Brueggemann on money and possessions

The church has long been haunted by a dualism … But the Bible eschews every dualism and asserts the materiality of creation over which God generously presides. That pernicious dualism has readily produced a religion that is disconnected from public realty and has sanctioned predatory economic practices that go hand in hand with intense and pious religion. Thus the earlier robber barons were card-carrying Christians in good standing; and in our time the church is mostly silent in the face of a predatory economy that reduces many persons to second-class humanity. That deceptive misreading is aided and abetted by a lectionary that mostly disregards the hard texts on money and possessions. xxi

money-and-possessionsSo begins Walter Brueggemann in his new book Money and Possessions.

The quote above reveals a big concern of this book: the church has generally ‘bottled it’ when it comes to speaking of money and possessions within a highly acquisitive culture. To do this requires putting on blinkers in how we read the Bible because from Genesis to Revelation the Bible has an enormous amount to say on the material world.

Do you agree that Christianity tends to be dualistic when it comes to money and possessions? Heard any good sermons on money recently?

He outlines 6 theses concerning money and possessions in the Bible and further proposes that at each point the Bible flatly contradicts the global market economy which now so totally dominates our lives.

I’ve cannibalised what he says along with bits of my own commentary into a wee table:

The greatest achievement of capitalism’s advance is that somehow it is seen as ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’.

It also has claimed to be the best way for economic and social progress – but endless crises and crashes tell another story – one we know rather a lot about in Ireland. Over 8 years on from the crash of 2008, the EU is still trying (and failing) to fight its way out of insurmountable debt.

The Bible certainly envisages a different way of handling limited resources. Capitalism is simply a man-made construction – it is not natural and it is certainly unsustainable.

God’s will is for justice and for his people to embody a different way of life. As Brueggemann says his will “contradicts much of our preferred, uncritized practice.” 13.

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The Coldest of Cold Capitalist Hearts

Watched Nightcrawler (2014, directed by Dan Gilroy) the other day.

Spoilers ahead!

nightcrawler-posterJake Gyllenhaal (Lou Bloom) is a sublimely sinister guy on the make. There is an unnatural stillness in the way he stares and talks; like someone who instinctively knows they scare normal people and has learnt to try to minimise the creep effect.

He’s already ‘fallen’ when the movie begins – he starts bad and gets a lot worse. This is the story of his evolution from petty thief to finding his true ‘calling’ – a descent into the netherworld of ‘first on the scene’ news chasers.

This is a vocation of heartless voyeurism sold to the masses who consume others’ suffering from the comfort of their sofas.

Lou falls into his new career literally by accident. Out of curiosity he stops are a car crash and sees a film crew at work, catching the blood and pain for TV and he’s hooked. The next step is a low budget camcorder and radio and a relentless determination to work long night hours.

Lou is completely free of conscience or remorse, he will do (and does) virtually anything to get the video story.

He blags he way into the local TV news station where Rene Russo is the producer desperate for ratings who will take his material no questions asked – apart from ‘Are we going to get sued if we show this?’

A ‘Viewer Discretion Advised’ tag is added to the graphic stuff just to spark viewer desire.

So develops a symbiotic relationship but one where the power gradually shifts to Lou due to the quality of his ‘product’ and the need of the buyer (Russo).

Never slow to exploit an opportunity, Lou uses his power to coerce Russo into a sexual relationship (the film goes curiously coy here – just was well) as well as negotiating better pay and conditions. She’s outraged, exclaiming that friends don’t force each other to have sex. But of course, Lou doesn’t do friendship or ethics.

While Nightcrawler isn’t a great film, there are echoes of Taxi Driver. But where De Niro’s Travis Bickle raged violently against the world, Lou is consumed with calculating self-interest. He has a business plan and plots a route to profitability while manipulating the violence of others to his own advantage.

Lou is capitalism personified and his is the coldest of cold capitalist hearts.

The ‘virtue’ of ‘pure’ capitalism is that it marginalises and makes irrelevant things like compassion and mercy and social justice.

Lou knows that death, violence, fear, disaster and blood sells – and sells well. He knows how to produce what the market wants and is willing to put in the hours because he believes that “good things come to those who work their asses off”.

He also knows that the key to market success is creating a restless, unquenchable desire for more – and more.

And so the stakes continue to get raised – how can Lou top the last bloody offering to the masses? Without new product both he and Russo are going to be out of work.

And this leads to the climatic set-piece where Lou stage-manages certain death and violence between LA cops and drug dealers all simply for the lens of his (new bigger and better) camera.

It’s not often you see a film that follows capitalism all the way down to its logical end.

Lou has no ethics because ethics get in the way of what the market wants. Any competition – either in the form of other news chasers (Bill Paxton) or his Lou’s expendable partner with an inconvenient conscience – are ruthlessly eliminated.

In capitalism everything can commodified; here it is human suffering that is for sale. Lou’s competitive edge is that he is willing to go further than anyone else to exploit that market opportunity.

Lou’s genius is that he is able to offer the market a new choice – one that consumers willingly select. He can’t force anyone to watch what he films, but he knows the desire is there freely to choose to see real blood, murder, fear and tragedy – and his vocation is to oblige.

I liked how the film kept its nerve to the end. Lou’s aggressive entrepreneurial drive bears fruit. He is in the process of becoming a ‘self-made man’; a ‘success’ in business and ‘respected’ because he knows how to earn money and keep the corporate machine (TV station in this case) and himself in profit.

If ever a movie exposes the ludicrous idea that capitalism is a benign ‘neutral’ force and that markets should just be left to themselves to deliver the best of all possible worlds, this is it.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Musings on sex, capitalism and the same-sex marriage referendum

Ireland will vote on same-sex marriage in a referendum in May.

I’ve been re-reading Daniel Bell’s excellent The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Baker Academic, 2012).

What have these two rather random things to do with each other? Well, while Bell’s analysis of capitalism isn’t focused on sex, reading him with the upcoming referendum in mind opens up what I think is an often overlooked angle on how we think about sex and sexuality. Namely: how deeply and profoundly contemporary our attitudes are shaped by the beliefs and values of free-market capitalism.

Some of these unacknowledged assumptions are rising to the surface in the same-sex marriage debate. Assumptions shaped by the ubiquitous, pervasive and ‘normalised’ nature of capitalism in our culture. Since it’s the air we breathe, we don’t notice it. It’s such a natural and assumed part of everyday life that it just ‘is’.

The purpose of this post is to suggest, and invite discussion on the idea, that the culture in which we live is deeply shaped by a capitalist and consumerist view of human relationships. More specifically, it is to suggest that the reason that the same-sex argument for equality of treatment of gay couples with heterosexual couples is so ‘obvious’ and powerful (and unstoppable) is because if fits perfectly into the assumptions and beliefs of contemporary capitalism.

Just to be clear – this post is making no comment at all on the rights and wrongs of same-sex marriage. That’s another topic entirely. These are musings on why the same-sex marriage argument is going to win the referendum.

Nor am I proposing that it is ‘only’ proponents of same-sex marriage (or sexual equality and freedom in general) who are shaped by the beliefs, assumptions and values of capitalism and consumerism – just take a look at the disintegration of traditional marriage in Irish and many western societies (and Christians are far from exempt).

So, to Daniel Bell. He sketches various characteristics of what he calls ‘HOMO ECONOMICUS’: an anthropology shaped and moulded by capitalism. I’m loosely linking to just some of his ideas.

  1. The Individual

The freedom of the individual will benefit society. Limits on the expression of individualism will harm society in terms of freedom and prosperity. Individual autonomy comes before any form of collectivist control (state or religious).

This means that there is little expectation or vision for what society ought to be. Indeed, there is no ‘ought’ in capitalism apart from the market being free.

In terms of human identity, each one of us becomes our ‘own’ manager: creators of our own ‘brand’. We alone are owners of ourselves: our bodies; our possessions; our lives. We are free to dispose of and do with them as we wish. No-one has a right to tell us otherwise.

At the top of O’Connell St in Dublin you can go the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. At its base there is a quote from him saying this

No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation

In his day, nationalism was the unquestioned good shaping the direction of Ireland. Today, we could paraphrase Parnell to say

No man or woman (or anyone on the gender spectrum in between the two) has a right to fix a boundary to the onward march of the individual.

To question unfettered individualism is a very modern heresy.

Links to current debates about sex and sexuality are not hard to see. The 1937 Irish Constitution was written in a different world: a culture where the individual’s rights were circumscribed by family, faith and nation. Some arguments opposing same-sex marriage are functioning from (or wishing we could go back to) that framework. Some argue that the big issue is what form of marriage is best for children. But such is the unquestioned good of individualism within capitalism such arguments will gain little or no traction.

For it’s the unfettered imagination, creativity and entrepreneurial power of the free individual that drives capitalism. In terms of sexual identity the individual must be allowed and encouraged to pursue his or her own authentic identity – whatever form it takes: bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgender or queer or ….

  1. Freedom for freedom’s sake

It’s important to understand capitalist freedom. It is freedom for freedom’s sake. What matters is that the individual is free to choose. What the individual chooses is virtually irrelevant because capitalism has no logical internal ethic or moral core. It has no teleology – no ultimate goal or end result in sight. It is freedom from restriction of choice rather than freedom for something in particular.

So, when capitalist freedom is applied to sexual ethics, it is obvious that the individual should have a right to choose whatever sexual identity and practice they wish. Human dignity derives from the individual’s right to choose. To deny such freedom is to deny human dignity and identity. Free choice is a virtue to be defended.

Opponents of same-sex marriage (and various other restrictions on freedom of sexual expression) are therefore not defenders of morality but deniers of virtue.

  1. Self Interest

Bell uses the term ‘interest maximizer’ but this really means self-interest. Let me clarify here – I’m not proposing that somehow all proponents of sexual freedom for the individual are motivated by selfishness. Self-interest is not the same as selfishness. It is self-interest that is a vital factor that drives the success of capitalism.

For example, Adam Smith saw human life as being shaped by self-interest and this to him was a very good thing. It is the way the world works. Self interest drives the market: it is a powerful source of reform, renewal, market efficiency, creativity and liberty.

Apply capitalist thinking to sexual ethics and you end up with no particular moral or ethical boundaries to sexual relationships. If two (or more – there is no logical boundary to formalising polyamorous relationships) people enter into freely chosen behaviours that are in their mutual self-interest, this is what the market allows and should not be restricted but rather facilitated.

Therefore, those that would put boundaries on the individual right to pursue their own self-interest are seeking to control freely chosen acts of autonomous individuals and should be resisted.

  1. An invisible God

A final characteristic of capitalism is the irrelevance of God and / or religious belief. The ‘god’ of the free market is invisible and impersonal; a hand of providence that ensures that the individual pursuit of self-interest ends up (supposedly) benefitting the whole. The system does not need God, or any form of particularly Christian ethics to function. It believes that most good is done when most individuals pursue maximal gain.

Again, apply this to modern debates about sexual ethics and it becomes apparent that this sort of capitalist thinking well describes the zeitgeist. Religious beliefs should be kept invisible; they have no place in the public square. They are actually a hindrance to the wider good. Most good is done when most individuals have the free choice to live as they please. No particular ethical or moral framework should be allowed to dictate to free individuals. God, if he exists, is in the far background out of sight and mind.

Individualism

Freedom

The virtue of self-interest

 An invisible God (no particular moral or ethical framework)

These are powerful forces in western contemporary culture that when combined provide a formidable cultural wave that will wash opposition in Ireland to same-sex marriage aside.

What do you think? How does this description make you feel?

If capitalism reinforces and affirms individual freedom and sexual identity above all, what are the implications for Christians living in such a culture?

Do you agree that much conservative and Christian opposition to liberalising law around sexual ethics tends to concentrate on the symptoms and not the cause? In other words, conservative and Christian opposition to same-sex marriage tends to ignore how capitalism has reformed and deformed human relationships. Neither does it tend to be self-critical of how Christian practice of marriage and sexuality has also been debased by capitalist consumerism.  This is because capitalism is either seen as a good thing or it is such a ‘natural’ everyday presence that it is not even noticed.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Christian Consumer: love of neighbour

A third Christian perspective on consumerism unpacked by Laura Hartman is to love thy neighbour. She focuses on the Catholic Worker Movement of Dorothy Day in NY city in the 1930s as an example. [What a character and story!)

If God commands us to love one another as he loves us, then this will show in our consumption choices. Hartman uses a sixfold framework of proximity:

This could get a long post, so here’s a snapshot. If love is a ‘committment of the will to the good of another’, Christian love is framed by God’s sacrificial love  of even his enemies.

How then can you and I love those who touch our lives, and who are impacted by ours?

Hartman’s categories are useful for making us think about ‘consumption’ – we need to define what sort of consumption we are talking about.

1. SELF LOVE:-  – means caring for the self. What that means is slippery. A Dorothy Day who lived frugally cared for herself through eating and living modestly. Yet for most Westerners, such a simple life of voluntary poverty would be close to self-abuse. We Christians live lives of remarkable luxury. We over-consume food in a self-destructive way. I doubt that there is much difference in obesity stats for Christians and the wider (expanding Western population. When does self-love become selfishness?

2. LOVE OF CLOSE-OTHERS: – we consume things all the time in order to bless others. What is buying a present but other-centred consumption? (Yes, motives can be mixed but you get the point). Most parents consume for the benefit of their children, often putting their own needs last. Inviting friends round to dinner to consume lovingly prepared food is other-centred consumption. This is a life of generosity and giving.

3. LOVE OF SOMEWHAT DISTANT OTHERS: – the people you and I meet occasionally and can have some sort of relationship with. Perhaps the Good Samaritan and the guy on the road – their paths literally cross (well as literally as you get in a parable. In the context of consumption, Hartman connects this to love in the marketplace.

She quotes Luther here railing against unjust sellers. He links injustice and greed with lack of love of neighbour. The seller’s main concern should be “directed more toward doing him [customer] no injury than toward gaining profit for yourself”

Imagine such neighbour love being practiced by Irish banks ? Imagine the implications for capitalism if practiced with some sense of relational responsibility to each other? Imagine buyers not taking advantage of desperate sellers to sell as unsustainable prices?

Hartman has a discussion of neighbour-love in economics via feminist theologian Kathryn Tanner and Japanese evangelist Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960). To be loved and blessed by God is to share that blessing outwardly and generously with others. Such other-focused love leads to formation of community: co-operatives; businesses owned by the workers and consumers for mutual benefit, not for the powerful few.

Tanner counters capitalism’s innate privatization and individualism. A ‘common possession right’, while each person has a right to a share of God’s gifts, means that private property is relativised. A communal identity transcends the hermetically sealed ‘self’ that has little need of others or of neighbours. This is an attempt to re-envision the marketplace in terms of mutually beneficial relationships. A call to fair wages and fair pricing.

4. LOVE OF PLACE. For Hartman this is love of the ecosystem, primarily local. Love of the local, buying local, looking after the local ecosystem, walking the area etc. This section didn’t hang together for me.

5 LOVE OF FARAWAY OTHERS: This is where global capitalism promotes anonymous goods in our supermarkets and shops. They ‘just are’; sitting there without context or any sense of where they came from or who made them or how they got here.

This is where it gets tough to make informed decisions. How do you love people you have never met and know nothing about? How can me deciding to consume less chocolate (for example) actually help the poor? It might help my waistline and wallet more immediately!

John Schneider’s response is not to worry about it. We can’t change the world, we are only responsible for what we can impact. Even trying to consume locally is impossible given globalisation. Otherwise we are overwhelmed by things we can do nothing about. This is pragmatic boundary drawing.

Schneider does have a point. It is very hard to figure out practical steps that don’t seem like mere tokenism when it comes to love of far away others. Yes, we buy only Fairtrade. Yes, we can say that there needs to be a massive readjustment of living standards in the West if the global majority are to share equitably in God’s creation consistent with their human dignity and environmental sustainability. But such abstract goals remain nice ideas.

But Schneider’s myopia is also all too conveniently self-serving. It asks no questions of Christians as to who is their neighbour. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan asks each of us what sort of neighbour are we? How does our consumption impact others?  Hartman talks of the will to love, regardless of how ‘successful’ such love may be.

She advocates virtue ethics of moderate consumption, temperance, prudence, and generosity. Love being the highest virtue of all.

6. LOVE OF GOD.  Loving God means loving what God loves – justice, the poor, the world he made. The loves described above are, Hartman argues, ways of loving God.

How does our consumption reflect love of God? Love of his creation? Love of those made in his image? Love of justice?

Loving others means a desire to transform the world and its economic systems.Visions of justice and love are framed by an ultimate eschatological vision of a re-made world when all will be made right. And it is eschatology that forms the focus of Hartman’s fourth and final Christian perspective on consumption.

Comments. as ever, welcome.

Musings on work (1)

workLots of people I’ve talked to recently find the world of work a tough place.

A hostile work environment, a domineering boss, relentless productivity targets, predatory competition from fellow workers, deep job insecurity, reduced pay and conditions ..

and that’s just doing the dishes at home …

Work can be fascinating, challenging, enjoyable and satisfying, but it can also be a lonely and dispiriting experience.

We seem to be created to want to make a difference – we want our work to be meaningful. And this connects to the nature of the work being done.  Is it good work? What is good work anyway?

Or am I just a cog in an impersonal multi-national machine, itself an organisation that may be doing a lot of bad work (e.g., unethical exploitation of people and resources) globally?

I hope to reflect some more on the world of work and a theology of work.

To begin, this post offers some musings on why church preaching and teaching tends not to have a lot to say about the world of work (and you might disagree with that assumption).

There are perhaps a couple of reasons for this:

– Clergy / pastors / church leaders tend to inhabit a religious world and don’t have that much personal experience of the daily and weekly challenges of work.

– There is also a long and deeply entrenched dualism within much Christianity regarding work.  ‘Religious work’  (being a pastor, a nun, priest, missionary, church related work etc) is of higher spiritual value than the ordinary secular world of work.

Like the story of the secondary school teacher who takes a career break to go to Africa to teach children with a mission agency. The church puts her photo up on their global mission map beside the African country. They pray for her weekly and send round her prayer letter. On a visit she shares in church all that has been going on. However, on her  full return, her photo is taken down, the prayer stops and she is never asked again what it means to be a teacher who is also a Christian.

Within denominational churches especially, the whole business of ‘ordination’ to ‘the ministry’ shouts loudly of such a dualism. As does the elevation of the pastor / leader within many strands of Pentecostalism as specially anointed by God – sometimes this is married to scary levels of authority.

I left a service a while ago where a leader was appointed  feeling profoundly ambivalent about the whole tone and content of the event. Yes, a call and appointment to ministry of the gospel is a good thing to be celebrated and affirmed within the church community. But over-emphasis on ‘the’ leader and his/her unique call to Christian work, implicitly reflects an unhealthy dichotomy between the sacred and the secular and fosters reliance on the religious professional.

I’m not against leadership per se, but I want to resist an explicit or implicit theology that suggests religious church work is the highest vocation. And I resist the notion that within church work, leaders are called to the most important and spiritually significant work.

This might be good for egos of church leaders, but it is a long way from at least three things:

1) The nature of Christian leadership as humility, service, giving up of status, the way of the cross etc

2) Paul’s theology of the body of Christ where all members (and their work) are to be equally valued and the leader’s job is to release others into ministry

3) A biblical theology of work where there is no sacred / secular divide – where both ‘spiritual’ work and ‘ordinary’ practical & manual work are ‘holy’.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The god, economy

On the radio this morning:

A discussion on the high cost of childcare in the UK that is seeing increasing numbers of working women having to leave work to look after their children themselves. To paraphrase,

“These women have been upskilled and are now being lost to the economy”

Lost to the all demanding god economy before which we all must bow. Nothing at all said about the benefit of them being with their children; only economic proposals for making it more affordable to be at work and so sustain, and boost, the ‘economy’.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

Global inequality: some mind boggling statistics

Some mind boggling statistics from a report by Oxfam called Working for the Few: political capture and economic inequality.

The one that I found hardest to conceptualize is that the wealth of 85 INDIVIDUALS equals that of 3.5 BILLION people.

Others include:

  • Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
  • The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion.That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
  • Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
  • The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
  • In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

These trends reflect the rise of a plutocratic elite class of the global mega-rich; largely detached from any political accountability.

I recently caught a fascinating and rather depressing radio documentary about London. Like other top global cities, it is becoming harder and harder for ordinary people to live in the city. Families with long roots in localities are being forced to move out due to spiralling property prices. Massively rich global investors are distorting the market in London and places like New York, San Francisco and others. The result is that these cities are beginning to struggle to have the necessary workers actually to run the city – nurses, teachers, service industry, etc

A piece of the Oxfam report: –

Extreme economic inequality is damaging and worrying for many reasons: it is morally questionable; it can have negative impacts on economic growth and poverty reduction; and it can multiply social problems. It compounds other inequalities, such as those between women and men. In many countries, extreme economic inequality is worrying because of the pernicious impact that wealth concentrations can have on equal political representation. When wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favor the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else. The consequences include the erosion of democratic governance, the pulling apart of social cohesion, and the vanishing of equal opportunities for all. Unless bold political solutions are instituted to curb the influence of wealth on politics, governments will work for the interests of the rich, while economic and political inequalities continue to rise. As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, ‘We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.’
The response here in Ireland and Europe to the financial crisis of 2008 on is a good example of how the response of the elites is to favour the rich (the banks, the financial system) at the massive expense of taxpayers who did not cause the crisis.

The moral and democratic deficit at the heart of the European enterprise, where unelected bureaucrats in the European Central Bank, the IMF and the European Commission now hold political power over locally elected governments, may eventually undermine the whole project.

Comments, as ever, welcome.