Years ago, I heard about a new stock-trading app called Robinhood and quickly signed up. The intrigue was two-sided. You could now trade stocks effortlessly from your phone, and more importantly, there was no fee. With a simple download and a quick connection to my bank, I was a stock trader. Watch out Wall Street.
Fast-forward some years, and I am officially addicted to checking it multiple times a day. When I open the app I am looking for only one thing: Is the graphic going up and to the right? Did I make more money?
I am not going to argue that there is something inherently wrong with investing in stocks. But slowly, I have been forced to realize that lurking beneath this seemingly innocuous check-in is a lie that threatens the well-being of our planet and undermines my walk as a follower of Jesus. Ever so imperceptibly, I have cultivated a habit animated by the desire for financial growth for the sake of growth, a habit oriented toward no one but myself. I can feel myself starting to believe that the point of money is to make more money, and that the point of the economy is more economy. My life logic begins to circle ever more tightly around more. More of the things I already have. More of what already exists.
Christ, have mercy.
Hold up, you might say. What’s so wrong with that? Aren’t you being a little bombastic?
Perhaps, but if we take a step back and look at the larger picture, we begin to see that whenever we make the purpose of something the thing itself, we betray the kenotic and relational nature at the heart of all creation. As I’ve argued in my book Everywhere You Look, so much of the anxiety and confusion around the church these days seems driven by the fact that believers have ceased asking what the church is for. Not unlike my Robinhood addiction, we’ve come to think that the point of the church is more church. Without even realizing it, all energies go toward orienting ecclesial life together around ourselves and our compulsion to grow rather than around God’s desire to heal and transform everyone and everything.
The Myth of Two-Pocket Thinking
One of the primary myths that has distorted our imagination and practice is called two-pocket thinking. I first heard this idea from my colleague Kevin Jones, who was on a team pitching Bill Gates on an investment for a new social enterprise. The idea was to invest in a coffee company that turned a profit while serving worthy ecological and human-rights metrics. As the story was relayed to me, before the pitch was even concluded, Gates had heard enough and told the entrepreneur he could leave. Surprised and taken aback, he asked why he was not interested. Gates answered, “Look, in this pocket I have a lot of money through my work at Microsoft. I then take some of that money out and put it in my other pocket to do good through my foundation. What you are asking me to do is confuse my pockets and I’m not interested.”
This is two-pocket thinking: the entrenched belief that the vast portion of our money exists for personal profit as long as we take a much smaller portion to “do good.” It should be noted that this was many years ago and Gates has changed his perspective considerably, but the story isn’t about him, it’s about us. We consistently fall for the myth that all we need to do is take some small portion of our money to give away and that’s where our responsibility ends. It’s a slippery slope, and it’s theological malpractice.
Whenever we make an idol out of something, we are placing our trust in the belief that the thing will get us what we crave. Time and time again, our idol-making ends in regret and mayhem. The economy is a powerful tool to be deployed in the grand epic of joining in God’s renewal project, but it’s not the project. As my colleague Rosa Lee Harden says, the economy is not gravity. We get to shape it, and this shape will largely be formed by the stories we tell ourselves.
From the Shema to Grace
One of the best counter-narratives to two-pocket thinking arises from the question posed to Jesus as to which commandment in the Torah was the most elemental. Cutting to the chase, Jesus said, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29–31).
The primary underpinning of monotheism is that the Lord your God is one. If you trust there is one Creator God, if there is one Maker, there is also one Giver. This singular reality we take on faith implodes the idea that we can divide our dollars. If God is one, and everything comes from God, then how can we make one part of a dollar oriented to growth and a much smaller part oriented to giving? We belong to God, a primal reality that has remarkable implications for our economic imagination.
My favourite quick prayer at mealtimes is to hold a glass at eye level, look around the room, and toast, “To the Giver.” All that we have and all that we are finds its source in the Giver. All of it is gift, all of it is grace.
A beloved mentor of mine is John McKnight. While he is neither a trained theologian nor an economist, he has offered a hermeneutic that brings these sectors together through the lens of gift. While John trained a young community organizer named Barack Obama and was mentored by the prodigious Ivan Illich, he is best known for spending a lifetime refusing to begin with problems, needs, and deficits. Rather, he and many colleagues have taught that when we first begin to see through the lens of gift, ability, and assets we can chart a very different and far more dignifying pathway that does not ignore the very real needs and challenges and injustices.
For instance, rather than seeing an unemployed elderly man who spends his days chatting with neighbours as deficient and in need of social-service offerings, we would first notice his keen social intelligence and the many talents he uses to care for his neighbours. We might notice how his steady presence and delightful curiosity could weave together a fabric of care that might not be possible with professionalized programs.
The invitation to see the world through the lens of assets and gifts is to look at the world through the lens of grace. There is nowhere we can look that is not completely and utterly saturated with grace. It follows, then, that there should be no Christian imagination of economics outside a hermeneutic of grace. If all that we have comes from God, if all that we have is gift, then our first impulse should be to connect the desires of God to renew and restore everything with the gifts we have received.
Still, we haven’t answered the primary question. Even if we reclaim our most expansive understanding of the economy through the lens of grace, that doesn’t necessarily tell us what our dollars and investments and assets are supposed to be used for.
The Social Banker
If you ask my friend DeAmon Harges about his vocation, he will tell you that he is a social banker. For years he has been attentively viewing his neighbours in Indianapolis through the lens of grace and abundance. Over many visits on front porches, many walks, and many meals, he has woven together the sacred trust between neighbours that is the building block for nearly everything we truly long for as human beings: belonging, respect, purpose, shared meaning. He is continually honouring and celebrating his neighbours, and this fundamentally begins with how he sees them. When he looks at his neighbours, relates to them, listens to them, he sees a whole pile of gifts.
This way of seeing is at once deeply theological and inherently practical. It has massive economic implications. Harges sees a person with all sorts of ideas and assets and relationships that might not be fully connected. Over the years he has created the conditions for millions of dollars to flow between neighbours. The banking element of his vocation is just as real as the social element. He is a social banker, one who uses social or intangible currencies like trust, social capital, and story capital to help communities become economically mobile. And why is he doing this? To borrow a phrase I first heard from him, he is working toward public joy.
I love the phrase “public joy” because it’s a visceral pairing of words that taps deep into the biblical idea of shalom, which can often feel a little academic, even archaic. Public joy gets at the pulsing, hopeful, brimming-with-possibility kind of energy that by its very nature requires equity and justice, and celebrates both individual and collective agency. So what is the economy for? If we view our economic life through the lens of grace, then perhaps we could say the purpose is to maximize public joy.
If we remember that we are creatures (not the Creator) and that all is gift, then of course we all need to orient ourselves toward this grand project of public joy, which necessarily includes everyone. To love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself means that all our many gifts should be oriented toward the mission of creating as much public joy as is conceivably possible.
Public joy will never be attained by pursuing the privatized individualistic story in which each of us is competing for the very best curated life of consumption. Nor is it piles of lifeless spreadsheets swirling around in bureaucracies, avoiding relationships and vision.
If the point of the economy from the perspective of a faithful follower of Jesus is to maximize public joy, then of course we need to discern what reparations and repair can look like after centuries of racialized violence, theft, and economic exclusion. Of course we will need to lament the many ways that money and land were not viewed as gifts to be used for the common good, but as a tool of conquest and domination. There is no way I could imagine pursuing public joy for everyone without dealing with the very harmful realities that most of us have inherited and yet perpetuate.
Public Joy and Repair
This powerful idea of using our assets to maximize public joy for all requires us to tell the truth. We will need to figure out where things went sinfully wrong and make repairs. If joy is the point, we can’t ignore pain; we need to aim directly at it. If this is our collective hope, then reparations will be required. We can’t get to public joy if we don’t have the courage to tell the truth.
However, as we wade through the horrific stories of those hierarchies of human value that have exploited and destroyed, we don’t need to stay there. Telling the truth is an indispensable part of the journey, but it’s not the destination. It’s inconceivable to pursue the shalom of God without justice, but justice is not the same as shalom. Shalom, or public joy, is even bigger and even better and even more inclusive. Seeing our shared economic life as directed to public joy in every neighbourhood in every country really does require all of us. It’s a vision that we hold dear as followers of Jesus but necessarily benefits everyone. The myth of two-pocket thinking is an egregious distraction from this vision. It allows us to continue the story that if we do a little bit of good, then we can maintain power and control. Like any brilliant system of idolatry, it seeks to keep us from God’s desire rather than point straight at it. Whenever our desires overlap with the Giver we are on the path to public joy.
Remembering the Future
This high calling of pursuing public joy can take as many forms as there are people, neighbourhoods, cities, and countries. Whether we are pursuing it with individual investment or philanthropy, non-profit programs, almsgiving, or anarchists’ groups scavenging food to give it away, it all counts. There are crucial conversations we need to keep having about how we use what we have. But let’s not forget that our faith commands us to remember. We must remember what God has done; we must remember what God will do. Any discovery of elemental purpose begins with God and God’s activity. So let’s reinvigorate our commitment to never forgetting the why, to joining in God’s redemptive activity, and to seeing our shared economy as a means of maximizing joy within every square inch of creation.
Through the Eye of a Needle
I wish I could end this piece here so I don’t have to circle back to the difficult reality of my Robinhood account. It’s too easy to allow these ideas to float just above our particular situations. In the case of investing in companies, instead of a blinkered view that looks only at that arrow on the app, I need to be asking some deeper questions: Is the business itself oriented toward serving the common good? As I look at my 401K and chequing account and any other investments, do my values line up with my investments?
As we each ask questions about how the resources we steward could maximize public joy, we should not assume that the only option is giving. The wealth gap is enormous, and many entrepreneurs do not have access to capital because they don’t have rich aunts and uncles to provide start-up capital. I have found that changing the relationship from donor-recipient to investor-entrepreneur changes the dynamic toward greater dignity and a healthier power balance. There are so many inspiring examples emerging: cooperative forms of real estate, neighbourhood trusts, crowdfunding startups. The creative opportunities will likely extend even further as cryptocurrency opens the door to new forms of ownership. To the extent that we push deeper into the purpose of capital, and have the courage to think and act from moral and theological conviction, even more exciting ventures and pathways will be revealed.
Rather than give in to the dominant story of the economy fuelled by scarcity and greed, we have an opportunity to act our way into the counter-narrative of grace that overflows with abundance, justice, and a whole lot more joy.