Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Economic Inequality as God's Law?: Considering the Nature of Economic Life

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Economic Inequality as God's Law?: Considering the Nature of Economic Life

Article excerpt

At the Episcopal Church's national conference in 1924, one of the ten issues discussed was "The Christian Approach to the Solution of Industrial Problems." The consideration of this issue opened the door on two different lines of thinking about the role of the church in economic life: whether the current organization of the economic system is a natural and immutable fact of the world created by God, or whether it is a human construction that can be influenced and changed to bring it more into alignment with Christian principles. This paper will consider the arguments made in 1924, and offer a brief analysis of their implications for how the church speaks to economic life today.

When the Church Congress of the Episcopal Church met in Boston on its fiftieth anniversary in 1924, one of the ten issues that it discussed was "The Christian Approach to the Solution of Industrial Problems." The consideration of this issue opened the door on two different lines of thinking about the role of the church in economic life. One argument, put forth by industrialist William H. Barr, posited that the market economy system is natural and ordained by God. Economic decisions are therefore not subject to moral debate and thus there is no role for the church in economic discussions. The other argument, to which Episcopal minister John Howard Melish and a handful of others gave voice, asserted that economic systems are ordered by human hands to serve the shared well-being of all people and that the church has a role in advocating for an economic system that embodies Christian principles. Identifying these two arguments, studying their implications, and critiquing their viability will be the main thrust of this paper. Following these analyses, I shall consider briefly how these arguments appear in todays understanding of economic life, nearly one hundred years after the 1924 Church Congress meeting. By the end of this discussion, I hope to demonstrate that the church's evolving history and its theology offer unique resources for the work of creating a society that is more equal and where all people can thrive.

In the early twentieth century, industrial problems originating in the conflict over wages and working conditions between those who labor in manufacturing and those who own the means of production were rampant. Notorious activities in the industrial sphere featured prominently in American life, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, which claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, to the horrors of the meatpacking industry captured in Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle. From sweatshops to food production, the drive for profits trumped human welfare. Workers and consumers suffered the consequences. But workers struck back. From 1870 to 1920, there were more strikes in America than in any other country. The year 1919 saw more than thirty-six hundred strikes involving more than 4 million workers.1 Violence and intimidation were commonly employed by public and private authorities to prevent workers from organizing unions, to ward off strikes, and to force laborers back to work - most infamously at the Ludlow Massacre during the Colorado coal strike of 1914. It is in this context that the Episcopal Church chose to address "The Christian Approach to the Solution of Industrial Problems" at its Church Congress in 1924.

The Church Congress selected two people from opposite ends of the labor debates to present papers. William H. Barr, President of the National Founders' Association, presented the first paper. Barr represented an anti-union view. In his role as President of the National Founders' Association, Barr was quoted in the New York Times in 1920 as calling the work of labor unions "coercive efforts" of a "small, destructive minority."2 He opposed the eight-hour workday and made "frequent sharp attacks on union policies."3 John Howard Melish, Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York, delivered a paper in response to Barr's from the opposite end of the political spectrum. …

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