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Book Preview – Wealth, Inequality, And The Theological Imagination (Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty)

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Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, The Problem of Wealth: A Christian Response to a Culture of Affluence. Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2017.  256 pages.  Paperback.  ISBN 978-1-62698-238-3.

Contemporary religious leaders, ethicists, economists, political scientists, and sociologists write a great deal about the problem of poverty and wealth inequalities in the US and worldwide.  You may wonder as you begin reading how yet another book that addresses the connections between poverty, wealth inequalities and ecological destruction can help us think differently about the issues we are facing.  So I want in this book preview to hone in on what makes The Problem of Wealth: A Christian Response to a Culture of Affluence distinct as compared to other books.

Most of the commentary on these crises avoids a distinctively theological framing of the debate. As Joerg Rieger observes in No Rising Tide, “there is a long history of compartmentalization of religion, economics, and other aspects of life.” (48).  Even many religious leaders today will look to economics and market-oriented logic for solutions and explore the issue as the problem of poverty.

While data and statistics are important, I suggest and argue in The Problem of Wealth that reframing the public debate over the wealth divide from a theological perspective invites us to consider an alternative social logic.  As a progressive Christian, I highlight an understanding of self -always-existing-in-relationship, with other people and a larger web of life. More important, reframing the debate from a theological perspective invites us to frame new set of questions that have the potential to lead to a profoundly different set of conclusions and vision for community and a just economy.

Throughout the book, my main intention is to invite readers to engage their theological imagination. The project draws significantly upon my experiences of working in social ministry and serving as a research consultant for the World Council of Churches’ Poverty, Wealth and Ecology project, which involved travel to dialogues in Hungary, Jamaica, Canada, Tanzania, and Indonesia.

One of the things I recognized through these experiences was the importance of examining my own role and patterns of consumption as a middle class US American.  I contend that Christian thought and practice as well as other great world religious traditions have much to teach us about being allies with people in poverty because the religions themselves emerge out of the experience of people pushed to the periphery of their societies and pressed into tight spaces.

In other words, even the most sacred texts of my own Christian tradition don’t directly emerge from or address my contemporary U.S. white middle class experience.  So, I challenged myself in writing the book to think from a perspective that challenges my own social location.

Sacred stories, ancient traditions, confessions of faith, and engaged spiritualities invited me to begin the debate about wealth inequalities from the perspective of people living in poverty and by looking socially upward—the problem is wealth and how we create it.  Remember Jesus saying, “It is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom” (Mark 10: 25)?

I chose to engage and explore a variety of questions: How does our understanding of the root causes of poverty shift when beginning our dialogue with the idea that the problem is wealth and how we create it?  What resources do religious traditions, particularly the Christian faith, offer for us to imagine an alternative social logic?  How are people of faith trying to embody love and the values of reciprocity, collaboration, and interdependence in our contemporary economy?

The book intentionally provides a rich ecumenical and interfaith resource because I think that collaboration is essential to creating authentic change and envisioning a just economy.  I take a calculated risk as a Christian theologian in the book to explore the teachings of other religious traditions that I hope will increase our larger collective theological imagination.

Chapters explore the following, among other, themes:

  • Framing the discussion of poverty, wealth inequality, and ecological destruction from a theological perspective invites us to look socially upward—the problem is wealth and how we create it, not poverty.
  • Underscoring how economics has always been central to Christian theology and highlighting the centrality of economic in Christian teachings from the early followers of Jesus until the Enlightenment.
  • Defining economism and how, when, and why the boundary between economics and theology was created in the Western academy.
  • Examining the contours and impact of our current dominant forms of wealth creation, neoliberalism and social developmentalism, within the US and with a more specific focus on the Appalachian region.
  • Exploring theological concepts from Christian and other traditions that nourish an ethic of enough; concepts such as Social Trinity, Buddhist economics, Islamic banking, and Native American ideas of reciprocity, harmony, and wealth.
  • Considering ways real people are embodying a different set of values such as of reciprocity, cooperation/collaboration, interdependence, accountability to the commons, sustainability, and the inclusion of diverse people and experiences.
  • Problematizing the problem of wealth by considering specifically the role of the middle class in the US and inviting increased theological imagination and moral vision through storytelling and contemporary parables.

There are a variety of additional resources included in the book that I think will be helpful in teaching, such questions and prompts for further thought and discussion, lists of the documents of Catholic social teaching and ecumenical and interfaith statements concerning a just economy as well as a glossary of alternative theological terms.

The Problem of Wealth concludes with a call to action.  Ultimately, my hope is that the book will equip readers to think theologically about poverty, wealth inequalities and environmental destruction, enable all of us to frame better, more critical questions that hold self-interest and the interests of a larger community in greater balance, and inspire us all to act to embody a different set of values in our economy.

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty is professor of theology and chair of the department of theology at Bellarmine University.  She is also the author of Beyond the Social Maze: Exploring Vida Dutton Scudder’s Theological Ethics (T&T Clark, 2006) and Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians (Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).

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