as nuclear power. We would replace our throwaway consumer ethic with an ethic of conservation and ecological responsibility. We would encourage models of local self-sufficiency. Our economic goal would no longer be increased consumption; rather, it would be responsible use and distribution of resources.
This second option, the hopeful direction for change, is by no means assured; in many respects it is most unlikely. What is needed, though, is a whole new undergirding vision that revolutionizes our sense of meaning and system of values.
Secular society is unable to provide this; it is leaving us all in a vacuum. But we who are part of the church of Jesus Christ—and I mean the spiritual church, all who follow Christ as Lord and Savior—can provide a witness, a vision. We can provide an example that can enter this vacuum and move society toward a more hopeful future.
The basic questions for our culture are these: In the face of limited resources, what is each person due? And who or what acts as steward? The heart of this is theological; it is the issue of stewardship. Christians are faced with two challenges: to provide a new ethic of stewardship that can guide the direction of society; and to become the model of that vision.
Before we in the Christian community can offer our vision, we must recognize that perhaps we have been part of the problem. These assumptions of the modern era have been accepted by much of the Christian community. We have, for instance, often been guilty of believing that bigger is better, that meaningful life is found through material accumulation, and that God blesses the exploitation of his world when it is done in the name of making the nation stronger and more prosperous.
Some churches judge the success of their ministry by growth of the number of members or by the size of their new buildings. Some evangelistic campaigns are judged purely on the numbers of dollars contributed or decisions made, rather than on the qualitative basis of relationships and incarnational love. Within the church, we have too frequently allowed the style of the culture to take over, with its belief in success, growth, abundance, and fame.
Furthermore, the church has on occasion thoughtlessly baptized the economic assumptions of our society as if they were theological truths. But our economic system often fosters human selfishness, as we can see simply by turning on television and watching the commercials. To many, the goal of nurturing human greed comes before meeting human need.
If the church is to make a biblical and redeeming contribution to our society in this time of transition, it must be free from the society’s idolatries. We must ask for God’s grace to liberate us from being captive to our culture’s ways of thinking.
As Christians we have two solid reasons for offering society the seeds for a new vision for our social and political order. First, as we have already seen, the pragmatic realities of the limits to growth leave the average person’s spirits in a vacuum waiting to be filled by some vision. We must also consider a second great reason: Our biblical roots compel us to question our present course, and to set forth a Christian alternative.
What is the starting point for a Christian witness to global problems today? It is the biblical injunction to be stewards of God’s creation. This means that we relate to all created order according to God’s own purpose for it. In Genesis the Lord looked at his creation and pronounced it good. Later the Psalmist tells us that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Throughout the Old Testament the creation and its resources are set forth as God’s gifts to be used according to God’s purposes.
In Leviticus 25 the Old Testament Law refers to the Jubilee. Part of observing the Jubilee meant allowing the earth to replenish itself by refusing to plant crops every seventh year. Then every fiftieth year, the Jubilee year, the holdings of the large landowners were to be redistributed among the people so that none would hoard a disproportionate share of land, and thus, a disproportionate share of wealth.
The Jubilee was a means for responsible stewardship of the Lord’s resources, and insured that they were distributed according to God’s design for economic and social justice. But the plan made sense only because all the land was viewed as belonging to the Lord in the first place. The people of Israel were simply entrusted with the use of the land and its fruits as caretakers for the Lord.
The message of the prophets also emphasized stewardship. Amos, for instance, said the people of Israel were violating their trust as stewards of God’s creation, and that this would bring judgment. Isaiah said that the vision of God’s shalom meant peace and fulfillment for all creation. This is a peace built upon the fulfillment of human needs and a sharing of the earth’s gifts for all to be satisfied. This reaches, of course, beyond the provision of food, but it specifically includes such material blessing.
The New Testament reinforces this doctrine of stewardship. Christ inaugurated his ministry with references to economic justice most likely taken from the tradition of the Jubilee (Luke 4). His call to discipleship involved a call to relate to one’s possessions in a new way. As his followers, we are to share freely with others for the sake of God’s kingdom. The New Testament epistles also command that the church’s economic life be lived in light of the responsibility for the need of the entire world because of the breadth of God’s love. So the biblical doctrine of stewardship is clear: we own nothing. In spite of all our legal structure and economic presumptions, we own nothing. The earth is the Lord’s, not ours. We cannot act as though our possessions and use of the earth’s resources are our own private business, no matter what deeds and legal documents we may employ. They are God’s business.
Consider an example. Suppose we were placed in charge of a public library as steward—as caretaker—and decided to turn the basement into a gambling casino. Would this not be a violation of our trust?
God’s intention is for the earth’s resources to be used wisely to sustain life for all the earth’s people. There is an intended sharing and equality in God’s design. No group of privileged people has more claim on those resources than any other. Nothing in Scripture says there is a privileged class.
Further, the biblical vision includes God’s focused compassion for the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged. In using the earth’s resources we are to give priority to alleviating their plight. If you search for a guiding biblical principle on how the gifts of creation should be treated, you will find the consistent theme that they should be shared with the poor. The Bible teaches no lesson more frequently on how God judges our righteousness than by the criterion of how we relate to the poor.
Our responsibility of stewardship begins with those who are most needy and then extends to all who are our neighbors. And this extends to future generations as well. The Bible underscores the sanctity of life because all life was created and has been redeemed and belongs to God. We are given the responsibility and the calling to be stewards of God’s possession.
What are the political implications of stewardship? They are dramatically far-reaching. Here are a few examples:
Energy policy. Despite the limits to our nonrenewable sources of energy, we continue to squander resources. And our demands for energy are increasing. But to act as true stewards of this resource of God would necessitate a sharp reversal of this. We should examine how our use of nonrenewable resources could be consistently reduced, not enlarged, and how these resources could serve more justly the needs of all the earth’s people. We should vigorously develop those energy resources that do not deplete the earth: the renewable ones such as the sun, wind, and even organic waste. We should do this not just for ourselves, but for all people, especially the world’s poor.
Nuclear arms race. We must also judge this in light of the doctrine of stewardship. The United States today possesses about 31 thousand nuclear warheads, both strategic and tactical. This equals eight billion tons of TNT, or the equivalent of 625 thousand Hiroshima-type bombs. This stockpile can kill every Russian 36 times. Unleashing this power would ensure the virtual destruction of the earth, yet we continue to pour our financial and intellectual resources and our scientific ingenuity into increasing these arsenals still further. Committing ourselves to be God’s faithful stewards means committing ourselves against this course, and against the whole mentality of the arms race.
Global economic policy. Currently the United States, with 6 percent of the world’s population, consumes between 33 and 40 percent of the world’s energy and natural resources. This is geared, of course, to sustaining and increasing our lifestyle. It is propelled by the idol of unlimited economic growth. A consumptive hoarding mentality feeds this process. The biblical teaching of stewardship calls us to ask God’s forgiveness and to turn to his new lifestyle as Jesus Christ taught it.
Because of the limits to these resources, economic growth cannot continue indefinitely. If the earth is the Lord’s, it must be used for the welfare of all the earth’s people. Stewardship, therefore, means that our first commitment cannot be to the protection of our own extravagant economic self-interests or to the perfection of our own share of the earth’s resources at others’ expense. Rather, we must instill a new mentality, a new vision, that must give priority to building global economic justice. Our aim must be to close the gap between the globe’s privileged minority and its underprivileged majority.
Power of a lifestyle. The responsibility of the church in all this is monumental. The Bible assumes that society’s political and economic life will be influenced by the life of God’s gathered people. However, I can offer no easy how-to formula. Rather, the Bible stresses a simple fact: it is not the individual’s action alone that makes the difference as much as it is that of the people of God gathered together and showing forth a new lifestyle. The whole story of the Bible is one of calling people together who will live faithfully according to God’s purposes.
God pulled Moses off the hillside and said, “Go and lead the people out of Egypt.” Christ called the Twelve, taught them together to minister to one another, to grow, and then to minister to others. It was that commitment to one another, as well as to the Lord, that gave them the vitality to penetrate the Roman world’s pagan society.
Thus, God’s desire is to create this new peoplehood, this new community. We who are God’s people, a community of believers, are to show in our life together the purposes of God for all creation. Our life together is to be a model and a means for refashioning society. God intends that no society be the same when it experiences in its midst the presence of those committed to Christ and his kingdom.
Christ used many metaphors like salt and light to describe his followers. These elements transform their environment. Thus, our responsibility for Christian political witness actually rests on the quality of our fellowship with one another. Our political involvement begins with the shape of our church, the church spiritual, the church catholic. Those of us who are called by Christ, living according to the values of the kingdom of God, might ask ourselves, “Does our corporate life shine as a bright light? Do we display those new ways of living that hold the key to transforming society?”
The body of Christ should live out for all to see the meaning of being trustworthy stewards of God’s creation. This will be seen in how we view our possessions, in our style of living, in how we relate to the poor and disadvantaged, in how we respond to global economic injustice, and in how we show love for one another by sharing ourselves and what we own. If we belong to one another spiritually, then economic bonds must join us. And if we have been deeply touched by God’s compassion, we will naturally feel a call to help the hurting in the world God so loves.
Changes in economic and political policy must have their roots in changes within the thinking and action of people. The sweeping and fundamental changes, the revolution of new values essential for the well-being and peace of all humanity, must have spiritual roots. That change can begin among those of us called to follow Jesus as Lord.
That life which we show can become, in Isaiah’s words, a promise, “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isa. 42:16). God’s plan is for the church to make known to the powers and principalities of society the truth of the gospel. In how we live, in what we say, and in how we minister, the world should feel its normal patterns and assumptions challenged, overturned, and transformed for the sake of God’s kingdom. Only this kind of witness can influence those deep currents of change, and provide us all with the basis of hope for the future.
God’s call to each of us is to pour out our life together in such a witness that his kingdom might come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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