Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Will This Crisis Change Us?


The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.
Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (1987)

Yes, this is a structural crisis that clearly calls for new social regulation. But it is also a spiritual crisis that calls for new self-regulation.
Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street (2010)

Harvard's Harvey Cox warned us a decade ago in "The Market as God" that unfettered allegiance to the market was idolatry and potentially catalysmic. But according to Sojourner's Jim Wallis, we Americans just kept asking the wrong questions:

-What's the fastest way to make money?
-How do you beat your coworker for the next promotion?
-Is your house bigger than your neighbor's?
-Are you keeping up with the Joneses?
-What do you need to buy next that will truly make you happy?
-What is wrong with you, and how could you change that?
-What should you protect yourself from?

As we continue our national pilgrimage through this Great Recession ("we are not out of the woods yet"--Barack Obama), Wallis proposes that one question remains:

How will this crisis change us?

What's done is done: the popping of a vicious housing bubble brought on by predatory lending and strange financial instruments called credit default swaps, as well as the epidemic of American household deficit spending. Now, all of us must pull ourselves up and commit to a deeper and wiser economic spirituality (or "a spiritual economics") that is known by its rugged simplicity and elegant compassion.

Wallis, following Jesus' confrontation with money-changers in the Temple, concurs that we too should be righteously indignant, overturning tables in a culture that has been tremendously saturated in counterfeit principles of economics:

1. We were sold a lie (the American Dream by way of the unregulated "invisible hand" of the Market)

2. The Rules of the Game failed ("Work hard, get ahead, buy a home, and tuck some money away for the future in a 401(k))

3. Our good was supposed to trickle down (Instead, our inequality gap has soared!)

And our perverse economic ethos has produced faithful citizens who believe the messages and bank our lives on them:

Greed is good!
It's all about me!
I want it all, and I want it now!

Wallis' modest, yet vitally important project is to convince the reader that the market should not be destroyed, but instead checked by a deeper theology buttressed by spiritual practices. Wallis' humble brand of Christianity draws from a variety of interfaith traditions, from the Hindu Gandhi to the secular Jew Jon Stewart to a variety of conservative and progressive forms of Christian faith. He comes to 3 simple moral lessons:

1. Relationships matter
2. Social sins also matter
3. Our own good is indeed tied up in the common good


There you have it! These should be 3 of the most obvious strands of "truth" that we can ALL--from right to left on the spectrum--tie together to bond us and bind us to economic solidarity. But inevitably, Wallis will be schlepped aside by many conservatives who interpret his treatise as "socialism" or at least a "Democratic party platform" and the fractured nature of the political and theological left will bemoan his attempt to work "within the system" of capitalism itself. But no one can accuse him of being impractical or too theoretical. He closes with these challenges for families and faith communities:

1. Calendars and Budgets are Moral Documents (How are we prioritizing Time and Money?)

2. Screen Time vs. Family Time (Can we intentionally shelve our TVs, computers and phones for real dialogue with family, friends and God?)

3. Tis a Gift to Be Simple: A Lifestyle Audit (Can we amputate what we don't really need?)

4. It Ain't Easy Being Green (Is our energy sustainable?)

5. Know Your Scriptures (Are we being "scripted" more by the American Dream than the Reign of God?)

6. Neighbors Matter (Do we even know our neighbors?)

7. Welcoming Strangers and Making Neighbors (How can we model the hospitality of God with those around us?)

8. Living a Life of Service (Where can we donate time and resources to the "least of these" in our community?)

9. Congregationalist Checklist (So many ways that we can minister to our church communities by challenging them to use finances, leverage, time and other resources towards fair-trade, local, peace and justice businesses and organizations!)

10. Where is YOUR Money? (How can we invest in companies & mutual funds that are "socially conscious?")

11. Giving Globally (The Great Recession has crushed the Third World...with very little "safety net!")

12. Consumer Power (Purchasing goods and services from companies/stores that pledge themselves to peace and justice for humanity, animals and the earth!)

13. Cut Up the Cards (Can we live within our means by pledging "no" to unneeded debt?)

14. Listen to the Canaries (Commit to an organization that pledges solidarity to ridding the US of poverty! Warning: this has more to do with transforming socio-economic policy than increasing charitable giving!)

15. Join a Campaign (Join a movement to advocate, protest and vote for change!)

16. Watch & Pray (Let's commit to praying for our leaders, but also to analyzing how they vote on vital issues!)

17. Meaning of Work (Does your work reflect what you value? If not, strive to change your workplace...or change your work!)

18. Leading Your Community (Be the change that you want in the world...and lead others into that "whole new world.")

19. Build a Better Book Club (...and don't forget the beverages)

20. Tending to the Green Shoots (Read the local paper to find communities who are already being the HOPE that God longs to bring to the world.)

On the night I heard Jim Wallis give a lecture at Fuller Seminary this past Spring, he mentioned he was reading a biography of William Jennings Bryan, perhaps the most popular political leader of a century ago who, unfortunately, became more (in)famous for his fundamentalist Christian stance on the origins of the universe. Bryan, the Democratic Party Presidential nominee in 1896, 1900 & 1908 may be the best Christian model for Wallis' proposal that we Americans must embrace personal responsibility and the common good. He once said:

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

Today's contemporary Christian fundamentalists (heirs of Bryan's theology) will be shocked to hear that Bryan chose the latter form of government. Bryan, on the other hand, would, no doubt, be utterly baffled by today's marriage of conservative evangelicalism and Reaganomics. Bryan boldly called for the legalization of strikes, taxing the income of the wealthy and banning private campaign spending. He knew that, if the Body of Christ really cared about a laissez-faire economy being overrun by Goldman Sachs and Exxon-Mobil, while more and more Americans are forced to rely on food stamps and foreclose on their homes, then they must put a priority on policies that will ensure a bubble up instead of deceptively claim to trickle down.

--Theological Autopilot

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