A bleak and unrelenting news cycle of economic gloom has been dominating UK headlines for months. There are daily updates on the cost-of-living crisis, workers strikes, and the precarious financial times in which we find ourselves.
The brutality of these is often brought home by the many personal accounts of hardship, telling stories which would move even the hardest of hearts.
It is at times of economic insecurity that existing inequalities widen the most, as the least well-off are invariably hit the hardest. A welter of research demonstrates that the damage of inequality reaches far beyond material well-being, with a massive impact on mental health, education, obesity, teenage pregnancy and crime among other things. As Wilkinson & Pickett point out in their book The Spirit Level, the social fabric of a country frays as inequality increases, and vice versa; clearly, there is a lot more at play than material wealth when discussing economics. However, constant reporting on the faltering economy and its consequences can lead to the facile assumption that really, all our problems would be solved by a healthier economy.
However significantly the economy bears on societal and individual wellbeing (and it is very significant), it would be myopic to expect flourishing to follow from financial security. The Harvard Flourishing Measure points out that there is a minimum level of financial security required for humans to flourish. Though counter-intuitively, research also tells us that when a sufficient level of financial security is reached, additional money makes little to no difference to levels of happiness. When our material needs are catered for, other pressing needs make themselves known; the need for meaning and purpose, relationships, character and virtue (the field of positive psychology has made a science of this). Indeed, as Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections demonstrates, the epidemic levels of anxiety and depression are directly related to the various ways that we have lost connection to each other, to the natural world, to our bodies and to meaningful work among other things. There are needs which cannot be met by the economy alone, and one could argue that changing the economy also entails changing the way we think and act as individuals, as one begets the others.
Philosopher Jonathan Rowson argues that the concept of Bildung (a German term meaning self-cultivation) emphasises a focus on the inner life, out of which society is directly shaped and influenced. If we focus on fixing the economy without addressing other human needs, then we have scant hope of being able to fix the economy or our broken societies. The economy is broken in no small part because we are broken; our souls (if you’ll allow the term) and our societies do not operate in isolation, but directly influence each other. What happens in my inner life directly impacts how I spend my money, time and attention; equally, how I experience life in society will shape my inner life and the way I relate to others. To frame this in another way, all issues are at some basic level, spiritual issues.
As this report on The Politics of Christmas points out, this is a season for paying attention to societal (economic and political), as well as spiritual ills – despite the traditional tendency to close the door to the outside world and narrow our focus to the nuclear family. The Christmas story is as stark as a newborn baby in the way it exposes inequality and injustice. Jesus was born to a teenage mother in a barn, having been made homeless by a political census. His family then became refugees as he fled from a power-hungry and infanticidal leader. His life famously continued to be inextricably bound up in the politics of his day – ultimately dying a criminal’s death at the hand of the occupying forces.
Jesus did not allow his followers to see his mission as chiefly political or economic – it was more fundamental than that. He came to connect people to God and to one another. In the words of John’s gospel, he came to offer ‘life in its fullness’; to anchor our lives in something more than what financial security can give us. Such an offer must reckon with unjust economic and political systems, just as it must reckon with our own unjust and wayward hearts. It makes no sense to deal with one, without simultaneously addressing the other.