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Missiologists and economists

21 January 2012

I’ve spent the last three days at the annual congress of the Southern African Missiological Society, and one of the things that struck me was how many of the speakers said, “I’m not an economist, but…” and then went on to talk about global economics.

Over lunch one day I chatted with Stuart Bate, who wanted to know what the “neoliberalism” that everyone was talking about meant. And for that I could refer to a blog post of mine (one in which I myself say “I’m not an economist but…”), which in turn refers to someone else’s blog post that no longer exists: Notes from underground: Liberalism, neoliberalism and neocons. To put it crudely, as I understand it, classical liberalism put political liberalism first, and economic liberalism was secondary. In neoliberalism, economic liberalism is all, or at least dominant.

Foucault points out that if classic liberalism, resting on “the historical experience of an overtly powerful and absolutist state”, had seen in (the state) the role of ‘defining’ and ‘monitoring’ market freedom, this conception is “inverted” under the neoliberal model. Here, rather than the “state supervising the market,” the market becomes the organising principle underlying the state…(n)eoliberalism removes the limiting external principle and puts a regulatory and inner principle (of the market) in its place”.

So in neoliberalism, rather than the “state supervising the market,” the market becomes the organising principle underlying the state.

Or, to put it in more theological terms, in neoliberalism the market (unlike the Sabbath) was not made for man, but man for the market.

But with all these theologians and missiologists talking about economics (prefaced by the disclaimer that “I’m not an economist but…”) I wonder what might happen if the next SAMS Congress were to arrange a panel discussion between a couple of Christian economists. I would find such a discussion between say, Azar Jammine and Arnold Mol very interesting indeed. I think that some of their ideas might turn out to be very different from each other, and that would give the missiologists something to get their teeth into.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. bob wielenga permalink
    21 January 2012 8:31 am

    Interesting. What was the missiological take to this discussion, being it a missiological congress? Bob Wielenga.

    • 21 January 2012 11:54 am


      I was referring not to one discussion on one paper, but to several, and the missiological “take” varied from paper to paper, but quite a number said something like “I am not an economist but…”

  2. 21 January 2012 8:46 am

    I noticed the repeated talk about economics myself, and also sat wondering whether the next SAMS shouldn’t be about economics. A dialogue between economists and theologians is indeed needed in the South African church today, and I think it would be the responsible thing to do to arrange for this to happen!

    • 21 January 2012 11:57 am

      OK, but see Bob Wielenga’s comment above. How would a missiological conference on economics differ from an ethics/morals approach?

      • 21 January 2012 12:16 pm

        I would suggest that there should be much overlap. Mission and Ethics doesn’t need to contrast each other, and Bosch himself spoke of “Mission as Social Ethics”. That said, we might say that a missiological conference has to include the question of the role of the church, and of change. We have to ask how we participate in bringing about the kingdom of God, to continue with Bosch’s reflection of the Mission as Social Ethics, we need to speak about our participation in expressing ethically the coming of God’s reign. A missiological conference cannot merely ask what is possible, or merely analyse, it has to include the possibility that the church has a role which is at times at odds with the reigning economic system. Where a conference on economics or ethics might merely speak about society, a missiological conference always speak about society, but also about the distinctive role of the Christian community within society.

        • bob wielenga permalink
          21 January 2012 5:57 pm

          That is fine with me, the role of the church with regard to economy etc. But with Bosch I would like to see a Biblical approach as well. His Transforming mission dealt quite extensively with a missional reading of the New Testament for and in mission. Let’s have a missional reading of the Bible session with regard to economy, free market in the context of a Kingdom theology of mission. What is missiology without Biblical reflection? Bob Wielenga

  3. 21 January 2012 9:08 am

    For a word or three from someone else who is “…not an economist but…” is an historian, I would commend Ill Fares The Land by Tony Judt.

    This book is an easy read without being academically economic. If you really want to know how neo-liberalism gained prominence under Reagan through the Chicago school under Friedman, you will find some interesting information. I found the book to be something akin to gathering comfortably after dinner with a good red and some informative people and participating in some erudite conversation.

    For myself, I am a pink-tinged Keynesian with a firm belief in distributive economics – a position which I believe is quite defensible for a Christian.

    I think Keynes is the only economist with runs on the board. He got the world out of The Great Depression and, if governments had continued to listen, he would have got them out of post-war problems. Fortunately, Australia has a rather traditional Labor Treasurer in Wayne Swan and we have been getting huge doses of good old fashioned Keynesian economics i.e. stimulus packages to ward off the GFC and the world recession!

    To read the history of the introduction of Keynesian economics into Australia, I commend the autobiography of H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs who was pivotal in introducing and implementing The General Theory in Australia. Coombs was arguably Australia’s greatest bureaucrat within the public service. The biography is entitled Trial Balance.

    • 21 January 2012 12:04 pm

      Thanks for the link, and I’ll add it to my to-read list, though I see that there are no African countries on any of the charts etc.

  4. 25 January 2012 12:28 pm

    Neoliberalism: the vulgar Marxism of the bourgeoisie.


  1. Neoliberalism and the Gospel | Khanya

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