“We have built a society in which those in control have intercepted the gains brought by science and technology and have kept them from passing on to the people.”
-E. Stanley Jones
This is a paraphrase of an argument made by Frank A. Fetter in his book Facing the Facts: an economic diagnosis. Jones used this analysis in his interpretation of Luke 1:17, “He shall . . .[cause] the disobedient to walk in the wisdom of the just.” In his lifetime, Jones saw a few benefiting from technological advances, claiming raw materials, and pursuing profits without regard for the many who were adversely impacted by new technologies. He called this pattern of economic activity “the unwisdom of the unjust.”
In contrast to this foolishness, Jones pointed to Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of God. In the opinion of Jones, this teaching was an example of Christ’s “wisdom of the just” because it joined a concern for individual salvation with an imperative for social reform. One implication of this linkage of the personal and the social (according to Jones) is that the Kingdom of God is not realized until living conditions improve for all, not just a few.
The complaint Jones lodged against the unwisdom of the Industrial Revolution reminds me of Jaron Lanier’s criticism of the Digital Revolution. Similar to Jones, Lanier contends that all of the gains brought by digital technology are not passing on to the people. Even though everyone who participates on the worldwide web is creating valuable data, the generators of that raw data are not compensated for it. Only the companies with the algorithms to process and interpret digital activity are reaping the gains from digital data.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama described the stress of transitioning to the new economy. Digital technology has made it possible for companies to outsource, offshore, and automate their operations. Instead of gaining from new technology, some people are losing their jobs because of it.
The wise thing to do under such circumstances is to assist one another as we go through an economic transition period. We will all benefit when the members of our communities are able to maintain a decent standard of living as they retrain for the new economy jobs.
Providing this assistance will require a source of funding, which could come from taxes and fees. The tax rates of those who are gaining the most from digital technology could be increased. In addition, a surcharge could be levied against companies that use data generated by the public and/or use the internet that was developed using public funds. When the economic transition period stabilizes, the tax rates should be lowered and the surcharge rescinded.
Thinking of social policies as a topic for theological reflection is not as natural for me as it seemed to be for Jones (and Wesley, too for that matter). When I think of a social safety net as an example of a work of mercy, then the connection between government programs and Christian faith becomes more apparent.
Instead of developing charities that minister to social ills, Jones wanted to put his energy into seeking social policies that made societal ills less widespread and long-lasting. Perhaps that’s the approach that will help me do social theology-- Focusing on the proactive policies that stop misery before it is created rather than on reactive policies that try to solve problems that have lingered for generations.
Jones ended his reflection on the economic order with the observation that Christ’s message of the Kingdom gives people hope precisely because it blends a message of “tender redemptiveness to the individual and a stern demand for social justice.” Jones concluded with this prayer:
O Christ, whether we take the road of personal need or the road of a social reconstruction they both lead us to Thy feet. We are there, for Thou art the one hope of our stricken world, and of us. Amen