Conversation with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove [Vol. 2, #35]

September 4, 2009

 

At the Ekklesia Project Gathering in July, I had a chance to sit down with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and talk a little bit about his upcoming book, God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, due out October 1 ( pre-order here).

ERB:  I’d like to get you to talk a little bit about your upcoming book, God’s Economy.  To start, tell us a little about some of the major themes in it.
JWH:  I decided to write this book because of Sister Barbara Parker who does all the Christian Education at our church; when she has to go to the Christian bookstore to pick a book on money, she has to choose between Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes.  Our church at one point was actually doing a study of one of T.D. Jakes’ books, and I just kept shaking my head and thinking that there is such a hunger for this [sort of book] because these guys are partly right.  They’re offering something very concrete and present and real to folks who’ve been sold a over-spiritualized gospel.  I wanted to say that the abundance of God’s economy just doesn’t look like the abundance of this world and that if we offer people that, we offer them less than the Gospel.  So, the book is called:  God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel.  The audience is very much people who want to know what Jesus has to offer in the here and now, and I think that is a perfectly legitimate thing to want to know.
In the book, the first thing we’ve got to do is to consider what in the world has gotten us so captivated by this world’s economy that we choose to live in it.  Jacques Ellul’s notion of money as a power really made a lot of sense to me.  So that is what the early part of the book is – considering how money is a power and how it holds us captive.  Then, that sets us up really well to see how Jesus engages the powers with tactics.  So the structure of the book is to explore five tactics that come right out of Jesus teaching:

1) Subversive Service – “Whoever wants to be first should be last and servant of all”
2) Economic Friendship – “Use money to make friends”
3) Relational Generosity – “Give to whoever asks of you”
4) Generous Politics – “Render unto Caesar what is Caesars and unto God what is God’s”
5) Eternal Investments – “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

I try to tell a lot of stories that come from a lot of different contexts:  Stories of Christian communities and churches that are doing interesting things and of businesses that try to take these tactics seriously in the marketplace.
ERB: Give us an example of one of the stories of businesses.

JWH:  I know a business owner in New York who is committed to being a business for the good of that community, and employment for him is very relational.  I visited him once, and while I was there a guy stopped in who was obviously homeless and the business owner stopped his work and had a conversation with the gentleman.  It was clear that the two men had a relationship and the man was welcome in the business.  It turned out that, over the years, the business owner had done a number of things – through the business and through his church – to try to help this man out of homelessness.  I want to honor businesses like that and [remind us that we] can’t just be focused on getting out of the filthy rotten system.  You can never get out of the system, and you have to subvert it wherever you are.  If you don’t own the business then you’re going to work for someone who runs it poorly – and that doesn’t make you any more pure.  It might make you more of a victim, but it doesn’t make you any more pure.  Our habits are shaped both by our choices and by the things that are done to us.  I want to celebrate good businesses [like this one] that operate under a kingdom economy.

ERB:  To go back a little bit, tell us more about this idea of a “generous politics”.  I imagine that can be a pretty tricky area for a lot of folks.

JWH:  First, it’s crucial for us to acknowledge that most of our violence is economic.  After he left his post of director of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan said “What cannot be said by the people in Washington, but everyone knows is true, is that we are in Iraq because of oil.”  When the head of the Federal Reserve says that, you’ve got to take it seriously.  This reminds us of what St. Francis said:  “When we possess things, we have to defend them” and that is the root of violence.  I explore the way that our possessions create enemies, and then paying attention to that passage where Jesus calls us to consider whose image is on the coin and reflecting on whose image is on you and me, what that means in terms of how our political allegiances either affirms life or destroys it.  We’ve got to stand up against the ways that our economic interests are calling us to destroy the image of God in people by killing them, bombing them, etc.  That’s the invitation to a generous politics.  I’m intrigued by what Jesus does in this passage; he doesn’t say, “Join the war tax resister’s league.”  Jesus says, “Render to God what is God’s” and that’s subversive; every little way that you do it, that’s subversive to this domination system.  (Not that some people shouldn’t join the war tax resisters’ league.  I’m a war tax resister myself but I think there are 1000 ways to share [the Gospel of God’s economy].”)

ERB:  Tell us a story from your own community (Rutba House, Durham, NC) of a way you all have found creative ways to implement one or the other of these tactics?

JWH:  I love how the economy of a community that practices hospitality invites people into a shared life, even people who can’t afford to live the same way.  It allows us to be together and to really deal with the other junk that separates people because we’re a community that’s sharing life together.  Right now, I live with my family (my wife and son), a high school student who was homeless and a 45 year old man who is a member of our church and who contributes a great deal to our community and who can be an example to this young man who lives in our house in ways that I can’t be because we’re in very different places.  Here’s a guy who’s not just black like the young man, but who comes from a similar background and who is really just an exemplary soul.  He lives the life of service and yet he is also unemployed.  His other options would be to live in a homeless shelter or to bounce around in the way that lots of other folks do just to make it month to month.

ERB:  It seems that he is able to live an exemplary life of service because he is unemployed.  If he were employed he might not be as available to serve the community.

JWH:  Yes, but the fact that a number of other people in our community have jobs, makes that possible; we get the bills paid.  I feel like we’re participating in God’s economy, not in some sort of realized eschatology sort of way – it’s imperfect, it’s broken, but it makes things possible that aren’t possible in other places and that, as I see it, is good news.

ERB:  I’ve always appreciated the analogy you’ve used elsewhere of the rhizomes, that are virtually indestructible because of their massive root systems.  It seems to me no less true of our economics as it is of our communities in general. God’s economy is under-the-radar and day-to-day sort of stuff, and sometimes it pops up above the surface and other people see that faithfulness.
JWH:  Yes, the Church of God will go on.  The God movement keeps on moving whether we get with it or not!

ERB:  Amen.