Published originally at Justice Unbound.
“For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. This is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billions of dollars to the agribusiness corporations.” -Wendell Berry
Paper economy. The term reminds us that our economy was once literally based on pieces of paper. Economics is our society’s primary method of keeping track of value. The problem is that the economic system of value-keeping, the paper economy, is out of sync with the earth. We don’t need Wendell Berry to remind us that an ecological catastrophe has arrived. And yet the logic of paper, economic profit, is the primary decision matrix for states and multinational corporations.
Our paper economy is like a red accounting logbook the size of a skyscraper. Bureaucrats climb up and down its scaffolding, recording the value of trees, steel tubing, farms, laptop screens, homes, and human lives with fist-sized brushes. The pages are turned by cranes. The logbook is propped up at a forty-five degree angle, tilted as though God or people in first-class plane seats could glance down and take in a page or two if passing by.
This book represents the ultimate repository of value in our society. It is our way of keeping track. The people who record and erase values, tiny on the logbook’s scale, act according to machine logic. They busy themselves according to the book’s internal logic, consulting one value and recording other another. They are the tape-heads of a giant Turing Machine.
But this is not the only option. There are other systems of value, alternatives to the machine-book of the economy. The church is the keeper of a thousand sets of alternate books, alternate economies, scattered across all the places that human beings can be found.
And it’s not only the church that keeps alternate books. Community centers for people of all persuasions mark out new ways of valuing each other and the earth in human-sized print.
Our age has the chance to formulate new systems of meaning that attribute value on a human scale, in stories rather than numbers: alternate narrative accounts that can successfully challenge the master narrative of global capitalism. Books that challenge the principalities and powers of this age, the principalities and powers that crucified Christ.
The bureaucrats writing in that giant logbook have misrecorded the value of our lives within this ecological system. This is no transcription error. Were the book transformed with white-out into a palimpsest, it would still be broken: the book is written on the wrong scale. We are headed for ecological catastrophe, and in the process, the book itself will collapse or will have to be re-written. This is the cycle of empires since the beginning of time.
For no matter what we, the church, the ekklesia, do, we find ourselves in the shadow of this book. The meanings we assign are always shadowed by the meanings the market assigns: meanings calculated in dollars and cents.
What we as the church must understand is that money weaves a narrative of meaning around itself. Money is not corrupt in and of itself, but rather the problem is that monetary profit must be subordinated to other narratives, like the non-monetizable time we are called to spend caring for the sick, the homeless, and neighbors in need. But money can be a totalizing system of value, and if we are not careful, it will become the logic that governs our lives, our churches, our community organizations, and our relationships.
Our age has the chance to formulate new systems of meaning that attribute value on a human scale, in stories rather than numbers: alternate narrative accounts that can successfully challenge the master narrative of global capitalism.
Wait, I Thought Master Narratives Were Dead!
It is in this context, we must understand, that the Academy declares master narratives dead. In the very shadow of the modern economy: the most universal and complex meaning-system that has ever been constructed.
The only way we can defeat master narratives is with our own stories. Without them, we are like the Academy: bodiless philosopher-sages with brilliant critiques of society and yet who cannot build anything new.
The will to embody the gospel narrative calls us to construct a different narrative, a narrative in which value is rooted in love, people’s lives, and ecology. In order to do this we must challenge the dominant economic system of value with alternative economies.
Alternative Economies Matter
Alternative economies are important because they are a collective embodiment of Christ that declares evangelion (the Greek word translated “Gospel” which can also mean “tidings of victory”) over the forces of our economy that threaten us.
As a young man of 32 with a young son, I have come to believe that my personal choices are not enough. At times, I have felt crushed by the machinery of my life, locked into choices by geography, community, health, and economics. Alternative economies create new communities with different community standards, shifting our choices and habits together.
I’ve been working on that these last few years. I organize communities to buy organic produce directly from local farmers and sell shares to families. Shares are priced on a sliding-scale to make them available to low-income families.
Alternatives economies like this raise a critique by embodying a solution. For instance, our current food system is broken because it doesn’t provide for those at the bottom. The price of healthy food: fruits, vegetables, and sustainable meats, is simply not affordable for low-income families. What we do is counter to the logic of the market because we insist that all families should have access to healthy foods despite their income, and we provide it.
But the church has gotten complacent when it comes to alternative economies. When was the last time you heard a sermon about Christian morality in business? Sadly, as Brian Merritt’s post points out, “fiduciary responsibility” has become code for putting profit first in the church’s financial life. And then the church becomes just another market-driven institution: another institution that serves Mammon, the jealous master.
Emergent or neo-evangelical churches ape the market logic of numbers, slick sales pitches: profit in people. The market, to us, looks like success. We are too acculturated to notice that the corporations most successful by the logic of the market are not successful by the logic of the gospel. But we still drink environmentally-destructive Starbucks coffee or Coca Cola, who has murdered unionizing employees in countries like Guatemala, Colombia, and India. Churches with endowments even own stock in weapons or oil corporations and think nothing of it.
To begin the work of re-orienting the church’s economic apparatus, we must learn to critique the status quo by walking a new path together. The path we walk will take us through spiritual formation at the community level, away from the paper economy that is out of sync with human goodness. We must build small, beautiful things from the ground up, things outside the profit-based systems of meaning.
When was the last time you heard a sermon about Christian morality in business? Sadly, “fiduciary responsibility” has become code for putting profit first in the church’s financial life.
A Withered Branch
Sadly, many evangelical churches have become withered and impotent, focusing on sexual and family morality while neglecting the love of neighbor in the political and economic spheres. Many churches are content to live the gospel outside the economic sphere, because this is the area the market has left us.
And at the same time, many liberal churches have traded political opinions and economic choices for true community-building. Further, many liberal churches have internalized the Academy’s narrative-smashing critique so deeply that they are afraid to build a new narrative of faith in community. Though a pluralist, I believe in the narrative power of the Gospel as crucial to save us from ourselves and the market forces of profit.
Alternative economies, some object, are not revolutionary enough. Before we can begin reform, they say, we need a totally new system.
There are times for radical political evangelion, times that the Lamb marches to war with the principalities and powers with nonviolent soul force. These are the times, like the Occupy movement, when the church must be prepared to be crucified alongside those who are struggling for justice.
But in ordinary times, our challenge is to build alternatives to the daily violence perpetrated by our economic system, an everyday evangelion that declares a new order, a new God who is love and who turns our lives upside-down like the beatitude describe.
This is what I believe Christ means for us when he tells us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. He invites us to simply bypass the existing economic order of the empire and create a new economic reality in community. This is the moderate’s path, the path of slow Kingdom-building that gradually woos the world.
The powers of this earth are not damned, though if we serve them instead of God, we may well be. God works through the powers, because God is God of all things and is tilting all things towards love and grace. As Walter Wink puts it, “The Powers were created good, the Powers are fallen, and the Powers must be redeemed.” If we believe this, we must work for the redemption of the economy, inside or outside, whatever side lands when Jesus tosses Caesar’s coin.
This way is about starting economic ministries of grace, as entrepreneurs and business owners accountable to God rather than the market, as nonprofit workers who create goods that cannot be shown to grant-makers, as those who seek the social outcast at a party and spend an hour in conversation with them.
Alternatives economies like this raise a critique by embodying a solution.
How to Start
Beginning is not as hard as you might think. You might try helping your friends move or fix their bicycles; you might offer your professional work to your neighbors for free. It could begin as easily as starting a community garden or Fresh Stop, organizing a soup kitchen, or turning the soup kitchen on its head by organizing homeless folks to run the kitchen itself. It could begin as a “help wanted” board at your church; and it could end up as a time-banking system that includes the community. You could give away 10 things per week until you’ve given away half your possessions, or live in a group house, cooking for one another and sharing food. It might be as simple as offering home-cooked hospitality to friends, or inviting a homeless person over for dinner. You could help a friend with their rent, or leave an extravagant tip. You could pledge to never tip less than 21%. You could treat all people as sisters and brothers, unless it embarrasses them. You could babysit on a weekly basis for folks you know who are having a hard time making ends meet. You could save so you could be generous and forget you did so.
These things seem small, but each act is a seed for a new economic order.
Someday, we may create an alternative currency where the gold standard is the energy-generating power of the sun and soil rather than the power of corporations, oil, weapons, and nations, and neither money, nor race, no gender will stop us from caring for one another. But until then, let’s act like we already did.
Let it be so in my own life, oh God. Amen.