Gary Russell has a PHD in economics and spent many years as a teacher in the field. But over time he became reticent about what he was teaching, recognizing there was something he didn’t fully believe in.
His questioning manifested as a blog, “The Profane Economy” where he worked to develop his thoughts and articulate them in an accessible format. Russell notes his desire to make his ideas widely understandable: “I billed the blog as economics my grandmother would understand.”
After 2 years of working on the blog, Russell moved to working on producing a document which would lay out the false assumptions of mainstream economic models.
“I spent years trying to pinpoint what was bugging me–what do I really believe in? I must have rejected a hundred drafts. I consider the Holy Spirit to have been with me in writing, not letting me give up… Basically, what came to light was that Christ came here to turn everything on its head, and that the most central tenets of my field were quite upside down.”
The resulting work Radical Grace and the Economy gets at this upside-downness by framing the discussion of dominant economic systems against the backdrop of “radical grace.” When asked why this framing is so significant, Russell explains:
“Conventional economics says that transactions are life, period. The general equilibrium model is the absolute core of mainstream economics. It is a model of perfect competition, and within it the highest goal in life is to get what you deserve in a fair transaction, or to get more if you can. Economics says free competition will ensure everyone will get exactly what they deserve, even if everyone is trying to get more.”
In contrast, he says “Christ was not transactional, period. He said just give for the sake of giving, for the sake of loving your neighbour. That’s profoundly radical. To give, whether someone deserves it or not, and regardless of whether the person receiving can give you something back, in the economic context is grace. Society has abandoned grace and instead worships transaction.”
Throughout the Radical Grace document Russell presents a basic structural incompatibility between a vision of God’s grace and that of current dominant economic systems. A condensed list of these oppositions, correlated to the 9 chapters of the work and referring to the primary virtues economics denies, looks something like this:
- Denial of Grace: “There’s more to life than transactions and fair exchange.” Radical grace runs counter to the dominance of these models.
- Denial of Vocation: Conventional economics draws our aspirations away from vocation and service, in favour of empty consumption. Economics is all about how to get what you want.” But in the Christian tradition, and specifically articulated in the Franciscan tradition of which Russell is a part, there is “more joy in giving than getting.”
- Denial of Abundance: “Scarcity rules economics, but God is all about abundance. We are called to live in granted abundance.” As Gandhi said “There’s enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed.”
- Denial of Community: “In dominant economics, the community that shapes us down to our very language is discounted and de-legitimized. We’re all just individuals.” In actuality, community is the norm and the individual is grounded in it.
- Denial of the Individual: At the same time as the individual is held up over the community in the field of economy “what makes us uniquely individual is ignored. ‘Economic man’ is an empty consumer, not doing anything but taking in. God given unique qualities and vocation are neglected.”
- Denial of the Humble: In mainstream economics, “the humble, Christ’s favourite people, are pushed down and vilified, while winners are glorified.” This is opposed to the Christian vision in which the “last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
- Denial of Justice: “Markets worship a fake justice which is nothing like God’s justice.The understanding is that if you have efficient markets everybody gets rewarded for their productivity.” In contrast, “God’s justice is community justice. It’s people caring for each other and making sure no one goes without.”
- Denial of Mother Earth: “Mother Earth is just a pile of resources to the economist.” In contrast, Russel points to Saint Francis who “prayed appreciation for brother dirt.” Russel relates this to understandings found in Indigenous cultures about human relationship with the land, noting the significance of the phrase “The land is family.”
- Denial of Entitlement: Mainstream economics deny certain fundamental “entitlements.” Here Russel speaks to colonial economics. He explains that as Christians, we should believe that “everyone’s entitled to a place to call home, a community to call family and the right to live their calling in their own way. Colonialism takes all those away from many people.” He adds that it’s “not only about land grab, but things like slaughtering buffalo, taking away means of subsistence, the use of residential schools, the imposition of patriarchy, the suppression of LGBT people.”
Russell is a member of the Anglican Franciscan Third Order, as well as a member of Epiphany Indigenous Anglican Church. He explains ways these two communities have influenced his project.
“Franciscan communities are ‘pockets of grace,’ living with each other in radical generosity, standing up for the marginalized, and challenging the excesses of capitalism that rendered them marginal.”
“Francis of Assisi resolved to actually live the way Christ counselled us to live… He also recognized there would be people like me, too deeply ensnared in the culture to become a beggar, but still wanting to follow Francis to the best of our ability, so Francis formed the Third Order, … asking us to discard the excess baggage of life that gets in the way of walking the good road, and take on a calling of serving ‘the least of these.’”
Russell says that over the course of the project, he has come to recognize shared values between Franciscan thought and the wisdom of various Indigenous cultures. He mentions as an example potlatch ceremonies of various Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest:
“It was a huge ceremony of radical giving; those who had more came with more and gave them away to those who had less. The Canadian government outlawed it, because they were threatened by the challenge it posed to the colonial way of life.” He notes other common ground: “The identification with community, looking after each other, living within the Creator’s abundance, honouring and healing the broken— these are resonant with Franciscan sensibilities.”
Russell believes it is important for church communities to think about and engage with the economic systems in which we find ourselves. “People, including parishioners, are living their lives according to a set of preposterous assumptions, supplied by economists, that are utterly contrary to their faith and they don’t know it,” he says, and he suggests the aptness of the conversation for our present time: “This is the right time to turn things right side up again, when the state of the world is starting to make people think that something is radically wrong here; there is!”
He also indicates that there are challenges to unravelling the systems in which we find ourselves. He notes the ways we are currently materially bound by dominant economic systems, for instance needing to abide by their logics in order to feed our families. Beyond this he notes how we have internalized the values of mainstream economics “We are all raised in this profane culture,” he says, and are “indoctrinated” by it. But, he says, “people are not totally satisfied,” and he believes we can progressively work towards societies of radical grace.
Russell offers a few directions for this, such as “living together in pockets of grace in the belly of the beast,” and “standing with those who are denied food, shelter and dignity, pushing hard for their needs, and demanding justice, as an intermediate step toward living in grace.”
For himself, the “initial battlefront… is debunking.” He recognizes the large scope of change needed, but he comments that he takes encouragement from the “Indigenous perspective of planting seeds to bloom in seven generations.
For now, Russell’s work, which has undergone several iterations and is now available in a workbook form, has gotten some traction in his faith communities. He was featured recently in the (Catholic OFS) Franciscan Action Network’s official publication and FAN is considering ways to use his work going forward. He has also been presenting workbook sessions to a local Third Order Franciscan group. Additionally the Society of Saint Francis, the predominant Franciscan Order within the Anglican Communion, has asked him to conduct sessions during their upcoming convocation in Phoenix in August, and its Task Force on Colonialism (of which Russel is a member) will use his workbook as a resource. He has also recently conducted sessions for St. Margaret’s Anglican Church’s Lenten Discussion Group.
The feedback he has gotten on the text has been good, Russell says. “People are appreciating that it’s making them look at things in a different way than they’re used to looking at them. Looking at things in a different way is what I’m all about.”
He is also hoping to develop smaller versions of the workbook, though it’s no easy feat to try and reduce what he considers to be ultimately an “accomplishment of 20 years.” He would like though to create a presentation version of the text of just an hour and a half long, with instructions for presenters. He would also like to see a printed version of the workbook come to fruition, and envisions a possible secular rendering of the text.
With all these ideas in motion, Russell also remarks “At my age, 78, I’m trying to pace myself, so I’m putting my work out there for others to pick-up, while still doing some presenting when I can.”
In terms of diocesan engagement, Russell encourages people to take up the workbook for local discussion groups. He says “My message is ‘pick it up and play with it.’ Engagement has to come from the ground up.”
He hopes that ultimately the workbook might be a helpful tool in forming more pockets of grace.
“Form your communities. Maybe that’s all we can do. Maybe if I can put together a few pockets of grace, I’ll have accomplished something.”