The Empire Has No Clothes – raw truth precedes real hope –
Pick your emperor: It’s the same empire
The losses and damages characteristic of our present economy cannot be stopped, let alone restored, by “liberal” or “conservative” tweakings of corporate industrialism, against which the ancient imperatives of good care, homemaking, and frugality can have no standing. – Wendell Berry
Now that Mitt Romney has effectively vanquished all other contenders, the real election posturing can begin, and we all know it won’t be pretty. More importantly though, we also know it won’t be true, or at the least very little of it will be true. We’ll be promised a brighter tomorrow if we stay on the present path of growing government in order to offer systemic help to the downtrodden. We’ll also be told that the way forward requires shrinking the government and deepening the pockets of wealthy industrialists so that they, stripped of environmental, finance, and other forms of regulations will be free to “grow the economy”. Promises? Lies actually.
Unspoken is the reality that the developed world has enthroned ‘economic growth’ as its deity, and both parties are equally guilty. We will, for the next few months, be engaged in a dialogue about which party or leader can best serve this false god, but in either case, the goal is enable us to consume more, travel more, work more. We’re trying to right the ship of the global economy, rather than asking where the ship’s going, or if, perhaps, there’s a more systemic reason for it’s sinking than merely Greek debt, or global terror. Still enthroned in the minds of most (and surely both political parties), is the notion that the best future is more robust consumerist version of the present.
Two readings yesterday reminded otherwise:
Psalm 122 reminds me that we’re made for “shalom”. We translate the word as “peace” in English, but that’s sorely inadequate because our notions of peace have been reduced, largely, to absence of conflict, in the same way that health has been redefined as absence of disease. I can find mere ‘peace’, at least for the moment, by building big fences, gated communities, and having the biggest military budget on the planet as a means of protecting my stuff. But let’s not confuse that with ‘shalom’, which envisions a robust wellness, rooted in justice, hospitality, and an ecological interdependency between the earth and all its creatures. Shalom requires sharing with the poor. Shalom requires caring for immigrant. Shalom requires generosity, and recognizing the limits of growth, one of which is embodied in the call to sabbath and jubilee. When this works properly, everyone has a calling/vocation that contributes to the common good. People’s lives aren’t enslaved to mind numbing or body destroying work which fills the pockets of the few while the many remain trapped, through debt and poverty.
If I take shalom seriously, I need to take the well being of everyone seriously, and seen through that lens, I realize that both parties, well funded by multi-national corporations, are painting a future that remains fundamentally unchanged, where consumerism is king, and we are all recruited to define the good life as accumulating consumers primarily, and as worker bees to keep the fuels of consuming stoked, secondarily. The cost of this vision for the planet and all it’s inhabitants should make us shudder.
This, no matter who wins, is so far from God’s vision of shalom for both land and people as to be unrecognizable.
Wendell Berry’s Speech – Berry, the poet/farmer, gave the distinguished “Jefferson Lecturer” speech this year, the full transcript of which can be read here. He opens the speech by talking about his grandfather’s excitement, in 1907, the night before he was to take his tobacco crop to auction. Regarding the day after the auction, Berry writes:
He came home that evening, as my father later would put it, “without a dime.” After the crop had paid its transportation to market and the commission on its sale, there was nothing left. Thus began my father’s lifelong advocacy, later my brother’s and my own, and now my daughter’s and my son’s, for small farmers and for land-conserving economies.
The problem was the rise of industrial farming, and the American Tobacco Company, owned by James B. Duke (of Duke University fame), which systematically worked to absorb small farms. The demise, though, of “small” meant the demise of the quality care which nurtures the land. The “big company” thinks of immediate profit and efficiency as both opportunity and necessity, but at what cost?
Berry: It may seem plausible to suppose that the head of the American Tobacco Company would have imagined at least that a dependable supply of raw material to his industry would depend upon a stable, reasonably thriving population of farmers and upon the continuing fertility of their farms. But he imagined no such thing. In this he was like apparently all agribusiness executives. They don’t imagine farms or farmers. They imagine perhaps nothing at all, their minds being filled to capacity by numbers leading to the bottom line. Though the corporations, by law, are counted as persons, they do not have personal minds, if they can be said to have minds. It is a great oddity that a corporation, which properly speaking has no self, is by definition selfish, responsible only to itself. This is an impersonal, abstract selfishness, limitlessly acquisitive, but unable to look so far ahead as to preserve its own sources and supplies. The selfishness of the fossil fuel industries by nature is self-annihilating; but so, always, has been the selfishness of the agribusiness corporations.
There is no shalom in the sort of short term consolidation and then rape, of either land or small businesses, that are only doing what capitalism does: maximize efficiency and profit at all costs, including long term costs to both sustainable ecological systems, and the well being of families.
Until I’m willing to see both the idolatry and insufficiency of the present “McWorld” system, I’ll also fail to see the radically hopeful nature of the gospel, which provides an exit strategy from these false hopes as it invites us into so much more than a ticket to heaven. Until I see the present systems for the oppressors they are, though, I’ll continue to hope that a tweaking, a party change, a debt reduction, the demise or solidification of a new health system, will solve the problem.
No. The solution is smaller and grander, more radical or more hopeful, than we’ve perhaps ever thought. And it begins with us turning away from the false promises of the empire, and living into our calling as disciples.
The empire has no clothes. The King has colors of hope
Until I’m willing to see both the idolatry and insufficiency of the present “McWorld” system, I’ll also fail to see the radically hopeful nature of the gospel, which provides an exit strategy from these false hopes as it invites us into so much more than a ticket to heaven.
Assuming that I do see the insufficiency of the present worldview (no matter who’s in power), only clears the deck of false hopes. It deconstructs. It exposes. And, if left alone, creates a generation of cynics and nihilists, who might well see the gods of consumerism as the destructive idols they are, but lack the moral imagination to offer any alternative. The results aren’t pretty, as indicated by declining marriage and birthrates, and rises in rates of addictive and destructive behaviors. We need compelling alternatives.
This, for me, is what makes the Gospel so compelling. Far from being some sort of limp, ‘get out of hell for free’ card, the central theme of the gospel is that in a world of failed narratives, God is inviting people to join Him in writing a better story, a robust, life giving alternative, on the pages of history. Participants in this story take seriously God’s declaration that, in the resurrected Christ, a new world has begun because a new king and kingdom are now present. It was the new king himself who reminded us of the important principles that will help us live into this far better story:
1. You can only have one allegiance - Jesus was clear that you can’t serve two masters, that Jesus can’t be your King and Ceasar also. The entire New Testament is full of guidance about how to live in the midst of one kingdom while maintaining a clear and unswerving loyalty to another, higher, eternal King. The notion that we can live in a paradigm of Jesus + Capitalism, or Jesus + Nationalism, or Jesus + Socialism, is entirely false. No “ism” will ever bow to Christ, because all “isms”, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx declare themselves to be final solutions. And in every case they fail to deliver. So we vote, we participate in the civic world, as much as possible we obey civic authorities and pray for them. But we know better than to believe that a change in parties is any sort of solution.
2. You should only have one obsession -When Jesus said “don’t worry about tomorrow” he used a word for worry that means “to be divided”, which is a way of saying that when we’re trying to find our role in the story of hope God is writing in the world, AND we’re also trying to buy into the pursuit of the consumerist American dream, or any other dream, we’ll be hopelessly divided, and the results will not be pretty. Like an artist obsessed with his subject (as I write about in the Colors of Hope), we must pay close attention to the values of the kingdom so that we can make them visible on the canvass of our lives. When we do this, the colors of generosity, justice, celebration, simplicity, joy, hospitality, bleed together creating a unique expression of Christ in each of us. When we do this together… it’s called church.
3. You’re an artist – so get on with it. The best reasons to believe are, for me anyway, always rooted in the colors of hope I see painted on the canvass of other lives. Whether it’s Gahigi in Rwanda and the countless stories in the stunning book,“As We Forgive”, or beautiful lives like Sophie Scholl‘s or Paul Brand‘s, I know that the pages of history are painted with the colors of hope. Those colors exist as a foretaste of a world that will, someday, burst forth with these colors painting over all injustice, and oppression, and rape and violence, and environmental degradation.
That’s a world I want to be a part of it and the incredible news is that world has begun already, and I’ve a role to play, by being a unique expression of hope. Finding that expression and living into it is the only thing that matters. So, even though it’s an election year, I’m not losing sleep over who wins, because the reality is that, whoever’s in power, I serve a different, better king, one who, as Handel reminds us:“…shall reign forever and ever” To which I can only respond: Hallelujah!