01/29/2013 06:39 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Just Economics

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me...
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed ... Luke 4:18 (Common English Bible - CEB)

Throughout history these are the categories of people who are not economic players; in fact they have largely been dismissed as economic liabilities. So when Jesus made his public declaration of interest, it was as profound as it was provocative. Moreover, Jesus said that he was on a mission from God.

During many years of visiting prisons throughout the world, I have noted consistently that there are a hugely disproportionate number of poor and powerless people in prison. To be sure, there are a few prisoners from the families of the rich and powerful, but mostly prisoners are numbered among the poor, undereducated and marginalized people. Whether by choice or not, they are persons who have been excluded from the halls of power and commerce. They've simply had little or no means to successfully play the economic game.

This does not mean that poverty or being disadvantaged causes crime or necessarily lands people in prison. Criminality and the politics of imprisonment are far more complex than that. However, it is true that the economic systems of most countries and corporations are controlled by those who have the wealth and power to do a whole lot of good, but often use their position only to amass even greater wealth and power at the expense of the common good, especially the good of those who are seen as economic liabilities.

Normally I don't concern myself with issues of global economics, but this week I could not avoid thinking about economics, faith and justice as the World Economic Forum met in Davos, Switzerland, for their annual meeting. Coming at a time of continuing financial uncertainty when the gap between the rich and the poor seems ever widening; when 70 percent of the world's wealth is concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest 10%; and when the wealth of the top one percent has increased by 60 percent during the last two decades(source) -- one would think that the titans of global economic and political power would be concerned about the adverse impact of unrestrained greed, and the growing marginalization of people who are economically left behind and left out. But, as usual, their agenda was more self-serving.

Following the 2012 World Economic Forum one commentator wrote,

Leaders at Davos could use some religious instruction... [Their view of] global finance separates economic from ethical value and measures all things according to their nominal monetary worth. As a result, capitalism grants money universal, sacred status. Thus, capitalism profanes the sacred and sacralises the profane - a modern radicalisation of the moneylenders who desecrated the Temple and were expelled by Jesus of Nazareth. Amid the moral crisis of global capitalism, Christianity and other world religions offer some of the most transformative ideas and practices. Faiths enjoin their followers to impose ethical and civic limits on the activity of businesses. ( , Thursday 26 January 2012 07.26 EST )

So it was big news in Davos this week when headlines proclaimed, "Religion Comes to the World Economic Forum." Tragically however, the religious discussions did not inform economic policies, but served primarily to highlight religiously fuelled political tensions, and to illustrate the fact that while Christianity and Islam are increasing in developing countries, the number of people without any religion at all is increasing in wealthy nations.

In thinking about Jesus and justice and economics this past week, it seemed to me that the God of Jesus who is concerned about the poor, imprisoned and marginalized has been replaced by the self-serving economic "god" of unfettered capitalism. There are some who say that it's only economics and has nothing to do with justice or religion. But if there is a God and Father of all humankind, then it seems obscene for a wealthy few to perpetuate economic systems that alienate and allow untold masses of people to languish in misery. Ironically, a recent study points out that the net income of the 100 wealthiest billionaires in the world is enough to eradicate extreme poverty four times over!

Yet the real problem for me is not that there are extremely wealthy people in the world. The problem becomes crystallized in the question, what constitutes "just" economics? This is not simply a question of macro-economic theory, but becomes a painfully personal question for me as I am trying to figure out what it means for me to follow Jesus and live justly in a world where so many people are treated as economic liabilities. How do I justly earn, spend and save whatever money I have in ways that reflect Jesus' agenda for the poor and prisoners and people with disabilities and those who are oppressed -- including the homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk begging; the kids in our community who go to bed hungry; the father who lost his job and can't make ends meet to support his family; the illegal migrant worker who can't get a job; the drug-addicted young person who sees no future? I feel powerless to do much about the big picture of injustice, gross inequality and heartlessness of the economic system in which I live, but instead of frustration and anger, I am daily trying to do my little part in promoting a "just" economy by participating with Jesus in extending lavish good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, recovery to the blind and disabled and addicted and inclusion to the bullied and the downtrodden -- all people who are regarded as economic liabilities by the economic systems which hold us captive.

Workers, owners, managers, stockholders and consumers
are moral agents in economic life.
By our choices, initiative, creativity and investment,
we enhance or diminish economic opportunity, community life and social justice.
The global economy has moral dimensions and human consequences.
Decisions on investment, trade, aid and development
should protect human life and promote human rights,
especially for those most in need wherever they might live on this globe.
-Excerpted from "A Catholic Framework for Economic Life" (A statement of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 1996)