THE GOSPEL AND THE MARKET
Those who feel their interests are threatened by the Christian message typically hide their financial concern behind a veneer of public spiritedness.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s desire to put Wonga about of business through competition rather than legislating against punitive rates of interest reminds us that there are times when the Gospel challenges vested economic interests. This claim is not especially popular in a secular society, but it has ancient pedigree for Christians.
In Acts 19: 23 – 41 we are gifted the story of how one trader sought to discredit the emerging Christian community in order to preserve his profit margins. Replica shrines of Artemis brought traders a decent living in Ephesus and Demetrius, a key businessman among the silversmiths, was quickly alerted to the dip in consumer demand as local people turned away from idolatry to the living God; there may even have been fewer pilgrims making their way to Ephesus. He called together a loose trade association in panic at the developments to find a quick solution. For Demetrius, the concern was for loss of trade rather than for the declining power of the idol itself: ‘and there is a danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned’
Those who feel their vested interests are threatened by the Gospel typically hide their financial preoccupation behind a veneer of public spiritedness, as if there can be no division between their own commercial concerns and the citizens’ welfare. This tactic is most persuasive in countries where commerce invades communities, allowing little space for other measurements of the public good.
Demetrius knew he has a poor hand, for the reduction in demand was a function of the market and his losses a sign of a working price mechanism. He could not berate people for failing to buy his religious kitsch, for that would be to insult them. Instead the silversmiths created confusion and disorder in public. Their slogan ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians’ was calculated to obscure their financial stake in her greatness and to whip up a storm of protest which had antisemitic as well as anti-Christian undertones, for when the crowd realised the first man to try and subdue the crowd was Jewish, they prolonged their riot for a further two hours. People suspend their critical faculties during a riot and are swept along by the demotic illogic of the crowd; as the story observes: ‘most of them did not know why they had come together’. The tactic of stoking a mob is especially powerful when the object of their wrath is a minority; the current wave of persecution which is afflicting the Church globally has made great use of the crowd.
Eventually the town clerk was able to restore order, reminding the traders that the courts existed where offences had occurred. This was of little use to Demetrius and his friends as their problem was more systemic, but modern courts are increasingly used to defend commercial interests against wider public ones as those with the most money and the best lawyers thread winning arguments through complex legislation.
In modern life, the reverse dynamic appears to work: the priorities of the Gospel are in retreat from vested economic interests. As Britain becomes less confessionally Christian, a number of once reviled trades have gained ground. Gambling and pornography, encouraged by the anonymity of the internet, are exerting a greater grip on people, though it is hard to measure addictions pursued in secret. Meanwhile, trafficking in human beings, illicit drugs and both legal and illegal armaments are burgeoning. Globalisation, allied to a cynical and measurable price on human life, allows dark undercurrents to flow.
Even honourable trades may challenge Gospel values: the fight to deregulate Sunday trading was pioneered by a select number of large retailers who sought to make the most out of longer opening hours. Not all retailers wanted to open on Sundays and the campaign, in tribute to Demetrius, was fought on the grounds that the public wanted to shop rather than because of the profits some assertive retailers sought to make.
The tide may turn again, as the power of the Holy Spirit alters consumer demand among those he fills and as the arguments for a society being grounded in the character of God take shape. Who, then, would take the first profit warning?
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