In the economy of the ancient world one’s well being was not so tied to the economy as it was to their group structures.
The Fallacy of Presentism teaches us to view historical events through our modern lens instead of reaching back into the past to understand the world of the past. That is, there is a widely held belief that a person’s well-being is and always has been tied to the economy of the city-state and then empire and then nation state that said person lived in. We have the arrogance to think that we in the twenty-first century are doing things the same way we have always done them. Thus, in our present times two equally dark options appear to be all that is left to us. 1. Either people die from the Pandemic or 2. People die from economic depression and despair. This is a false dichotomy that operates within a black and white framework and fails to work beyond the two equally horrible options. Tribalism then comes into play and one tribe adopts one side and another tribe adopts the other and both sides are at an impasse.
Of course, this is the problem in a society that has so undermined the intellect as to literally be blown about by every single wind of thought. We lack the capacity to think abstractly, throw in the way that the internet manipulates our thinking and steals our objectivity from us. Stripping away our ability to think beyond the black and white options available to us. And the failure of our education system to teach proper critical thinking skills and laws of logic mean that we do not have ability to reason our way to a third or fourth option in a situation like this.
The reality is that there was once a time when the well-being of a society was not tied to that place’s economy. There was also a time when societies did not rise and fall on economic power alone. Was economic power a factor? Yes, but it was not the only factor. Historians tell us that Culture, institutions and geography also played a major part in a person’s well-being until around the 15th century and the first wave of Globalization that came with Columbus, Magelian and other great explorers.[i]
Those places and cultures had economies, but they were centered more on cultural advancement than on economic development. It is telling that while money and ethical use of it is mentioned in ancient texts like the Bible, it is the group watching out for one another, not the economies of those places that take center stage. The Early Christians were not necessarily economically advantaged (in fact the opposite was true in most places) and yet they survived and thrived and even fulfilled God’s command to make sure there were no needy person among them (Duet 15:4, Acts 4:34). Even when Rome’s economy suffered during the various later invasions of the empire the church continued to care for its members and non-members, using her resources to ensure the well-being of everyone she met. One of the reasons the gospel spread so rapidly, and the church grew in kind was because even in the worst of times the church cared for everyone and sought the well-being and shalom of everyone. Even when someone had to forfeit their job after becoming a Christian, the Church would find alternate employment, retraining and other resources to make sure that person survived and flourished. This of course was not something the pagan religious could duplicate as Julian the Apostate so lamented in a letter to one of his priests in Galatia. A letter in which he also identifies the Christians: “Care for their own sick as well as our own” as the reason for Christianity’s unstoppable advance and his failure to revive Roman Paganism.
The reason for this was that the early Christians were a strong group family structure rather than a weak group individual structure. In the strong group the group was central, but not supreme, one understood that their well-being and flourishing was tied to the well-being and flourishing of its neighbor. When one part of the group suffered, the entire group suffered. This is one of the lessons of Isaiah 1, the sin of the group meant and the sinful attitudes of those within the group towards other members of the group would lead to the destruction of the group because in doing so they had abandoned what God had commanded them to do. The group was not supreme, but abandoning the group to seek ones own interests actually kept the one looking to his own interests from flourishing as well. The well-being of the individual was tied to the well-being of the group. The difference between this and tribalism is that tribalism holds the group ideology as supreme and punishes descent. This is how cults and totalitarian groups operate and is detrimental to the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
In a weak group like the one we live in one looks out for the interest of self, the self is not only the focus, but is supreme. Weak groups do not look out for one another because the self and the well-being of the self is central and in fact supreme. We are under no obligation to protect or watch out for or care for one another because we do not feel we are connected to one another. If you want to know how a weak group operates, look at our current discourse online. The irony is that we have applied tribalism’s totalitarianism to the self and so the individual self joins a tribe of people who think like the person and descent from the individual’s infallibility is considered anathema. Modern tribalism is not a strong group because it still insists upon the primacy of self.
Now, as I said at the beginning, until the 15th century there were a number of factors that determined a persons well being and all of those were tied in some way to the group because until the Enlightenment and the rise of individualism there was no such thing as a “weak group.” To this day the Global West is the only place where most societies are “weak group societies.” Until the first Globalization almost every society was a strong group society in which culture, institutions, geography, and economics were equal in seeing to the well-being of all human beings. Institutions included strong group family structures that find their most pure form in God’s intentions for Christianity as lived out in the early church. The phrase: “It takes a village to raise a child” carries with it a strong group mentality, as do the covenantal promises forged when an infant is baptized between the parents and the congregation.
Now, I have intentionally not specifically mentioned government because government would be included in the institutions mentioned before. Government should be a benign background operator that supports but does not dictate the other institutions that support the well-being of the strong group and provides protection against the enemies of the group. It should also recognize that neither too little government or too much government are detrimental to the well-being of all people. That means that Socialism and Communism and unfettered, government backed Capitalism are bad for the group. You cannot force people into a collective without doing harm and you cannot leave people to their own individual devices without doing a lot of harm, but government cannot be the primary check and balance or economic provider of the group. That should fall to the institutions on the front line which are daily involved in the life such as churches and schools. This makes strong groups voluntary but the effects of leaving the strong group are like those of not being a part of the group in the first place.
This also diminishes the reliance on economy because a person’s well-being is spread out across four separate categories rather than totally dependent on one. If the economy breaks down the institutions like the family are them to support the person. If something happens and a once prosperous geographical position is compromised the person can fall back on the economy or institutions or even culture to ensure their survival.
In our present crisis we are seeing the effects of weakened institutions which had already led to a greater amount of loneliness and isolation before social distancing began. One of the observable and recorded data points we have seen repeatedly in the last 4 years has been that people are more alienated, isolated and afraid then ever. There has been a growing since that those who claim to speak for us do not and that feeling is justified. This feeling goes back more than 4 years though, and likely further back than we think it does. Unfortunately, some have answered this alienation by using the same solution as the ones who did the alienating in the first place. Instead, we should focus on strengthening the local institutions that have the ability to care for those in the trenches and know what those needs are because they are rooted and grounded in the community. Like our grocery store here in town which has promoted and supported our food pantry and works with the churches. We strengthen one another, our churches in town are better because of our grocery store and our grocery store is better because of our churches. The same should be true of the churches and the schools. It is these local institutions that are the solution to solving and providing a third solution to the false dichotomy mentioned earlier. Institutions working in the geographical location of the people they are serving and caring for even while the economy teeters, these are institutions perfectly placed to care for those in need and provide for them. They should support one another and be supported by one another to make sure that no one falls through the cracks.
We can prevent unnecessary deaths of despair by becoming less dependent on the economy and more dependent on one another and the institutions in our location that there to work for our well-being. We can survive an economic downturn like so many people in so many places before us without having to sacrifice thousands either to the virus or economic downturn. We have done it before; we can do it again.
[i] Robert C. Allen, Global Economic History, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2011, New York.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.