The Common Good
February 2010

Asking the Right Questions

by Jim Wallis | February 2010

I have written a new book—one I didn’t plan to write, but which emerged as we responded to the economic crisis that has gripped the nation and the world.

I have written a new book—one I didn’t plan to write, but which emerged as we responded to the economic crisis that has gripped the nation and the world. I wrote it as a tract for the times, and it’s titled Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street—A Moral Compass for the New Economy.

The book is about the moral recovery that must accompany the economic recovery. It suggests that we must not go back to business as usual, but instead need a “new normal.” It is about the values questions that are at the heart of how we got into this crisis, and that are critical to getting us out of it. It describes the new maxims that overtook us, such as “greed is good,” “it’s all about me,” and “I want it now”—values that wreck economies, cultures, families, and even our souls. Instead it calls for a return to new/old virtues, such as “enough is enough,” “we’re in it together,” and evaluating our decisions by their impact on the seventh generation out.

It also calls for a conversion of our “habits of the heart” to a clean- energy economy, a family-values culture, and a new meaning for both work and service. It suggests, spiritually, that the market had become god-like, and tells how our religious traditions contain valuable correctives to this economic crisis. And it ends with 20 “moral exercises” that offer a values audit of our personal, family, community, financial, and social lives.
The economic crisis presents us with an enormous opportunity to rediscover our values—as people, as families, as communities of faith, and as a nation. It is a moment of decision we dare not pass by. We have forgotten some very important things, and it’s time to remember them again.
The Great Recession that has gripped the world, defined the moment, and captured our attention has also revealed a profound values crisis. Just beneath the surface of the economics debate, a deep national reflection is begging to take place and, indeed, has already begun in people’s heads, hearts, and conversations. The questions it raises are about our personal, family, and national priorities: our habits of the heart, our measures of success, the values of our families and children, our spiritual well-being, and the ultimate goals and purposes of life—including our economic life.
Underneath the public discourse, another conversation is emerging about who and what we want to be—as individuals, as a nation, and as a human community. By and large, the media has missed the deeper discussion and continues to focus only on the surface of the crisis. And most of our politicians just want to tell us how soon the crisis can be over. But there are deeper questions here and some fundamental choices to make. That’s why this could be a transformational moment, one of those times that comes around only occasionally. We don’t want to miss this opportunity.
For some time now, we’ve been asking the wrong questions. Television, magazines, and our whole popular culture, in ad after ad, have asked us: What’s the fastest way to make money? How do you beat your coworker for the next promotion? Are you keeping up with the Joneses? What do you need to buy next that will truly make you happy? When will this crisis be over?
The much more important question is, “How will this crisis change us?” How will it change the ways we think, act, and decide things, how we prioritize and value our success, how we do business, and how we live our lives? 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. We seem to have lost some things and forgotten some basics—like our oldest and best values.
We have trusted in the “invisible hand” of the market to make everything turn out all right, and we have believed that it wasn’t necessary for us to bring virtue to bear on our decisions. But things haven’t turned out all right, and the invisible hand has let go of some crucial ideals—such as “the common good.” The common good hasn’t been very common in our economic decision-making for some time now. And the situation has spun out of control.
When you start with the wrong question, no matter how good an answer you get, it won’t matter very much. If our goal is to get back to business as usual, we will soon be right back to what got us into so much trouble, because it was business as usual that got us here in the first place.
The economic tide going out has revealed that no invisible hand is b-e-hind the curtain guiding our economy to inevitable success. It is a sobering moment in our lives when we can see our own thoughtlessness, greed, and impatience writ large across the global sky. And it is a good time to start asking better questions.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.
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