If you haven’t heard of the ‘Great Reset’ yet, you probably will soon.
If you haven’t heard of the ‘Great Reset’ yet, you probably will soon. It is filling the column inches of the world’s major newspapers and it has unleashed quite a storm on social media. Here are five key questions for thinking Christians who want to engage with the Great Reset from a biblical perspective.
1. What is the Great Reset?
This first question might seem obvious, but there’s a significance in beginning with the question “what?”, rather than “who?”. Much of the hostile reaction to the Great Reset has focused almost exclusively on who is pushing the agenda and one or two choice quotations, rather than what they are saying in its detail. This risks descending into an ad hominem argument (dismissing an idea because of who is saying it, and ignoring what they are saying). So let’s first sketch the what, before we turn to the who.
The Great Reset is an attempt to seize the moment of the COVID-19 crisis to build a better society
The Great Reset is an attempt to seize the moment of the COVID-19 crisis to build a better society, where “better” means three things: greener, more digital, and fairer. It is driven by a feeling that the financial crisis of the late 2000s was a missed opportunity: trillions of dollars were handed out in stimulus packages but nothing really changed, and no measures were taken to stop it all happening again.
Now for the who. The Great Reset is the brainchild of Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF) that gathers many of the world’s political and corporate leaders for a summit each January in the Swiss ski resort of Davos. The gathering typically attracts corporate luminaries such as Bill Gates and the heads of Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs and IBM, who can be seen rubbing shoulders with Presidents and Prime Ministers, and celebrities such as Bono and the Prince of Wales.
Behind the glitz, the WEF has a clear agenda for social change. Alongside co-author Thierry Malleret, Schwab argues in his recently published book COVID-19: The Great Reset for “stakeholder capitalism”, the idea that capitalism should not just benefit shareholders but also employees, consumers, communities and the environment. Schwab writes on the WEF website that:
… the world must act jointly and swiftly to revamp all aspects of our societies and economies, from education to social contracts and working conditions. Every country, from the United States to China, must participate, and every industry, from oil and gas to tech, must be transformed. In short, we need a “Great Reset” of capitalism.
The WEF calls for nothing less than “a new social contract centred on human dignity [and] social justice”.
2. What has been the reaction?
The main criticism is that it represents a socialist, globalist conspiracy for global control and dominance.
To put it mildly, the Great Reset and its parent body the World Economic Forum have caused mixed reactions. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson boycotted Davos in 2020 because “Our focus is on delivering for the people, not champagne with billionaires,” and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann was the only Australian senior minister to attend this year.
Perhaps predictably, social media has fomented a frenzy of negativity around the WEF. “Great Reset” regularly trended on Twitter in the second half of 2020, and not in an affirming way. The main criticism is that it represents a socialist, globalist conspiracy in which a small transnational, unelected elite are cooking up a self-serving agenda for global control and dominance at the expense of the rest of us. Whatever we make of theories like this, they eloquently testify to society’s deep lack of trust in authorities and elites today, a lack of trust from which churches also suffer.
Most Christians who have voiced an opinion seem negatively disposed towards the Great Reset, particularly in the USA with its strong cultural value of independence and suspicion of centralised authority. Some see in the WEF the spectre of world government and the New World Order, identifying it with the Antichrist. Others bristle at the wokeness of its agenda, seeing a further erosion of Christian values in society.
So how should Christians think through how to respond to a political or cultural initiative such as the Great Reset? Here are three ideas to get the ball rolling.
3. How does the Bible diagonalize the debate?
Time and time again, the Bible disrupts and re-organises the terms of contemporary social and intellectual debates. In terms of the Great Reset we are dealing with two camps: the utopians (Great Resetters) and the pessimists (critics of the Great Reset). The utopians seem to suggest that a rosy future is ours if only we work together to take the right measures now. The pessimists see only a cabal of the privileged engaged in a Machiavellian plot to control our lives.
How does the Bible diagonalize this dichotomy? By showing that both sides are peddling reductive simplifications of a complex Christian view of time, society and humanity. The Great Resetters are not wrong to want to make society better; that is part of the creation mandate. But their trust in centralized authorities and concentrations of power without very clear checks and balances is naïve about the human heart and the consequences of the fall. Meanwhile, the critics are not wrong to be suspicious of control and concentrated power, but their cynicism stops their ears to the responsibility we all have to steward the natural and cultural worlds—a charge we cannot meet unless we work together in some form. In short, both the optimists and pessimists take part of a complex truth and make it the whole: the Great Resetters underplay the fall, and the critics underplay the creation mandate; the Great Resetters have an over-realised secular eschatology, while the critics take human greed and sinfulness as a reason not to work for the peace and prosperity of the cities in which we find ourselves.
By contrast, Christians who want to offer a full-orbed biblical response should give full weight, in biblical proportion, to creation, fall, redemption and consummation, to human potential and to human perversity.
4. What’s the biblical alternative?
Neither of these responses comes close to capturing the radical, powerful vision for society that flows from the Bible.
It’s easy to be an armchair critic, or indeed an armchair cheerleader, for an agenda like the Great Reset. But neither of these responses comes close to capturing the radical, powerful vision for society that flows from a deep engagement with the Bible.
We Christians should not be content to fall into lockstep with an initiative like the Great Reset, nor to take pot-shots at it from the side-lines. We must let the Bible “set its own table” so to speak—not simply responding to the terms of the debate set out in the Great Reset, but showing how biblical patterns can shape a society for the good of all people in areas such as debt, social cohesion, inequality and welfare.
Christians will disagree on the details of a biblical vision for society. Of course we will, and that is not a bad thing. Nor are we alone in our disagreement; secular commentators are also at loggerheads about how principles such as justice or equality should be embodied in social policies and institutions. But unless we work hard to articulate and commend our best understanding of a Christian vision for a flourishing, just, sustainable society, two things will happen.
First, we will find it hard to analyse initiatives such as the Great Reset because we will have no biblical pattern against which to judge them, and this will lead us to cherry-pick one aspect of their agenda (such as a commitment to woke social justice, or endorsement by political and global elites), and take that for the whole ball game.
Second, we will be forever on the back foot, responding to the latest trends and initiatives, perhaps occasionally sprinkling them with a little Bible dust, rather than engaging with them on the front foot, equipped with a compelling and fresh biblical vision for society that can, in the words of John Milbank, “out-narrate” its secular alternatives.
5. So how should Christians respond?
Enough caveats and grand principles. Let’s get down to it: how do I think Christians should respond to the Great Reset? Here we go:
- Separate the message from the messenger. The World Economic Forum has some strange, naïve and alarming ideas. That doesn’t of itself mean this particular proposal, or the aims it contains, is worthless.
- Take the issues one by one and pass them through a biblical lens. There are three prominent pillars of the Great Reset: justice, sustainability, and digitalisation. Let me offer just one thought in relation to each.
What distinguishes a biblical concern for justice? One major element is a concern for the poor; for the “widows and orphans” who are disenfranchised and have no power, no status and no voice. The corporate and capitalist focus of the Great Reset, along with its privileging of certain minorities at the expense of others (I can find no mention of religious minorities of any creed, for example), relatively under-emphasises these unglamorous populations, and Christians should be vigorous in advocating for their inclusion and flourishing.
- Sustainability: a desire to preserve the world in order that we may continue to live on it does not challenge the shareholder capitalist paradigm of maximising benefit that the Great Reset claims to oppose. It just pushes out its borders a little. A deeper transformation is needed: one that decentres human beings and makes us accountable to a tribunal not of our own divising. This sort of radical transformation is achieved by the shift from the paradigm of ‘sustainability’ to the Christian idea of ‘stewardship’: taking care of the world because it is God’s, not primarily just so we can continue to live on it for a long time. Stewardship engenders a much wider and more radical sense of responsibility, one that encompasses aspects of the natural world that have no immediate impact on human life.
- Technology. Without seeing the antichrist around every corner, a biblical anthropology strikes a note of caution amid the utopian technological dreams of the Great Reset. Human beings are gloriously made in the image of a loving and wise creator, but you and I are also fallen and capable of great evil and self-deception. This is why the separation of powers is by and large a good principle: it prevents too much control being concentrated in any one person or body. Any increased digitalization should build this principle of dispersing power into its DNA and resist control by a small number of multi-national corporations, governments or individuals.
In a few years’ time, the ‘Great Reset’ brand will most likely become a curiosity for the history books. But the questions of how to build a just, sustainable and digitally fair society for all people will not. So let’s play the long game and engage with those issues, nudging the public debate where possible towards a biblical understanding of what is at stake in rewriting the social contract.