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Theology frames statements on economic justice

Faith communities challenge individuals, society based on principles

            At the Jan. 21, 2012, Eastern Washington Legislative Conference, a panel of three regional church leaders reflected on their churches’ statements on economic justice to help frame some of the theological thinking and teachings behind their faith communities’ advocacy efforts.

Methodists set social principles

Dale Cockrum
Dale Cockrum, United Methodist Inland District Superintendent

The Rev. Dale Cockrum, United Methodist Inland District superintendent, recalled a high school ethics exercise asking students who they would throw overboard if they were in a lifeboat with too many people and limited supplies.

“It seems like the economy today is run like my wiseacre classmates who would throw over all but the strongest,” he said.

He oversees 50 United Methodist churches of farmers, teachers, small business owners and workers, who he said are “the heart of the disappearing middle class.”  They also encompass a range of opinion, exemplified by former President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who are both United Methodists.

“Current national economic practices fall far short of United Methodist ideals,” Dale said.

Every four years the national General Conference updates and adopts “Social Principles of the United Methodist Church.” 

“The last ones were in 2008 before the housing bubble burst and the economy tanked,” Dale said.  “This year, conference will adapt them to the new times.

“Our social principles are strong, prophetic, biblical perspectives, that stand against not the ideals of our economic system, but the way it is currently practiced,” Dale said.  “All economic systems are under God.  We believe government is to provide economic opportunities to ensure full employment and adequate incomes.

“These principles address deficit spending, living wages, health care, environmental protection and job creation,” he said.  “We challenge monopolies and wealth in the hands of a few.

“The six banks we bailed out could have used executive bonuses they paid in 2010 to create 3.5 million living wage jobs,” Dale said.

The principles also challenge consumption habits, pointing out that 100 million people shop at Walmart, even though that corporate chain store often drives small local retailers out of business.

“Vulture capitalism throws people out of the lifeboat,” he said, noting that with fewer people in the “lifeboat” there are fewer consumers left to power the economy.  “That will damage the lifeboat—economy—so no one may make it.”

Seeing the economy as a network of mutuality, he said, the United Methodist Church supports working together for the common good.

Consumers can do that by buying fair trade products, buying local products, buying from companies that support collective bargaining and avoiding buying from companies that ship jobs overseas, Dale suggested, noting that it may mean paying more.

He also said that the church questions privatizing Social Security, because it means people would have to pay for private management fees.  It also invites consumers to question HMOs that charge 25 percent in administrative costs.

“We must be vigilant about the privatization of public resources,” Dale said. 

Episcopal leaders seek justice

Jim Waggoner
The Right Rev. Jim Waggoner, Jr.

The Right Rev. Jim Waggoner, Jr., bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, visits people in many churches and communities from the Cascades to Montana.

Jan. 21 is St. Agnes Day, which recognizes a teenage Christian martyr who died in 304 because what she said was a threat to higher authorities, he said. “One voice matters; every voice matters, and 200 phone calls matter.

“Why is economic justice so important?  My faith tradition says God is the Creator and we are the creatures, God’s children, sisters and brothers.  Everyone is our neighbor.  We can turn our back on no one. 

“Loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength is incomplete if we do not love our neighbors as ourselves,” Jim said.

He said there are many church statements on economic justice, grounded in the Bible, based on the incarnation, that “we are flesh, living in a material world.  Things and people matter as we live our faith,” he said.

Jim quoted some church leaders:

• Anglican Bishop Charles Gore called for the church to advocate for and liberate the poor and powerless.

• Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently said Jesus would be present with the Occupy Movement, sharing the risk and asking hard questions of everyone.

• U.S. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has said that most cities are economically segregated and the most scandalous divisions in the church are economic.

“The wealthy gravitate to a theological position and turn inward to preserve buildings rather than being out and giving to their neighbors,” she said.  “The challenge is to be the voice, even though no one has all the truth, and communicate with legislators.”

• The House of Bishops said it is great to have beautiful buildings, but not if people are not fed and nourished there.  Often we fail to speak a compelling word on injustice.  We need to speak the truth to power.”

Jim said that often people of faith let the culture form them.

“We must not serve capitalism, but must make it serve us,” he said.  “We must read the Gospel through the eyes of the poor and those our culture demeans.  We must also look at the unintended consequences. 

Jim calls for working together to connect and collaborate to promote the common good.

Catholics teachings historic

Father Patrick Hartin
Father Patrick Hartin

Father Patrick Hartin, ecumenical officer for the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, came to the United States from South Africa in 1994 when the first free, fair elections were held, electing Nelson Mandela.

“Since grade school, I have been struck with concern about solidarity with the poor and less fortunate,” he said.  “I was 10 when apartheid took over Anglican and Catholic schools so the education system would keep blacks subservient.  Our bishop refused to hand over the Catholic schools and ran them on collections from parishes until 1994.

“Identity as Catholic transcended race and class there,” Father Patrick said.  “Our schools made us aware of the evils of apartheid.”

He affirmed a long tradition of Catholic teachings on social and economic justice.

In 1893, Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum addressed inequalities and evils of people forced to work in the industrial development.  It set the basis for Catholic social teachings and concepts of the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity, he said.

Everything is under the sovereignty of God, and human beings are created in the image of God, as children of God to treat each other as members of a family, Father Patrick said:  “If one member suffers, all suffer.  Jesus was involved with the poor and marginalized.”

St. James said the purpose of religion is to care for the widows and orphans.  Matthew 25 says when “we do something for the least, we do it to Christ.”  Papal encyclicals repeat those themes.

The common good is not only from Scriptures but also from Plato, Aristotle and Cicero.  The social, collective nature of human beings means each individual is affected by the common good.

“We are not to live isolated or to retreat into ourselves,” Father Patrick said.  “We are to gather and to seek the common good together.  The common good is the sum total of social conditions that allow humans to achieve fulfillment as God intended.  It presupposes respect of each to live according to their convictions and it resides in natural freedoms of conscience, privacy and religion.”

The second principle, subsidiarity, means the state should not do what a person or group can do for itself, and must empower people, groups or structures to act.

“We often hand to the state what we can do with support and help,” he said. “We need to allow people to do what they can do and not arrogantly assume we have all the solutions and others are ignorant.”

The concept that people are connected to one another leads to the third principle, which is solidarity:    “We are to walk in the shoes of another person,” he said.  “We need to be sure that what we do is helpful.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical on Truth and Charity urges a dialogue on the church and the economy.  He predicted that greed and corruption in the economic system would lead to fundamental instability.

“Greed is one of the greatest evils,” Father Patrick said.  “Beyond greed of others, we must also look at how our decisions, actions and values may empower structures and corporations to do what they do.”

For information, email Dale at, Jim at and Father Patrick at