Missional Economics: Biblical Justice and Christian Formation
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018
Available at Eerdmans.
by Mark Simon
This is a new volume in The Gospel and Our Culture Series published by Eerdmans under John Franke’s editorship. It joins a number of previous contributions which have established themselves as significant milestones in writings on missional church and missional hermeneutics (such as Guder’s Called to Witness and Missional Church; Gorman’s Becoming the Gospel; and Goheen’s Reading the Bible Missionally). The fact that Barram is moving the discussion beyond missional ecclesiology and employing missional hermeneutics to develop a biblical theology of economic justice demonstrates that the missional hermeneutics movement is maturing.
The book begins with three chapters that establish Barram’s hermeneutical grid for approaching the topic of economic justice. The need for transformation in our thoughts and behaviours is developed from Romans 12:2 (chapter 1). A missional hermeneutic is described in chapter 2, where Barram explains that mission includes God’s purposes both within and beyond the church, and so is not restricted to evangelism but encompasses matters of social and economic justice. Chapter 3 argues that Luke 4:18-19 is Jesus’ mission statement and that the blessings of Luke 6:17-26 (and Matthew 5:1-12) help us to see reality from God’s perspective. Chapters 4-12 then explore the contribution to transformed reasoning and action made by texts from across the Bible: Exodus, the Decalogue, the Legal Codes, Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Genesis 1-3, Matthew, Luke, Acts and selected passages from the epistles. A highlight of each treatment is the application and discussion questions at the end of each chapter. The book closes with a call to choose a new way of life. This new life is covenantal, concerned for human dignity, liberation for the oppressed, and kingdom abundance.
The book has much to commend it. It should serve to broaden many readers’ conception of mission, and the importance of economic justice as a thoroughly biblical ideal. Barram’s call to consider the economic element of discipleship is particularly urgent given the widespread phenomenon of western politicians setting voters’ economic self-interest over against environmental, ethical and social obligations. Another highlight of the book is the list of questions raised by Barram at pp. 36-37. These are designed to encourage self-awareness on the part of interpreters regarding their own context. For example, “Does our reading of the text challenge or baptize our assumptions and blind spots?”, “Does our reading of the text reflect a tendency to bifurcate evangelism and justice?” and “How does this text expose and challenge our societal and economic tendencies to assign human beings and the rest of creation merely functional—as opposed to inherent—value?”Barram argues that God’s vision for the community of faith is that it operates according to a principle of abundance rather than scarcity. This is not to be misunderstood as a prosperity gospel, but understood as a call to great communal generosity and sharing of the riches God graciously provides to believers. I am concerned that Barram’s discussion of kingdom abundance does not adequately address how treating the natural environment as a practically limitless source of fuel and material resources has contributed to the environmental crisis now confronting humanity. It would have been helpful to see greater engagement in the book between missional economics and the questions raised by eco-theology.
A second area that the work leaves underdeveloped is its relationship to liberation theology. Barram’s autobiographical comments make it clear that his own journey in theology has been shaped by his experiences living and serving in Central America. There are two brief discussions of liberation theology (pp. 17 and 60), but the whole work exudes a liberationist exercise in consciousness-raising. Barram states that his purpose is to raise awareness among North American Christians concerning their economic and social justice blind spots (p.4). He advocates for readers to become aware of their own social location and privilege as they engage with biblical texts, and to consider the perspective of the poor and oppressed. Given these themes and the author’s background, I would have welcomed a more explicit engagement with evangelical critiques of liberation theology and a position statement on how missional hermeneutics extends or diverges from liberation theology.
Missional Economics is a very helpful resource that will inform and provoke deep discussions on the nature of the economic vision of the Bible and the nature of discipleship for Christians in the western world.
Mark Simon is a PhD Candidate at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia. He is a minister in the Anglican church, and a visiting lecturer and conference speaker in Indonesia.