V. Can sacred writings from a bygone agragrian age in the pre-industrial Middle East really have anything to say about the political future of urban, post-industrial Europe?
The economics editor of The Sydney Morning Herald surprised his readers one day by writing about a group of Christian thinkers in Cambridge, England, who believed the solution to society’s economic and political problems lay in getting back to the model laid out in the Bible.
‘Don’t laugh,’ Ross Gittins wrote, ‘it’s a group with more PhDs than you’ve had haircuts. They’re from a Christian research group, the Jubilee Centre, founded by Michael Schluter. Dr Schluter is better known as the director of the Relationships Foundation. You didn’t know there was an economic model in the Bible? According to this group, when you consider Old Testament law as a whole, an integrated economic model emerges which satisfies the prerequisites for both efficiency and fairness without the wasteful and damaging side effects entailed in the current Western economic model.’ 
Dr Schluter was an economist with the world bank in East Africa in the 1970’s. Observing the social disruption caused by socialism in Tanzania, Marxism in Ethiopia and capitalism in Kenya, he was searching for a biblical alternative. Looking at the Old Testament as an ethical foundation for public life, he noted a remarkable consistency in an apparently random collection of laws. The Jubilee laws for land, the ban on interest, the role of the Levites, political structures, welfare arrangements and military organisation all cohered in a central theme, the key to which he discovered in Jesus’ brilliant synopsis of this Mosaic Law in the New Testament: Love God and neighbour! The glue of society was love, Jesus implied, or right relationships.
In today’s real world, of course, such an answer is considered naïve, impractical and unrealistic. That is not the language of money, economics, politics and military power. It’s not a language widely spoken in Moscow or London, Berlin or Paris, Rome or Brussels.
Yet, according to Schluter, it is this imperative to love God and neighbour that provides a biblical alternative to the dominant western ideologies of global capitalism and market socialism. The Big Idea, believes Schluter, is to see the world from the perspective of relationships, which offers the way forward beyond today’s pragmatism.
While capitalism was concerned primarily with the deployment and growth of capital, and socialism focused on the role and organisation of the collective, Jesus emphasised the quality of relationships. The Big Idea of Old Testament law was relationships. All these seemingly unrelated Mosaic laws protected and promoted relationships in the long run. In other words, a society should not be evaluated by its GDP, or the efficiency of its markets, but in how that society fosters healthy relationships.
So relationships were the key, concluded Schluter, both to interpreting and applying biblical law today, and to evaluating society today.
Schluter often challenges his audiences to think of an undeveloped (or ‘developing’) country. After a few moments, he asks which continent or region they were thinking of. Most think of Africa, Asia or the Caribbean. Then he asks, in what sense did you think of ‘undeveloped’? In terms of economics? or of relationships? Which countries are least developed relationallythese days? Which countries have the highest divorce rates, for example? America and Britain, perhaps?
Schluter calls this language of relationships Relationism. He has developed this idea to embrace a wide range of social initiatives and has spelt this out in his writings and speaking.
So is Relationism just another ‘-ism’? Is it yet another Christian ideology? Schluter admits that ideologies ‘smack of idolatry, solutions apart from salvation, and frameworks of political thought and action which do not acknowledge the Lordship of Christ. While Relationism could perhaps be regarded as an ideology in the sense of flowing from a worldview which is not shared by everybody, it should certainly not be regarded as an autonomous body of human thought.’
Yet he warns that the potential for Relationism’s long-term impact on western society will depend on whether or not it stays in touch with its biblical roots. Divorced from biblical teaching, it will lack the essential motivation for building strong social bonds and restoring broken relationships: love for God.
Relationism shares much common ground with Personalism. Both reject the view of people and nature as just commodities (e.g. people as ‘labour’, ‘human resources’ or ‘human capital’; or a tree as just ‘timber’); that human beings exist primarily for the building up of efficient societies, or that the ‘development’ of a society should be measured in terms of its economic growth.
Both perspectives reject the idea that individuals can and should be self-sufficient in themselves, economically and psychologically (‘the atomic self’); that a person can or should have a different self across different areas of life, or the view that the self has no ultimate significance because it is only a small part of a universal self. Because of the focus on the individual, the common ground between Relationism and Personalism is strongest around lifestyle issues. Both stress that identity, meaning, security and value are found principally in a person’s relationships.
However Dr Schluter identifies key differences between Personalism and Relationism, and believes Relationism can point the way forward for Europe in areas where Personalism, he believes, falls short. Personalism, he argues, has not had an answer for the Christian Democratic Parties on key issues in economic policy, for example. ‘As Mrs Thatcher puts it in her usual acerbic fashion, “Anything from full-bloodied enterprise on the one-hand to corporatism on the other could be dressed up in the language of Christian Democracy”’.
Neither does Personalism take into account the biblical warning on national and personal debt, as does Relationism–an emphasis which has come into its own most recently. The two views have different starting points, which lead them to different emphases. Personalism is primarily a response to individualism and collectivism. Relationism is primarily a response to Marxism and Capitalism. Personalism is more of a philosophical endeavour to describe what it means to be an authentically human person; Relationism is more concerned with how social life should be ordered to give maximum benefit to persons in relationship.
This means that Personalism has little to say about group or organisational relationships, and has difficulty addressing the concerns of public policy.
One consequence of the term ‘Personalism’ has been to focus attention primarily on the individual, especially in an individualistic culture. This is unhelpful if the significance of the person lies in their relationships with others.
Relationism has a more explicit dependence than Personalism on the ethical values of the Judeo-Christian tradition in defining normative values of relevance to persons-in-relation. Relationism draws its inspiration from the shared scriptures of Christians and Jews, especially the Mosaic law. It builds on the values which underpin the political, economic and social life described there, taking proper account of the historical and geographical context. Yet it does not draw exclusively on the Old Testament, as the church also provides a counter-cultural model of relational community.
One question Relationism poses is: How do alternative constitutional arrangements, such as federalism or, negatively, a centralisation of government decision-making, change the pattern of human relating and thus impact on personal well-being?
Schluter believes such questions will help develop the Personalism-Relationism approach into a fully-fledged social paradigm, to challenge materialist-capitalism as the dominant ideology of our day. This challenge is not just at the level of social philosophy, but also at the level of the laws, institutional structures and working practices to which it gives rise.
He seeks a meaningful symbiotic relationship between Personalist thought and Relationism. Relationism, he believes, provides the needed dynamic for translating Personalism into a coherent political and economic system.I, for one, have a growing conviction that Relationism is a Big Idea offering hope for Europe.
Director Schuman Centre
The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 April 2006
Co-author of The R Factorand The R Option, Dr Schluter has founded the Relationship Foundation, theJubilee Centrein Cambridge and the think tank that produces The Cambridge Papers.He has initiated a range of projects underway in England and other countries including employment schemes, relationships audits in multinationals, and the Keep Sunday Special campaign in England. He has worked with the Scottish Prison Service to promote better warder/prisoner relationships, and advocates ‘relational healthcare’ and ‘relational justice’. The latter views crime as a breakdown of relationship between offender and victim/community.
Quoted in Cole, Graham & Schluter, Michael, 2004, on which this section is based.