In economics, an economy of exchange is an economy in which goods are exchanged for money or other goods perceived to be of equal value. This is how it works: when you go to the supermarket to buy your weekly groceries, you exchange your hard-earned cash for products off the supermarket shelves. When you take a job, you essentially agree to exchange your time, effort, loyalty and expertise for cash and (if you’re lucky) other benefits.
An economy of exchange is a closed system in which everything has a price. It might also be described as a “zero sum game”: for the system to work, every gain must be offset by an equal loss.
It’s easy to understand this at an economic level. But the principle of the economy of exchange plays out at just about every level of society:
– We send our kids to school because we believe that in return for entrusting them to teachers for a set period of time, they will in return gain an education that will be of value (economic and otherwise) to them throughout their lives.
– We look for partners/mates on the basis of what we can offer them and what we stand to get back in return. For example, we might be willing to trade some of our freedom for companionship, or perhaps we are trading some of our money for someone to provide us with kids and look after the house. (Okay, I’m simplifying, but hopefully you see the point.)
– We have a justice system based on the belief that no crime should go unpunished.
These are merely the most obvious examples of how the economy of exchange operates in our world. But the principle plays out all the time, in all kinds of ways of which we’re not even aware. We’re constantly on the lookout for leverage, for how we stand to benefit in return for any given cost, for whether any given investment (in time, effort, finance or whatever) will generate a worthwhile return.
As far as an economy goes, the principle of exchange makes a whole lot of sense. In fact, I’m no economist, but I’d say you probably can’t have a functioning economy without it. But when we unrelentingly apply the same principle to our whole lives – which we naturally tend to do – we get into problems:
– We end up feeling resentful and bitter when we’re short-changed – i.e. when we fail to receive whatever payoff we felt we deserved or were promised in any given situation (for example, a relationship, a job or church membership).
– Our priorities end up being driven by what we can get rather that what we give. (We might well give, but we’ll tend to do so only when we feel there’ll be a worthwhile return.) This is particularly problematic in the context of relationships.
– We’re all too easily enmeshed in cycles of attack and counter-attack, crime and punishment. Someone wrongs us, and we don’t feel at peace until at least an equal degree of suffering has been exacted from them.
Ultimately, an economy of exchange always leads to self-centredness, because it puts the focus on what we can get out of any given situation or relationship. And this, I believe, is exactly why it’s so embedded in our collective psyche and worldview: as fallen human beings, we’re instinctively all about protecting and promoting ourselves at the expense of others.
As Christians, we’ve very often squeezed God into our exchange-based model. And when I say “we”, I mean right from the ancient Jewish people down to today. Read the Levitical laws (go on, I dare you) and you’ll find them replete with examples of “if this, then that”: if someone does this to you, you have the right to do that to them. And we assume that God operates on the same principle. This is what underpinned the whole notion of temple sacrifice: wrong had been done, God’s holiness had been offended, therefore a suitable price had to be paid. The sacrifice was, at root, an economic transaction in which the cost of sin was exchanged for the death of an animal (and/or offerings of various kinds).
We can also see this in the way we think about salvation and our eternal future. Our whole notion of heaven and hell is based on the idea of the economy of exchange. Okay, we might not believe that good deeds will get us into heaven; but we certainly believe that Jesus’ death in our place will. So, to the extent that Jesus’ death in our place is really no more than an economic substitute for the price payable for our sins, the whole scheme is an exchange of value in which we pay X and we get Y in return. (Those who cannot or will not pay X forfeit the right to Y and instead get option Z, which is roasting in hell for all eternity. Thanks for playing!)
What we need to begin to understand is this: the kingdom of God is radically different from the economy of exchange. We see this very clearly when Jesus says “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” We thought it was all about an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; Jesus shows us that, in God’s kingdom, we should give our enemies the shirt off our back rather than repay them for whatever harm they’ve inflicted on us.
Listen to Peter’s question in Matthew 18:21:
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?’
The very question exposes the fact that Peter is up to his neck in the economy of exchange. He’s beginning to understand that, in God’s kingdom, we’re required to forgive; but he still wants to know how much forgiveness is appropriate in view of the wrong that has been done. (Don’t be too hard on Peter: he’s just like you and me.) Jesus’ answer is clear: there’s no limit to how many times you should forgive, even if there’s no measurable benefit to you in doing so.
Left to our own devices, then, we’re stuck in the economy of exchange and we can’t get out of it. We’re always looking for the next payoff, and we’re never satisfied.
So how do we get off this treadmill? The answer lies in Jesus’ teaching, life and death, but we must have eyes to see it.
You see, as long as we continue to relegate Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness and non-retaliation to the status of “nice moral tales”, and as long as we insist on understanding Jesus’ death as a payment for our sins, all we’re doing is perpetuating the exchange principle and using Jesus to help us do so.
There are two moves we need to make to finally get free of the economy of exchange:
1. We need to start taking Jesus at his word. When he says “Freely give”, he really means it. Not “Give freely, but with half an eye on the return”, but “Give freely, period”. When he says “Turn the other cheek” and “Do not repay evil with evil”, he’s not describing some kind of aspirational state in an ideal world; he’s telling us how to live in the kingdom of God, right here, right now. When he says “Forgive seventy times seven”, he doesn’t mean “Forgive until it becomes clear that the person who has wronged you is never going to change”; he means “Forgive, and keep on forgiving forever, no matter what the cost”.
If putting these things into practice feels radically shocking to you, great! It probably means you’re beginning to grasp the true nature of the kingdom of God.
2. We need to understand that Jesus died not to perpetuate or validate the principle of sacrifice, but to put an end to it once and for all. He did not die to pay a price to God on our behalf; he died to fully reveal the heart of God toward us, which is and always will be a heart of compassion, mercy and forgiveness.
What Jesus taught in life he embodied in death: that the way out of the shackles of the economy of exchange, and thus the way to freedom, lies in giving up our rights – including even our right to life – and practicing radical non-retaliation and forgiveness.
We can keep on running round the hamster wheel of the tit-for-tat, I-demand-justice, eye-for-an-eye system of exchange; or we can see the light once and for all, embrace Jesus’ radical call to unlimited forgiveness, and take our first steps into true freedom. The choice is ours.
[ Image: Ken Teegardin ]