The Common Good

Beyond Wealth Without Work

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This morning's Wall Street Journal headline reads, "Panel Rips Wall Street Titans." At yesterday's first meeting of the Congressional Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, finance industry CEOs sheepishly acknowledged their role in driving the economy over a cliff.

Watching the commission hearing, however, I wished that Jim Wallis got to ask a few of the questions of the bank CEOs. As he writes in Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street - A Moral Compass for the New Economy, we've been asking the wrong questions about the economic crisis. "The more important question," Jim writes, is "how will this crisis change us?"

I can imagine Jim querying the bailed-out bank CEOs, "How did the economic crisis change you personally? What moral lessons have you drawn from the last two years? Have your relationships changed -- and your sense of what is important? Is the economic crisis is a reflection of our nation's deep spiritual crisis?"

In the coming weeks, as Wall Street doles out billions in bonuses, we'll be reminded how little has changed in the culture of Wall Street. Wall Street remains devoted to the idolatry of The Market, along with supporting values of "greed is good," "it's all about me," and "I want it all, and I want it now."

Wall Street will not change unless the rest of us widely reject the values of reckless individualism. Our culture has been swept up in the "wealth without work" ethic -- that money makes money -- disconnected from labor, community, and ecological health. As Jim writes, our economic recovery is tied to our moral recovery.

The good news is there is an inspiring mini-movement that is not waiting for someone else to take responsibility for realigning our nation's moral compass. Faith communities are coming together to reflect on God's abundant gifts, learn about the changing economy, practice mutual aid, and press for policy reform.

A network of congregation-based "Common Security Clubs" prepares participants to live in a new economy, based on different spiritual and ecological values. This small group ministry approach helps members to face unemployment and eviction, anxiety, and uncertainty. They practice sharing and bartering, living frugally, and finding simpler joys. Club activities in Northern New England were recently profiled in a series of PBS programs.

"We are a reality support group," a club member from Seattle told me. "We don't buy the hype that the market is rebounding and all is swell. We're poking each other to prevent ourselves from falling back asleep in terms of what's really happening in the economy."

As Jim Wallis writes, "The antidotes to narcissism and extreme individualism are, again, some very old moral and spiritual values: humility and community." This new story of people responding together to economic dislocation is really an old story -- a recognition that we are deeply wound together, that we are one body, that we're basically in the same boat.

Chuck Collins is director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author with Mary Wright of The Moral Measure of the Economy (Orbis).

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