John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com..
This essay was presented at the Tacoma International Meeting of the Buddhist/Christian Society, July 2001. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The author defines economic systems — Socialism, Communism, nationalization, the welfare state, consumerism, the welfare state, the global economy. He concludes that today’s economism is “the most powerful and successful idolatry of all time,” and examines ways in which economism destroys both community life and human values. An alternative is presented: economics for community.
The issues of poverty and possessions have been central to biblical and Christian reflection. That does not mean that there is one clear position. It certainly does not mean that Christians have lived consistently by Christian teachings. Especially since the eighteenth century, confusion has reigned. It has been Christian (or post-Christian) cultures that have led the world in recent times into the unabashed worship of wealth.
The sharpest rejection of consumerism is found in asceticism. There was little of this in ancient Israel. The people of Israel were not discouraged by their teachers from participating in the good things of life. They believed that the created world is good and that human beings have the right to order it to their needs and to enjoy it. They were grateful for the fruitfulness of the land, for long life, and for numerous progeny.
The moral issue was whether people gained their possessions in ways that injured others and whether they took responsibility for those who lacked basic necessities. If one gained wealth by oppressing others, that was severely criticized. If one failed to share with the weak and powerless, especially with widows, orphans, and strangers, that was condemned. Obviously, to put the pursuit of personal gain ahead of moral concerns about justice and meeting the needs of the weak was completely unacceptable. Justice and righteousness come first, but there is no inherent conflict between obedience to God and worldly prosperity. Indeed, such prosperity can be a sign of God’s favor, although it can also arouse suspicion that the wealth was acquired unjustly.
The situation with Jesus is somewhat different. Nevertheless, he did not teach asceticism either. We are told that he commented in this respect on his difference from John the Baptist. For Jesus, as for the Jewish tradition generally, there is nothing wrong with enjoying good food and drink.
For Jesus, however, the issue of relative values was sharpened. It was crucial that one seek first the basileia, the Commonwealth of God. Furthermore, this is presented as an all-consuming quest, such that people are prepared to turn away from all ordinary pursuits. Even family relationships and responsibilities, so important to most Jews, may be set aside for the sake of God’s Commonwealth. People are assured that when they seek this first, God will take care of them with respect to their material needs. The rich young ruler, who obeys all the Jewish laws but is still not inwardly at peace, is urged to sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. Jesus is quoted as saying that it is harder for a rich man to enter the Commonwealth of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. His conviction that when we encounter a neighbor in need we should share what we have can explain how a follower can hardly remain rich!
This concern about how worldly goods inhibit spiritual progress is not prominent in the Jewish scriptures and has introduced distinctive debates into Christianity. Many Christians have continued essentially the Jewish tradition. That is, we must all put first the quest for justice and righteousness. If one’s concern for possession or consumption supersedes one’s commitment to justice and righteousness, then it is sinful. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins. But if one puts first the Commonwealth of God, then one may find that gaining or retaining property is still acceptable. The issue is then the responsible use of that wealth.
Other Christians have held that there is a deeper incompatibility between seeking first the Commonwealth of God and gaining or retaining wealth. The latter, at a minimum, is distracting. The fullest service of God, in this view, requires the renunciation of possessions. It requires also the renunciation of family and family responsibilities. Even this, however, does not necessarily entail asceticism. The renunciation of family responsibilities involved the renunciation of sexual activity, but the enjoyment of food and drink and other comforts may still be quite acceptable. The monastic movement provided a context in which people could devote themselves entirely to God while having their material needs taken care of.
Of course, ascetic tendencies did enter Christianity and play a considerable role within it. Paul’s dualism of spirit and flesh was understood in such a way as to condemn all bodily enjoyment. Denying the body its wants was felt to be spiritually positive. The judgment that sex was inherently evil played at least as large a role in the promotion of celibacy as the concern to free people from family responsibility. Denying other bodily desires such as those for rich food and bodily comfort could also be regarded as spiritually positive. A few Christians, for the sake of the spirit, have inflicted pain on their bodies. Nevertheless, most church teaching, even in the monastic traditions, has opposed asceticism as a normative ideal. That is, while there may be many circumstances in which faithfulness calls for sacrifice of bodily enjoyment, the bodily enjoyment that is thereby sacrificed for a greater good is, in itself, also affirmed to be good.
The Reformation opposed the monastic movement, which was the chief embodiment of this ideal. It held that the Christian calling is to serve God in the midst of all the ambiguities of life in the world, including family and business. This paved the way for a changing attitude toward the quest for wealth, but this was far from the intention of the Reformers. Their ideal was full participation in the processes through which money is made and then complete generosity in its use. As late as the eighteenth century, John Wesley, the father of my own denomination, taught that we should earn all we can, save all we can, and give all we can. Considerable sums of money passed through his hands, especially because of the success of his publications. He used some of this to take care of his own needs (and those closest to him) in a way that was frugal but not ascetic. But all the money that was not needed for this purpose was used to meet the needs of others.
Wesley’s instructions to his followers to adopt the same procedure were very explicit. Nevertheless, many of them were more conscientious about earning and saving than about giving. Before his death Wesley mourned the loss of the truly evangelical spirit of early Methodism occasioned by the accumulation of property by its members. Those with property, he concluded, could not give themselves wholeheartedly to Christ. Most Methodists, on the other hand, thought that as long as their quest for wealth did not interfere with their devotion to God, it was acceptable. And most thought that such a quest was possible.
The great change occurred in the eighteenth century with the rise of industrialization. Previously production per person was relatively fixed. This meant also that wealth per capita was largely static. If one person got more, another would have less. To be greedy was to desire to get more at the expense of another.
In the eighteenth century people discovered a way of producing that made individuals far more productive. By employing fossil fuels to replace human labor, on the one hand, and by having each person perform limited repetitive operations, on the other, total production could be greatly increased. This worked best in a market where each person undertook to acquire as much as possible for as little labor as possible. This was understood to be "rational self interest," hardly distinguishable from what had heretofore been called "greed." In this new context, the pursuit of self-interest, viewed by Christians as sin, turned out to increase the total wealth and hence the availability of goods and services to people in general.
This was noted first by secular authors. Early in the century, Bernard Mandeville published The Fable of the Bees. His subtitle, Private Vices, Public Benefits, suggests his thesis that such "vices" as greed actually benefit society as a whole. David Hume also argued for the positive social value of commerce based on the profit motive, although he feared unadulterated greed and thought that in commerce it was mixed with other motives.
The writings of Adam Smith firmly established the changed evaluation of the quest for wealth. Although Smith personally, and in other writings, emphasized the importance of acting in terms of sympathy for others, in his most influential book, The Wealth of Nations, he pointed out that the market works best when each participant acts in terms of rational self-interest. Attempts by government to establish "just prices," a practice going back to the Middle Ages, only inhibited and distorted economic development. So far as the economy is concerned, self-interested behavior turns out to serve the common good.
The change of nomenclature from greed to rational self-interest combined with the highly positive appraisal of its overall effects has confused Christian thinkers from that time on. The present state of Christian thinking and moral teaching has grown out of, and still reflects, that confusion.
Some have accepted the teaching of Adam Smith and the economists who have built on his work so far as the economy is concerned and then sought to contain the economy in a larger context. Government is asked to assume responsibility for those who are unable to succeed in the new, highly competitive, market. Of course, the church and individual Christians also try to contribute in this way. In addition, those who gain wealth are encouraged on a personal basis to share with others. But with respect to how the wealth is gained, except for the requirement of honesty and obedience to the law, these Christians have had little to say. To be effective in the market, one must play by its rules and not by traditional Christian teachings. And these Christians accept the market as a socially-needed institution.
Other Christians have reacted against the whole capitalist system. A system that inherently encourages individual greed and competition cannot, in their view, be affirmed. They have supported some form of democratic socialism. Socialism, as they understand it, meant that society as a whole would order its economic life for the good of all. The primary motive to which appeal would be made would be concern for the whole and cooperation with one’s neighbors in the realization of the common good. The people as a whole would select the leaders of this society.
It would be difficult to find any actual experiment with thoroughgoing Democratic socialism. The countries that have moved in that direction have maintained mixed economies, giving considerable space for market forces to work. Nevertheless, as an ideal it has played a large role in Europe, where the distinction between it and totalitarian Communism has been clear. The mixed economies partly expressive of democratic socialist ideals virtually abolished degrading forms of poverty and insured that the basic needs of all were met.
In the United States the distinction between democratic socialism and Russian Communism was successfully obscured, so that the former was associated with all the evils of the latter. Although many of the proposals of the American Socialist party have been enacted into law, they were accepted only in so far as they conformed to the first Christian response to capitalism, that is, governmental actions to deal with its abuses and to aid those who failed in the competition.
Any form of socialism, however democratic, employs governmental bureaucracy to operate nationalized businesses. On the whole it has turned out that this is less efficient than allowing business decisions to be shaped by competition in the market. Furthermore, the actual experience of employees of nationalized businesses is not necessarily preferable to that of employees of private business, when the government effectively regulates this. In short, it seems that most of the real gains from nationalization can be achieved by government regulations that safeguard the safety and health of workers, insure that they are taken care of when they are unemployed and when they retire, and allow them to organize to promote their own interests. The welfare state, expressive of the first Christian response listed above, has enlisted much of the support of those Christians who first called for socialism.
There are also Christians who criticize the welfare state. This state so reduces the penalties for irresponsibility and laziness, they argue, that many citizens are not motivated to make their proper contribution to the economy. The welfare state, in their opinion, does not take adequate account of human sinfulness. If we recognize that people are by nature strongly self-interested and motivated to serve the common good only by threats and promises that appeal to their self-interest, then we will avoid rewarding irresponsibility and laziness. We will limit our public care to those who are truly unable to take care of themselves.
These Christians do not suppose that true Christians share this irresponsibility. What they oppose is the naïve expectation that society as a whole can expect most of its members to be fully Christian in this respect. Also, they may hold that even Christians are not free from the effects of original sin, so that for them, too, the discipline of want, when they fail to perform their due service to society, is desirable.
The overall result of these developments has been that most American Christians today support something very much like the status quo. They want government to provide a modest safety net that does not discourage work and to regulate business in an evenhanded way for the sake of safety and the environment and to prevent discrimination based on race or gender as well as monopoly control. They want competitive market forces to operate within those limits. They want businessmen to be honest and to act according to the law. And they want those who do well to share their wealth with the church and with charities of various sorts.
This does not mean that thoughtful Christians favor consumerism, although most of us fall victim to it to some extent. We still believe that we should be content with a modest level of consumption and refuse to allow advertising to persuade us of our need for more and more. Nevertheless, as the general standard of living rises among those with whom we associate, our notion of a "modest" level of consumption rises. Most of us expect to have more space in our homes, more toilets, more electronic equipment, more varied food, better automobiles, more vacation travel, and larger wardrobes than seemed needful or desirable thirty or forty years ago. We have been changed by the consumer culture. The new levels of comfort and convenience in themselves can be affirmed as good.
In what way do we Christians, if at all, actually resist consumerism? Here we vary greatly. Some are truly frugal in their lifestyles. Others live more comfortably, but still give generously to good causes and more needful people. Many choose work according to their judgment of its value to others and satisfaction to themselves rather than according to how well it pays. Many devote time they could use to make more money (or enjoy spending) to volunteer work in the church and in the community. Many make decisions about their work with serious consideration of how they affect personal relations and other non-economic needs within the family. In short, although increasing consumption is a widespread social goal, and most Christians participate in it, Christian teaching about relative values has not altogether lost its potency.
The situation in the United States, then, is one in which Christianity still resists all-out consumerism, but only marginally. It has accepted the basic economic system of capitalism, but tries to preserve a sphere of personal life and decision-making that modifies and surrounds it. It rarely confronts the evils of consumerism head-on with much clarity or force.
I have myself been still more concerned about the silence of Christianity in the face of economism. I believe this is a more fundamental force in society than consumerism. Indeed, I believe that it is society’s commitment to economism that supports and encourages consumerism.
By economism I mean the conviction that economic values are the most important and the restructuring of society to express that valuation. It is the move from a market-economy to a market-society. Economism certainly supports consumerism since it regards the increase of consumption as the supreme value. But the relation is also more complex. For the economy to function well we need not only ever-increasing consumption but also ever-increasing investment, which requires ever-increasing saving. While some people take pride and pleasure chiefly in their purchases of goods and services, others take pride and pleasure more in the size of their portfolios.
The moderate Christian response to capitalism, as described above, gives a great deal of freedom to the market within its province, but requires that it be limited and regulated by political institutions that express other values. Economism works against this. It regards the growth of the economy as the first priority and sees the role of government to be primarily the creation of the conditions most supportive of this growth.
Since World War II this fundamental shift of power between the political order and the economic order has gone a long way. Economic interests have always played an undue role in political decisions. In the past, however, government has been understood to have purposes and goals other than economic ones, and economic decisions have been supposed to serve these goals. Today the primacy of economic considerations is often unabashed.
The change is even clearer in other major social institutions than in government. One may consider education as an important example. In the nineteenth century and prior to World War II, the chief role of the public schools was to prepare people for American citizenship. Students came from many cultures, and at least those from Europe were expected to adopt a standard American culture. Since this standard culture was Protestant, Roman Catholics developed an alternative. But the purpose of those schools was even more cultural and religious than was that of the public schools.
Today arguments in favor of using public funds for education are formulated in terms of investments in human resources. The task of the schools is to prepare youth for work in the market place. Issues of citizenship are rarely mentioned. Preparing youth for a cultured life plays an even smaller role.
Higher education has changed at least as dramatically. During the earlier period it was dominated by the liberal arts college. These colleges were understood to prepare people for leadership in society. This involved cultural as well as institutional leadership, and preparation included shaping each student’s moral integrity as well as personality development.
These concerns have not disappeared in liberal arts colleges, although they are muted. But these colleges now represent a small part of higher education as a whole. They are often considered to be preparation for professional schools rather than as fulfilling the goal of education in themselves. In any case, the dominant image of higher education is now the state systems of community colleges and universities. The purpose of these elaborate systems is to prepare people for particular jobs and professions and to be leaders in the world of business. A student who comes to such institutions simply seeking an education apart from any job orientation is viewed askance. The traditional liberal arts maintain a tenuous foothold partly because astute leaders in business recognize the value of breadth of historical and cultural perspective in a rapidly changing environment.
Still more dramatic is the effect of economism on the global scene. There has been a systematic and brilliantly successful effort to reorder human life on the planet so that it will all serve the market. Nations have not disappeared, but many of them now have little power to order their internal affairs. This ordering is determined by the need to make payments on debts and by the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The task of governments in this new order is to make their countries attractive for investment by transnational corporations. To do this they must provide a docile and industrious workforce adequately prepared and ready to work for long hours at extremely low pay. They must insure that there are minimal restrictions on corporate activity for such purposes as environmental protection. And, of course, they must provide the requisite infrastructure for transportation and communication.
The new global economy puts pressure on wealthier nations to dismantle their welfare systems. These raise the cost of production so that those who produce within them have difficulty competing with those who produce elsewhere. The outflow of productive enterprises from Europe to low-cost sites has led to high unemployment there. Although European countries resist the reduction of their services to needy people, their ability to afford these services indefinitely in the context of the new global economy is in question.
The United States has taken the other route, the one dictated by economism. It never developed a full welfare state, and it is now moving in the opposite direction. It has allowed wages for less skilled work to fall and reduced both benefits and the safety net. Even so, many producers that were paying good wages here have moved to low cost countries. Other formerly well-paying positions have been abolished through computerization. Those who live from capital are doing extremely well as are those who have scarce specialized skills. The standard results of applying economistic principles are to enrich the wealthy and impoverish the poor, with a diminishing middle class. This is happening in the United States.
Obviously, unlike the governments of many poor countries, that of the United States is still very powerful. It has had the power to lead the world into the new economistic order. Fortunately, its efforts express some other values as well. For example, the government works to preserve the environment and protect endangered species. There is wide public support for these programs.
Opposition to some of these programs comes from those who could profit in the short term from activities that are forbidden. Economistic thinkers typically support this opposition, but as long as the issues are fought out within the nation, public opinion can support policies that involve some short-term economic losses for the sake of long-term environmental gains.
However, for the sake of promoting the globalization of the economy, the United States government has led in founding institutions that can overrule decisions about these matters made within the nation. This issue focuses especially on the World Trade Organization. That organization was created for the sake of overcoming barriers to trade. In at least three instances, other countries have protested to the WTO that US legislation designed to protect the environment or endangered species is in restraint of trade. In all these cases the WTO has sided with the protesters and required the United States to give up its laws.
I am illustrating the enormous role that economism plays in world affairs today. I think of it as the first truly successful world religion. By religion in this context I mean that which organizes the whole of life and thought around a single vision or commitment. Economism is now playing that role. Much religion is idolatrous in the sense of encouraging devotion to goals or entities that are not worthy of such devotion. Idolatry is the great enemy of Christian faith. Wealth is a limited good whose pursuit undermines many other goods. Economism as commitment to the increase of wealth is clearly, even grossly, idolatrous.
Regrettably, Christianity as a whole has not recognized that it now faces the most powerful and successful idolatry of all time. There are several reasons for this. First, Christians of my generation, who until recently played much of the leadership role in the church, grew up understanding nationalism as the great idolatry to be combated. The reduced role of nationalism in world affairs long seemed a gain. The shift of focus from competition for power among nations to increasing the availability of goods and services desired by the world’s people was something Christians should celebrate.
Second, economic issues seemed too technical to justify close attention by most Christians. Long ago, as I explained above, we acknowledged the role of market forces as something outside our purview. The elaborate disciplinary development of economics as the study of the market seemed to have turned it into an entirely autonomous science about which Christians in general could have nothing to say.
Third, Christians were experiencing wave upon wave of valid criticism for their historical roles in promoting such evils as anti-Judaism, colonialism, racism, patriarchalism, anthropocentrism, homophobia, and sexual repression. Rethinking our faith in light of these criticisms has preoccupied us. Much excellent work has been done. Some of this rethinking, especially on the issue of homosexuality, threatens to split our denominations. Questions of world trade and a new international order run by transnational corporations have seemed remote.
Recently it has been possible to direct some attention to some of the more obvious evils associated with the dominance of the new religion of economism. The rise of sweatshops everywhere has troubled the Christian conscience. The misery of people in the poorest nations saddled with unpayable debts has evoked support for the Jubilee movement. But there is still very little fundamental theological reflection about the idolatry that commands the worship of most of the world’s leading politicians, technicians, financiers, industrialists, and academicians. Christians approach the evils they criticize as if they were abuses that could be corrected without changing the basic nature of the system.
This situation is unlikely to change as long as most Christians continue to believe that the basic policies that follow from economism also follow from Christian faith. Their thinking is as follows. Christians are deeply concerned about poverty. Communism tried to relieve poverty by redistributing wealth. The consequences were disastrous. The only other way to provide desperately needed goods and services to the poor is by so increasing total production that the poor can benefit along with all others. This is just the policy to which economism is devoted. Of course, as Christians we have other goals, and we should not subordinate all these to economic growth. But economic growth is of great importance, so that, on the whole, we can support the policies economism proposes. Granted, economism is an idolatry. But Christians recognize that few can altogether escape idolatry. We ally ourselves with those whose idolatry leads to actions close to those called for by our faith.
My own passion for the rejection of economism arises from my conviction that the policies to which it gives rise will never achieve the goods it promises and in fact lead to disaster in both the short and the long term. One way I have tried to show this is by demonstrating that the economic growth at which economism aims, measured roughly by Gross National Product or Gross Domestic Product, does not improve the economic condition of real people. The activities of corporations can increase the GNP or Gross World Product while leaving human beings on the whole no better off economically. To show this, some of us developed an Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (which has been further developed into a Genuine Progress Indicator) that shows that economic welfare in the United States has remained quite static as GNP has dramatically risen. It is now common knowledge that the vaunted national prosperity has not benefited the poor in this country. ISEWs have been prepared for a number of other countries with similar results. To continue policies that increase Gross World Product without benefiting those who truly need increased consumption should not receive the support of Christians.
My second argument is that even if by some measures vast growth does reduce the percentage of the world’s population that is desperately poor, present policies will destroy the natural basis for our life together long before they resolve the problem of poverty. We are already living unsustainably. To devote our primary energies to increasing consumption is to speed up the impending catastrophe. Indeed, in many parts of the world, the ecological crisis has already come. The poor experience it first and most bitterly. Some forms of growth are fully compatible with sustainability. But policies designed to promote growth in general rarely favor these.
My third argument is that all these economic considerations fail to deal with the real needs of people. Poverty is a real problem in the world, but it is not possible to define it in dollar terms. There are people with extremely little income who live happy and contented lives. There are people whose income is much higher who are unable to meet the critical needs of their families. And there are, of course, very rich people who are miserable and make all about them miserable. Policies designed to improve the real quality of life of human beings will prove very different from those designed to increase production and consumption overall. Such policies may also direct us in paths that will prove sustainable.
Probably the strongest obstacle to getting a hearing for this critique of economism is the widespread sense that there is no viable alternative to the current global economy. Christians agree that it is far from ideal, but many suppose that the most we can do is ameliorate the suffering it causes. Understandably, most of the Christians who adopt this view are ones who themselves are not seriously injured by the global economy or who see prospects of adjusting successfully to it. The voices of the hundreds of millions of its victims are muted in our ears. Yet even they often hope only to moderate its impact in peripheral ways.
If present directions dictated by economism are as profoundly destructive as I have argued, Christians are called to think about economics and society in much more radical, and truly theological, ways. I believe the best starting point in the tradition is Catholic thought of the late nineteenth century. The Church sought a third way to the alternatives of socialism and capitalism. It expressed this in terms of the economy serving human community. This was combined with the principle that decisions should be made at the lowest level possible so that people can participate in shaping their own lives. At that time, there was little thought of the natural environment of human life or of the value of the other creatures with which we share the world. These concerns must be added. With that addition, I believe we have the basis for a healthy and healing alternative to which Christians could give enthusiastic support.
It should be stated in advance that this is not a utopian proposal. It is open to abuse as much as any. The claim is not that it would solve all problems but that it would provide a context in which problems have a chance of being dealt with successfully by people of good will. This is in contrast with a system that inherently generates a race to the bottom and leads toward massive ecological catastrophes while working against efforts to solve the problems it generates.
Economism supports policies that systematically destroy existing communities. This is true alike of traditional agricultural communities and of factory towns. It favors agribusiness that substitutes machinery and oil for human labor, and monoculture for the varied production of family farms. It favors the closing of factories whenever capital can be invested more profitably elsewhere.
An economics for community seeks to produce for human need as close to the consumers as possible. It calls for the development of existing peasant villages so that they can become more productive rather than their replacement by agribusiness. It favors a decentralized economy of relatively small-scale production where that is feasible. The small, relatively self-sufficient communities would be grouped into larger units within which there would be production of goods that require larger markets.
Politically the world would be organized into communities of communities of communities. Many decisions would have to be made at the global level, but any that can be made regionally or locally should be made there. The more the economy can be decentralized to serve local and regional markets, the more political power can be decentralized to those areas. What must be avoided are markets that transcend political boundaries. The market must serve the community as that expresses its desires in government.
There is no guarantee, of course, that local communities would adopt responsible policies. We know that special interests can control local governments. On the other hand, it is usually easier for citizens to organize to express their will locally than nationally or globally. We know that majority ethnic groups can tyrannize over minorities. Often it is necessary to have civil rights protection enforced from higher levels to prevent this.
Furthermore, there is no assurance that people will take care of their local environment. Nevertheless, there is greater likelihood of this than that multinational corporations will do so. Furthermore, instead of having a global organization intent on breaking down all barriers to trade, such an organization would aim at encouraging local communities to become self-reliant in sustainable ways. Government at higher levels would restrict pollution that crossed borders and discourage unsustainable activities.
I have said that this system would not solve all problems but that it would provide a context in which efforts to solve them would be realistic. In a village or small town it is possible to organize Christians (and others who share our values) to press our concerns. We can work to reduce the excessive influence of wealth on political leaders. We can work to protect our natural environment from abuse. We can work to be sure that those who cannot meet their own needs are aided by society. We can work for fair wages and good working conditions without fear that these will make our products uncompetitive. We can work for good schools that prepare young people to live as productive members of society capable of appreciating the finer values of our heritage. We can work for acceptance of minorities of various sorts as full members of the community. We can work to keep the real values of consumption subordinated to the many greater values that are important to community life.
I have presented my statement in purely Christian terms. In no way do I wish to claim that only Christians have the concerns that I have identified. But we have a unique history on the basis of which to think and act today. One urgent feature of that thought and action is to reach out to others to establish alliances and patterns of mutual support.
In particular, I have been impressed by how close I come as a socially-engaged Christian to the views and concerns of socially-engaged Buddhists. On another occasion when paired with Sulak Sivaraksa, I suggested that for Buddhists the most natural focus is on consumerism, since that is a personal distortion based on obvious illusions as to what makes for happiness. I suggested that the distinctive Christian contribution would be on the overarching system, theoretical and actual, of economism, since Christians tend to attend more to overall historical movements and changes. That may or may not prove to be the case.
In any case, any difference between us is minor in comparison with our shared commitments. I am reminded of the irony that it was a conservative Catholic who wrote an influential essay on "Buddhist Economics." There is currently a significant decline in the ability of socially-engaged Christians to rally other Christians to deal responsibly with the crucial issues of the day. I rejoice that there seems to be a considerable rise in the ability of socially-engaged Buddhists to give leadership. May they continue to flourish!