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Reflection: Spiritual Economy To Live Well

Spirituality must give a soul to the economy. “The market was made for human beings and not human beings for the market”.

When a Brazilian company built the Tucuruí hydroelectric dam in the Amazon, different groups in defence of the Indians tried to impede the construction. When they could do so no more, they insisted that the company pay a just compensation to the Kayapó Indians who were affected by the dam and who lost their lands and crops. Lawyers for the company responded “There is no need to compensate the Indians. They don’t value money. They just receive it and distribute it among all in the village whether they are relatives or not”.

Hearing this, the indigenous chief responded, “it is exactly the contrary. We value the money so much that we make it an object of sharing. Who doesn’t value it is you who do not use it for the community”. The Indian wanted to explain his concept of ‘spiritual economy’, that is an economy to ‘live well’. He did not have a word to explain this, but he had clarity about the relationship existing between an economy of sharing and the reverence for the spirit of life that inspires all human relations and the communion of all human beings with nature.

The relationship that some African people like the Zulu, in South Africa call, ‘ubuntu’, is the balance in social relations and an economy of peace. The people of the yoruba tradition translated as Axé, the energy of love that permeates human relations with all the goods of nature and of life, and thus the economy. For many of the Amazonian indigenous peoples, this would be called an ‘economy of reciprocity’, a form of communion that manifests itself in the cults of food, in the feasts and in sharing the hunts and the fruits of labour.

The religious traditions of the West found it difficult to understand that notion of spiritual economy because, in their history, they confused spirituality with spiritualism. Only by making this distinction, is it possible to re-establish the tie between economy and spirituality that seems to be lost. For the Churches also, in times gone by, economy was a theological term.

The Fathers of the Greek Church, like Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea, (IV century), used it to designate the divine plan of salvation for the world. The purpose of economy is the ‘administration of the common good’. It is the economy that guarantees the true Koinonia, that is, the participation of all and the right of all to be and to have in common.

As this communion is the characteristic of Christian life, it is the proper name of its most important sacrament; the economy is the basis of koinonia. Ancient Christian documents said ‘If we have in common the heavenly goods, (the Eucharist), how could we not hold earthly goods in common?’.

In the fourth century, John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, taught “Mine and yours are only words. Not to help the poor is robbery. What we possess does not belong to us, but to everyone”.

As in all fields of life and human activity, spirituality must give a soul to the economy. Without the spirit, the economy dominates the market as an idol and money transforms itself into a fetish. The market, that in itself is a human institution of interchange and of relations between persons and between groups, has become an absolute disconnected from the rest and this is so to the point that with Jesus we could denounce “the market was made for human beings and not human beings for the market”.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, the economy became more than ever centred on money and capital with authoritarian neoliberalism. Along the years, this tendency toward centralisation of capitalism was reinforced as was the concentration of oligopolies (big business) in the most important sectors of the economy. This is producing increasing poverty, hunger, unemployment and suffering for more than two thirds of all human beings.

However, various alternative sectors of society have sought another economy, a more ethical and human manner to administer the common good. Popular movements develop forms of economic solidarity. Spiritual groups speak of an economy of communion. Indigenous peoples emphasise an economy starting from the good life as the common objective, a quality of life for all.

To contest the dominant model of society and economic relations prevalent in the world, without a doubt, the first indispensable condition is to assume a personal and social ethic that impregnates all of our relationships. This ethic of justice and solidarity should guide our way of being, our relationships, both interpersonal as well as social.

In various places in the world, groups and persons have developed what they call the balance of justice, a form of organization of the domestic and personal economy that allows us, at the end of the month, to evaluate if our manner of spending is in accord with that in which we believe and propose to live.

This new ethic will help us discern whether the “soul” of the products that we use and buy, are not produced by child labour in sweat-shop conditions or by industries and brands that exploit and destroy nature. For the validity of another economy that is possible, we have to take care to preserve spaces of gratuity in the relation between people and with nature. These spaces of gratuity and reciprocity are expressions of love and reverence for our life, the life of others and all living beings. The other possible economy is an economy that goes beyond the dealings of commerce and concretely savours life in new relations of love and community.

– Marcelo Barros, Brazilian Theologian