Economy

The Gods of the Market

Golden calf, AdStock RF / Shutterstock.com
Golden calf, AdStock RF / Shutterstock.com

For most of human history, religious faith has been central to the life, economy, and government of virtually all societies. Babylon, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome: all of these empires explicitly traced their authority from heaventhe gods, or other transcendent concepts that can only be described as religious. Religious acts were political acts, and vice versa. To challenge the status quo of the ruling authorities was to call into question the religious authorities, as well. Expressions of faith were serious business.

For more than a thousand years, Western Christianity was the theological glue that held European society together. We can still observe remnants of these former times in the civil religion of the United States. Even today, presidents invoke the name of God during speeches. Prayers are spoken before sessions of legislative bodies. New citizens and government employees are required to swear oaths of loyalty to the state. Our civil structures still bear traces of a time when Christian religious concepts were deeply intertwined with government.

For the most part, however, theistic religion is being pushed steadily out of our civic life.

Joining the #FaithfulFilibuster from Des Moines

Photo courtesy Sarah Trone Garriot.
An Ecumenical group of pastors and lay leaders in the greater Des Moines area. Photo courtesy Sarah Trone Garriot.

People around the country have taken notice of the #FaithfulFilibuster and want to lend their voices. From Pastor Sarah Trone Garriot in Des Moines, Iowa: "Since we couldn't be in Washington to join you, a few of us pastors got together and visited our Iowa Representative's office." 

After reading through select Bible verses, the group read the following statement: 

To the Honorable Representative Tom Latham:

We believe that the recent government shutdown is not just a failure of the process of governance.  This shutdown is born of the failure to follow Jesus’ commandment to “love our neighbor.” (Luke 10:25-37)  

We have witnessed hard hearts as our elected representatives squander their time and energy to attack one another and create failure.

We have witnessed our elected representatives acting without mercy when it comes the poor, the vulnerable, the sick, and the stranger.

As Americans, we are at our best when we come together to work for the common good.  This shutdown, and the divisive behavior that gave birth to it, is an insult to our nation.  We can do better.

[contined at the jump]

Bringing Good News to the Poor

Photo by Heather Wilson - Dust & Light Photography
#FaithfulFilibuster morning prayer service on Wednesday. Photo by Heather Wilson - Dust & Light Photography

I couldn’t believe what I heard. On my television screen a member of Congress quoted the Bible in defense of cutting SNAP benefits. He stated in his testimony, “Scripture says if you don’t work you don’t eat.” The only Scripture that came to my mind as I looked on in sadness was “Jesus wept.”

You see, I had just come from the food pantry my church has operated for more than 20 years. With the economic downturn, our pantry volume has steadily increased from 15 to an average of 40-50 families each day we are open. These families are able to shop with us one time in 30 days, and we attempt to provide three meals a day, for three days, for each member of the household. Our clients are beautiful people who are struggling. Each and every day we hear statements such as, “I never thought I would have to come to a food pantry to feed my family,” or “We just can’t make it to the end of the month.” Our clients come from all walks of life and have one thing in common: they’re struggling.

So, as I listened to the congressman use Scripture to marginalize the very people I care for every day, I felt I needed to do something. I could no longer be silent as the Bible was being used to hurt vulnerable people. I had to speak, and I remembered the Faithful Filibuster. I sent a tweet to Jim Wallis asking if they needed support or extra voices, and he replied that in fact they did. This was a Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., my daughter and I were on the road from Ohio to Washington, D.C., the next morning at 5:30.

We arrived in D.C. at 1:45 just in time to change and walk to the small pulpit labeled #FaithfulFillibuster for our 2:30 time slot. As I stepped onto the grass and began to read, the long hours of the trip began to fade away as the words of the Gospel began to cross my lips. I remember feeling that I would have driven a thousand miles to be able to proclaim the good news of the message of Christ and to speak the Word out loud in a way that comforted God’s people. I would have kept on reading until I couldn’t do it anymore, true filibuster style, all the while looking at the Capitol building with all her power. Our Christian story is one of liberation, new life, abundance, and mercy. It is a story that brings good news to the poor, and I will tell it until I no longer have breath.

Inequality Means More than Just Money

Courtesy 'Inequality for All' website
Courtesy 'Inequality for All' website

Robert Reich pulls up in his silver Mini Cooper, quipping that he and his car are in proportion to each other. Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, identifies himself with the underdog, the little man.

His new movie, Inequality for All, looks into the effects of wealth inequality in the United States. Throughout this semi-autobiographical documentary, Reich consistently leans on his self-deprecating sense of humor by poking fun at his own physical stature; he’s 4’10 ½’’ tall. The jokes, however, do lead back to the heavier issue at hand – the American worker is getting squeezed out of the middle class.

Why the Debt Ceiling Matters

AS FIGHTS ABOUT the budget and other economic issues are again riveting the nation’s capital, the rest of the country yawns. Possible government shutdowns, threats to default on our nation’s debt, and proposals to decimate food assistance for struggling Americans seem to be business as usual in Washington, D.C. These budget battles have become so frequent that it is tempting to dismiss it all as political posturing. But that would be a mistake.

The biggest challenge facing Congress should be a non-issue. The debt ceiling is simply the amount of debt the U.S. is legally allowed to hold. It is about paying off the bills that Congress has already incurred from past appropriations—not about giving permission for new government spending, as many people falsely assume. Congress has raised it nearly 100 times since the end of World War II, but it only recently became a political football. Because the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling and defaulting on our nation’s obligations could be catastrophic, some leaders have tried to leverage it for political gain. After the country came close enough to a default in 2011 to receive a credit downgrade, President Obama has responsibly refused to negotiate over raising it. His assumption is that GOP leaders in Congress wouldn’t throw the economy off the cliff for their own political gain. The American people are left watching this game of chicken and hoping somebody blinks.

While this is clearly a partisan game, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The U.S. has always honored its debts. Should the country default, the market turmoil and long-term effects could be catastrophic for the global economy. Domestically, it could throw the U.S. back into recession.

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On Scripture: Shrewd Christians

Caricature of a penny pincher, AKIllustration / Shutterstock.com
Caricature of a penny pincher, AKIllustration / Shutterstock.com

We worry now, but we’ve been concerned about the economy for a long time. The economic recovery from the recession in America has been slower than we hoped, and people continue to suffer from the collapse of so many industries and jobs and safety nets. Much of the pain seems new for large swaths of the American population. But in reality, we’ve been worrying about money forever.

The August employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a slight decline in the unemployment rate (down to 7.3 percent from 7.4 percent in July), according to Businessweek. But the drop is largely attributed to a reduction in the workforce of about 300,000. What’s more, the participation rate (number of people working or looking for work compared to the total working age population) fell from 63.4 percent to 63.2 percent, the lowest since 1978. The National Employment Law Project noted that much of the job growth in August was in retail and food service, industries that generally offer lower paying and part-time jobs.

Even though a growing number of economists see modest and encouraging signs in the recession recovery, the slow growth continues to cause trouble for many Americans. Businessweek writer, Matthew Philips, even questioned whether the economy might be “stuck in second gear” without hope of a more robust “third gear” to propel the recovery forward.

The economic health of the nation has long been a concern to people of faith, because we care for the poor, and poverty has been a persistent problem in rural area and urban centers alike. What’s more, we know there are people of all income levels who struggle with money and possessions, and we are concerned about this, too. We worry that people have enough to eat and that wealth not corrupt our best desires and intentions.

'Break My Heart With What Breaks Yours'

High-octane contemporary worship with smoke, flashing lights, and words on huge screens energize and empower 3,400 Pentecostals from 69 countries filling the Calvary Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,. This is the 23rd Pentecostal World Conference, a triennial gathering of pastors, leaders, and youth from around the globe. I’m here as part of a delegation from the Global Christian Forum, warmly invited, seated right in the front, and including representatives from the Lutheran, Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mennonite, African-Instituted and Reformed church bodies, all members of the GCF steering committee. We’re easy to pick out of the crowd, since we’re the only ones who don’t spontaneously raise our hands in worship. I hope that image doesn’t make it to the big screens.

The explosive growth of Pentecostalism is an astonishing chapter in the story of world Christianity’s modern history. In 1970, Pentecostals (including charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations) totaled about 62 million, or 5 percent of the total Christian population. In the four decades since, Pentecostals have grown at 4 times the rate of overall Christianity, and 4 times faster than the world’s population growth. Today they number about 600 million — one out of every four Christians in the world, and one out of every 12 people alive today. Most of this growth has come in the global South, in places like Africa, South America, and — yes — Malaysia.

The Pentecostal World Conference doesn’t look much like a typical denominational or ecumenical assembly. It’s more like a global revival service. Several of the world’s best-known Pentecostal preachers and leaders deliver stirring messages, complete with altar calls for those seeking the fresh empowerment of God’s Spirit in their lives and ministries. It’s a far cry from a Reformed Church in America General Synod, which I facilitated for many years. But these keynote speakers, along with the workshops held each day of the conference, open a window into global Pentecostalism’s present trends, challenges, and directions.

In writing From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, I found that one of the most intriguing questions I encountered is how rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the global South deal with social and economic issues within their societies. So in Kuala Lumpur, I was especially attentive to what might be said by the world’s Pentecostal leadership about the biblical call to justice and mercy. And I heard a lot that I wish I could now go back and add to my book.

Study: Too Much Religion Can Harm Economy

Business Bible, Siarhei Tolak / Shutterstock.com
Business Bible, Siarhei Tolak / Shutterstock.com

Too much religion can harm a society’s economy by undermining the drive for financial success, according to a new study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The study of almost 190,000 people from 11 religiously diverse cultures is raising eyebrows among some of England’s religious leaders for suggesting Judaism and Christianity have anti-wealth norms.

What's So Great About Perfection?

Peaceful morning fishing, Jandrie Lombard / Shutterstock.com
Peaceful morning fishing, Jandrie Lombard / Shutterstock.com

Two Sunday meetings prevented my going to the country with the family.

So on Saturday, I took a long walk up the Hudson River and then sat beside an open window overlooking the apartment house courtyard and felt a cool breeze.

No, it wasn’t the same as a screened porch upstate. But it worked. Why? Because I made it work. I was motivated to step away from my desk and do something different.

Could I have had a more perfect day? Sure, I suppose so. But I didn’t need perfection. I just needed something different. Yes, I was “settling,” as they term it. But that’s part of maturity: knowing that progress matters more than perfection. Sometimes you don’t get exactly what you want, and making do can be enough. Tweaking the day can make it a better day.

Yet many people continue to chase perfection and refuse to compromise with realities that fall short.

Toward Life Abundant

CYNTHIA MOE-LOBEDA is a Lutheran feminist ethicist trained at Union Theological Seminary in New York who teaches Christian ethics, gender, and diversity studies at Seattle University. The author of several previous books in Christian social ethics, she has emerged as a significant voice in contemporary Christian economic, ecological, and public ethics.

The evil considered in Resisting Structural Evil is primarily the collective ecological and economic damage being done by wealthy global North folk—such as most readers of this review—through the indulgent and wasteful way of life that we have been socialized into accepting as normal despite its disastrous implications and effects. This evil is structural and driven largely by the unaccountable and nearly unlimited power of the modern corporation.

One reason our ecological and economic injustice can be labeled as evil is because it is largely hidden from our eyes—or if we see it, it is accepted as simply the way things are and always have been and always will be. So we live off the suffering of the people whose land we take or despoil, or whose livelihoods we destroy, or whose water we poison, or whose labor we exploit to get our “everyday low prices.” And we go merrily about our wealthy and comfortable way in a state of what the author describes as “moral oblivion.”

Moe-Lobeda takes the reader on a journey intended to end such moral oblivion. I find the book to be primarily an exposé of the connections between the “American way of life” and the injustices on which it is built—and which it perpetuates. Among these injustices is harm to the earth, which has both terrifying long-term implications for the livability of our planet in the future and concrete short-term costs for those invisible neighbors of ours who suffer ecological harm so that we might drink our soft drinks and get the latest electronics.

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