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.

The Kindness of God (1)

At IBI we are looking forward in a couple of weeks to a visit by David Smith, who is senior research fellow at International College Glasgow and the author of significant books on urban mission and theology – some of which I have blogged on. David is coming to teach for a week on our Masters programme.

Kindness of GodI’m going to do some posts on his new book, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World, (2013). David writes both passion and with compassion – a rare combination. And I can guess he ain’t go to be popular with Christian supporters of the blessings of free-market capitalism.

One of the flip sides to global mission is that it is not a one-way process. In the past, there was the notion of Western missionaries bringing the ‘pure gospel’ to the pagan rest of the world. This gospel was imagined to be culturally free. But as David Smith, says, mission “triggered entirely unanticipated critical question concerning the relationship between the message of Christ and the missionary’s own culture.’ (39)

And the critical questions he refers to revolve around the relationship of Christianity in the West with free market capitalism. He puts it this way,

“I want to propose that in truth the most urgent dialogue which needs to take place is that with the advocates of modernization and Westernization and that therefore our primary task is to reflect on the degree to which the fundamentally secular assumptions of the ideology of market economics may have distorted our understanding of the gospel and compromised our mission.” (36)

In chapter 2, he traces the story of the rise of economism, where economics began to be treated like science, with the associated credibility and prestige of being ‘true’. This development was a fruit of Enlightenment optimism and confidence in human reason. The future would be brighter, richer and progressive. As economics advanced, theology retreated to the realm of the private and personal – even as evangelicalism grew in strength in the 19th century.

Quoting Newbigin, who talked of the ‘syncretism’ of the church in with West, Smith’s argument is that Christianity in the West has developed a dualistic theology that has left it dangerously comfortable with the status quo (the quasi-religious deification of the sovereign power of the market and the privatised world of faith). A result is that the church has been ill equipped to offer prophetic critique to the gods of the age.

Returning to the theme of mission, Smith suggests that it is Western Christianity’s captivity that led Western missionaries to engage in mission without questioning their assumptions around capitalism and colonialism. And of the greatest challenges of world mission today is Islam, for it is Islam which has resisted such dualism and fears Christianity is but a vehicle for Western imperialism. It is the Islamic vision of the just state which offers for many a powerful and attractive alternative to the ugly ruthlessness of Western capitalism.

So, Smith asks, will it be places like Africa that will develop new theologies of the political and economic realm? For it is Africa that Christianity intersects with Islam and with the terrible realities of human suffering and injustice.  (there’s a challenge to Hargaden, off to do a PhD in Aberdeen on the theology of money!).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The end of Chrapitalism?

Some excerpts from a scintillating review article by Eugene McCarragher ‘Love is Stronger that Debt’ in Books and Culture, May/June 2013. Reviewing David Graeber, Debt: The first 5000 Years and Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. McCarrahger is writing The Enchantment of Mammon: Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

And his words about the American Plutocracy equally apply to the European elites’ ruthless self-protection at the expense of the plebs. Just ask the Cypriots.

“ If the last five years of American politics have demonstrated anything, it’s that Marx’s dictum about the modern state couldn’t be more indisputable: our government is the executive for the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. Now, more than ever, our liberal democracy is a corporate franchise, and the stockholders are demanding an ever-higher return on the investment in America, Inc. Over the last four decades, the Plutocracy as decided to repeal the 20th century, to cancel the gains and protections won by the workers, the poor, and others outside the imperial aristocracy of capital …

.. The Plutocracy’s beatific vision for the mass of Americans is wage servitude: a fearful, ever-busy, and cheerfully abject pool of human resources. Rendered lazy and recalcitrant by a half-century of mooching, American workers must be forced to be free: crush labor unions, keep remuneration low, cut benefits and lengthen working hours, close or narrow every avenue of escape or repose from accumulation. If they insist on living like something more than the whining, expendable widgets they are, reduce them to a state of debt peonage with an ensemble of financial shackles: mortgages, credit cards, and student loans, all designed to ensure that the wage slaves utter two words siren-sweet to business: “Yes boss.” …

Alas, we’re are living in the early, bewildering days of the demise of the American Empire, the beginning of the end of that obsession-compulsion known as a the American Dream….

… Don’t expect any breadth or grandeur from the Empire’s Christian divines. Across the board, the imperial chaplains exhibit the most obsequious deference to the Plutocracy, providing imprimaturs and singing hallelujahs for the civil religion of Chrapitalism: the lucrative merger of Christianity and Chapitalism, American’s most enduring covenant theology. It’s the core of “American exceptionalism,” the sanctimonious and blood-spattered of providential anointment for global dominion. In the Chrapitalist gospel, the rich young man goes away richer, for God and mammon have pooled their capital, formed a bi-theistic investment group, and laundered the money in baptismal fonts before parking it in offshore accounts. Chrapitalism has been America’s distinctive and gilded contribution to religion and theology, a delusion that beloved community can be built on the foundations of capitalist property. As the American Empire wanes, so will its established religion; the erosion of Chrapitalism will generate a moral and spiritual maelstrom ….

… the God of Jesus Christ has no business sense at all, and violates every canon of the Protestant Ethic. He pays the same wage for one hour of work as for ten, and recommends that we lend without thought of return. (Finance capital could not survive a day with this logic, which is one excellent reason to recommend it.) He’s an appallingly lavish and undiscriminating spendthrift, sending his sunshine on the good and the evil. He has a soft spot for moochers and the undeserving poor: his Son was always inviting himself into people’s homes, and never asking if the blind man deserved to be cured. How can you run a decent economy this way?”

The future of Irish Bible Institute: reflecting on the past

The Future of IBI and the ‘Great (economic) Reversal’

As a Bible Institute we ask and encourage students to do a lot of critical self-reflection – within a mentoring programme and within many assignments. ‘What have I learnt through this experience?’ ‘Why did I think, act and feel that way before?’ ‘What influences have shaped my theology and how has it changed and developed in light of what I have been studying?’ ‘How will I seek to act differently in the future and why?’

So it’s only right that I do a bit of critical self-reflection from an IBI perspective about where we are.  And let me say that what is said on this blog represents my personal views and are not representative of IBI or MCC or anyone else ..

First, let’s remember that there is no sacred / secular divide: this post may be ‘business focused’ but it is still about ‘spiritual’ things. All of life before God is ‘spiritual’.

I think that there are two areas for questions at least – the PAST and the PRESENT, and it’s the PAST in focus in this post.

  1. THE PAST: Were we wrong in discerning God’s will? Did we act unwisely? Were we sucked up into the myth of the Celtic Tiger like everyone else and are wrestling with the consequences now? And if we weren’t wrong, what is there to be learnt as Christians from this experience?

The details of the deal are all public (see this previous post) so there is no problem talking about it. Nor am I transgressing into confidential Board business.

General reasons to press ahead with the 2005 deal:

IMPACT FOR THE GOSPEL: It represented a new and creative way forward if IBI was to grow and make a bigger impact across Ireland. And the shift from borrowing offices, and packing up the library to a purpose designed facility did make a huge difference. Not only physically, but in terms of credibility, quality of student experience, university validation, student numbers, reputation and so on.

MOTIVE: The whole deal was non-commercial. It was an act of faith and grace by the business partners. It would enable us to move into new premises without a huge fundraising campaign and would eventually ‘pay for itself’. Sure motives are always mixed and the human heart deceitful – but there was no personal gain for anyone. I really don’t think it was an issue of ‘consumerist greed’ for bigger and better.

RELATIONSHIP: relationships are, in my humble opinion, the most important factor in any working together – especially in Christian ministry but also outside it. This deal emerged out of a relationship of trust and goodwill.

DILIGENCE: it was complicated. A lot of time and effort was spent by people with outstanding expertise in the right areas; legal, financial, evaluation of risk etc. The risk factor was not being able to find commercial tenants or losing tenants for a long period. In 2005 this risk was judged to be acceptable.  Of course, this was the issue that came back to bite us when tenants left in June 2011 and no new ones were around in the crash.

PRAYER: much prayer went on around this whole issue – for wisdom, guidance and discernment. Everyone together agreed to press ahead.

‘PUT AND CALL’: this was a ‘put and call’ agreement whereby IBI entered into a legal agreement to buy back the building for €3.5 million at the end of a 14 year period. This is a huge amount of money, but the asset was the building. (It had doubled in value to c. €7 million even by 2007). It was estimated it would be at least worth double the €3.5 million in 2019. So, if all went according to plan, the whole idea would be ‘debt free’.

REGRETS?  Would we do the same thing again? Did we ‘mis-hear’ God?

I think we would (nearly) do the same thing again but not the ‘put and call’. Experience would make me more cautious, especially around a future debt of €3.5 million, even if (apparently) comfortably secured on a building. Being in debt gives control away to others (like a bank) and can tie a millstone around an individual’s or an institution’s neck; it removes flexibility and limits options.

But there is another reason I’d be more cautious. The crash has exposed the hubris, self-deception and out of control greed of a largely unregulated capitalist system. Let loose, it ran itself into the ground and much of the global economy with it – and I think there is much worse to come – Spain anyone? Being in debt to such a system, emeshes you in its grip. The crash should, I think, make Christians especially, cautious of being under the power of a system that ultimately cares only for capital.

I’m no economist or banker, help me out here, but it seems to me that Christian organisations should be very wary of taking on long term obligations of debt around buildings and should aim to grow and develop debt free as much as possible.

HUMILITY: There are a lot of humbled tycoons and property developers and ordinary investors around Ireland today. [And plenty who should be humbled and contrite but aren’t – but I’d better stay on point!]

And it’s obvious too, that for IBI, things did not go according to plan. Despite all the planning and experts and advice, the truth is we all have very little idea what the future holds. That truth should make us humble. Jesus’ hard words about the ‘rich fool’ focused on his arrogance and self-sufficiency apart from faith and trust in God. While we did take a lot of time to seek God and the decision itself was soaked in prayer, the need to raise €1 million was not part of the original plan. It has thrown us back on the sufficiency of God alone for it is ‘beyond us’.

GUIDANCE: Without getting too lost in Calvinist, Arminian or Open Theist debates, let me ask you a question: if things don’t work out the way you expected or hoped, does that mean you ‘missed’ or ‘went against’ God’s will? 

Of course there are many things we do that are against God’s will – the Bible has a wee word for it called ‘sin’.

But if we make decisions in good faith, seeking wisdom, taking counsel, through prayer – how are we to interpret subsequent events that seem to question the rightness of the original decision?

I was talking with friends recently who, with hindsight, would make very different choices. And I guess you can think of plenty of things you’d do differently too (I know I can!). How are we to think theologically about past decisions that we wish we’d not made?

Sometimes living with the consequences of those decisions can be very very tough, without much discernible redemptive bigger purpose, where there is not a nice happy ending.

And sometimes things DO in the end work out in an amazing way. [And coming back to IBI, the current opportunity is an amazing one for lots of reasons]. Does that ‘confirm’ our decision was all part of God’s bigger plan?

I have some thoughts on these questions, but this a blog for conversation. so comments, as ever, welcome