Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Economic Trade and the Call to Community

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Ed. note: Elise Amyx co-authored this post. 

What would life in total isolation look like?

If you have ever watched the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks, you get a sense of what it might be like. Hanks plays Tom Noland, a busy Federal Express worker who leaves home on a cargo plane and crashes on a remote island. Noland is the sole survivor of the crash.

Can you imagine being totally alone and having to produce everything yourself? The movie gives us a sense of what we would have to learn and endure in a life without community. We see Noland’s struggles through the movie as he deals with the hardships of surviving in isolation, with no one to help him:

  • He creates a calendar to track the days.
  • He makes a friend named “Wilson” out of a blood-stained volleyball.
  • He has to learn how to make fire.
  • He learns to fish without equipment and to distill water.

We are incapable of doing everything ourselves. We see Noland’s joy in the movie when he makes fire by himself.  He didn’t land on the island with that skill, and he struggled to develop it. None of us possesses all the skills necessary for the flourishing God desires for us.

God did not create us to live in isolation. We are called into community, and we are social beings created for fellowship both with our Heavenly Father and with each other. Genesis 2:18 tells us that God knew this about our makeup, even way back in the Garden:

The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’

God knew that we could not provide for our needs alone. He knew that we need to come together in a community to serve and help one another.

Romans 12:4-7 provides us with some insight about how our different skills and talents are actually the gifts God gives us, and the mechanisms that bring us into community with one another:

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach…

Two important principles are revealed in this text:

  • As Christians we are called a “body,” meaning we are all connected even though we are each distinct.
  • We are created with unique gifts, talents and skills, and we are also called to use them to serve others.

One of the many ways we use our gifts is through the exchange of goods, whether it is between two neighbors or between many countries. The local farmer uses his entrepreneurial gifts to serve a neighbor with a fresh batch of blueberries. The textile worker in Argentina serves strangers across the globe with sweaters that his hands helped create.

Markets provide a venue for us to come together in this way through trade based on our gifts. This is why our lives look so different from Noland’s experience on the island. He had to survive alone. As a result, he suffered from real physical needs, and from being disconnected from a community of people.

Markets allow us to not have to worry about how we start fire, for example. Someone figured that out based on their gifts. Now, most homes across the country have internal temperature regulation systems, and we don’t have to think for a minute about how that came into being.

Alfred Whitehead put it succinctly in his book Introduction to Mathematics:

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

Human flourishing and the advancement of civilization is only possible when we come together in community, and there are many ways we can do that: through our churches, with our neighbors, in our families. One example that we frequently forget is that markets bring us together as anonymous strangers who can serve one another by doing what God has gifted us to accomplish.

Like Noland in Castaway, no human person is made to be stranded on island. Sometimes, it’s easy to think we can do it all by ourselves. It’s humbling to admit that we need the gifts and skills of others to survive.

If God created us all as individuals with unique skills and talents, and he calls us into community, then we need to use our gifts in community with others. We can answer the call to community at church, in our neighborhoods, in our cities, and even in the market, through trade and the goods and services we can provide others with each day.

Have you ever thought of trade as a means of building community? How might markets be a tool for you to build community and advance human flourishing? Leave your comments here.

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