The “stimulus” and economic assumptions

What seems to get lost in all this shuffle about whether or not the Senate will pass Obama’s economic stimulus package, in what form, and what compromises will have to be made with the House, is that there is absolutely no debate about what form the economy should take. It is simply taken for granted that what is needed is to enact provisions that will spur spending and kickstart once again the cycle of consumer-driven “growth”.

That we call it “growth” masks the real costs of such an economic system: the fact that millions, even billions of people are left by the wayside, their prospects not growing but quite the opposite – growing only in hopelessness, despair, hunger, and the inability to procure for themselves and their loved ones the even basic necessities of life; the increasing strain on an already-sick planet as we poison her air, water, and land in the drive to extract resources to fuel the production of “goods”, the increasing purchase of which will fuel continued “growth”, all driven by the (ought to be clinically) insane belief that a world with finite resources can support infinite, exponential economic growth.

Even the language of recession bears witness to our idolatrous worship of progress, for is not recessing the very opposite of advance, of progressing? It would do us good to see the current economic crisis as just that – an eco-nomic crisis. The most common definition of “crisis” in the common parlance, is something like this (from Mirriam Webster’s online dictionary): “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending… a situation that has reached a critical phase”. As instructive as this definition may be in so many ways, there is another definition of “crisis” to which I wish to point your attention: “the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever”.

If the economic system currently accepted by the Western powers is causing the entire planet to become sick, then perhaps the best language to use regarding it is not the language of progress and prosperity, but of disease and illness. Consumer-driven corporate capitalism might better be understood as a pathogen, a disease-causing agent that is draining the life of our home, the earth itself. The current economic crisis provides an opportunity for reflection and action to possibly break (at least some of) the power presently-existing economic structures hold over our lives, the life of the earth, and the lives of humankind.

Furthermore, even the word eco-nomic is significant. Eco is derived from the Greek oikos, meaning “household” or “home”, and nomic from nomos, or law. Eco-nomics, then, is the ordering of the home, running the household. While we moderns have so often limited economic discussion to the performance of markets and its effects to factors that can be reduced to matters of cents (and dollars, euros, yen, etc.), it doesn’t make any sense to limit discourse on the economy to these things. Perhaps we like them because they’re more easily quantifiable, or perhaps it’s because it hides from us those things we do not wish to face head-on: the plight of those who are systematically disempowered and impoverished by the “advancing” global economy, and the pain we ought to feel if only we were in touch with the voices of the earth and its other, nonhuman inhabitants. Let us instead seek to formulate an eco-nomics that will enable us to more rightly order our life together in our home, as inhabitants of earth and of the particular communities in which we dwell.

The eco-nomic crisis has the potential to be a turning point in our understanding of how we relate to our home and how we order our existence within it. Christians in particular, who believe the earth to be the creation of God and a gift into which we have been placed by our loving Creator bear a particularly acute responsibility to enable oppressed voices to be heard. This is no less true for the voices of the nonhuman creation than it is for the voices of people of color, women, GLBT/Q, and others who have suffered exclusion and oppression at the hands of the discourse of power and its embodiment in socio-politico-economic structures. For the church, the current crisis provides a golden opportunity for prophetic engagement, for sensing the heart of God and communicating truth in the now, and not only that but also for putting flesh on prophecy – creating economic relationships within the church to serve as a witness and a model to the world that we can live in ways that are more faithful to our nature as created beings in relation to God, to each other, and to the land, water, and air – a holistic eco-nomics with a trajectory towards health, not disease.

May your basilea come, your will be done – just as in heaven, so also let it be upon the earth. Amen.

Advertisements

The irony of progress

However else it may be defined, it is generally agreed that a (if not the) major feature of modernity is the pervasiveness of the myth of progress. According to the progress myth, progress will be attained in a definite, concrete form as the continuing dialectic (and, in some forms, utopian end) of history if “we allow human reason freely and scientifically to investigate our world. Progress enables us to acquire the technological power necessary to control that world and bring about the ultimate human goal: economic affluence and security” (from Brian Walsh, Subversive Christianity, Seattle, WA: Alta Vista College Press, 1994, pp. 39-40).

While the progress myth has come under fire in the 20th century, it clearly lives on in discourse regarding things like “making the world safe for democracy” and “bringing prosperity to underdeveloped nations”. Economic affluence through free-trade (neoliberal) economics and democratization have become intrinsically linked, and the juxtaposition of the two with neoconservative imperialism is just one example of the horrific possibilities of such a marriage. For exhibit one, see the aftermath of the attempt to turn post-American-conquest-Iraq into a “free trade paradise”, which might have had more to do with the explosion of unrest in the country than any other single factor (see this excellent article by Naomi Klein).

The discourse of progress is alive and well in the speeches of newly-inaugurated President Obama, albeit in some different ways than now former President Bush. The one thing that has certainly not changed, though, is the statement of faith that the United States is in some way a blessed nation charged with a divine mission to be a beacon of freedom, justice, and prosperity to the whole world. Obama drinks deeply from the well of America-the-Promised-Land.

My purpose in this post is not to criticize Obama per se, but I think it’s important to realize that despite the promise of change some things fundamentally have not changed – notably the public presentation of faith in the myth of progress, and faith in America as the driving engine of global progress (though the question is never asked – at what cost?). There is, however, a certain irony in this idolatrous faith.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted that his grandchildren would be able to experience a life beyond economic necessity. John Dewey believed that the visionary application of science and technology would cause the desert to bloom like a rose. Neither of these conditions has come to pass; indeed, quite the opposite has happened in both cases. Economic anxiety is at its highest point in decades, with the current generation projected to be the first in quite some time (possibly hundreds of years) to not fare, on the whole, better economically than its parent generation. And the former hotbeds of science and technological development, the cities and industrial centers, have become or are fast becoming post-industrial wastelands.

Those city centers that have seemingly reversed these trends have done so by engaging the post-industrial economy by expanding the service-sector, increasing the emphasis on consumption, rather than production, and by creating “arts districts” that are little more than microcosms of the consumer economy providing barely-subsistence labor for advertising and other corporate-controlled “creative” enterprises. In the long run, these transitory economic schemes hailed as “new urban developments” are likely to cause more damage than good as the “consumer goods” that must be shipped into these places for consumption by shoppers (who are increasingly less likely to be able to afford them or be inclined to purchase them, given the current economic climate), create their own ripple effect of environmental, as well as labor and other human rights disasters on a global scale.

This is the grand irony of the progress myth: that it promises a glorious future through worshiping the idols of scientism, technicism, and economism, and yet the very fruits of that worship undercut the possibilities of the very future it promises us. Moreover, the problem is far from “just economic”. The dominant economic systems in place have a huge cost in human terms and in terms of damage done to the creation. I do not believe it is a stretch to call the results of the current economic empire ecocide, and possibly also genocide. The fruits of progress have not been increased prosperity; rather they have been turmoil resulting in conflict and “terrorism” (conditions the “war on terror” ironically reinforces), the Damoclean sword of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, and the increasing murder of God’s creation, the destruction of earth and depletion of resources, and despoliation of nature. This is a murder in which Christians have often all-too-willingly participated.

The myth of progress in its economic manifestation requires constant growth (and indeed the concrete systems in place supported by the myth will collapse without it – that is the real danger of recession). This requires a planet with finite resources to provide resources for infinite growth, while the profit motive supports increasingly wasteful use of those very resources (think “planned obsolescence”). While the nations of the world have been aware of the environmental crisis for some time, it has increased, not decreased over that time, particularly over the past couple of decades when awareness has drastically increased. This should not surprise us, as “an expansionary economic ethic necessarily destroys the earth.” An economics that “knows nothing of contentment, of ‘enough’, necessarily sacrifices the environment (and especially the environment of others) iin order to satiate its greed. It is powerless to do anything else” (Walsh, p. 43).

Deficit financing and environmental destruction go hand-in-hand – both destroy the prospects of the future. “A progress-oriented, future-facing society is robbing its own grandchildren of a healthy future” (Walsh, p. 44).

In light of this, what can be our response? With the false hope of progress revealed to be empty and destructive, the only solution can be to turn to the God of creation, the God who lovingly formed the earth, to whom all the earth belongs and everything that is in it – to turn from our faith in idols that destroy and do not save, and to prophetically engage the culture with grief and contrition, but also with hope that God will be who God has said he will be, and that God will make good on the promise that all things are being made new (Rev. 21:5). I refer you at this point to the essay linked at the top of this blog entitled “Prophetic” in hopes that it will stimulate your thinking. I’m also still asking the same questions as I was in this piece I wrote over 2 years ago. In light of the need to diagnose our current problem as not just a political, economic, or ecological problem, but primarily as a spiritual problem, one that persists in large part because of the enculturation of the church and its failure to live prophetically, I think it’s appropriate to close this post with the words of the Ash Wednesday collect.

Almighty and merciful God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent;
create in us new and contrite hearts,
so that when we turn to you and confess our sins
we may receive your full and perfect forgiveness;

through Jesus Christ our Redeemer
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.

May God give us imaginations to live prophetically in this time, and in the time that is to come.

Cornerstone seminar

The Cornerstone seminar went really well. The title of my session was “Sacred Anarchy: The Image of God and Political (Dis)Order”. I focused on Wink’s formulation of the Myth of Redemptive Violence, focused on Genesis as subversive to the Myth, and then took a trip through modern political philosophy to demonstrate how the modern state and most of our current modes of social, political, and economic discourse are based on the Myth. Then I presented an introduction to anarchism and discussed the anti-imperial proclamation of Jesus in the first century AD, with a call to the church to hear the Gospel as the news that Christ’s coming is the beginning of God’s return to his people, bringing the kingdom and God’s reign of peace and justice through the breaking of cosmic systems of evil, injustice, sin both systemic and individual, and through the healing of hearts and of creation, and that the inbreaking of this reign of peace and justice must inevitably be at odds with systems that are based on the Myth of Redemptive Violence. My hope is that the church will begin to catch more fully the radical nature of Christ and his Way, and seek to live accordingly.

I revised my zine for the session, and I’ve uploaded it to this site. Links in past posts to the old version have been replaced with links to the new version. Also, I’m going to upload the notes from my seminar as well as my notes from the “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination” seminar from last November. Look for them in a post in the near future.

Here’s the link to the new version of the zine: Radical Hope: Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? 2

In the last installment of What Would Jesus Deconstruct? I looked at Caputo’s brief account of Charles Sheldon’s book In His Steps and the question of “What would Jesus do?”. He finished the section by saying the question hinges on the one word, “would”, and the “would” draws us into the realm of hermeneutics. It is at this point he calls upon deconstruction, which he has called “radical hermeneutics” in other works.

Caputo points out that the heroes of Sheldon’s book are people who “renounce the profit-making motives that drive capitalism and give up luxury and success for the sake of living among and working on behalf of the poorest of the poor” (p. 25). While the current atmosphere of globalized capitalism recalls the “Gilded Age” in which Sheldon wrote, “the original force of Sheldon’s question has been turned upside-down in the barrage of bracelets and televangelists preaching personal wealth as a sign of God’s approval.”

With this in mind he recalls the opening scene of Sheldon’s book, a fairly pastoral scene (literally) in the church where “the best dressed, most comfortable-looking people” of the town have gathered – when a destitute, dying bum breaks onto the scene, turning the situation upside down – turning harmony into cacophony.

Caputo asks “what would Jesus do – if he ever showed up some Sunday morning? Turn things upside down.” The last first, the meek and poor inheriting the earth, the hungry given good things and the rich sent away empty. Peace? Not peace, but the sword. Family values? No, rather hating father and mother for the sake of the kingdom. Instead of confirming us in our ways and congratulating us for our virtue “we would stand accused” having ignored the plank in our own eye for the speck in that of our neighbor.

Or, to put things in deconstruction terms, “into the sphere of the ‘same’ (the familiar, the customary, the business-as-usual of Sunday services) bursts the ‘advent’ or the ‘event’ of the ‘other,’ of the ‘coming of the other,’ which makes the same tremble and reconfigure” (p. 26). Sheldon opens the novel with a scene of deconstruction.

Caputo says the “event” of Jesus is that of a deep deconstructive force. Whereas deconstruction has been called the hermeneutics of the death of God, he presents it as the hermeneutics of the kingdom, as an interpretive move that helps get at Jesus’ prophetic nature. Jesus breaks into the 1st-century Jewish scene and takes a stand with the “other”. Deconstruction delivers the shock of the “other” to the forces of the “same”, which could also be put in terms of delivering the good, the “ought to be” to the force of being, the “what is”. In this sense, Caputo says deconstruction brings good news to the church – one could say it brings the Gospel to us in the form of that which turns our world upside-down.

The other in deconstruction is not a devil, but rather a figure of truth. “Things get deconstructed by the event of truth that they harbor, an event that sets off unforeseeable and disruptive consequences”, which may be enough to get the event of truth labeled as a devil (or, for that matter, crucified).

First post at Jesus Manifesto

My first post as a co-author of the Jesus Manifesto blog went live this morning. It’s a meditation on Ecclesiastes, “meaninglessness”, and the nature of empire.

There’s some really great stuff being written over there, so please go and check it out. In a couple of days I will be starting a series related to my presentation at the Cynicism and Hope conference a couple of weeks ago called “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination”. An audio recording of my session will be available on the conference web site, if it isn’t already.

Also if you are the praying type I would appreciate your prayers. This week the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto is reviewing my application for their MA in philosophy program, so I’m a bit nervous and excited at the same time.

Shalom!

Cynicism and Hope conference

I have just been asked to conduct a workshop at at the Cynicism and Hope conference in Evanston, Illinois in November.

The info:

“Cynicism and Hope: Reclaiming Discipleship in a Post-Democratic Society”
November 2-3
Reba Place Church (directions)
Cost is $30, though a reduced rate of $20 is available for those with need. They are also looking for people who have the means to contribute an extra $10 with their registration to help provide for the reduced rate.

The working title for my workshop is “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination”. I’ll probably use threads from prophetic despair texts such as Elijah after Mount Carmel, Lamentations, and then maybe some stuff from Ecclesiastes (though I can see Ecclesiastes being a pretty popular book at this conference, so we’ll see about that).

The conference is sponsored by Reba Place Church, Reba Place Fellowship, Living Water Community Church, Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes, Seniors for Peace, and the Anabaptist Network.

Christian preaching and imagination

Absolution Revolution has moved! You can read this article at http://absolutionrevolution.com/blog/2006/10/13/christian-preaching-and-imagination/