Tag Archives: Consumerism

Coveting, Control and Captivity (Leviticus 25)

You can search this site for “jubilee”, “leviticus 25″ and “sabbath” to read more about the connections I make between Sabbath practices, ecology, economics, Jesus and Isaiah. To find something fresh to say about this central passage in the biblical narrative I turn to one of my favorite scholars.

The text of Leviticus 25 asserts both Yahweh’s radical intention and the radical social practice of entitlement that necessarily accompanies Yahweh’s intention. (103)

So, Walter Brueggeman sums up the well-known Jubilee chapter of Leviticus. Many people, particularly conservatives, hear the word entitlement primarily with negative connotations. However, the concept of predistribution which I mentioned before in relationship to Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0 is a more positive description of what Brueggeman means. Brueggeman also supports what I’ve often claimed for the importance of this chapter for understanding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his book Finally Comes the Poet,

Israel’s theological conviction about the land is asserted positively in the great social vision of Leviticus 25, the text on the Jubilee year. A number of scholars now argue that this text provides the cornerstone for Israel’s ethical practice. (102)

Brueggeman makes this claim in the context of his exegesis of the command not to covet (Ex 20:17) in which he says,

Marvin Cheney has argued, and I agree, that covet in the Decalogue refers in principle to land tenure systems and land management policies. To covet means to arrange loan credit, tax, and inheritance so that some may have land that others should rightfully possess. That is, it is the systemic economic practice of greed. (99)

It is helpful to put the redistribution scheme of Leviticus 25 in the context of prohibitions against covetousness and greed. In other words, the Jubilee is the positive vision of what the world could or should be in light of the negative reality highlighted by the prohibitions in the Decalogue. Greed, or covetousness, is both based on and results in inequalities of the distribution of wealth and power. For the biblical world this comes primarily in the form of access and ownership of land. Brueggeman goes on to explore this further,

There is an important line of scholarship that argues that early Israel (which gives us the seed of all biblical faith) is essentially a social revolution concerning land tenure systems. This charter for “egalitarianism” culminated in the commandment against coveting that prohibits the rapacious policies of the state that characteristically monopolize law, power, and wealth… The Bible has understood, long before Karl Marx, that the basic human issues concern land, power, and the means of production. (99-100)

I have argued before in these virtual pages that a biblical economy is based on the land, and I’m happy to find confirmation from such a highly respected biblical, particularly Old Testament, scholar. Some will dismiss everything at the mention of that dreaded name, “Marx”, but will have missed the point Brueggeman makes that, far from being “Marxist”, the Bible is fundamentally human. Where Marx gets things right he happens to agree with the biblical emphasis on justice, egalitarianism and land reform. Most Christians read the Ten Commandments (and the whole biblical narrative) primarily in individualistic terms. What they miss is the socio-political context of these commands which were understood in much more radical terms by the original hearers.

So, Jubilee is the antithesis to coveting, but Brueggeman unpacks this further in terms of control and captivity,

The theological issue related to the land is sharing— respecting the entitlement of others. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is greed. Greed touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological. Greed bespeaks a fundamental disorder in our lives, a disorder that reflects distortion in our relation with God.

Central to this issue is the addiction to control that permeates human history. In verse 6 the text poses the question most people probably have when reading about letting the land lie fallow for a year, “What then shall we eat?” I hope to explore this aspect of Jubilee further, but the response of the text is that God provides abundantly, such that the people will still be eating from the produce of the Sabbath year three years later. Loss of control is scary, but God clearly promises that letting go of control is actually better than when we hold tightly to the reins.

This addiction to control is a kind of captivity or slavery. When we hold our possessions and wealth tightly, we are possessed by them. We become slaves to the things we pretend to have control over. Their is a subtle reversal in the relationship to material goods that most people don’t recognize in their daily lives. The logic of greed and coveting and the systems that perpetuate these values traps us in a spiral from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This kind of captivity is picked up by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he proclaims “good news to the poor”, “liberty to the captives” and the “year of the Lord’s favor”. Many scholars argue that this is a reference to the Jubilee, which is then appropriated by Jesus when he quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This proclamation of liberation from captivity which is good news to the poor is a thread connecting the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and on through Paul and James. This Jubilee thread weaves a tapestry that paints a picture of the “kingdom of heaven” at the core of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But Brueggeman also admonishes that the prohibition against coveting and the positive command of the Jubilee are not based on a revelatory “because God said so”, but instead on real world experience.

This claim about God and the distribution of land is not accepted simply on the basis of revelation, but can be established in terms of social experience. Excessive land grabbing leads to death, whether in the family, in the church, in the faculty, or in Latin America. (101)

Living among people that are desperate for access to land, I can attest to the timelessness of this assertion. North American and western cultures have isolated themselves from the death that the injustice and inequality of economic systems creates, causes and exacerbates, but it is very real. Those at the very bottom understand that their inability to access land is the basis of their poverty and exploitation. For middle class westerners so detached and abstracted from their land base, it seems strange that people are still fighting over access to land. We have been sold the lie that we can solve poverty and basic inequalities in the system without dealing with the most fundamental issue of access to land and exploitation of natural resources. It is so important to recognize that this is not an arbitrary commandment, but one based on the social and economic realities of human existence which continue to apply today.

I’d like to share a story that Brueggeman relates which, I think, helps connect this ancient text and practice to our current context,

A concrete embodiment of the Jubilee command- ment was evidenced in a rural church in Iowa during the “farm crisis.” The banker in the town held mortgages on many farms. The banker and the farmers belonged to the same church. The banker could have foreclosed. He did not because, he said, “These are my neighbors and I want to live here a long time.” He extended the loans and did not collect the interest that was rightly his. The pastor concluded, “He was practicing the law of the Jubilee year, and he did not even know it.” The pastor might also have noted that the reason the banker could take such action is that his bank was a rare exception. It was locally and independently owned, not controlled by a larger Chicago banking system. (104)

Finally, let me end with this challenge from Brueggeman,

What if the central claim of the Tenth Commandment is true: that coveting kills, that taking what belongs to another destroys, and that life-giving social practice requires giving things back to people! (106)

Toward A Living Economy: From Here To There

In this series I have been considering the idea of a living economy in an article by David Korten. He points to three rules or principles from nature that would shape such an economy: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. In this last post I want to explore some ideas about how to get from here to there. Some of these thoughts are influenced by E.F. Schumacher and an article from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) “NWF adopts Key Element of Steady State Thinking” by Eric Zencey.

The first thing that must change is our obsession with GDP to some measurements of economic activity that more accurately describe and account for the totality of human life.

Every economics textbook warns that GDP is a poor measure of well-being, and yet by default it continues to be the indicator that economic policy seeks to maximize. GDP doesn’t measure well-being at all, but simply tries to tally the dollar value of final goods and services produced in the U.S. …By design, GDP also leaves out ecosystem services; if you hang your laundry out to dry, the sun and wind do the job, but if you throw it in the dryer you use electricity, increase your carbon footprint, and give GDP a bit of a bump. Ecological economists identify a dozen categories of ecosystem services, including climate stability, recycling of nutrients, creation of soil fertility, maintenance of a library of genetic diversity, pollination, purification and transport of water by the solar-powered hydrological cycle, flood protection services of marshlands and forests, and so on.

In some ways, this is a more radical shift than it appears. It’s not just that we should replace GDP with a better number and continue relying on only one measurement. At some point economics came to be commonly understood as a discipline that dealt with business and finance, which while certainly being important was not the totality of human life and existence. The reality is that economics is not somehow compartmentalized and segregated from those parts of our lives that economics accounts for and those it doesn’t.

GDP fails to measure things that concern well-being such as volunteer work and domestic production, ecosystem services, defensive and remedial expenditures. According to Zencey, “By some estimates, as much as one-quarter to one-third of our GDP consists of such expenditures.” On the other hand there are some interesting examples of things GDP counts as economic positives that most people would not.

GDP also misreads our level of well-being by treating defensive and remedial expenditures as positive economic activity. Remedial: the $12 billion that British Petroleum alone has spent (so far) in its efforts to clean up the catastrophic oil release in the Gulf of Mexico counts as an increase in GDP, though the expenditure comes nowhere close to putting things back to their pre-Deepwater state. Defensive: if someone breaks into a neighbor’s house and you decide to buy a burglar alarm, GDP goes up—but you probably don’t feel as secure as you did before the break-in.

There is an dark underbelly to the economics of our current incarnation of capitalism that depends heavily on defense spending and fancy accounting to make oil spills economically positive activities. I do see a lot of hope that economists (what little I read) seem to be moving away from the previous dependence on this one measurement. However, without a larger shift in thinking toward holistic approaches, I believe we will continue to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of our society. Zencey goes on to describe what he sees as the primary problem in our current economic understanding.

The root cause of our environmental problems—our ecological crisis—is infinite planet economic theory, the rules and axioms of a discipline that tells us that it is possible to have infinite economic growth on a finite planet…You can get to that conclusion only if you ignore the laws of thermodynamics. Economic production is, at bottom and unalterably, a process that relies on physical inputs. No amount of human ingenuity will ever let us make something from nothing or nothing from something. No amount of ingenuity will let us create energy out of nothing or recycle it to use it again.

In other words, economics must become more of a hard science than the soft science that it continues to be (regardless of what the mathematical geniuses that brought us the financial crisis tell you). Economics must have as its foundation in the science that is the basis for our understanding of how the world works, what is possible and what is not. If economics contradicts science in its assumptions, which one should we rely on? Should we alter the laws of thermodynamics to fit our economic theories? Sounds silly, but that’s the current state of our economic theory.

So, what’s the alternative to our current system?

The National Wildlife Federation did not specifically sign on to the steady-state vision; but by calling for an accurate measurement of the costs of economic growth, it has officially joined us on a path that can lead nowhere else.

Obviously the article comes from proponents of a steady-state economy. So, perhaps this kind of hyperbole is to be expected. I still think stating this “can lead nowhere else” is an exercise in the same narrow thinking that led us to bow down to the almighty GDP. For those not familiar with the idea of steady-state economics, it is perhaps most easily understood in contrast with the idea of a growth economy. My understanding is that a steady-state economy is not based on the growth of economic activity, but the health and sustainability of economic activity. In other words, if the economy is able to support all its members then there is no need for growth. There is a kind of recycling of funds as dollars circulate through many hands.

The main criticism that I have heard of steady-state economics is that is not a dynamic system (like an ecosystem) which is able to be flexible and adapt to a constantly changing environment. If a steady-state system simply fixes the amount of resources available to the economy at some predetermined (sustainable” level then it is not in reality the kind of living system that a living economy would demand in response to the living dynamics of the ecosystems on which all life is based.

Here are my three main conclusions from this thought exercise about what is necessary to move in the direction of a living economy:

  1. Moving from narrow measures like GDP to more complex and holistic understandings of economics
  2. Basing economics on science in two ways: First, acknowledging the implications of thermodynamics on the means of production. Second, returning to an understanding of economics as a discipline concerned with understanding human behavior and interactions more than how to do business, make money or simply understand the complicated system we have developed.
  3. Find ways to experiment with other possibilities on local and regional scales, including steady-state principles and/or the idea of a living economy explored in this series. This can be done in small groups within churches or as congregations.

To expand slightly on #2, it seems that much of the energy of economists is spent on defining, studying, analyzing and understanding the complexities of the current system we have created. With complex financial instruments like credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities it’s clear that just trying to understand the economic system as it exists and functions today can easily take up all the time, energy and brainpower of even the brightest economists (and it does). The problem is that this narrow approach to the field of economics is not capable of solving the economic and ecological problems that face us. Economics must return, as stated above, to its roots as a discipline that seeks to understand human behavior and interactions.

The origin of the word economics is the Greek word oikos, meaning “household”, which incidentally is also the root for the word ecology. In other words, these concepts of economics and ecology encompass all of life. Therefore if economics doesn’t account for a more holistic picture of human life and activity, particularly as it relates to the ecosystems on which we depend, then it has ceased to have an authentic relationship to its roots. Instead of segregating these fields of economy and ecology we must recognize their fundamental relatedness. With a broader scope environmentalism and business would no longer need to be mortal enemies, because both will recognize that they are kindred spirits and both are interdependent.

I tried to be as practical as I could, but this still seems somewhat abstract and theoretical. I’d appreciate any suggestions for practical application of these thoughts.

Toward A Living Economy: Self-Reliant Local Adaptation

I am exploring the tension between the conservation of natural systems and the need for development to improve the lives of people in poverty. Out of this tension arises the need to transition from our current model which pits these two against each other to another economic system that is not in contradiction to these systems. I am using some ideas from an article by David Korten in which he points to three rules or principles from nature that would shape such an economy: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. This post will consider the second.

The second rule, “Self-Reliant Local Adaptation”, values adaptation and local wisdom and knowledge.

The biosphere’s cooperatively self-organizing fractal structure supports a constant process of adaptation to the intricate features of Earth’s distinctive local microenvironments to optimize the capture, sharing, use, and storage of available energy. Local self-reliance is a key to the system’s ability to absorb and contain most system disturbance locally with minimum overall system disruption. So long as each local subsystem balances its consumption and reproduction with local resource availability, the biosphere remains healthy and dynamic.”

This is one of the major implications of Darwinian theory. It’s not just that species adapt, but that they are adapted to very specific local conditions. It’s about the interaction between species and the environment in which they survive and thrive. An economy based on this principle would have to be decentralized, relying on the expertise of local people to make decisions about how they are organized, what changes to make and how to implement them.

Rather than attempting to control the economy from the top down, monkeying with interest rates at the Fed or passing federal legislation, this approach means that the rules must be made in a way that encourages innovation, adaptation, flexibility and change. Unfortunately history seems to say that this runs counter to the whole project of human civilization. The Founding Fathers of the United States wrote into founding documents the idea that the people should get rid of the government and/or change the system when it no longer functioned or served the people. We pretend that we do that every two or four years when we press buttons on a touchscreen or punch a ballot, but the truth seems obvious that rather than change, or revolution, the bureaucratic behemoth continues to gorge itself on the system we maintain by passing the political buck at the ballot box.

I think this principle is best summed up by the word “empowerment” which I have discussed at length in terms of development and my work in Bolivia. Empowerment has some problematic connotations of asymmetrical power relationships, but the idea is still right. If there exists an inequality of power, then those with more power must find ways, not only to relinquish it, but help others learn the proper exercise of it. The knowledge of local and indigenous people that has been devalued in practice for so long must become the most highly prized and important form of knowledge.

This is a major shift in values for the current system. When we begin to truly value local and indigenous knowledge, we will shift our priorities and rewrite the rules to reflect this. In order to live out this principle local communities need autonomy. They must have the power to make decisions for themselves without the intervention of outside forces. This sounds like a new form of tribalism, which is scary for some and hopeful for others.

Outside of the most dire collapse scenario (which I admit could still happen) we will not simply go back to the jungle and hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We will, however, be forced to learn, or re-learn, what they knew about how to live in balance with their environment. The reason these kind of communities were and will be stable and secure is their close relationship with their bioregion which makes local adaptation possible. For a civilization used to central control this shift toward decentralization take a huge amount of trust, because we have been sold the narrative that the strong central authority is the only way to hold it all together. The other option, which is what I’ve been describing here, is to stop trying to hold it all together and trust people and communities to know what’s best for them.

Toward a Living Economy: Cooperative Self-Organization

In the previous post I explored the inherent contradiction between the desire to protect and conserve the environment and the need for development within the current economic system based on a growth economy examining the current political situation in Bolivia as a microcosm of this tension on a macro level. At the end of that post I suggested that the solution was to find a way to transition to a new kind of economy and development. David Korten wrote an article in Yes! Magazine entitled “Living Economies: Learning from the Biosphere” in which he said,

In our species’ immaturity, however, our dominant cultures have forgotten that our individual and collective well-being depends on the well-being of the whole. We must now step to a new level of species maturity, redesign the culture and institutions of our economic system to mimic the structure and dynamics of the biosphere, and learn to live by life’s rules. 1

Korten lists three key ideas that he gleans from the natural world about how we should organize our economic life together: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. First I want to look at his ideas, along with some others within the idea of a steady-state economy. Then we will have to talk about how to get from here to there.

Toward An Anarchist Economy?
The first rule of “Cooperative Self-Organization” has to do with the principles of biodiversity and cooperation. Korten explains,

Ecosystems have no central control structure. Their health and vitality depend on processes of cooperative self-organization in which each species learns to meet its own needs in ways that simultaneously serve the needs of others. The more diverse and cooperative the bio-community, the greater its capacity to innovate and the greater its resilience in the face of crisis.” 1

The idea of not having central control structures sounds very scary to humans accustomed to all the trappings of civilization with its institutions, organization and hierarchy, but this is an invention of the human intellect and not something inherent in the natural order or observable in natural ecosystems. While many libertarians and advocates of a completely free market profess to believe in such a decentralized state of affairs, I’m not sure they would allow it when the time came to really let go of the control. Most of the more moderate advocates of a free market turn that phrase into a misnomer, because there is incredible attempts to impose central control and regulation on the system. Usually the rules are rigged to the benefit of the rulemakers, which might fit some natural law, but is unsustainable and thus violates the most important natural law: that the system itself must survive.

All of this makes me wonder what an anarchist (which is the leftist version of the libertarian impulse) economy might look like. I don’t hear a lot of discussion about this among Christian Anarchists that I read. But if economy only means how we order our lives together, then in terms of how we exchange goods and services for our own survival, any community of people that is able to sustain itself has some kind of economy. If there is any possibility of a practical anarchism that can be lived out, then there must be some kind of anarchist economics that governs or guides the way that people live together.

Diversity and Cooperation
What creates stability, security and flourishing in ecosystems is diversity and cooperation. Of course there is competition within and among species for sources of food, but this assumes a scarcity that is not the case in stable ecosystems. If you out-compete all the other prey species in an ecosystem for food then your survival will mean that you are now the only target left for whatever predators there are above you on the sacred predator pyramid scheme. There is a delicate web of interdependence in healthy ecosystems that demands both diversity of species and cooperation.

Financial investors already understand this principal somewhat when they diversify stock portfolios to lower the risk and secure a steady rate of return, even if it’s lower than higher risk portfolios. On a broader scale, however, our economy does not support the broadest diversity in terms of the kinds of business and other economic actors that it supports and/or allows to exist. On the contrary the current system heavily favors large corporations. The larger and more multinational the corporation, the more advantages it has in the marketplace.

Everyone gives lip service to small businesses, but no one is serious about taking on the rules that allow Wal-Mart and others to easily put small companies out of business wherever they go. Therefore the rule in a living economy based on the rule of diversity and cooperation would be to give real incentives for small businesses and those that are active in creating a community in which other small businesses can thrive. Korten puts the tension between healthy ecosystems and the privileges of corporations in these terms,

“In a living economy, the rights and interests of living communities of living, breathing people engaged in a living exchange with the natural systems of their bioregion properly take priority over the presumed rights of artificial corporate entities that value life only as a marketable commodity and operate by the moral code of a malignant cancer.”

This puts a further clarification on the practical implications. It cannot simply promote any small business, but small businesses that understand, value and promote the values of diversity and cooperation. They should embody these principles within their own business structures by following worker-owned models in which there is the most possible transparency, openness and sharing of both the rights and responsibilities of honest work. They should encourage other business and the interaction, cooperation and interdependence of businesses of all sizes, from a single person selling produce from their garden to the largest local company in the area.

Monocultures of any kind, whether agricultural or business, are a direct contradiction to principles that govern natural systems. They will likely fail in the long term for the same reasons that natural systems cannot be supported where biodiversity is lacking. The answer is to learn from science and promote the interdependence of natural system that create flourishing, dynamic, vibrant and healthy systems of diversity and cooperation.

Begging the Question

So, the idea for this blog came out of my quest for what to do with my life after seminary. The title is just a clever and catchy way to get at the main theme of this blog, food and theology. As I have unpacked this silly little question it seems to have sometimes taken me far afield. Lately I write a lot about economics, anti-civilization, collapse and consumerism. In my mind, of course, they are all interrelated and connected, but maybe these connections are not always obvious. I try to tie it back in to this question “What Would Jesus Eat?” that’s really about making ethical choices in a very complicated world and helping us navigate these murky waters.

Well, my primary purpose for this blog is to be a place where I can process out loud my own thoughts about these issues from my own reading, experience and thinking and hopefully get some feedback from the few friends and readers that occasionally read and comment. The secondary hope is that some of this will be helpful to other people. Sometimes I think that this secondary purpose would help give more clarity to my thoughts and writing. If I delve into ideas about civilization collapsing, how does that help you understand and live in the world more faithfully? If I go on about economic theories or obscure aspects of finance that I don’t even understand, how does that answer the ethical questions we face about what to eat and what to buy?

In some ways my recent excursions have subverted (or at least criticized) the big question always on the top of this website. The question assumes a certain stance towards the world concerning what we eat and buy. It presupposes that we are consumers and the question of utmost importance is how to choose the ethically correct (or least ambiguous) products on the shelves of our local big box store. I use to have a relatively simple formula for answering this question.

  1. Buy local.
  2. Buy sustainable/organic.
  3. What you can’t buy local try to get fair trade.

It is perhaps still a helpful start in some ways, but it misses the deeper issues that we face. It does not question the assumption that consumption is the answer to the question of making ethical decisions about how we participate in the world through economics and in particular through what we eat. Nevertheless the goofy question that started this ball rolling still haunts me. What do average people living in the world today do to make the most ethical decisions given the world as it is? How does faith, Jesus and the Bible speak to the kinds of ethical dilemmas that plague us? What are practical things that people can do?

I don’t expect everyone to become some kind of radical anarchist, join an intentional community, protest, grow all their own food, forage, dumpster dive, make everything they need, somehow drop out of the economic system and in the end move to a developing country just like me. I’m certainly not as radical as I like to think I am. I depend on the food system and other conveniences of civilization that all of us do. So, in some ways the questions for me are not that different than the questions for the guy working in a cubicle.

So, as I’m coming down off of a reading, writing and thinking binge, I would like to return to this basic question about Jesus and what he might have to say about food and our choices, including issues around consumerism, agriculture, environment, economics. However, I would like to keep in front of us where some of these things really hit the ground, like building and maintaining a composting toilet system which is something I experience every day. I’ve often said I want to get back to the Food in the Bible series for numerous reasons, but I think it fits in with returning to some of the reasons why I write and what I hope for. I’m not making any promises, commitments, resolutions or covenants. As usual, I’m just thinking out loud.

If anyone is out there, I would love to hear some ideas, thoughts or suggestions about what would be helpful to you for me to explore. Here are some questions I’d love to hear answers:

  • What are your questions when walking down the aisles of your supermarket?
  • Where do you face ethical dilemmas or questions about food or consumption that don’t have easy answers?
  • Where do you find your economic life in conflict with your life of faith?
  • What practical skills or knowledge would help with growing your own food, living more simply or living off the grid?

I really look forward to hearing your responses and hope they can spark some new conversations.