In 2004 I was one of the representatives of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland at the 24th General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Accra, Ghana. The Council felt a new confession of faith was necessary in the context of what was described as “neo liberal markets.” The Accra confession “rejected the culture of rampant consumerism and the competitive greed and selfishness of the neoliberal global market system, or any other system, which claims there is no alternative.” (See: The Accra Confession)
Isn’t it fascinating that the Apocalyptic terminology of “the antichrist, the beast, and the dragon” are still being used in reformed circles but have found a new focus beyond the Pope in Rome. The world wide banking crisis of 2008, followed by the collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual Society has brought home to me the prophetic relevance of the Accra confession.
Unregulated capitalism cut the umbilical cord which connected work with wealth. Once we used money as a means to exchange goods. Now finance has become commodity in itself. Rowan Williams commented in a sermon in September 2008, “The biggest challenge in the present crisis is whether we can recover some sense of the connection between money and material reality.”
Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, the economics editors of the Guardian and Mail on Sunday have written a book called “ The Gods Who Failed Us.” The book exposes the religious fervour of modern society, worshipping the unattainable goal of continued economic expansion. The historian Niall Ferguson in his book, “The Ascent of Money” describes economists as the masters of the universe “pinning their hopes on mathematical models that proved to be false gods.” Religious language provides the only words capable of describing what has happened to our society.
In his updated book “Hope in Troubled times” Bob Goudzwaard argues that the goal of continual economic prosperity has become idolatrous. Up until recent times even if Christians were greedy they did regard it as a sin. However the economies of the world are now so constructed upon the foundation of avarice that it has come to be regarded as a virtue. Markets would tumble if we were not greedy. The gods of economic prosperity must be fed with credit cards, expensive holidays and mortgage repayments. Threatened with recession the government begged us to spend more to feed this hungry, monstrous beast.
The markets use the language of salvation and sacrifice. “Further economic growth can save us and all groups in society need to make sacrifice for the future.” However the sustainability of future generations is being sacrificed as this generation exploits the earth’s resources and effectively borrows from its grandchildren to pay for the excesses of today. The idols of prosperity which made such lavish promises are mutating into monsters capable of destroying society. The story of the collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual Society confronts me with the question, “have the gods taken up residence within and adjacent to the very structures of my own church?”
Tony is minister of First Armagh Presbyterian Church
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