“God’s Economics”: A Pastoral Letter for 2014

I have been inspired by a Facebook thread to repost this UCC Pastoral Letter I wrote on the church and economics in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis.  The letter is reproduced below.

The economic crisis has actually worsened since 2008.  In 2014 the “crisis” has become chronic. We now have vast income disparities that grow worse with each passing day. It is crucial that Americans begin to actually “see” the disparity. As this famous video shows, most people know it’s bad, they just have no idea how bad it really is:

It is ever more important for people of faith to focus our biblical, theological and justice-praxis on this crisis of economic injustice in 2014.

Here is the letter:

“In hard economic times, church must proclaim justice, good stewardship”

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite
September 26, 2008
God has not abandoned the people or the church in this time of national economic crisis.  We, as members of the United Church of Christ, its pastors, its teachers and its laypeople, must be clear as we address this crisis not only from our pulpits, but also when we speak to the nation at large, that our faith is that God is with us.Dear Fellow UCC Members:

The presence of God calls us not only to comfort, however, but also to confront the forces that have driven our country into this economic ditch.  A good place to start is with the study and discussion of the careful work our church has already done on relating our faith and economics. A group of pastors, teachers and economists labored for nine years to produce the UCC Pronouncement on the economy, A Pronouncement on Christian Faith: Economic Life and Justice, passed at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod 17, in July 1989.

In addition, there is the thoughtful study book by economist and UCC layperson, Rebecca Blank, Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Economic Life based on the nine years of work that produced the pronouncement.  In addition, this group of electronic resources includes a more recent piece I wrote called “God’s Economics”.

“The church has always responded to the human pain brought about by economic suffering,” Rebecca Blank argues. Yet, the church has often been silent, even silenced when it comes to confronting how our economy does or does not work for all the people. We must make a stronger connection between our faith, our biblical and theological resources, and our responsibility to care for one another. Blank continues, “Linking Christian faith and economic life requires that we look at the process by which economic decisions are made through the perspective of our faith, which means confronting the operation of the economy with the vision of human purpose and human society to which we are called as God’s faithful people.”

Does this mean that all the pastors, laypeople and teachers of the UCC are now to become experts on the economy?  Certainly not.  But we have a responsibility to proclaim, even demand, good stewardship of God’s creation and to call to account those who are responsible for making this system work productively so that individuals and families who work hard can have the means to live.

A story may help us understand the separate but related roles of proclamation and politics. When Ronald Reagan was elected President, as many of you doubtless remember, his first budget included many cuts in social programs.  A group of clergy went to Washington D.C., myself among them, to argue with Congressional representatives that these social programs helped people get out of poverty and that it was wrong to engage in these wholesale cuts.

A few prominent clergypersons were invited to the Oval Office to meet with the President.  Rev. William Sloan Coffin, then Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, was one of those invited. President Reagan patiently explained to the visiting pastors why these cuts were necessary, in his view, to balance the budget.  Rev. Coffin replied, “Mr. President, it is up to us to proclaim that ‘Justice shall roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.  Your job is the plumbing.”

It is not up to us as church people to dictate a certain economic plan, but it is up to us to say loud and clear when the plumbing isn’t working and the means of life is not flowing to most of the people.

I have thought many times in recent days of this statement by Rev. Coffin.  As the relationship of religion and political life has become more visible in the public square, it has also become confused, even risking becoming merged.  In this crisis, it is not up to us in the religious communities, across the wide range of religious affiliations in our divers nation, to dictate to the government exactly how to do what needs to be done.

But it is incumbent upon us as religious people to act as the voice of conscience. No one ever said this better than Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in The Strength to Love.  “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

We as the church cannot be an effective voice of conscience, however, if we are ignorant of our biblical and theological foundations.  That is what we have to bring to this time; that is what we have to bring to any time in our life as a nation.

To pastors I say, read and study these documents and prayerfully work from the pulpit and in study groups so that your congregation will be well prepared to face these turbulent and disturbing times with the strength of faith and the light of God’s wisdom. But do more, tell your communities that you are having these study groups and invite others in.  Work together with other pastors, UCC as well as other denominations and faiths, to share resources and convene discussion groups.  Hurting people may be reactive; be sure you focus your groups on religious resources and honor all diversities without allowing any stump speeches!  Tell the local press you are doing this and invite them as well.  Speak out from your desk and your pulpit to tell the nation that the resources of faith are there and all are welcome to them.

Church members, you must study and pray.  Be informed on your own or gather with other members to read and discuss our historic materials and our biblical resources.  Reach out to others.  Be sure to include those who are especially isolated and at risk.  Be kind to neighbors and friends.  Tell them of your church’s resources and how to find them.

Teachers of the church, you need to teach.  In adult Sunday school, in colleges and in seminaries, we must come together for intense study and reflection.  These problems we are facing as a nation, because they are so profound and of such long-standing, will not be going away any time soon.

We need, therefore, to study, teach, preach and proclaim not only for this current time, but also for the future.

We dare not, from this day forward, allow the church to be silent when so much is at stake for so many not only in our country but around the world.  It is our Christian responsibility and we must take it with utmost seriousness.

We need to be the Church.

God bless each and every one of you.

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

About Susan Thistlethwaite

I am President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary; I write for the public here and in local papers. I am interested in what I call "public theology," or how deeper meaning is made and contested in the public square.
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