Sunday, January 20, 2013

Seeking Justice

What matters?

The prophet Micah’s words on that have echoed through three thousand years: 
 "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." 
As we pause to observe Martin Luther King’s birthday, I’ve been reading his less-known final speech, a summary of his last book by the same title: Where Do We Go From Here.

While it talks about racial justice, it focuses even more on economic justice, and the call to act justly, and to love mercy: 
"What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love." 
I’m not sold on the specifics of King’s economic vision, but his questions resonate deeply. He dared to challenge the orthodoxy of capitalism, the belief that free markets will solve all our problems, that unfettered commerce is the answer to our ills. 
"[O]ne day we must ask the question, 'Why are there forty million poor people in America?' And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the oil?' You begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the iron ore?' You begin to ask the question, 'Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?' These are questions that must be asked. " 
In questioning the most firmly held belief of his day, and ours, King knew he would be branded a communist or socialist, as is the case today with anyone who dares to question the orthodoxy of free market capitalism.  He answered that accusation in the course of his speech:
"Now, don't think that you have me in a 'bind' today. I'm not talking about Communism. 
"What I'm saying to you this morning is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.
"If you will let me be a preacher just a little bit - One night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn't get bogged down in the kind of isolated approach of what he shouldn't do. Jesus didn't say, 'Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying.' He didn't say, 'Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that.' He didn't say, 'Nicodemus, you must not commit adultery.' He didn't say, 'Nicodemus, now you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively.' He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic - that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down in one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, 'Nicodemus, you must be born again.'
He said, in other words, 'Your whole structure must be changed.' A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will 'thingify' them - make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, 'America, you must be born again!' 
To use King's term, we have “thingified” not just people of color, but all people. In unexamined capitalism, a person’s value is measured in productivity, contributions to the GDP. Children, full-time moms, retired elderly, have no inherent value, no dollar contribution.

As Wendell Berry lamented in an essay on “Home Economics,” 
"The industrial economy . . . reduces the value of a thing to its market price, and it sets the market price in accordance with the capacity of a thing to be made into another kind of thing. Thus a farm is valued only for its ability to produce marketable livestock and/or crops; livestock and crops are valued only insofar as they can be manufactured into groceries; groceries are valued only to the extent that they can be sold to consumers. An absolute division is thus made at every stage of the industrial process between 'raw materials,' to which, as such, we accord no respect at all, and 'finished products,' which we respect only to the extent of their market value. . . .
"But when nothing is valued for what it is, everything is destined to be wasted. Once the values of things refer only to their future usefulness, then an infinite withdrawal of value from the living present is begun. Nothing (and nobody) can then exist that is not theoretically replaceable by something (or somebody) more valuable. Things of value begin to be devalued. . . .
"In such an economy, no farm or any other usable property can safely be regarded by anyone as a home. No home is ultimately worthy of our loyalty. Nothing is ultimately worth doing. No place or task or person is worth a lifetime's devotion. That 'waste,' in such an economy, should include several categories of humans--the unborn, the old, 'disinvested' farmers, the unemployed, the unemployable--is simply inevitable. Once our homeland, our source, is regarded as a "resource,' we are all sliding downward toward the ashheap or the dump."
King looked toward a new economy, something beyond either capitalism or communism, an economy rooted in work for the common good, with dignity, security, and opportunity for all. Berry describes something similar:
"We face a choice that is starkly simple: we must change or be changed. If we fail to change for the better, then we will be changed for the worse. We cannot blunder our way into health by the same sad and foolish hopes by which we have blundered into disease. We must see that the standardless aims of industrial communism and industrial capitalism equally have failed. The aims of productivity, profitability, efficiency, limitless growth, limitless wealth, limitless power, limitless mechanization and automation can enrich and empower the few (for a while), but they will sooner or later ruin us all. The gross national product and the corporate bottom line are utterly meaningless as measures of the prosperity or health of the country.
"If we want to succeed in our dearest aims and hopes as a people  . . we must see that it is foolish, sinful, and suicidal to destroy the health of nature for the sake of an economy that is really not an economy at all but merely a financial system, one that is unnatural, undemocratic, sacrilegious, and ephemeral." 
What would King’s, or Berry’s, new economy look like? We've been led to believe there are only two approaches: capitalism, as unregulated as possible, or "godless" communism. But that binary approach misses the point, and also misses the alternative example described in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, an economic system based on periodic redistribution of wealth and regular reallocation of the means of production, shared understanding of resources as God's, not man's, emphatic condemnation of usury (profit through lending), insistence on margin and moderation in the use of land, time, seed, water, and the labor of both workers and creatures. 

Men and women around the globe, economists, lawyers, business owners, workers, farmers, and dreamers, are looking for ways to shift our unjust economy toward something more sustainable, less consumptive, more wise, more just. They speak of a "triple bottom line" economy, where human good, environmental wisdom, and financial profit are held in careful balance. 

Click here to access the Fair World Project's interactive site

Gar Asperov, a spokesman for new economy initiatives, summarized possibilities, opportunities, and challenges in a discussion of the new economy movement in The Nation. His New Economics Institute, Herman Daly’s CASSE (Center forthe Advancement of the Solid State Economy), the new Coalition for the New Economy  and others offer academic frameworks, practical examples, and encouragement to professionals working toward the kind of just economy King dreamed of. And Byron Borger, of Hearts and Minds bookstore and book blog, just posted a reading list of books and videos challenging the church to explore the call of justice more deeply. 

I’m not an economist or policy wonk, but I can still participate in the movement toward a new, more just economy.

I can buy local, buy fair trade, avoid companies known for their unjust practices, take care when buying products associated with the modern slave trade, invest in funds that throw their weight toward a new economic vision. The prices may be higher, the stock gains lower, but if justice has a cost, am I willing to pay it? 

I can do my best to understand the issues,  think about where my money goes, refuse to be valued for what I spend rather than who I am or what I do for love, not money. Understanding the system may take time and thought and effort, but "seeking justice" has never been simple. 

I can advocate, inform, pray, look for ways, in every transaction, to “act justly.” 

And I can object – sometimes gently, sometimes strongly – when friends suggest that faith in capitalism as we know it is a corollary to faith in the one who more than once said “leave it, sell it, give it to the poor, and come, follow me.”

A few of the books reviewed by Borger at Hearts and Minds Booknotes

This is the fourth of a series for the new year: "What Matters"
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