William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Category: Ethics (Page 3 of 4)

True Faith according to H. Richard Niebuhr

“To deny the reality of a supernatural being called God is one thing; to live without confidence in some center of value and without loyalty to a cause is another” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, p. 25).

Here Richard Niebuhr begins to explain what I think is the essence of theology and ethics — namely, the study of our 1) orientation toward, 2) trust in and 3) commitment to meaning and purpose.  Most people have this, and it is directed at something.  Niebuhr calls this henotheism, or the faith of a “closed-society” — a “social” faith. God is identified with something bigger than the individual, but this god has a finite horizon.  The most common expressions of this kind of faith takes the shape of nationalism or some sort of conventional individual moralism.  Of course, it can also be seen in other groups besides national ones, such as tribes and factions of many varieties.  Similarly, individual moralism can quickly become collective.  The point is, at some point lines are drawn and insider/outsider distinctions are made.  It is a way to distinctive “us” from “them” and to create insulated mono-cultures of security and certainty of identity.  This is not altogether a bad thing.  It’s actually somewhat necessary.

The second form of faith that society takes is “polytheism,” which, in Niebuhr’s schema, tends to follow henotheism as it dissolves.  It comes from the “revelation that an apparently unified society is without integrity.”  It is “the breakup of the confidence that life as worthwhile as lived from and toward the community center.”  According to Sartre, in its most radical form it has individuals making themselves in order to be God and “losing [oneself] in order that the self-cause may exist” (Being and Nothingness, 1956, p. 626).  Niebuhr says “the more common alternative to communal confidence and loyalty appears to be less radical egoism in which an unintegrated, diffuse self-system depends for its meanings on many centers and gives its partial loyalties to many interests” (RM, p. 29).

The third form of human faith is what Niebuhr refers to in the title of his book as “Radical Monotheism.” This faith can only be achieved socially in fleeting moments and times in history.  Most of the time social faith remains susceptible to triumphalism and exclusion, and therefore violence and falsehood.  In radical monotheism, or what I’ll just call “true faith,”

“the value-center is neither closed society nor the principle of such a society but the principle of being itself. It is the assurance that because I am, I am valued, and because you are, you are beloved, and because whatever is has being, therefore it is worthy of love.  It is the confidence that whatever is, is good, because it exists as one thing among the many which all have their origin and their being in the One — the principle of being which is also the principle of value” (RM, p. 32).

In every church and society there is a mixture of social faith, polytheism and some radical monotheism.  Individually and collectively, people tend toward egoism and the fragmentation or absolutization of finite value.  Only faith in the God who is the source and sustenance of all being and therefore value itself — that is, the good — can give way toward fullness of life and love.

Christians and the Iraq War 10 years later

Recently I heard the country song “I Drive your Truck” by Lee Brice.  The lyrics are very moving, as they tell the story of someone dealing with the death of a brother, presumably in Army deployment overseas in either Iraq or Afghanistan.  Few things are more saddening to reflect on for citizens that are thought to benefit from this tremendous sacrifice.  It kinda makes you wonder.

I was only a senior in high school when the United States invaded Iraq 10 years ago today.  I didn’t know anything then, but I’m not sure this excused my ignorance for the next five years.  And of course I was old enough to be fighting myself any one of those years!  Articles by the Economist yesterday and Sojourners today address the anniversary in a very critical way, but I think necessarily so.  Half the problem it seems, thanks to our mainstream media channels, is that most people have no idea how much this war cost — not just monetarily or even in terms of the lives of U.S. troops lost, but Iraqi lives as well (a much, much larger number in comparison, the tragedy of the 9-11 attacks notwithstanding).  Moreover, the U.S. under Reagan was willing to either look the other way or even aid Saddam Hussein when he was murdering thousands of Kurds two decades earlier.  Why? Because he wasn’t threatening our security at the time, and in one case was actually furthering it.  I’m not even trying to demonizing the U.S. for this.  That kind of foreign policy makes sense when you’re a global superpower.  It’s just amazing that people don’t recognize the logic.  The information is readily available to any remotely thoughtful constituent.

For me at least this is a good reminder not to see our own country through rose-colored glasses, or any country for that matter, especially if it’s rich and powerful with cause to seek its own (often private) interest at the expensive of others (isn’t this the way the world has always worked?).  And it doesn’t matter whether the president is George W. Bush or Barrack Obama.  Right now under the Obama administration, for example, there is much to be concerned about militarily speaking, particularly regarding drone warfare and the extremely suspect National Defense Authorization Act.

The other day I came across this video of Stanley Hauerwas talking about the threat that sentimentality brings to Christianity and the Church.  Whether or not it applies directly to the post-9-11 era politics, it’s at least a sobering message about the costliness of discipleship that is all too often forgotten by privileged and comfortable Christians.  What would it look like if a large group of Christians in the U.S. became as outspoken and concerned about militarized and imperial forms of violence as some of us are about homosexuality, abortion, gun ownership, prayer in schools and the like?  I don’t think culture would know what to do.  People might actually start associating us with Jesus.

MLK Jr. Quotes and Cornell West criticizing the Inauguration

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.

A nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.

We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.

All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.

A lie cannot live.

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’

Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.

Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.

Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.

I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

God, Suffering Society and Christian Responsibility: A Few Thoughts and a Challenge in Light of the Sandy Hook Shooting

Friday’s events were about as tragic, senseless and deplorable as anything imaginable.  The only appropriate immediate response is grief, prayer and comforting the afflicted.  What is just as disturbing, however, even if we don’t like to hear it, is how often the needless death and suffering of children occurs everyday — very often as a result of many of the actions taken by people, governments and corporations in the wealthiest and most powerful nations like our own (in the form of “collateral damage” from drone warfare, for instance — the intention might be different, but the outcome is the same).

A thousand miles closer than Connecticut to Texas is the Mexican border, for example, where  the same number of children have died many times over in recent years for similarly belligerent reasons — and that is only the tip of the iceberg.  What if we, the Christian Church in the United States, would come to love and weep for the rest of the world’s children in the way that we love and weep for our own — the children of the Congo, of Syria and of Iraq?

It is usually asked what to make of God in the wake of such events.  As a student and professor of theology, I am obviously interested in this kind of inquiry and could offer a few thoughts on the matter.  Is it not equally appropriate to ask though what to make of those of us who claim to worship and know this God while yet remaining utterly distracted and mostly self-serving in the midst of this kind of suffering — suffering that happens not just last week, but all the time (e.g., severe acute malnutrition, something even more violent, afflicts an estimated 19 million children worldwide).  After all, it is indeed God, Christians maintain, that suffers with the suffering on the cross — as a consequence of our unawakened desire, apathy and discontentment with what we have been given.  I’ve said more about this here.

With regard to this specific incident at the political level, there are public policy concerns to be raised for sure, but I will not take up those issues here.  Speaking as someone who grew up and continues to enjoy hunting, suffice it to say that the dominant conventional positions are naive — the simple call for better gun control on the one hand (though I tend to lean this way at least when it comes to assault rifles, glocks and the like), and the libertarian dictum about how “people [– not guns –] kill people” or “only outlaws will have guns” on the other hand — as if many better preventative systemic safety measures shouldn’t be taken… For a better treatment of this, I recommend senior pastor of FBC-Austin Roger Paynter’s sermon here.

While there are always going to be some seemingly irredeemably pernicious folks who are out to do terrible harm like this, society must take a certain degree of responsibility.  Dismissing the killer as a barbaric monster, lunatic, etc. might make you feel better, but it doesn’t fix anything — nor does blaming Satan, free will or abstract human “fallenness”, however real these things may be.  People are not born ready to kill kindergarteners, even if they are born “sinful,” and it’s no coincidence that this happens as it does in the United States, which is one of the most technologically advanced, virtualized and at the same time hyper-individualist cultures in the world.  By “individualist”, I mean the placement of excessive value on autonomy,  competition, freedom (personal and political) and independence.  These values run quite contrary to the urgent need for Christian values like interdependence/mutuality, community, relationality and accountability.

This week a faith group I’m a part of is taking on the simple but profound challenge of reaching out to one person who is generally regarded as “other” or an “outsider” — someone stigmatized maybe — economically, politically, socially… whatever.  I extend this challenge to anyone: love somebody different this week.  Better still, try to do it every week, and make it a New Years resolution.

Some Observations after this Election Season: Democracy, Corporate Media, Social Issues and the "Entitlement Culture"

Somewhat to my surprise, the concerns I had about the Citizens United ruling thankfully may not have been so detrimental this time around — though doubts about the reality and efficacy of democracy definitely remain.  I initially wanted to talk about the electoral process itself, the degree to which big money continues to corrupt both parties, and especially the exclusion of third party voices in the presidential debates.  There’s little question in my mind that without campaign finance reform, term limits for congress, and greater transparency and accountability with respect to the lobbying power of corporate and special interest groups, the supposed differences between republican and democratic candidates will remain relatively inconsequential for the achievement of much needed structural, if incremental, political change.

Instead though, something more immediately interesting and perplexing has grabbed my attention; namely, the pervasiveness of two basic blind spots at the popular level of dialogue about contemporary American politics:

  1. Most people, when they think about politics — even though they’ve heard about this and live it every day — still do not appreciate just how much globalization and trade liberalization have changed the rules of international economics and therefore necessarily the role of government dealings with domestic fiscal and private-sector regulation issues (see endnote below for further explanation).[i] In general, the mainstream media doesn’t talk about or seem to understand this.  Instead, the U.S. is still regarded as a more or less autonomous nation-state, albeit the most powerful one (a thoroughly modern and enlightenment-based idea that has lingered on much too long, kind of like many Reformational theological assumptions do in the church).
  2. With regard to why Obama got elected instead of Romney, there are no doubt already many reasons being cited.  And it’s important not to forget how close the election was despite the big electoral college victory.  But here’s another key oversight: to the extent that the election was a reflection of America’s changing social landscape, the culture wars were more determinative of the outcome than the fiscal ones.

There’s a popular narrative amongst some conservatives used to explain how and why the United States is changing, and it goes something like this: whereas previous generations believed in JFK’s quip about asking “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” the emerging entitlement generation and the growing welfare state populous just wants handouts.  Romney lost, in other words, because nearly the majority of the people in this country can now safely be called at best naive or irresponsible, and at worst lazy freeloaders who aren’t self-sufficient and morally upstanding.  Admittedly, this is a terse account, but I’m amazed out how many people seem to buy into it.

Now, there’s often a real grain of truth to conventional myths, and this is no exception.  Of course this “entitlement” attitude exists, and maybe it’s even growing — but it’s a gross caricature and still not even close to the dominant issue or “threat.”  To believe otherwise is to miss the fundamentally more significant, glaring trend.

The culturally progressive ideals of tolerance and value-pluralism, the decline of traditional role of religious institutions in society, pro-immigration policies, and individual liberties with respect to reproductive rights and sexuality — like’em or not — are here to stay.  This is not new.  Christendom died a long time ago; it’s just becoming all the more noticeable (marijuana legalization, gay marriage passing in other states, the first openly gay woman in the Senate, etc.).  Standing against gay marriage used to make you trustworthy.  Now it’s just as likely to identify you as a bigot.

The question of fiscal and economic austerity vs. the welfare state, however, may very well still be up for grabs.  For example, there are many young people who would prefer to have Ron Paul and Gary Johnson as president, and identify as libertarians.  While I don’t share this outlook myself and would refer my libertarian friends to #1 above, the argument for small government and lower taxes has not been defeated; rather, what we’ve seen is the beginning of the end of the religious right’s grasp for power.  (This does not mean religion is going anywhere; it is definitely not.  And indeed it’s being increasingly argued that we’re living in a post-secular society.  But the “none’s” and the “spiritual but not religious” folks are becoming the new normal.)

Romney had to run through an extended and overly negative primary race against a group of other candidates that, with maybe one or two exceptions, were associated by way too many people with conservative extremism (most notably Santorum, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain).  No matter how much Romney tried to shake this and appear more moderate by the time of the first debate, his image had already been tainted.  And it didn’t exactly help, in light of the financial crisis and the OWS movement, that Romney himself could be labeled as a member of the 1%.  Romney’s opponents in the primaries did such a good job pointing this out that Obama basically just had to carry on the same message.  Obama did run misleading negative ads; so did Romney.

So anyway, on the day after the election I did something I hadn’t done in many years: watch Fox News (and I only survived because I turned on the Daily Show afterwards).  I watched a full episode of The O’Reilly Factor and some of Hannity.  And within just this hour and a half, I was reminded of some basic truths that go something like this (though of course I’m not saying Fox News is a reliable test case for mass media in general):

  •  Besides the fact that it serves profit-motive and ratings rather than truth, for the mainstream media, all that exists and that is credible is what exists and is covered by the mainstream.  Everything else gets completely dismissed and delegitimized by oversimplified mischaracterization.  In other words, the underlying narrative and ethic has to justify the approximate status quo (even if it’s being criticized/reformed).
  • It’s essential for the mainstream to give the appearance of an accurate and fair representation of reality, however, so great effort is made to achieve this.  The manipulation to do so is powerful, subtle, and shockingly persuasive.  I would even call it intoxicating.  It’s a very smart machine (e.g., sometimes you have to bring on your token spokesperson of a non-mainstream view as a straw man and knock him or her down!).
  • Neither being wrong nor seeking reconciliation is an option.  There is only “us vs. them,” and our side is obviously right about all the big issues.
  • Don’t mess with our security and prosperity.  Anyone who suggests military spending is out of control or that decades of belligerent and rapacious U.S. foreign policy provoked 9-11 is clearly out of her mind.  And if you’re not talking about economic growth, don’t you dare bring up global poverty and its relationship to neoliberalism, environmental degradation, depleting natural resources or climate change (it’s either “not a real problem,” “not my problem,” “God will take care of it,” or worse, “the market will…”).

It is through tactics such as these that people become convinced by scapegoat narratives like the “entitlement culture.”  I’m all for fiscal responsibility and decreasing spending where appropriate, but what I also wonder about actually, is whether we’ve got this “entitlement culture” argument backwards; that is, is it not possible sometimes that those who feel most entitled in this country are in fact the people who think they’ve “built it” and feel entitled to their high living standard as a consequence?  Maybe we need to rethink our theology of work and money.

And maybe it’s possible that some people like myself actually believe government isn’t completely incompetent all the time (kind of strange how we have so much trust in military to always do the right thing though… speaking of the military and fiscal responsibility, if we cut our defense budget by 43%, it would only take us back to 2003 — here’s a chart).  Consider the following from Paul Rosenberg:

Right-sizing, rather than perpetually shrinking government [unless you’re a fan of financial crises and super-PACs]: As the response to Hurricane Sandy vividly reminded us, government workers aren’t worthless greedy parasites, as the Tea Party would have us believe. They’re everyday heroes who regularly do the largely invisible work that keeps our modern society going – and do it twice as long and hard in times of dire emergency.

What’s more, the most vital tasks governments take on are precisely those that businesses don’t want – that are too uncertain, too costly, take too long to pay off, or that produce too many benefits for others versus those who undertake them. In short, governments need to be judged by different criteria than businesses do. We need to sharpen those criteria and then meet them, rather than impose inappropriate business criteria on them.

But above all, we need to determine the size and scope of our government by the size and the scope of the threats, challenges and opportunities we face that government is most appropriate to deal with in order to “promote the general welfare”, as stated in the Constitution.

The “threats, challenges and opportunities” that Rosenberg is referring to are exactly what I’m talking about in point #1 above: the obstacles of globalization, unfair “free” trade, and unsustainable consumption empowered by militarism.  As I’ve argued in many previous posts, that Christians have a mandate for dealing with these problem through political and economic means is clear, even though our first allegiance is to the church and kingdom of God.  Democrats and Republicans alike are idolators with lots of blood on their hands.  On Tuesday I counted myself among them — even if I voted for a few Green Party folks! (cause that’s as close as you can get to voting for Jesus:))

[i] As the new centers of economic power, multinational corporations have become arguably the major driving force behind globalization.  Of the world’s one hundred largest economic entities, 51 are corporations and 49 are countries (the Institute for Policy Studies at ips-dc.org).  The sales of each of the world’s top five corporations at the dawn of the new millennium were bigger than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 182 countries.  Wal-Mart and Exxon-Mobil, for example, each had annual sales that are grater than the individual GDPs of Saudi Arabia, Poland, and Greece.  Even though corporations provide invaluable assets to the process of globalization, this seismic economic shift away from nation-states to multinational businesses has significantly influenced political decisions . . . Because much of the global village (especially the American sector) is increasingly influenced by the political agendas of business leaders, some wonder if some democratic countries should be called “corporatocracies” [or “dollarocracies”] (Daniel G. Groody, Globalization, Spirituality and Justice. Orbis Books, New York 2007, 14).  Moreover, globalization changes how much control nations and corporations have over employment and economic growth.  The inevitable result according to many theorists is that country’s will simply have to start providing more social safety nets in this environment — not as much because culture has changed and people now want more welfare, but because the international division of labor and the political economy of globalization has brought this new situation about.

Poverty in the U.S. in Recent Decades

The following is taken from Miguel A. De La Torre‘s book, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins.  This is one of the texts we’re using right now in the Christian Ethics class I’m teaching.  What’s all the more impressive about this passage is that it was written in 2004, well before the financial crisis.  The class disparity in this country has only increased all the more since then, as recent events have made clear.  For a more recent account of the disproportionate income and capital distribution in the U.S., read here:

With economic policies put in place under Reagan, the income gap widened dramatically, while the middle class shrunk.  These new economic policies radically changed the distribution of wealth in this country.  During the 1980s, the top 10 percent of the population increased their family income by 16 percent, the top 5 percent increased theirs by 23 percent, while the top 1 percent increased their income by 50 percent.  By the end of the Reagan administration, the income of the top 1 percent was 115 times greater than the bottom 10 percent (Phillips 1990:12-17).

The economic policies of the New Deal were replaced by a supply-side philosophy that consisted of cutting, if not eliminating, social services and benefits for the poor while providing tax breaks for the wealthy.  The hope was that economic benefits given to the wealthy would “trickle down” to the less fortunate.  According to figures published by the Census Bureau, this led to the richest among us seeing their inflation-adjusted income rise by 30 percent from the late 1970’s to the mid-1990s, while the poorest aw their income decrease by 21 percent.

The so-called “Reaganomics” pushed unemployment to almost 10 percent, median family income dropped to 6 percent below pre-1973 levels, and poverty rose from 11.1 to 14.4 percent.  The bottom quintile received 4.7 percent of all income, a full percentage point below the 1973 level.  From 1947 through 1979, real income had risen from all segments of society.  Since 1980 income has risen only for the most affluent countries (Cooper 1998:338-54).

Throughout the 1990s, during the so-called economic boom, only the top quintile increased its share of the nation’s income.  From 1979 to 2000, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the gap between the rich and the poor more than doubled as the U.S. experienced the greatest growth of wage inequality throughout the Western world (Wilson 1999:27).  These radical economic changes within the United States have contributed to the smallest and fastest-shrinking middle class among all industrialized nations.

By the close of the century, the top 1 percent of taxpayers each had on average $862,700 after taxes, more than triple what they had in 1979.  Meanwhile, the bottom 40 percent had $21,118 each, up by 13 percent from their average $18,695 (adjusted for inflation) in 1979.  The year 2000 proved to have the greatest economic disparity since 1979, when the budget office began collecting such data.  The National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group, claims that the top 1 percent enjoys the largest share of before-tax income for any year since 1929.  By 2002, according to Census Bureau figures, 34.8 million individuals found themselves living in poverty compared to 25.4 million individuals in 1968), of which 12.2 million were children.  Further contributing to the widening income gap was the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, signed by President Bill Clinton.

It seems that, in general, no matter how hard the poor work, they often continue to slip into greater poverty.  The growing disparity of wealth between the poor and the rich leads us to question if it is a “work ethic” that is at stake or perhaps a “work ideology” that allows the wealthy and privileged to rationalize classicism.  Why is it so difficult of the poor to “get ahead”?  Is wealth really a reward for hard work, and poverty a punishment for laziness?  Or is there another explanation for the accumulation of uneven greater wealth by those at the top of the economic ladder?  Increase poverty directly affects the well-being of our society: it leads to a rise in crime, drug and alcohol addiction, family disintegration, child abuse, mental illness, and environmental abuse.  Instead of dealing with the causes of poverty and seeking a more equitable distribution of resources, those privileged with wealth seldom make the connection between the riches and the poverty of others.  More often the view their wealth as something earned, a blessing from God, or a combination of both.  They tend to seek to insulate themselves from the consequences of their riches, moving to gated communities and sending their children to private schools.

Ethicists from the margins argue that communities that ensure a just economic base must place the humanity of their members before economic development (the latter of which can be code language for increasing corporate profits).  Development today usually means short-term profit, and often at the expense of the marginalized.  Yet, true development, economic as well as socio-political, takes place when society’s treatment of its most vulnerable members enable them to pass from a less human existence to a more human condition.  Conditions faced by the poor are caused by oppressive structures that lead to the exploitation of workers and creating material want.  The ethical quest for more humane conditions requires a set of social actions – a praxis designed to overcome extreme poverty, raise consciousness of classicism, foster dignity for all people, develop an equitable distribution of the earth’s resources, and secure peace –to testify to one’s love for God and one’s neighbor, a love that binds God with neighbor.

Regardless of how we choose to define this more human condition, it remains threatened by increasing poverty. The so-called “work ethic” is debunked when the poor work, and many full-time, simply to survive; when there are few if any other options for work; and when the work is unrewarding and unfulfilling.  Some full-time workers receive the legal minimum hourly wage, but their income still falls short of the official poverty line.  Is it any wonder that in 2001 the top quintile, the most affluent fifth of the population, possessed half of all household income, while the lowest quintile, the poorest fifth, received 3.5 percent of the total household income.  Furthermore, 49 percent of those who live in poverty yet worked full-time during 2002 lacked any form of health insurance and were literally an illness away from financial ruin.

It is safe to conclude from this snapshot, I think, that whatever path voters and policymakers decide to take in the coming years, “going back” to old strategies like supply-side economic theory is simply not an option.  It would be a category-error and a very premature leap at this point, however, to say based on these observations that the question of who or what to vote for or care about has been answered.  It seems to me that yet another subject of great importance for responsible citizenship and Christian political engagement is the nature of the electoral process itself.  I will try to examine this next.

More on the Common Good: What are the Biggest Problems?

“I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world.” – Socrates

“It is not always the same thing to be a good man and to be a good citizen.” – Aristotle

At the heart of Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of community lay the idea of the common good.  Aquinas had learned from Aristotle that the good life is a life in common.  Aristotle had written, for example, that “the good of the city is the greater and more perfect thing to attain and to safeguard.  The attainment of the good for one person alone is, to be sure, a source of satisfaction; yet to secure it for a nation and for cities is nobler and more divine” (Nicomachean Ethics 1094b).  Commenting on Thomas’ vision, theologian and ethicist Timothy Gorringe remarks that “Justice and the Common Good, both of which derive from the Holy Spirit, are the heart of his vision.  Under good government the countryside feeds the town and the town rewards the country; under bad government the crops rot and the people starve.  Justice and the common good are at the heart of sustainability” (Gorringe, Living Toward a Vision: Cities, the Common Good, and the Christian Imagination.  Anglican Theological Review, 2010).

Gorringe goes on to explain that the church is the primary community entrusted with living out this vision of hope for the world.  The church has the responsibility of relating the visioning of Scripture to every area of life, such that there is no sharp division between the sacred and the secular.  This idea is supported by the Hebrew Prophets and their holistic depiction of reality which “saw human behavior as bound up with the flourishing or failing of the natural world: ‘Because there is no knowledge of God,’ says Hosea, ‘therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; . . . even the fish of the sea are perishing’ (Hos. 4:3)” (Gorringe, 524).

Continuing to address the issues of the relationship between the church, society and the environment, Gorringe asks the following three questions:

  1.  How do we build a relationship with the Earth and with one another wisely, justly, and in ways that are sustainable and in balance with the web of life on the planet?
  2. How do we understand the interdependence of rural and urban?
  3. How do our cities, in their infrastructures, residential spaces, architectures, and overall economy of life, need to change in order to meet this goal?

Instead of merely summarizing Gorringe’s response to these questions – which is not my main concern here – we first have to see some of the problems themselves in more concrete terms.  Here’s what he says on this front:

“We all know that we are exceeding the Earth’s carrying capacity, living in bio-deficit.  For everyone to live like a Londoner we need three planets; like a citizen of Los Angeles, five planets; like a citizen of Dubai, ten planets.  We have unsustainable buildings like the Sears Tower in Chicago, which uses more energy in 24 hours than an average American city of 150,000 or an Indian city of more than 1 million.[i]  We have a situation where New York City uses as much electrical energy as the whole continent of Africa . . . the world we have constructed and that has given us so much is dependent on cheap energy, more specifically on oil.  A growing body of independent oil experts and oil geologists have calculated that oil production either has peaked or is about to.  They are saying that technological advances in oil extraction and prospecting will have only a minor effect on depletion rates.  Peak oil does not mean that the world is suddenly going to run out of oil, as your car runs out of petrol if you do not fill it up.  What it does mean is that we will reach the point where sources of cheap, easy-to-get oil are exhausted.  When that happens, then every successive year will see an ever-diminishing flow of oil, as well as an increasing risk of interruptions to supply” (Gorringe, 525).

Gorringe then discusses the problem of climate change, which is directly related and obviously very important, but I’m not going to address that now.  The point is, the dominant orthodox economic assumptions based on a consumer-capitalist society of perpetual growth and a non-zero sum game understanding of wealth, are quite simply incompatible with the limitations, inequality and unsustainability of our current global situation – and this is not even to mention the present and potential geopolitical consequences that are continuing and beginning to be a felt as a result (e.g., violence, militarism and overall instability and insecurity in the Middle East and increasingly other parts of the world).

There is another dimension to the contemporary world order that I do want to underscore, however, which is dependent on energy as well but that deserves its own category (this was touched on in a previous post, but it should be mentioned again).  Orthodox economic theory in the developed Western world is not only about growth, but also trade, and specifically trade governed by the theory of comparative advantage.  Trade under this logic is thought to secure prosperity by encouraging all countries to specialize, by doing what they do best, and then trading with countries that have a comparative advantage in other sectors and industries.  The Bretton Woods institutions – the IMF and the World Bank in particular – were set up in part to make this happen.  The somewhat obvious oversight of this theory, however, is that not all countries have any comparative advantage – not even close.  Nonetheless, in order to be eligible for loans that could help poorer countries develop their infant industries, these international institutions decided to require that underdeveloped countries — in order to be elligible for assistance — adopt “free” trade practices by lowering any barriers to entry for foreign transnational corporate competitors to invest in their (the third world) local economies, so as to expose industries to international competition early on and thereby “help” their development at the global level.  This is kind of like forcing parents to let their children play on the big-kid playground long before they are trained to fend for themselves.

The question for our purposes at this point though is one that pertains to U.S. politics, and U.S. politics from a specifically Christian outlook.  So why is all of this relevant then?  Well, because the United States for the greater part of the latter half of the twentieth century has been the forerunner and chief architect of this international deregulatory project, as evidenced close to home by the case of Mexico and NAFTA under Bill Clinton’s leadership – to give just one relatively recent and familiar example (there are many others).  The United State and the EU have had their histories of high protectionism, some of which remains today.  The EU, for example, excludes metals, agricultural products, and textiles from free-trade schemes, such that discrimination against basic commodities is one of the biggest roadblocks for poor countries – probably even more so than debt.

Thirdly, in addition to energy and trade, there is the financialization of the market and therefore the global economy in general.  Case in point, for instance, is the Great Recession of 2008.  The shift from industry-based markets to financial capital has enabled the speculation on stocks (or sectors like the housing market) all around almost instantaneously.  There is trade in interest rates, the buying of bonds or currencies on one exchange to sell them at a profit on another, and other financial instruments and derivative like swaps, options, forwards and futures.  In many cases investors are essentially gambling on the prosperity of nations themselves.  Increases and decreases in the market indexes correspond less and less to real changes in the material world but nonetheless impact it profoundly due to variations in currency stability and other virtual or hyper-real factors.

Lastly, global capitalism trivializes culture and disintegrates value.  It’s been said that healthy ecologies (and perhaps societies) abhor monoculture, but the proliferation of market preferences and economic imperialism insists on hegemony, and a very adaptive one at that – so much so that we see McDonalds assimilating quite a bit to its different international environments.  And yet, it’s still the same fast food.

Here’s what Graham Ward in his book The Politics of Discipleship says about globalization in general and global capitalism in particular with respect to its impact on culture:

Capitalism in its expanded global form is a participatory system.  I may choose a postmaterialist option and not buy sportswear from Nike bcause of the charges of sweatshop exploitation, but my index-linked pension, the investments made by my mortgage company and my bank, my credit and debit cards, and online shopping all situate me firmly in the global economy.  Globalization is not simply the effects of free-market economic policy adopted by this country or that, or even the ideology of international operations driven by multinational corporations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank; it is an environment, an atmosphere.  It implicitly possesses and promotes a cosmology.  Like a religion, it generates its own mythology, and however much it deals with empirical goods, metrics, positivist facts, and processes that are entirely focused on the concrete, immanent logics of this world, its ethos and ethics are utopian and transcendental (Ward, 2009, 97).

This is why it’s so important for the church to tell a better story about reality and therefore God’s will through the person and work of Jesus.  It has the mandate of cultivating a different and more life-giving environment among its members, as well as commissioning them to let this rub off on others who are being sucked into the madness of the consumerism, the global market, of militarism, and recently especially the fear and personality-driven, corporate-purchased and controlled process of electoral politics.

Considered solely from a global and international perspective, however, we might overlook just how much these disparities and unsustainabilities are hurting people at the national level as well. In the next post, then, I will try to zero-in on domestic poverty and the shrinking of the middle class as a result of several key changes sine the late 1970s. 

[i] Gorringe is taking this information from Graham Haughton and Colin Hunter, Sustainable Cities (London: Regional Studies Association, 1994), 14.

Jonathan Edwards on Private Interest vs. the Public Good

“As it is with selfishness, or when a man is governed by a regard to his own private interest, independent of regard to the public good, such a temper disposes a man to act the part of an enemy to the public; or in all those cases wherein such things are presented to his view that suit his personal appetites or private inclinations but are inconsistent with the good of the public.  On which account a selfish, contracted, narrow spirit is generally abhorred, and is esteemed base and sordid.  But if a man’s affection takes in half a dozen more, and his regards extend so far beyond his own single person as to take in his children and family; or if it reaches further still, to a larger circle, but falls infinitely short of the universal system, and is exclusive of Being in general, his private affection exposes him to the same thing, viz. to pursue the interest of its particular object in opposition to general existence.”

Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of Virtue, 399-400.

I always like it when I can find quotes from theologians which whom I strongly disagree in many ways, but who nonetheless prove to be acutely insightful into certain other issues about which we can find agreement.  Jonathan Edwards is just one such theologian.  As I tried to tried to show in a previous post, Edwards argues that a properly Christian concern and outlook on society must be one that regards the public good before any private interest — even if that interest extends to one’s own family and friends.  For support, Edwards grounds the above statement in the work and character of Christ and a doctrine of God’s goodness that commands self-sacrificial love — two theological pillars on which I too tried to rely.  To pursue private interest in opposition to the good of general existence, in other words, is thoroughly unChristian.  By saying this, however, I am certainly not suggesting that one political party or paradigm is necessarily inherently concerned with private interest to the detriment of the common or public good.  Rather, I mean to call attention to this distinction in order to identify what might be a proper litmus test when considering our political decision-making and participation.

At the same time, it can hardly be overemphasized that this distinction must transcend the purview of electoral politics.  For example, it might be cheaper for me to go to Walmart and buy whatever I need there instead of at a smaller, local establishment, or even a regionally based corporate business.  To stop the discerning process at this point though would be to settle the purchase-preference question solely on account of my private interest.  Now, someone might retort by saying that Walmart does serves everyone better by making products more affordable.  Yes, well, that would be an example of extending my private interest to a broader circle just as Edwards acknowledges — but one that is not nearly broad enough.  See, Walmart might appear to be helping lower-income families at first glance, but the more people we take into consideration across socioeconomic and national boundaries, the less defensible this argument becomes:

1.  Walmart price gouges competitors and thereby oligopolizes and monopolizes the marketplace, which works against the equilibrium and perfect competition assumptions of efficient market theory — a theory upon which so much of our public and foreign policy is mistakenly based (at the international level, the effects are much worse, but I will touch on this in another post).

2.  Walmart might not be providing fair compensation and benefits for its most dispensable, low-wage workers — precisely in order to keep its prices low.  And this would not be a big problem save for the fact that Walmart is possibly the largest private employer in the world.

3. In comparison to its concern for the cost of its wholesale goods from suppliers, Walmart probably does not take into serious consideration where its products are made, the conditions in which those products are produced, and the well-being of the workers who produced them when deciding who it should buy from.

These factors change things and reveal the extent to which economic appearances can be very deceiving.  The main reason for this example is not to criticize Walmart — though there is a need and a place for that — so much as to simply highlight how important it is for Christians to take this private vs. public distinction seriously in all areas of life if we wish to faithfully love our neighbor.

Introduction to David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years

I first learned of this title because my friend Stephen Keating was reading it in a book study with Barry Taylor.  The introduction was enough to prompt me to pause and reflect.  Below is a somewhat long excerpt, but well worth reading in full:

We chatted.  She told me about her job.  I told her had I had been involved for many years with the global justice movement – “anti-globalization movement,” as it was usually called in the media. She was curious: she’d of course read a lot about Seattle, Genoa, the tear gas and street battles, but . . . well, had we really accomplished anything by all that?

“Actually,” I said, “I think it’s kind of amazing how much we did manage to accomplish in those first couple of years.”

“For example?”

“Well, for example, we managed to almost completely destroy the IMF.”

As it happened, she didn’t actually know what the IMF was, so I offered that [along with the support of other U.S.-backed UN international institutions like the World Bank] the International Monetary Fund basically acted as the world’s debt enforcers – “You might say, the high-finance equivalent of the guys who come to break your legs.”  I launched into historical background, explaining how, during the ‘70’s oil crisis, OPEC countries ended up pouring so much of their newfound riches into Western banks that the banks couldn’t figure out where to invest the money; how Citibank and Chase therefore began sending agents around the world trying to convince Third World dictators and politicians to take out loans (at the time, this was called “go-go banking”); how they started out at extremely low rates of interest that almost immediately skyrocketed to 20 percent or so due to tight U.S. money policies in the early ‘80’s; how, during the ‘80s and ‘90s, this led to the Third World debt crisis; how the IMF then stepped in to insist that, in order obtain refinancing, poor countries would be obliged to abandon price supports on basic foodstuffs, or even policies of keeping strategic food reserves, and abandon free health care and free education; how all of this had led to the collapse of all the most basic supports for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth.  I spoke of poverty, of the looting public resources, the collapse of societies, endemic violence, malnutrition, hopelessness, and broken lives.

“But what was your position?” the lawyer asked.

“About the IMF? We wanted to abolish it.”

“No, I mean, about Third World debt.”

“Oh, we wanted to abolish that too.  The immediate demand was to stop the IMF from imposing structural adjustment policies, which were doing all the direct damage, but we managed to accomplish that surprisingly quickly.  The more long-term aim was debt amnesty.  Something along the lines of the biblical Jubilee.  As far as we were concerned,” I told her, “thirty years of money flowing from the poorest countries to the richest was quite enough.”

“But,” she objected, as if this were self-evident, “they’d borrowed the money!  Surely one has to pay one’s debts.”

It was at this point that I realized this was going to be a very different sort of conversation than I had originally anticipated.

Where to start?  I could have begun by explaining how these loans had originally been taken out by unelected dictators who placed most of it directly in their Swiss bank accounts, and ask her to contemplate the justice of insisting that the lenders be repaid, not by the dictator, or even by his cronies, but by literally taking food from the mouths of hungry children.  Or to think about how many of these poor countries had actually already paid back what they’d borrowed three or four times now, but that through the miracle of compound interest, it still hadn’t made a significant dent in the principle.  I could also observe that there was a difference between refinancing loans, and demanding that in order to obtain refinancing, countries have to follow some orthodox free-market economic policy designed in Washington and Zurich that their citizens had never agreed to and never would, and that it was a bit dishonest to insist that countries adopt democratic constitutions and then also insist that, whoever gets elected, they have no control over their country’s policies anyway.  Or that the economic policies imposed by the IMF didn’t even work.  But there was a more basic problem: the very assumption that debts have to be repaid.

Actually, the remarkable thing about the statement “one has to pay one’s debts” is that even according to standard economic theory, it isn’t true.  A lender is supposed to accept a certain degree of risk.  If all loans, no matter how idiotic, were still retrievable – if there were no bankruptcy laws, for instance – the results would be disastrous.  What reason would lenders have not to make a stupid loan?

“Well, I know that sounds like common sense,” I said, “but the funny thing is, economically, that’s not how loans are actually supposed to work.  Financial institutions are supposed to be ways of directing resources toward profitable investments.  If a bank were guaranteed to get its money back, plus interest, no matter what it did, the whole system wouldn’t work.  Say I were to walk into the nearest branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland and say ‘You know, I just got a really great tip on the horses.  Think you could lend me a couple million quid?’ Obviously they’d just laugh at me.  But that’s just because they know if my horse didn’t come in, there’d be no way for them to get the money back.  But, imagine there was some law that said they were guaranteed to get their money back no matter what happens, even if that meant, I don’t know, selling my daughter into slavery or harvesting my organs or something.  Well, in that case, why not?  Why bother waiting for someone to walk in who has a viable plan to set up a Laundromat or some such?  Basically, that’s the situation the IMF created on a global level – which is how you could have all those banks willing to fork over billions of dollars to a bunch of obvious crooks in the first place” . . . [a related comment could be made her about the student loan debt crisis/bubble as well].

“[But] surely one has to pay one’s debts.”

The reason it’s so powerful is that it’s not actually an economic statement: it’s a moral statement.  After all, isn’t paying one’s debts what morality is supposed to be all about?  Giving people what is due them.  Accepting one’s responsibilities.  Fulfilling one’s obligations to others, just as one would expect them to fulfill their obligations to you.  What could be a more obvious example of shirking one’s responsibilities than reneging on a promise, or refusing to pay a debt?

It was that very apparent self-evidence, I realized, that made the statement so insidious.  This was the kind of line that could make terrible things appear utterly bland and unremarkable.  This may sound strong, but it’s hard not to feel strongly about such matters once you’ve witnessed the effects.  I had.  For almost two years, I had lived in the highlands of Madagascar.  Shortly before I arrived, there had been an outbreak of malaria.  It was a particularly virulent outbreak because malaria had been wiped out in highland Madagascar many years before, so that, after a couple of generations, most people had lost their immunity.  The problem was, it took money to maintain the mosquito eradication program, since there had to be periodic tests to make sure mosquitoes weren’t starting to breed again and spraying campaigns if it was discovering that they were.  Not a lot of money.  But owing to IMF-imposed austerity programs, the government had to cut the monitoring program.  Ten thousand people died.  I met young mothers grieving for lost children.  One might think it would be hard to make a case that the loss of ten thousand human lives is really justified in order to ensure that Citibank wouldn’t have to cut its losses on one irresponsible loan that wasn’t particularly important to its balance sheet anyway.  But here was a perfectly decent woman – one who worked for a charitable organization, no less- who took it as self-evident that it was.  After all, they owed he money, and surely one has to pay one’s debts.

[I would encourage anyone to at least download the free sample for Kindle or Nook of this book and continue reading the introduction, which goes on to discuss other important historical factors such as colonialism and violence that set up many of these unequal international relations in the first place.  Just as even in our country today with a history of slavery and Jim Crow, so too the social costs of exploitation, domination and discrimination around the world by US and European imperialism from many decades ago are still being felt and counted in the present.]

Upon reflection, I immediately thought of the, until recently, widely agreed upon forbiddance by the Church throughout history of lending money on interest (usury).  In addition it makes me remember that line in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  Moreover still, the microfinance movement came to mind, and in particular the non-profit organization called KIVA through which Whitney and I, and several of my friends and family members, make small loans to Third world individuals and small businesses.  There’s so much to say and think about here, but I the biggest lesson and reminder for me is simply the importance of taking a global look at many of the issues during election season, when so much preoccupation tends to be with domestic and foreign policy from the viewpoint of U.S. prosperity and security interest alone, rather than from the view of humanity and the world as a whole – especially those on the margins whom Jesus called God’s most blessed ones, and whom we were likewise instructed by Jesus to be concerned about first.

More Fruitful Days

I ya man have come to know
The movement looks strong
From reading the scriptures
I know we ain’t wrong, no
Jah Jah people work together
We help out one another
And we ain’t got no time to lose
Must teach the ignorant truth, so

More fruitful days
That is what the people need
More fruitful days, ah yeah

Can’t wait for promises of salvation
It’s time to free our people
With a promise of some dignity
Rise up and heal the situation
Hear you call, yeah, yeah
Rasta people must face our destiny

More fruitful days
That is what the people need
More fruitful days
Time to heal the hurtin’
More fruitful days
Seeking out the righteous
More fruitful days

Them a build their conspiracies
With no justice in sight
You just can’t keep fillin’ up the youth
With all those dirty lies
It’s about healin’ people
Healin’ the people
Healin’ the people

I tell ya straight
If we take the time
You know, we will see
That to tell the youth the truth
Is the only remedy

More fruitful days
That is what we’re fightin’ for
More fruitful days
Time to heal the people
More fruitful days
Seeking out the righteous
More fruitful days
It’s about healin’ people

And mashing down oppression
And rights in this ya nation
And seeking out the righteous
And teachin’ right the children

Page 3 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén