The Big Landlord in the Sky

A little research into the history of the game “Monopoly” will reveal that its true origin is found before the Depression era. In fact, the idea for the game was essentially stolen from Elizabeth Magie who had patented her version in 1903. Unfortunately, the man who did this left out half of the rules. This was the version you most certainly learned to play as a child. It is based on the idea of running everyone “out of town on a rail”, to quote the infamous local monopolist, Mr. Potter. The original game created by Elizabeth Magie-Phillips was called The Landlord’s Game, but everyone soon knew it as The Monopoly Game. It was designed to be played in two ways. You could play it the same way Mr. Potter was pictured in the movie, or Carnegie and Rockefeller ‘played’ in real life, running everyone else out of business, or you could play the game according to a more progressive economic vision where everyone benefitted when wealth was created. It was “Lizzie’s” hope that by teaching the game especially to children, the kind of world she wished to live in would be given a chance in the future. The natural fair-mindedness of children would be drawn to the set of rules that eschewed cut-throat competition.


Which brings me to my topic, is there an economic vision contained in the Christian tradition? When we pray for God’s reign to be “on earth as it is in heaven”, what does that look like in the realm of money? Kathryn Tanner’s book, The Economy of Grace (2005), attempts an answer to those questions.

Tanner begins with the idea that “theological ideas are always internally constituted by a contestatory relationship with the beliefs and practices of the wider world.” An example of this would be “God is love”. Implicit in this statement is what is missing from our own experience of love. Now Tanner acknowledges that Christian thought has not historically developed a systematic economic vision. Furthermore, some views in Christian history have not been fully consistent with basic theological principles. Nevertheless, she proposes that the two principles that are most deeply imbedded in the Christian tradition across time and have the power to speak to our economic situation are:

  1. Unconditional Giving
  2. Noncompetition in a Community of Mutual Benefit

On the first, think of the term hesed in the Hebrew scriptures, or perhaps the Jubilee traditions.

God’s purpose is to benefit creatures, so the proper return for God’s giving is not so much directed back to God as directed to those creatures.

The second is a given of much Trinitarian discussion. This is not a sacrificial relationship, but one in which each giving does not result in a loss of something, but a spiral of benefit.

When we turn to our present-day capitalist systems, we find little of either of these being expressed. Capitalism assumes that ‘property’, including land and labor, is private. Competition seems to be the rule. Employers are always trying to pay less or make do with fewer employees, for example. But capitalism can also take different forms in different countries, suggesting that there is some room for maneuvering; cracks in which a theological intervention might wiggle in.

Theological economy does not linger on the outskirts of the capitalist economy, waiting for it to die a natural death, but works from within it to turn or convert it away from truncated hopes, unrectified losses, callous exclusions, and winner-take-all competitive conflicts.

So, if we lived as though God were not the big landlord in the sky, our theology would do away with contractual, legal analogies. Even “stewardship” would be a suspect word. But money and spiritual grace, while equally ‘goods’,  are so in two different registers. How can we translate these theological principles?

Kathryn Tanner looks at some places where capitalism could be open to theological imagination. Overall her preference for a Keynesianism wedded to Post-Fordism is made clear. She has specific ideas for a host of economic issues including debtor nations, the burdens of pollution, trade, welfare, and the creation of common goods (mental and physical). One area that caught my attention was the business-employee relationship. While capitalist markets are effected by social and political forces frequently outside of their control, businesses can often stand to benefit by benefitting their employees.

Henry Ford knew that it makes little sense to pay your workers so low they can’t buy your cars.

Zero-sum games don’t work in the long term (although they often do in the short term) because workers are also consumers. The usual understanding of the Pareto optimum (a condition of economic efficiency, where no one can be made better off by making someone worse off occurs), according to Tanner, does not factor in the interest one might have in another’s benefit. “What benefits a person is, in short, too narrowly defined in individualistic terms.” The overall competitive system disintegrates without an equilibrium point. Pure win/loss, so pervasive in our present iteration of capitalism, is not optimal. But that goes not only for the Wall Street corporations, but also for the middle class. Although it is common knowledge that there are enormous barriers to influence today, “history demonstrates that those hurt by capitalism succeed in changing the system only where that change serves the general interest.

Overall, Tanner’s work is a model example of how to write about an aspect of life from the point of view of imagining what ultimately is the case with God. Imagining the divine life should shape, judge, engage our narratives of how things ought to be, but discussion of this sort should also discern the appropriateness of stages of progress. Tanner’s application of the two principles of unconditional giving and noncompetitive community  to the realities of the world of economics serve to at least tell us the direction we should be heading even if the specifics may be revised.

Some current examples of areas where business interests converge with the interests of employees or the larger world.

My brother-in-law is in the testing stage of a new idea that links your purchases at any store to charities of your choice. It is called “Bandifer” after the medieval standard bearers (i.e. bearers of a ’cause’).  He had the idea many years ago, but the technology has finally caught up with it. The project is very much in keeping with what Kathryn Tanner has written about and I hope to be able to mention it again at a later time.