Economy of Judgment

In February 2009, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote one of his many much-talkedabout Op-Ed pieces, this one about the furor being raised over the government bailout of big banks in the wake of the economic crisis—a crisis that they, of course, more or less created. Brooks’s point in that piece was essentially that outraged critics of government intervention should get real: government is not, as he put it, “in the Last Judgment business.” It is not government’s business to decide on matters of ultimate desert, but rather to secure, as best it can, the well-being of the public against threats internal and external. During the 2008 crisis, there was a grave internal threat, as was or should have been obvious to critics and supporters alike—namely, the prospect of economic collapse if financial institutions began to fail. In situations like these, there is a distinctively and appropriately utilitarian, even amoral, posture that governments have to assume. This posture may not be pretty, or morally edifying, or even politically palatable. Witness, for example, George W. Bush’s expressed remorse about breaking free-market, noninterventionist principles to which he was deeply committed. Still, it was necessary.

But two and a half years later, with unemployment remaining at around nine percent, and with bailed out banks and investment firms once again making big money and once again slipping into dangerous practices, don’t we need a little judgment to enter the picture somewhere? I’m not saying we should go back and retry Brooks’ observations back in 2009—I still think he was spot on. Governments shouldn’t presume to be the final arbiters of justice; they should support just practices and enact just policies, but they shouldn’t be held responsible for punishing every moral evil, nor righting every wrong. But, for Reformed Christians, doesn’t the limitation of government on this crucial item underscore the need for reliance upon a provident God to do just that? Shouldn’t that be our prayer, at any rate? Surely the injustice we see in our economy is not something we should simply accept as inevitable?

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Several years ago, before the “great recession,” theologian Kathryn Tanner wrote an ambitious book giving a well-grounded theological argument for what she called an “economy of grace.” Without plunging into the details of her argument here, I will simply observe that, in the area of economics at least, Americans may not be in a particularly gracious mood at this point. I would not want to claim that we should go with the American mood as we attempt as people of faith to speak to economics. One thing that theologians like Tanner are right in pointing out to us is that the laws of the market as we know them do not exhaust possibilities for organizing our lives— even our economic lives. If the God who governs human affairs is a God of grace, we can and should expect that there are gracious possibilities woven into the fabric of things. In other words, we have grounds for hope for building economic institutions that embody God’s self-giving nature rather than our self-gratifying ones, to some extent at least. However, grace wouldn’t be grace if it were without something else that our collective mood may very well be cluing us in to during these times: namely, that the brilliance of God’s grace is never without a dark lining, that it never appears without also harboring the specter of judgment.

Calvin certainly didn’t shrink from this view. He repeatedly insisted that the ordering of things as we experience them reflects not only God’s bountiful goodness but also God’s vengeance upon human evil. Though he never suggested a crass equivalence of wealth and virtue, he did suggest that God enacts economic judgment upon lazy, imprudent, or otherwise vicious human behavior, as well as economic benefits upon those with the opposite virtues. Mainstream Protestants tend to find these suggestions embarrassing, and for some good reasons. In light of the economic exploitation of the poor, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, we are wary of accusing economically disadvantaged persons of somehow being vicious. We are also somewhat sheepish about the excesses of the Protestant work ethic and its equation of worldly success with moral virtue, even as we are tired and perhaps resentful of the ways it has driven us relentlessly both to produce and to consume well beyond our best interests.

But is there a way to recover Calvin’s sense that God’s judgment pervades the economic sphere, even if we cannot see it play out in exactly the way he did? I believe there are strong reasons to hope so. In the end, no one can abide a simple laissez-faire-ism when so much pain and so much danger are in play. We need accountability in order to right ourselves: judgment is at least one aspect of our hope. If we are going to try to recover some sense of divine justice, I suggest that it is important to keep in mind the way that Calvin’s theology always impelled him to consult what, as he put it, “experience plainly teaches.” In the case of economics, what he observed was that virtue tended to encourage financial well-being, and that true virtue, insofar as such a thing was possible, was possible only by God’s converting grace within the hearts of the elect. Of course Calvin was not blind to the fact that, often, “wicked” persons—oppressors of the poor, for example—seem to flourish without being subject to divine retribution. Still, he was confident that God’s judgment did indeed always catch up with vice—if not in this life, then all the more so in the next.

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But what does our experience plainly teach about economic troubles, and how does this fit with the theological vision that we share with Calvin, in which God righteously governs all arenas of human life? Here are some observations I would make. Our economy is highly interconnected, with everyone’s fortunes being dependent upon a broad network of practices, institutions, and regulations. The financial industry is one prominent “node” in the economic network, and so what happens to it has profound effects on what happens to all of us. What is vexing about this fact is that the industry has been adopting practices (exotic investment instruments as derivatives and “swaps,” for example) that have enabled it to accrue a large share of financial benefit when investments succeed while distributing the risk over the rest of the economic network. As a result, to recall the political messaging of a year or two ago, “Main Street” suffers from the imprudence of “Wall Street.” This is a prime case of moral irrationality, and it deeply offends or even outrages us because it seems to puncture the moral order in which we like to think we are living, whether we see it as guaranteed by a benevolent “invisible hand” or by the judicious intervention of government. Theologically speaking, what we seem to be living through is an ingenious circumvention of the vengeance of God, at least for a time. For now, it seems, God’s governance of human affairs is being staved off indefinitely. The “wicked,” we might say (though I think that’s too strong a word because it fails to grasp the ambiguity of human motivations), have devised a way to perpetuate a system in which they can prosper without being held to account. Judgment is suspended.

But can that really be? Are God’s hands tied for the moment? Is God sidelined by the economic events of the last several years? There are two reasons why I find this picture of things unacceptable. First, to start with the obvious, the idea that judgment is not part of God’s ordering of human life, or that some dimension or arena of life is now able to stave it off indefinitely, sells God’s sovereignty woefully short. If we really believe that God is actively governing the world, it is not enough to say that judgment is being deferred. God is who God is at all times, constantly acting in the world in accordance with God’s character as both gracious redeemer and righteous judge. Second, and I believe more importantly, this picture relies upon an overly facile notion of judgment, depicting it simply as the infliction of harms in recompense for some sort of malfeasance. It regards judgment as the application of an exhaustive moral rationality in which people get, or ought to get, precisely what their deeds deserve.

I suggest that if we challenge this conventional notion of judgment, then it will be easier for us to reconcile the facts with a theological vision of God’s sovereignty, and it will also help us to respond to our ongoing economic struggles more faithfully and more creatively. Really, though, we don’t have to challenge it; it is already challenged in Scripture. Notoriously, the center of the New Testament witness to God’s activity in the world profoundly offends conventional sensibilities about justice. In the cross, God’s judgment is inflicted, not upon the perpetrators of evil, but upon the victim. In fact, the victimization of Jesus by human systems of authority is what embodies divine judgment. The Romans are God’s instruments, meting out the effects of human evil in just the way that God intends.

What are we to make of this? During the Second World War, American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr thought he glimpsed in the cross a clue to the vexing question of God’s presence amid the horrors of what was beginning to look like total war. With the bombings of London and especially Dresden, innocent civilians were made to pay the ultimate price for the tangled mass of injustices that had led to hostilities and their escalation. Where was God in that? What had become of righteous divine governance of human affairs? Was it suspended or held at bay by inevitabilities too hard to curtail? Niebuhr’s answer, like that of a good Calvinist, was “no.” But to say “no” was both a courageous and theologically dangerous act. It meant, on the one hand, that God was in fact still sovereign, but, on the other, that obliteration bombings were meting out God’s righteous anger in just the way that God intended. It meant that judgment was real and in full effect but that it fell not on the guilty but on the innocent. In other words, God’s judgment still took the form of the cross.

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Can we live with this? If we view our economic troubles through a similar cross-formed lens, we might say that the network of economic interdependence in which and by which we live is a shifting matrix of institutions that distributes both harm and benefit in a morally irrational way (meaning, persons don’t get what they deserve) and gives expression to a troubling logic of judgment and grace that is rooted in God’s own character. It means that the harms that befall the jobless, the foreclosed upon, the structurally impoverished, these harms embody God’s wrath upon human evil, leaving the guilty evidently unscathed.

But are the perpetrators really unscathed? I don’t believe so, actually. Rather, the fate of the innocent forces upon us the yet unresolved question of guilt. Harm to the innocent opens guilt up, releases guilt from its conventional associations, interrogates us as to where it really belongs. This, I suggest, is why the logic of grace and judgment that we see in the cross is troubling. It doesn’t let guilt find a safe resting place on the heads of the Romans and the investment bankers. It unleashes it, so that guilt wanders through the pages of history and the sectors of society, confronting each of history’s protagonists and participants with the innocents’ question: “Did you crucify me?” Who’s safe from this question, in the end? Are you a beneficiary and thus a perpetuator of the moral irrationality of the system? Are you in league with Romans and with big banks? Do you need their rule as much as they need your compliance? Is the endlessness of my desire the economic fodder that feeds the monster? Are we enablers in and implicit supporters of a culture of quick gratification and profits for nothing, a system of economic magic that requires occasional human sacrifices?

What I’m suggesting is the visibility of the fact that the least empowered bear the greatest burden, that the already-disadvantaged are the most vulnerable to the tottering of the system that disadvantages them, which is a woeful spectacle, a harsh light that God’s judgment shines upon all of us. Jobless persons, persons scrambling for housing, persons who are crushed by forces outside their control, expose not only the deep frailty of our networks of economic interdependence but also their cruelty—and our complicity in them.

But the spectacle, precisely as spectacle, is also a revelation. That’s why I am calling the logic of divine judgment expressed in it a logic of judgment and grace. The spectacle of innocent suffering unleashes judgment upon us precisely so that we can be brought to judgment. But to be brought to judgment is to be opened toward, even grasped by, the power of redemption. God doesn’t leave us alone, locked in our system of economic complicities, completely oblivious to the ways that it destroys our life together. “The poor we will always have with us,” but now we can see them, and they can be seen.

Eventually, I’m sure, the jobs will come back. The effects of the recent recession are lasting a long time, but some day they will be a thing of the past, and life in America will perhaps look more like it did before 2008. Then, we can relax a little, and enjoy the wealth as it builds again. We all hope that happens sooner rather than later. But perhaps we should not let this opportunity pass too quickly. The “now” we live in is a “now” in which we can see ourselves and our economy from a distinctive vantage point. One hopes that life on the other side of this “now” will be in some respects markedly different from life back “then.”

Thomas A. James teaches theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.