Goldline and God’s Economy

In February of 2012, Goldline International settled charges of fraud and unfair sales practices with the city of Santa Monica for $4.5 million.[1] Much of the media buzz surrounding Goldline’s legal troubles was driven by the prominence of their advertising in Conservative Radio Media. As per Goldlines press page, figures such as Monica Crowley, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck are paid to promote Goldline’s precious metal products. Oftentimes, their exhortations to invest in gold accompany a larger story about political instability or collapse. Predictably, Glenn Beck and company tend to push gold on their listeners most aggressively during uncertain, fearful times.  For example, Beck incorporated his fear-based reflections on the Boston marathon bombings into a monologue about the security provided by investing in gold.[2]

There are, to be sure, significant overlaps in pessimistic cosmological imaginations between apocalyptic themes, financial collapse, and salvific precious metal investments. Gold is seen as an “investment of last resort.” It is what investors will be able to count on for their financial security in the event of abrupt governmental or financial collapse. Investors in gold, then, span a number of ideological backgrounds. Some are concerned that a global financial system based on fiat currency is fundamentally unsound and destined for collapse.[3] In the event that fiat currency is subject to hyperinflation and rapid devaluation, they feel confident that gold will retain its value. Other precious metal aficionados are concerned with an abrupt political collapse, in which case the United States government would no longer be able to back the value of its currency. And still other apocalyptic fears are more firmly rooted in religious language and concerns. The trials and tribulations of the end times will spell trouble for traditional institutions and investments. In the case of Glenn Beck’s religio-political cosmology, these themes are all bound together by a health dose of conspiratorial suspicion.

In some sense, though, the particulars of ones political or theological reckoning are irrelevant. Whatever the source of one’s financial fears, gold plays a similar role. Gold is a source of security in times of trouble. It firmly plants one’s financial future in the realm of what is tangible and unassailable by changing social forces. It eliminates the risk of scarcity that accompanies all participation a currency-driven market economy. Framed in more religious language, gold functions as an eschatological substitute for God’s economy of grace. Much of Christian reflection has pitted against one another the economy of scarcity and God’s economy, but the beliefs and hopes attached to gold as a “sound currency” suppose that investors can escape the inherent risk and scarcity of the market economy.

Recent events, however, are poking holes in the gold story. As Rueter’s columnist Felix Salmon tells the story, an asset like gold is an inefficient, fear-based investment.[4] During uncertain times, especially risk-averse investors flock to the gold market in an attempt to secure the value of their investments. Indeed, until very recently the price of gold was booming. Over a decade the price of one ounce soured from about $300 to almost $2,000. Within the past week or so, however, the price of gold has dipped sharply, and many analysts are predicting that gold has entered a bear market—that is, its market value will tend to gradually decline for the foreseeable future.[5] Although gold will continue to be traded as a risk-averse investment, it now seems clear that the market will not increase indefinitely. As very recent events show, gold is just as susceptible to volatility and devaluation as any other investment.

Markets and Theological Problems

Liturgical theologians Bieler and Schottroff point to an intrinsic tension between God’s economy of grace and abundance on the one hand and an economy organized around the principle of scarcity and homo oeconomicus on the other. (I will refer to these two logics as God’s economy of grace and the market economy, respectively.) Although God’s economy of grace and the market economy are at odds, they nevertheless dwell in the same spaces and mutually influence one another.[6] Only God’s economy (as known most fully in liturgical expression) can bring wholeness to human lives, but liturgical expression domesticated by the logic of the market economy. A market economy leaves us fundamentally rootless and unsatisfied, and that very same logic tends to enter into our worship. The problem with market economies, more precisely noted, is that they direct our quest for security towards an unquenchable desire to accumulate an abstraction we call capital.[7] We try to solve this problem of insecurity and rootlessness through mechanisms meant to guarantee our financial security such as investments in gold. The reality of the situation, however, is that all investments (even risk-averse investments like gold) are subject to the same social factors that contribute to the fundamental insecurity present in market economies. Gold is traded, after all, in a market of its own. Further still, the value of gold depends on social consensus. In other words, gold does not have much in intrinsic, utilitarian economic value. It cannot be eaten or fashioned into a shelter. Even our safe investments leave our security up to the whims of social forces outside of our control. Very simply, we cannot find the security we seek in market mechanisms. We have to locate our security, then, in non-market forms of social interaction and organization, and the Christian tradition provides us with the resources to do so.

There is always the temptation, when juxtaposing the logic of market economy to the logic of God’s economy of grace, to suppose that these two logics are completely different in kind rather than simply different in character. For example, oftentimes the logic of the market economy is associated with rationality whereas any talk of God’s economy is thought to belong to the realm of irrationality and faith-claims. Likewise, market economy is thought to be natural and God’s economy is thought to be supernatural. In truth, however, the logic of the market is every bit as theological as the logic of God’s economy. And by analyzing the assumptions of both ways of doing economy it can be shown that the logic of God’s economy of grace is preferable both ideologically and practically.

The theology of the market economy suggests that people can predict, secure, and control the future. Bieler and Schotroff speculate that, sometime during the late medieval period, people started to relate time to space. They argue that currency and capital figured prominently in this new way of reckoning, because the “future was envisioned as a space in which economic business takes place.”[8] Traders could imagine that the money they had sent to India would, sometime in the future, come back in the form of spices, and they could mark down an expected profit in their ledgers, for example. Life is defined economically and economic activity is theoretically endless. In this theological economy “infinity and eternity are equated with the possibility of limitless accumulation” precisely because “[t]he circulation of money is envisioned as an endless stream.”[9] The future, then, is in many ways already present according to the logic of the market economy. The future is present as present business practices are shaped according to future profit projections. Wealth exists largely in the world of what is potential rather than actual.[10] Capital is poured into new equipment under the assumption that the equipment at some point will help to turn a profit, but if, for example, the equipment is destroyed then the potential wealth-producing capacities of the capital spent on the equipment will have been destroyed as well. Since wealth is measured in the realm of abstraction and future potentialialities, market logic requires investors to believe that the future can be “domesticated and controlled.”[11]

Experience proves otherwise. Market prices rise and fall sharply, often with much more connection to human group psychology than any sort of rational or tangible market forces. Bieler and Schottroff suggest, drawing from Marx, that movements in the market are treated and talk about as if they had some type of corporeal existence such that they are the “subject or agent of power” rather than an abstraction that represents the aggregation of myriad actions by individuals.[12] Participants in the market economy, despite the clearly erratic, irrational movements of markets, still try to maintain control of their cosmology. Investors diversify in an attempt to mitigate excessive booms or busts, aligning themselves more closely with the activity of what theorist Adam Smith called “The Invisible Hand.” In the realm of market theory, The workings of the Invisible Hand see to it that “economic balance in the social order [is] realized” and simultaneously that drastic imbalance does not occur.[13] (88) Thus, even as individual markets go through booms and busts, rationality prevails and society finds a just, cohesive equilibrium. In many ways, The Invisible Hand takes the place of God within the realm of market economy. It is an all-encompassing abstraction that orders all of the chaos and irrationality present at lower levels of abstraction. Even as market participants make continuous attempts to secure the future, ultimately they are left only with a faith claim.

What we are seeing all too clearly is that the economic systems birthed and bolstered by the ideology of the market economy are not living up to the promises of social cohesion that they presumed to carry with them.  The harsh realities of hunger, wage slavery, and massive income inequality pose challenges especially to the Christian “Eucharistic practice that fosters the eschatological imagination that all can be fed.” (74) Perhaps just as much as the world needs structural or legal changes in the economic realm it also needs a reworking of economic imagination. The Christian scriptural and liturgical traditions can pose alternatives to economies of scarcity, but there is also the possibility that biblical economics can serve to bolster status quo thinking. If for example, the stories of mana from heaven or the feeding of the five thousand are read primarily as miracle stories, then we run the risk of associating a world in which all are fed with supernatural acts of God rather than reworked human practices. Christians, as they seek to model and promote more just economic practices in their thinking and liturgical action, ought to consider carefully the ways in which their ways of thinking religiously are connected to concrete economic actualities.

Bieler and Schottroff point towards a form of religio-economic reckoning in which we draw from the scripture principles of just economic interaction. As relates to the story of feeding of the five thousand, they ask, “Why should I not be able to imagine that all people shared the little they had brought with them, and that, through a just division, it proved to be enough for all?” They continue, noting that “[p]eople only had to follow the model provided by Jesus and his companions.” (79) Thus, our focus moves from the miraculous mechanics of the story to the just outcome in which everyone has enough. Somewhat similarly, Bieler and Schottroff describe Israel’s wilderness mana economy is seen as an economy which “displays an abundance that does not serve the purpose of accumulation.” (99) Drawing from the early church’s historiography found in Acts, they suggest that in a Christian community the distinctions between public and private are collapsed somewhat as everything is considered to ultimately belong to God. Property is consecrated to the community and administered by church leaders such that God’s economy can be expressed rightly. As such, the misuse of property (as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira) is simultaneously an affront to God as well as the entire Christian community. (120, 121) Economic consequences, in this form of reckoning, can not be privatized. Whether in theory or practice, the economic misadventures of some lead to the diminished health of all.

There is a great distance between the logic of market economy and that of God’s economy of grace, and clearly it is no easy task trying to gulf that divide. Bieler and Schottroff one way in which Christian worship, particularly the offertory, might be thought of in ways more resonant with God’s economy of grace. They write that in bringing offerings we are not “giving away something that belongs [us]” but rather that “[w]e bring what we have received from God through the hands of working people. We bring gifts that have been offered to us by others.” Such a reckoning is much more in accord with a gracious gift economy than the market economy in which we normally interact. The offertory, imagined in this way, serves to sacralize the entirety of our economic life even outside of a worshipping context, as “[w]e do not bring the gifts to God’s table so that they might be transformed into something particularly sacred, but rather to lift up the sacredness that they per se inhabit.” (110)

In Sum:

I have suggested here that the logic of a market economy, despite its claims to naturalism and rationality, is thoroughgoingly theological. Further, the market economy in its current manifestations does not fulfill its promises of social cohesion and just economic outcomes. In a market economy, participants seek to predict and control the future by removing themselves from the realm of concrete human need in order to inhabit a world of capital abstraction. In attempting to secure the future for some in the realm of the abstract, we end up ensuring the poverty of many in the realm of what is concrete. We are attempting to play God in the realm of our economic lives and we are failing miserably. The logic of God’s economy of grace challenges Christians to secure the present in the realm of what is concrete, thereby leaving the future up to God. In this economy, we cannot know the future, but we can inhabit a just and equitable present. Faithful, Christian economic practice requires what is possible of human actors and leaves what is unknowable to the workings of God. A major challenge for Christian thought and practice is to find ways of shifting Christians’ economic logic away from that of market economy and towards that of God’s grace and abundance.

[1] Suart Pfeifer, “Goldline Agrees to Refund up to $4.5 Million to Former Customers” The Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2013.

[3] For a good example of this line of thinking, see Mike Maloney’s article “Today’s Low Gold and Silver Prices Are Not Realistic” at the blog ZeroHedge, published April 14, 2013.

[4] Felix Salmon, “Gold: The Fear Bubble Bursts” published at Reuters on April 15, 2013.

[5] Kenneth Rapoza, “Gold is Finished” Published at Forbes on April 15, 2013.

[6] Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff, The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, and Resurrection (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 69.

[7] Ibid., 118.

[8] Ibid., 87.

[9] Ibid., 87.

[10] Ibid., 90.

[11] Ibid., 88.

[12] Ibid., 90.

[13] Ibid., 88.


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