Skip Navigation

Economic Justice for a New Millennium

I. Wesleyan Tradition and The United Methodist Church Witness for Economic Justice

The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies have a long history of public witness on matters of economic justice. John Wesley set the example in his famous sermon on "The Use of Money," his public stand against slavery, and his witness among England's working class. The 1908 "Social Creed" committed The Methodist Episcopal Church to work for the protection and rights of people disadvantaged by society. The Evangelical United Brethren Church made a comparable commitment to personal, social, and international justice in its Discipline statement, "Moral Standards of The Evangelical United Brethren Church" (Section IX). As United Methodists at the dawn of a new millennium, "We claim all economic systems to be under the judgment of God no less than other facets of the created order" (Social Principles ¶ 163).

II. Biblical/Theological Background

In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus began his public ministry with these words from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (New Revised Standard Version, adapted)

Christ teaches that faith requires action for social and spiritual well-being and especially care for the poor and the oppressed. The early church understood that all were to share all that they had and especially care for the widows and orphans (Acts 2:44-45; 2 Corinthians 8:13-15). Israel's early law codes required persons to meet human needs and guarantee basic economic and legal rights: food (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 23:21-22; 24:19-22), clothing (Exodus 26-27), just business dealings (Deuteronomy 25:13-16), and access to just juridical process (Exodus 23:6-8). Special concern is expressed for the marginalized in society: the poor (Exodus 23:6; Deuteronomy 15:7-11), the disabled (Mark 2:1-12), the stranger (Exodus 22:21-24; 23:9), the sojourner (Deuteronomy 10:19), the widow and the orphan (Deuteronomy 24:19-22).

The covenant community was called to observe sabbatical years in which the land was not worked and its produce was available to the poor (Exodus 23:10-11), and slaves were set free (Exodus 21:2). In the fiftieth year the Jubilee is to be celebrated (Leviticus 25:8-55) as the year of God's release, when prisoners are set free, debts are canceled, and land is returned to families. But throughout the ages people elected to break covenant with God and instead worship the idols of greed, privilege, materialism, and oppressive power. Likewise, our age worships economic privileges that benefit the rich and powerful. Still, the prophets warn us that an economic system based on greed, economic exploitation, and indifference to the needs of the poor is contrary to God's will and leads to ruin for the society (Amos 8:4-6; Jeremiah 22:13-17).

III. Structures of Injustice

Today, the world economy continues to change dramatically. The results of rapid consolidation of wealth and power by fewer individuals, corporations, and banks, the shift in government priorities from social to military expenditures, and the growing interconnections between national economies have led to increases in poverty, hunger, and despair in the human family. Technology, which has the potential to benefit all humanity, is being developed, produced, and marketed to serve rich nations. Materialism and selfishness are undermining the values of community and mutual sharing. Within this context, The United Methodist Church, in following its traditional commitment to justice, must analyze economic systems and work for ministries rooted in justice.

A. Concentration of Wealth and Power

"We support measures that would reduce the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few" (¶ 67, The Book of Discipline 1996).

As transnational corporations and banks have extended their ownership and control of agriculture, industry, land, finances, and communications, two consequences have emerged:

(1) The separation between the rich and the poor has become greater. The United Nations 1997 Human Development Report found that of the world's 100 largest economies, 50 are transnational corporations. The 1998 Human Development Report found that the combined gross domestic product of 48 of the world's poorest countries is worth less than the assets of the world's three wealthiest people.

(2) Many corporations have become increasingly anonymous and unaccountable to their employees, to the communities in which they operate, and to governments.

B. Production and Work

"Every person has the right and responsibility to work for the benefit of himself or herself and the enhancement of human life and community to receive adequate remuneration" (¶ 73C, The Book of Discipline 1984; ¶ 67C, with different language, The Book of Discipline 1996).

Around the world, working people share many of the same concerns: unjust hours and wages; unsafe workplaces; sexual harassment; and discrimination because of race, age, disability, and sexual orientation. Some workers encounter harassment, violence, or job loss for even raising issues of concern with their employer; aging workers are quickly `let go from their jobs for having reached a company-imposed `senior status and are suddenly replaced with `more energetic, younger persons; young workers accept lower wages more readily; and many workers are employed full-time but are unable to live above poverty conditions. Women are profoundly vulnerable to poverty because women's labor, whether in the home or community, has traditionally gone unrecognized, undervalued, unpaid, or underpaid. Overall, women have yet to attain pay equity for their time, dexterity, or expertise in the workplace. According to the 1997 Human Development Report, 500 companies account for 2/3 of international trade. Most transnational corporations have transferred much of the manufacturing base of industrial countries to developing countries, seeking cheap labor and less stringent environmental practices, consumer protection, and occupational safety and health codes. They have taken advantage of favorable tax treatment for overseas investment, employer or government suppression of labor organizing, and the employment of the most vulnerable persons for the lowest of wages. Women, especially young women, indigenous persons, and even children toil for long hours under harsh and unsafe conditions.

C. Development, Debt, and Structural Adjustment

"We affirm the right and duty of the people of developing nations to determine their own destiny. We urge the major political powers to use their power to maximize the political, social, and economic self-determination of developing nations rather than to further their own special interests . . . We urge Christians in every society to encourage the governments under which they live and the economic entities within their societies to aid and work for the development of more just economic orders" (¶ 75B, The Book of Discipline 1984; ¶ 69B , with different language, The Book of Discipline 1996).

The global economic system and external debts continue to force developing countries to allocate major resources to produce goods with heavy emphasis on production for export rather than for domestic use. Many of these countries are locked into exporting primary commodities at widely fluctuating prices. Few manage to export manufactured goods and most face uncertain markets due to rapid changes in the terms of trade.

Encouraged by Western banks, many developing countries found that by the early 1980s (when interest rates rose and raw material prices collapsed), they could no longer meet the service payments on their debts. The creditor banks and governments turned to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), which makes loans contingent on strict austerity or `structural adjustment programs. The Bank and IMF remedies have placed the burden of debt repayment squarely on the shoulders of poor and working people by devaluing currencies, freezing wages, curbing government price subsidies (on rice, cooking oil, beans, and other essential items), and cutting subsidized credits in rural areas. In addition, the corruption by some government officials has made it impossible to provide an adequate food supply, health care, education, and other services. Compelled to commit their natural and human resources to compete in world markets, the irony is that developing nations may have no other options, but to sacrifice their domestic economy, social welfare programs, and possibly the life and spirit of the people.

D. Military Spending

"Human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; . . . the militarization of society must be challenged;. . . the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled" (¶ 69C, The Book of Discipline 1996).

Many governments, in shifting major resources to the military, have hurt the most vulnerable people in their societies: women, children, and youth. Some economies, such as that of the United States, increasingly depend on the military for jobs, exports, and economic growth. Among developing countries, some produce weapons to pay their foreign debt, while others import military equipment to control their own populations. And in so doing, the basic needs of the average residents go unmet or are severely diminished.

IV. The Effects of the Global Economic System

Injustices are imposed upon the people of the world by economies characterized by a concentration of wealth and power, an export-based development, heavy indebtedness, and reliance on a militarized national security system. The belief that competition results in greater economic growth underlies much of the emerging global economic order. In the production and consumption of goods, corporations are to compete with corporations, individuals with one another, and societies with other societies. The central value is "more." Greed and the corporate culture of materialism, of "more is better," have permeated our world. It is a culture that has little use for those who lack the means to consume. The following evidence shows the effects of the global economy:

A. Worldwide, poverty and hunger have increased, especially among women and children. Human rights have become untenable. Homelessness remains rampant in major cities, while many rural communities are in rapid decline as family farms go bankrupt in record numbers. In developing countries, shanty-towns surround major cities as people leave rural areas in search of jobs. These resulting poor populations, with a disproportionate share being of a different ethnic racial heritage of a nation's elites, are also faced with discriminatory obstacles to overcome.

B. As transnational corporations shift centers of production, unemployment and underemployment is increasing in some parts of the world, while education and job training have not kept pace with the global economy. According to the 1998-99 International Labor Organization (ILO) World Employment Report, some one billion workers, one third of the world labor force, remain unemployed or underemployed. In a 1996 report, the ILO reported that at least 120 million children between the ages of five to 14 were fully at work which leaves them little time for school education.

C. The increasing ability of large corporations to shift their resources around the globe has contributed to an erosion of worker rights everywhere. Sweatshops and child labor have increased. Many corporations have shifted to the use of temporary and part-time workers in order to avoid paying benefits, such as insurance, health care, and pensions. As wages and benefits decline, the number of full-time employees living in poverty increases.

D. Beyond business owners, employers, and contractors, the international stock markets and corporate traders are not accountable for the wages and workplace conditions of workers. Usually, workers are excluded from profit-sharing schemes. Women and some racial and ethnic groups are denied promotions to high-level positions.

E. The unrestrained business and development pursuits have negative social, economic, and ecological ramifications: shifts in agricultural production have led to indigenous seed crops being replaced by chemically dependent cash crops or genetically engineered seeds; destruction of fragile environments and exploitation of non-renewable natural resources have occurred; and the forced dislocation of people and indigenous cultures has devalued human dignity and life.

F. Churches and social-service agencies have struggled to meet the spiritual and psychological needs caused by economic injustice. But they are not able to keep up with the problems. In communities under economic stress, there is a rising incidence of crime, family breakdown, child and spouse abuse, suicide, substance abuse, gambling, and other worrisome behavior.

V. Call to Action

The United Methodist Church, as a covenant community committed to God's justice, must work toward a just global economy. Our Social Principles remind us that "in spite of general affluence in the industrialized nations, most of the persons in the world live in poverty. To provide basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, and other necessities, ways must be found to share more equitably the resources of the world" (¶ 163E). Faced with securing economic justice for a new millennium, the General Conference calls upon:

A. each local congregation and every central and annual conference to use this resolution and related resources as a foundation to initiate a study curriculum and social actions on global economic justice issues;

B. the whole church to work with people in local communities to identify specific economic issues that affect families, communities, and individuals, especially the impacts upon the lives of women.These issues include jobs with livable wages and benefits, debt, plant closings and relocation, public education, homelessness, affordable housing, and meeting sanitation, clean water, and energy needs. These issues should be addressed through the strategies of prayer, study, service, advocacy, community organizing, and economic development;

C. the General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Global Ministries to engage in ongoing searches for and study of alternative and sustainable systems of economic order, shall work with local congregations, central and annual conferences to initiate and support legislative efforts at the local, state, national, and international levels that will address "Structures of Injustice" (Section III). Attention should be given to marginalized and indigenous people; the accountability or reform of transnational corporations and banks; personal and corporate investment responsibility; land reform, and the dependency of national economies on the military;

D. the general program agencies of the church and the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits to work with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and support its Principles for Global Corporate Responsibility; and

E. all bodies of the church to be more intentional in using their investment portfolios to strengthen developing national economies and global economic justice. We also encourage central and annual conferences, local churches and individuals in wealthy nations to live a simpler, more modest lifestyle.

In order to be God's real community, we must realize that people are not here to serve an economic system, but economic systems must serve all people so all live in God's abundance.


See Social Principles, ¶ 163D and E.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church - 2008. Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.