The Common Good

The Power of Questions

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Circle of Protection for a Moral Budget

A pledge by church leaders from diverse theological and political beliefs who have come together to form a Circle of Protection around programs that serve the most vulnerable in our nation and around the world.

Jim Wallis is right in his new book, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street-A Moral Compass for the New Economy: the right question during this recession isn't "When will it end?" but rather "What will we learn? How will we change?"

And Sojourners has been right in recent years when they've repeated the mantra, "Budgets are moral documents." That's true, it turns out -- not just for governments, but for families, churches, nonprofits, and yes, businesses too.

When Wall Street corporations write bonus checks to executives, those budgeting decisions are moral ones. When Main Street churches and nonprofits allocate limited funds, their decisions aren't simply financial; they're also moral. And on your street and my street, our simplest decisions reflect moral values: what kind of light bulbs we use and cars we drive, whether we recycle and compost, how much of our diet is meat-based, whether our coffee and tomatoes are produced in ways that properly respect the farmers and the land, and how much we give to churches, to other ministries, and especially to those in need.

I vacillate between disappointment, anger, relief, and then disappointment again when I observe how political and business leaders are missing the chance to ask the right questions during this recession. I'm a little more encouraged when I observe the faith community, although there's plenty of entrenchment and obliviousness there too. Of course, then I look in the mirror, and wonder if I'm learning even half of what I should be at this important historical moment.

That's why I'm hopeful that Jim's new book will stimulate conversation on what is the point of convergence, I think, between deep economics, deep politics, and deep theology -- namely, What has value?

That question takes us to the heart of economics. How do we measure short- and long-term costs and benefits? What do our standards of measurement -- like GDP, for example -- devalue and render us blind to, by focusing our attention on other things?

It takes us to the heart of politics. How do we negotiate between competing values -- such as the value of freedom versus the value of safety, a struggle we see constantly in our headlines?

And it takes us to the heart of life, too. What shall it profit us to gain the whole world and lose our souls? What values have triumphed -- to the expense of other needed values -- to bring our society into this recession, and how can the values that have been pushed near the line of extinction be conserved? And are there new values -- values we didn't need in the past, but desperately need now -- that need to be named and developed among us?

No book can answer those questions for all of us, and even if it could, it shouldn't, because it's in the struggle with the questions that we become the kinds of people who can actually live the answers.

But a good book can raise the questions, and so stimulate conversations among the people who can and must answer them. Namely, you. And me too. Everybody from our streets to Main Street to Wall Street to Pennsylvania Avenue. But we can't wait for them. It's got to start with us.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren is an author and speaker whose next book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, releases Feb. 9, 2010.

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