As I read through Polyani’s The Great Transformation, words shared by Lord Glasman during our London/Oxford Advance kept resurfacing in my mind. He shared these words as he tried to explain the circumstances that predicated Brexit in the UK:

“You think you’re acting in an altruistic way, but it’s really about self-interest in the end.”

“Christian don’t believe capitalism created the world.”

“Humans and nature are not commodities.”

Lord Maurice Glasman[1]

Polyani, in an attempt to explain reasons why a hundred years’ peace (1815-1914) came to an abrupt halt with two world wars breaking out in the next 30 years, examined economic and sociological evidences and drew conclusions.

The 19th century established “four main institutions:

  1. The balance of power system which for a century prevented war between the Great Powers
  2. The international gold standard which sought to organize the global economy
  3. The self-regulating market which produced material welfare
  4. The liberal state.”[2]

Polyani theorized that “the idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness.”[3] Of these institutions, it was the collapse of the gold standard that caused the catastrophic downfall of peace, for by the time the gold standard failed, “the other institutions had been sacrificed in vain to save it.”[4]

“Belief in the gold standard was the faith of the age.”[5] The gold standard created a global monetary system in which countries would back their paper currency value with gold reserves. Gold was set at a fixed price, and that price was used to determine the value of the currency. The appeal of the gold standard was that the physical quantity of gold acted as a limiting factor to the issuance of money within a country, thus helping provide monetary stability by preventing inflation and deflation. Though people have been captivated by the currency of gold for thousands of years, it wasn’t until “1821 that England became the first nation to adopt a gold standard.”[6] Other nations followed suit and global financial/political stability remained intact from 1871-1914, until the world’s institutions crumbled into war and economic depression, crushing any global, utopian hopes contained within the established self-regulating markets.[7]

Polyani believed that any economic system devoid of human or social impact consideration was doomed to fail. For thousands of years, communal economics dominated the world cultures. From tribal societies to large kingdoms, economic systems were regulated by non-economic motives, specifically reciprocity and redistribution. Reciprocity, or the interchange of goods, was maintained by social position and civic virtue, primarily for the purpose of caring for one’s family. Redistribution of goods and services facilitated peace and care within a community and their neighbors. Reputation and honor would be sacrificed if individuals failed to adhere to these societal norms. Overall regulation was achieved because “today’s giving will be recompensated by tomorrow’s taking.”[8] Another way to say this is with The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

The “Golden Rule” terminology was first used in the 17th century by British Anglican theologians and preachers, though the concept, worded in various ways, dates back to some of the earliest of civilizations. The major world religions also embody this principle of reciprocity as a foundational belief.[9]

While this “Rule” has been in effect for millennia, it is not much different than the gold standard established during the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the “Golden Rule” is the gold standard by which humans hope to achieve economic, political, and societal peace. The hope is that by treating others as we’d like to be treated, all will prosper and thrive within the system. Sadly, because of sin, the converse is often true, as we have such a difficult time treating others as we would like to be treated. Conflict and destruction prevailed when economic structures saw humans and nature as commodities to be exchanged and sold for self-gratification and advancement, as evidenced with the rise of capitalism during the Industrial and Commercial Revolutions.[10] This is true when transactional societies and economies self-regulate, and applies to both Christians and non-Christians, alike. Christians may not believe capitalism created the world, but we have definitely been impacted by the effects of capitalism, both in positive and negative ways, as our faith communities are often structured and regulated by consumeristic, transactional tendencies.

Thankfully, God sent Jesus to save us from this transactional, self-interest economy, and establish one balanced and sustained through the love of God, self, and others. When asked by an expert in the law how to inherit eternal life, Jesus asked him to recount what was written in the law. He responded by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus confirmed that by following this law, eternal life would be inherited.[11]

For years within the evangelical communities I belonged, I repeatedly heard the phrase, “Love God, love others.” There was actually no mention of loving oneself.  To do so was considered selfish. It was assumed if a person loved God enough, they’d also be able to love others well. Much like the gold standard and the “golden rule,” this motto sounds good on the surface, but is infused with false humility and is self-serving in order to make oneself appear or sound more righteous. I’d argue, that just as treating others as one wants to be treated is insufficient for establishing peace, loving God and trying to love others is just as insufficient for establishing life abundant, both now and in eternity.

Grace existed in eternity through the triune God: Father, Son, and Spirit. Grace can only be established and experienced in this realm through a similar triune relationship, one comprised of God, self, and others. Because God’s economy operates with the currency of grace, love, and relationship, eliminating one of the relational components causes imbalance. This imbalance results in spiritually depleted individuals and communities, who discover that all their altruistic ways are ultimately self-serving in the end.

**I am currently in the Doctor of Ministry of Leadership and Global Perspectives program at Portland Seminary. This is a reflection based on a weekly reading assignment and incorporates information gathered during our academic advance in London/Oxford, England, September 2019.

Photo by Dmitry Demidko on Unsplash

[1] Taken from my personal notes written during Lord Glasman’s lecture, Doctor of Ministry Leadership and Global Perspectives, London/Oxford Advance, 2020.
[2] Karl Polyani, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1944, 1957, 2001) 3.
[3] Ibid., 3.
[4] Ibid., 3.
[5] Ibid., 26.
[6] Accessed January 18, 2020.
[7] Accessed January 18, 2020.
[8] Polyani, 48-53.
[9] Accessed January 18, 2020.
[10] Polyani, 29, 32.
[11] NIV, Luke 10:25-28.