Jobs, growth and enterprise are constantly viewed as something solely positive in the political and economical debate. More jobs are good, less jobs are bad. If a policy may lead to “fewer American/Ukrainian/Indonesian jobs”, it should be rejected. Economic growth must increase as much as possible. As long as an activity is legal and you get paid for it, it’s good and should be supported and celebrated.
The Bible, on the other hand, says that work means “doing something useful” with our hands. The Christian calling to holiness, compassion and altruism doesn’t stop when we’re earning money. On the contrary, if it’s somewhere we should live like Jesus it is at our workplace, where most of us will spend a lot of time and energy.
This is why the early Christians didn’t think that all jobs were good, such as slave trading (1 Tim 1:10), occultism (Rev 22:15) and politicians (Mt 20:25-26). The Apostolic Tradition from the third century named other jobs as well, such as gladiators, prostitutes and soldiers, as unacceptable for Christians. This is basically concluded from what kind of activities the job requires compared to what ethics are Christian called to follow.
However, as Christians try to “do something useful” in our work, we should also take a look at activities that may not be as harmful as for example being a gladiator, but rather, unnecessary. The Bible encourages simplicity and equality and says that we should not be rich, and that means that we should not consume unnecessary stuff but be sufficient with food and clothing (1 Tim 6:8) and give away one shirt of we have two (Lk 3:11). If we should not consume superfluities, we should not produce them as well.
This is why I’m proposing a framework of viewing “the economy” as several economies intervined, which roughly can be grouped in an economy of need and an economy of greed. The economy of need includes what is indeed necessary for a good life for all people, such as nutritious food, warming clothing, health care, infrastructure and education. The economy of greed on the other hand is the economy of superfluities such as luxury, entertainment and beauty products (I call these LEB-products).
Ironically, the economy of greed is often defended by claiming that it contributes to the economy of need, so that when one criticizes the extreme mass consumption of the Western world and the environmental damage and unequal distribution of capital it creates, one often gets the response “but economic growth creates better welfare, feeds hungry children and strengthens the health care system!” The argument goes that even in the economy of yacht manifacturing, which is completely unnecessary, the jobs are being created contributes to the economy so that somewhere else a poor child is being fed.
This “spill-over effect” or “a rising tide lifts all boats” argument has been deconstructed over and over again by environmental economists. Without digging to deep into the subject – and this post is just a brief introduction to the concept of multiple economies – I think we have to see that people who choose to work in the economy of need instead of the economy of greed is not harming the economy at all, they are just making it better and more ethical.
Not long ago, a guy on Twitter was upset because I had criticized how people are being mistreated in Apple’s Chinese sweatshops where their iPhones are made. He said that if we stop buying iPhones, the Chinese workers will lose their jobs. I responded that if people stop buying iPhones and buy Fairphones instead, more Chinese workers will work in a Fairphone factory where they are being treated in a good manner rather than being treated as slaves.
This is what Christians should aim for: empty the unnecessary economy of greed and join the green, social and necessary economy of need. Then we will be even better at contributing to God’s Kingdom vision of an equal, restored humanity.