This is a wonderful post by Pamela Brubaker. It first appeared on alter.Voice.org.
This piece is adapted from her chapter, “Alternatives to Globalization Addressing People and Earth: A Feminist Theological Reflection on Women, Economy, and Creation,” in Reimagining with Christian Doctrines: Responding to Global Gender Injustices, ed. Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jenny Daggers, Palgrave Macmillan, December 2013.
The belief that God created human beings as part of a larger web of life and affirmed the goodness of the whole creation (Genesis 1) lies at the heart of biblical faith. The whole community of living organisms that grows and flourishes is an expression of God’s will and works together to bring life from and give life to the land, to connect one generation to the next, and to sustain the abundance and diversity of God’s household (oikos). Economy in God’s household emerges from God’s gracious offering of abundant life for all (John 10:10). “Economy of Life, Justice and Peace for All: A Call to Action,” [i] Para 2
The Call to Action from the Global Forum and AGAPE Celebration (Bogor, Indonesia, 2012) will be taken up at the WCC Assembly later this month. This excerpt reflects a reimaging of the doctrine of creation in the Call, which enriches our understanding of what it means to speak of “God of Life.” A reimagined doctrine of creation, grounded in a critical retrieval of the concept of oikonomia, gives a sense of urgency to its call for radical transformation “of structures and cultures of domination and self-destruction rending the social and ecological fabric of life.” (Para 22) I want to highlight contributions from feminist, eco-feminist, and women’s theologies and feminist economics to this reimagining.[ii] Without these, the concept of God’s household (oikos) would not have the liberating and transformative character that it has in “A Call to Action.”
The Call recognizes this contribution, when it speaks of evidence of the resurrection hope, which ultimately “springs from Christ’s resurrection and promise of life for all,” in “churches and movements committed to making a better world.” (Para 18) Specifically, it states that “women have been developing feminist theologies that challenge patriarchal systems of domination as well as feminist economics that embed the economy in society and society in ecology.” (Para 20) The household (oikos) in Graeco-Roman society was patriarchal. The paterfamilias had absolute authority over all other members of the household, which included slaves. The Household Code in Ephesians clearly upholds this patriarchal structure, even if it tends to soften its harshness. The challenges of feminist and other liberation theologies to this model are crucial to a critical retrieval of the concept of oikonomia.
Aristotle contrasted oikonomia (economy, the law of the management of the household) with “chrematistics” (commerce). According to Douglas Meeks, “the Church Fathers” generally followed Aristotle in this distinction. They affirmed the virtues of oikonomia, over against commerce – “which deformed life and community.” This began to change in the 17th century, with the spread of John Locke’s philosophy. Meeks contends that since that point, Protestant theology and ethics are oriented toward “the perceived centrality of the market;” since the 19th century it has been reduced “to the modern concern of the science of economics: the allocation of scarce resources to meet “unlimited” human wants through the expression of preferences in the market.” In the late 20th century, an approach emerged that offers “a deeper criticism of the market economy” than other contemporary approaches. This approach “depends more heavily on a critical retrieval of the Christian scriptures and tradition and an alternative narrative of economy and Christian faith.”[iii]
In my judgment, this is an apt description of the WCC AGAPE (Alternative Globalization Addressing People and Earth) process. It has critically retrieved the understanding of economy as oikonomia, and reconnected it to the household, life and community to address economic and ecological injustice. Feminist theologians and economists took up the concept of oikonomia as the economics of the household, in developing the concept of “provisioning” households. A Caring Economy: A Feminist Contribution to the Agape Process asserts: “If economic systems and policies are to be just and sustainable, feminist theologians and economists believe that these must place paramount value on caring and provision for human life.” Athena Peralta (its author) describes Oikonomia as “a wider and broader concept” of a caring economy. “It is a way of organizing life as a whole and comprises all the activities that keep daily life functioning. A caring economy is about communities experiencing life together, of relationships, mutuality and reciprocity, and not about individual satisfaction and competition.” [iv]
This feminist rethinking of economy is a significant contribution to envisioning an “economy of life.” It resonates with the Call’s description of the principles for an Economy of Life, which draws on the Report from Poverty, Wealth, and Ecology in Asia and the Pacific. Such an economy “engenders participation for all in decision-making processes that impact lives, provides for people’s basic needs through just livelihoods, values and supports social reproduction and care work done primarily by women, and protects and preserves the air, water, land, and energy sources that are necessary to sustain life.” (Para 25). This embeds the economy in society, and society in ecology. It also challenges dominant paradigms which see these as separate spheres, all subject to the primacy and logic of the market. An “economy of life” fleshes out our understanding of God’s household of life, which is fundamental to speaking of God as “God of Life.” It is also essential to a pathway to justice and peace. “God of Life: Lead Us to Justice and Peace!”
[i] The Call to Action is available at http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-programmes/public-witness-addressing-power-affirming-peace/poverty-wealth-and-ecology/neoliberal-paradigm/agape-call-for-action-2012/
[ii] I explore this in more depth in “Alternatives to Globalization Addressing People and Earth: A Feminist Theological Reflection on Women, Economy, and Creation,”in Reimagining with Christian Doctrines: Responding to Global Gender Injustices, ed. Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jenny Daggers, Palgrave Macmillan, December 2013.
[iii] M. Douglas Meeks, “Economy and Christianity,” The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, ed. Daniel Patte, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 346-7. The first of the other two contemporary approaches “accepts the neoclassical definitions of the market and construes the market as the key to understanding and practicing Christianity;” the second – “the mainstream approach” – “focuses on the limits, failures, and deformations of the market and points to the necessity of community in the interstices left open by the market and its institutions.”
[iv] Athena Peralta, Á Caring Economy: A Feminist Contribution to the Agape Process, (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2005), 2-3, 51. The first major publication articulating this approach of provisioning the household was Beyond Economic Man; Feminist Theory and Economics, ed. Marianne Ferber and Julie Nelson, (University of Chicago Press, 1993).
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Pamela Brubaker is Professor Emerita of Religion and Ethics at California Lutheran University. Her research and activism focus on the inter-structuring of gender, race/ethnicity, and class in systems of domination and exploitation and ways people of faith can help transform them. She participated in some consultations of the WCC AGAPE process. Her PhD is from Union Theological Seminary in New York.