Andrew Studdert-Kennedy: ‘God’s Good Economy: Doing Economic Justice in Today’s World’ by Andrew Hartropp

Andrew Hartropp, an Anglican Minister with doctorates in both theology and economics, has written this introductory book to help equip people to ‘live and speak for Jesus Christ in today’s world’ with the underlying conviction that doing economic justice is indeed part of this living and speaking for Christ. Its arguments are laid out clearly and the book is well written and accessible.

The balanced tone is set in the opening chapter which recognises that there are alternative foundations for justice (rights, needs and merits) and that in a pluralistic world an agreed understanding of justice can be elusive. Accordingly, Hartropp outlines a biblical understanding of economic justice which provides the framework for the book as a whole. It’s an understanding that rests on the claims that justice, including economic justice, is rooted in who God is, that God has built justice into creation and that the Bible discloses to us what justice is (page 12).

Hartropp identifies four key aspects of a biblical understanding of economic justice. ‘It means treating people appropriately, according to the norms and principles given by God; it requires a special concern for people who are poor, needy and economically weak; it emphasizes the quality of relationships – notably one-to-one relationships; and it means that everyone participates in God’s blessings, including material blessings’ (page 148).

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Part One of the book looks at how we do economic justice in our own relationships as consumers, in the workplace and in local church communities.

The reader is challenged to look critically at the dominance of consumerism in today’s culture and to be aware of how this is at variance with God’s values before considering how their money should be spent. In the workplace, the emphasis is on the relationship with the whole person and the requirement for employees to be treated with respect, to have a fair wage, good working conditions and opportunities for personal development. At the same time the responsibility of the Christian employee to work hard and give of their best because their work will be pleasing to the Lord (Colossians 3) is a valuable reminder that doing economic justice entails mutual obligations between employee and employer (page 66) and also between borrower and lender (Psalm 37.21 page 25). The prompt settlement of invoices could have been included amongst these mutual responsibilities.

The second part of the book focuses on doing economic justice in wider society and the influence ‘that followers of Christ can have in and through the organizations and structures of which they are a part’ (page 89). In successive chapters, Hartropp looks at what this might mean in firms and corporations, banks and financial institutions and the place of government both nationally and globally.

The principles that were earlier espoused in the workplace are played out again on a larger scale when looking at firms and corporations. There is an admirably even-handed discussion about flexible working and zero hours contracts (page 108) and disquiet at, though not outright condemnation of, the levels of Chief Executive Officer pay in UK companies and the huge pay ratio between them and the average employee – 148:1 in 2014 among FTSE 100 CEOs (page 111).

When looking at banks and other financial institutions, the author includes a useful summary of the run-up to the 2007-8 financial crisis and helps us see excessive lending, borrowing and debt as a failure of the kind of relational justice that biblical economic justice requires. He seeks to adapt and apply the ancient biblical principle of Jubilee as a way of restoring relationships and offering hope for those trapped with burdensome debt and he is realistic about the way that a prevailing culture preys on fallen humanity’s susceptibility for greed, pride and folly. Wisely, there is no guide for a banking policy but rather the chapter aims to equip people with ways of thinking about some of the major challenges of finance (page 142).

This same caution is displayed when exploring the role of government in tackling the challenges of poverty and inequality both in the UK and globally. Returning to the four principles of biblical economic justice, Hartropp writes, ‘The call to do justice is to all people. Therefore it is not intrinsic to doing economic justice that the state must have a part to play’ (page 148, my emphasis). At the same time, he does not adopt a libertarian position but rather argues that, adhering to biblical principles, leaders should uphold relational economic justice, focus on the poor and act against economic oppression (page 163), an oppression which may or may not have been caused by market failure. In a brief section towards the end of the book, there is reference to Catholic Social Teaching and how its notion of subsidiarity can challenge the centralizing tendency of modern government (page 167).

The book introduces the reader to complex subjects and never over-reaches itself. It is balanced and has plenty of reminders not just of the obligations that fall on the economically advantaged, but also the responsibilities that remain with the disadvantaged. It is aware of prevailing culture and calls on Christians to counter aspects of it, not least by daring to believe that all work is for the glory of God.

Since, as the author says, ‘Much of what the Bible teaches about economic justice is common sense’ (page 19), it is not entirely clear who the book is for. Even if our common sense does sometimes desert us, the thoughtful reader – Christian or otherwise – will surely have worked out already many of the principles espoused in the first part of the book.

The second part of the book, looking at wider society or the ‘Public Square’, avoids any attempt to be a manual, but to help people in their thinking would have benefitted from a deeper consideration of economic forces at work. In particular, the potentially idolatrous nature of money, the way it is ‘made’ and the way it functions  makes it such an important part of today’s culture that it cannot be ignored. Likewise, the ever-expanding role of the state and the consequences of government debt are matters that need illumination.

The author can rightly point out that this was deliberately beyond the remit of the book and also that this review in 2024 is of a book first published in 2019. The prevailing culture which so shapes us has changed considerably since then, all of which would encourage an updated and expanded second edition of this introductory book which the author is well qualified to produce.

‘God’s Good Economy: Doing Economic Justice in Today’s World’ by Andrew Hartropp was published in 2019 by Inter Varsity Press (ISBN: 978-1-78359-764-2). 215pp.

Rev Canon Andrew Studdert-Kennedy is Team Rector of Uxbridge in the Diocese of London. Before ordination, he studied PPE at Oxford and during the 1980s worked in the City and as a Researcher for two MPs. He has retained his interest in such matters.