Ordinary Community Church
At the conclusion of Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”, I found myself with questions that were less economic in content, but rather more moral in nature. Polanyi did well to lay out an argument that markets are never actually free, and if they were, greed and free choice would naturally destroy the economic infrastructure. He argues for a kind of regulation that is not oppressive, but healthy. One that is for the good of the whole market, keeping it balanced and healthy. With proper regulation, individuals can act with the freedom allowed but within the bounds of the regulation. It would be a best of both worlds, freedom and regulation.
Here is my question: As Polanyi points out, leaving the market unfettered and free, individuals would seek greed and domination which would not allow for a balanced market accessible to all for opportunity. Does not this same argument apply to the individuals in power within government who would be setting the policy for regulation? Are they not also tempted towards greed and power acquisition and thus could govern with personal bias? Are governments in history not riddled with corruption at every level? To assume otherwise would be to me the same naivity a completely free market is. The larger question is, how can we get humans to “choose right”? Individuals in the private sector or individuals working in public office, what can we do to ensure they act in rightness and fair dealing that is good for the entire community? How can we find a road back to the Economic Garden of Eden? This to me is a moral question, not an economic one.
At the end of his book, Polanyi seems to be asking the same questions:
“Inescapably we reach the conclusion that the very possibility of freedom is in question. If regulation is the only means of spreading and strengthening freedom in a complex society, and yet to make use of this means is contrary to freedom per se, then such a society cannot be free.” (266)
“The discarding of the market utopia brings us face to face with the reality of society. It is the dividing line between liberalism on the one hand, fascisim and socialism on the other. The difference between these two is not primarily economic. It is moral and religious. . . . The issue on which they divide is whether in light of this knowledge the idea of freedom can be upheld or not; is freedom an empty word, a temptation, designed to ruin mand and his works, or can man reassert his freedom in the face of that knowledge and strive for its fulfillment in society without lapsing into moral illusionism? . . . This anxious question sums up the condition of man.” (267)
The ‘condition of man’ is not an economic question, it is a moral one. How can we trust man as an individual and how can we trust organized humanity as a collective governing society? The humanist tends to assume that man is the marvel of the universe and can solve its problems with rationalism, industrialism and a utilitarian bend towards nation building. For the Christian, we start with a broken humanity, not a sufficient one. If left to ourselves, we won’t choose rightly perhaps more often than not. The Sermon on the Mount and a life in the Spirit keeps us moving toward a place where his Kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven”. The condition of man will not be solved with a faith in humanity, but a faith in the author of man. We must first solve our moral condition before we can plan and administrate a balanced and free economy. What we need is the kind of believing and living done in the garden of eden, a place where balance once reigned. A place where our condition was wrapped up in communion with the God of Creation. What we need is man and a society rooted in Garden Economics.
A few years ago after the election of Barak Obama, there were a plethora of decisions to regulate the alleged “free market” with obscene financial bail-outs of the American auto industry, banks and credit institutions that had contributed to an increasing economic recession. The political ideaology seemed to be to borrow our way out of debt (painfully illogical), print more money (which historically devalues currency and spurs inflation) and not even consider making cuts to our obese American sense of entitlement. It made people very angry, people like me. These are not simply conservative Republicans, legitimate Tea-Partiers are equally as incensed over the irresponsible spending of George W. Bush as they ought to be over the Obama administration. I, like many, looked for grassroots efforts to protest, get a voice, demand a return to a free market and let bad businesses simply fail. I suppose I saw it as a kind of economic Darwinism. Thousands of us gathered in downtown Cincinnati on a Sunday afternoon in revelry and ardent patriotism, we were demanding to be heard.
I lasted one day as a Tea-Partier.
Here are a list of evolving reasons why I no longer would want to be “labeled” with the Tea-Partier movement:
- At the Protest event itself, there were dozens of speakers. At least 2 of the speakers were Republican state Representatives who voted “for” the bailouts but wanted to get in on the growing tidal wave of motivated voters for their next election. They were hedging their bets and it showed in its first meeting, the grassroots movement had institutionalized in its compromise already.
- The rhetoric was violent, classless, undignified and dehumanizing towards our nation’s highest office. I suppose some of this is a part of mass hysteria and a culture that feeds on fear. Those who dared to show up with a counter-tea party sign or voice were physically bullied. How could we stand for freedom if we didn’t allow freedom of speech? The local news network teams covering the event were physically accosted by the conservative crowd to which they were forced to leave because they were “liberal media”, they retreated choosing personal physical safety over the story. How does this help your voice to be heard?
- “Ressentiment” was the theme, not good and sound ideas. It was not about dialogue and intelligent conservatives giving their voice, it was anti-Obama at all costs. Fear bred hatred, hatred bred dehumanization . . . I was embarrassed.
- In the days, weeks, months and years that followed confirmed my one day suspicions: as one who swears singular allegiance to King Jesus, this was not my movement. I still logicaly lean towards the idea of free markets, but is that a Jesus-idea or my preference in my position and context? I’m learning that I have a lot to learn.
Reading Karl Polanyi in “The Great Transformation” I find myself having my economic prejudices challenged. Being a product of my culture and my upbringing, they have largely influenced my preconceived notions and assumptions. I was raised by a single Mom who worked all day and went to school at night to give me and my siblings a different future. I was raised by my grandfather who fought in WWII and worked 45 years for the Pennsylvania railroad. I was raised by my grandmother who was a “Rosie the Riveter” during WWII and owned and operated 4 businesses from the 1940’s through the 1980’s, extremely rare for women in that time. I was raised with the idea that you work to earn and you earn what you have, you are entitled to nothing without earning, a somewhat classic Protestant work ethic. My grandparents never had a mortgage, they paid $5k for their first duplex in northeast Philadelphia and never got the urge to be upwardly mobile even when they took in their 3 grandchildren. We made due and they saved their money. They took care of their own through hard work and self denial. If you fail, get up and work harder. These are my economic assumptions from my story.
I am not sure my assumptions are biblical, I am not sure they are Kingdom. What does it mean to be my brother’s keeper? What does it mean to seek the welfare of my city (not just my own)?
I have a natural knee-jerk reaction to haute finance. I want to believe the romance of the story that the American economy has grown in open, free and unfettered markets but Polanyi tells a different story. “The motive of haute finance was gain; to attain it, it was neccesary to keep in with the governments whose end was power and conquest.” (12) The American story is dominantly about power and conquest, Polanyi shows the economic factors towards those ends. “Every war, almost, was organized by the financiers; but peace also was organized by them.” (16) Finance was a major player in war in peace.
The dissolve of the gold standard for currency does well to burst your bubble of a solid free-market system with stable worth. “America, by an instinctive gesture of liberation, went off gold in 1933, and the last vestige of the traditional world economy vanished. Although hardly anybody discerned the deeper meaning of the event at the time, history almost at once reversed its trend.” (27) I knew that the US had left the gold standard but I had no idea it was as far back at 1933. Post-war industrialism, the welfare state, suburban flight, normalization of home ownership, the excess of the 70’s and 80’s and the dot com explosion of the 90’s were all managed and manipulated under the guise of haute finance. Working hard was not the lone factor for perceived success, working the sytem was equally as crucial.
Polanyi asserts his thesis that the growth of capitalism was far more complex than unfettered free markets: “The origins of the cataclysm lay in the utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system. Such a thesis seems to invest that system with almost mythcial faculties; it implies no less than the balance of power, the gold standard, and the liberal state, these fundamentals of the civilization of the nineteenth century, were, in the last resort, shaped in one common matrix, the self-regulating market.” (31) This idea of free market, Polyani suggests, is mythical. He doesn’t discount its importance, but speaks to the facts of the matter, not romantic notions of pure freedom.
I’m open to learning, open to having my presuppositions challenged. Polanyi is doing just that for me. The core questions are rooted in who we are supposed to be as the people of God. We need to understand the pros and cons of free markets and healthy regulations for the welfare of the whole city. Nothing we have is simply ours, we are stewards of the Kingdom assets. The Tea Party is not a big enough idea for me, I swear singular allegiance to King Jesus and his ways.
This is more my personal story of the attempts I was making in church planting the way I felt called to do. After 10 years, it led me to a place of surrender to pursue a DMin with the hopes that God wanted me research further and tell this story in hope that it would help serve others and create new self-sustaining communities of hope and life in their contexts. I have been so incredibly blessed to be in a cohort with such rich thinkers and doers in the Church. All of your perspectives are adding to mine, this is all good fun. 😉
My Blog from April 24, 2008
Here is where this conversation has me today. Going back to 1998 (10 years ago) I saw all of these trends coming and internally felt a great disconnect between my identity as a paid vocational pastor and as a follower of Jesus on mission to release the Kingdom to my community. I found that they were not the same thing. I went to Seminary to leave ministry and try to find some answers.Here are some of the things I’ve learned: – My Anthropology class said that if missionaries were to have a voice in thier missional context they would have to take an “acceptable” role in that community. You can’t be a vocational missionary or pastor into a tribal group with whom that role doesn’t exist. I knew that my context was with those that were well outside the church walls and that for “postmoderns”, they had complete disdain for organizational structures and distrust in traditional pastoral roles. So to me, if I cared to be incarnational to this group of people, I had to sacrifice my vocational identity as a pastor and take a different role in culture to support my family. So I fired myself choosing to be something more like a bi-vocational
pastor/missionary and planted a house church network. – This has been enormously difficult. From a physical standpoint, I have a Bachelors and a Masters degree that in one world (ministry) carries heavy weight and in another world (outside of ministry) had me laughed at in job interviews. It was a transition of total surrender, personal suffering, marital suffering etc. etc. I had to learn to follow Jesus and not have pre-set assumptions of what His provision would look like. I’m not even sure how we have paid the bills on paper looking back at some of those points but I can say most assuredly that we were/are never w/out daily bread. I’ve done everything from managing in the food industry, teaching and administrating at a Christian High School to teaching and administrating at a Christian University. – From an emotional/pychological standpoint, it has been brutal. I guess it has some of the same attributes of a mid-life crisis. A loss of identity which is only somewhat healthy, this loss reveals how many false-idols you had in place, places where I should have had only a trust in Christ to begin with. Its a lot of pressure to process this internal identity shift with the realities of daily life, family and work. I had the opportunity to sit on a panel discussion last Fall in Seattle with Brian McLaren and George Barna who see these shifts and are writing about them and asked them how they think people like me can deal with this identity shift as ministry culture is changing. It was a little painful to realize that they had no answers and seemed had never even considered the question previously. I suppose in their vocations of writing and speaking they haven’t had the same experience. So there is little help for this area within our culture except for one another. – From a ministry standpoint it is both a taste of amazing freedom and a challenge of transitioning away from a role of “providing” to “empowering”. My experience is that even in house churches, there are still a dose of folk who just want to be fed and have large expectations for leadership to do just that. However, there are a growing number of folk who embrace the community model and bring to the community as much or more than what they are withdrawing. That is the really good stuff. I’m learning as well to not care about other’s expectations of me or my performance for them. I’m just a fellow sojourner with them figuring it out and wanting to give the Kindom away. – What is the future? I have no idea. I encourage students (high school or college) to get degrees in fields that can support them regardless of their ministry aspirations. Get your theological training from the church community and not to see ministry as a professional, but as a missional servant. From there let God lead you and provide for you in the context. I would suspect that within 10 years due to these emerging church trends and economic realities in America that the number of vocational pastors may decrease by as much as 50%. Endowed churches and denominations will be able to hang in there longer and I suspect there will be a movement of consolidating local churches to regional churches to deal with the dwindling cash flow and top heavy debts. – What is the future? One thing I do know. God and His Kingdom are an unstoppable force and is all pervasive reality. The spread of His Kingdom will not be squelched, it will continue on to the end of all things. It may be a process of purification but that is our calling anyways as the Bride of Christ. Our identities may end, our vocations may end, our buildings may end, our paradigms may end, our assmumptions may end . . . but the Kingdom will never end nor our invitation to participate in it. I’ll be around for all of that, hope you can join me 😉 peace to the coming of His Kingdom,
About 3 years ago, on a former blog I kept since 2003, there blew up a disucssion about Church, Money and the Future from April 23-28, 2008. My present dissertation advisor, Steve Lewis, then just a blog friend, began pooling the blog conversation that was turning into hundreds of comments, it struck a nerve. After our Dmin cohort chat on Monday, it reminded me of this conversation going on before the recession in America began to spiral out of control, people were seeing it coming and also implications for the church.
I wanted to re-post my thoughts from then as my reflection on Max Weber’s 2nd half of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. These are still very much the issues I see facing the American church today within its context of late Capitalism. What will the future look like for church and church models? If there will be major shifts, will we change willingly and cheerfully? Ulitmately, will we serve our King?
My blog from April 23, 2008
“My truck is paid off but the gas prices are killing me. I don’t drive that much and its over $300 per month, not including my wife’s car. So what does this project to as a national economy? Recession seems inevitable, will it go way beyond that? A nation already ruled by fear and over-spending with no margins by individuals and the government, what will be the consequences?How will this impact churches and mortgages and credit lines that can’t be fed? As builders pass on who are the committed givers what is left? 1/2 of boomers are there to give and the other 1/2 are driven past their financial margins with consumerism and can’t help. Gen X and Millenials have very little value in long term comittments, are all about instant gratification and consumerism is their native language. Commonly this group of up and comers are living on 125-140% of their income taking on exponential debt per year. What will be the result of these decisions having no margins when the shoe drops? Will American churches go the way of their European counterparts? Becoming really funky coffee houses, restaraunts, art galleries and dance clubs. Just things I wonder about.”
My blog from April 28, 2008
I want to state emphatically and upfront that I am Pro-Church. I am pro- the people of God on earth living in and asking for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. As I pray for God to build His Church, there is a flipside to that . . . that means everything is negotiable and needs to be willing to be sacrificed at the altar. For me, that meant firing myself from paid ministry and taking a bi-occupational role. Thanks to Kevin Rains for reminding me that our bro, Chad Canipe (who passed onto Kingdom fullness in March 06) would say that we have one vocation, to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33). However, in that, we may have dual occupations or even a triad occupation. I’m not alone in having had worked as many as 3 jobs at a time to make ends meet to follow the calling of God on my life.
Then he told them what they could expect for themselves: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat—I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? If any of you is embarrassed with me and the way I’m leading you, know that the Son of Man will be far more embarrassed with you when he arrives in all his splendor in company with the Father and the holy angels. This isn’t, you realize, pie in the sky by and by. Some who have taken their stand right here are going to see it happen, see with their own eyes the kingdom of God.Luke 19:23-27 (The Message) But what I want to re-iterate is that everything needs to be submitted before God. Our expectations of what a comfortable American living has to be submitted. Our expectations of where we hold community meetings has to be submitted. Our assumptions of what we envision our role in the church being has to be submitted. Our financial margins and use of physical resources has to be submitted. Our sense of comfort and security has to be submitted. Where God calls, God provides and that will come at least in the form of daily bread. If we claim to follow Christ, that has to be enough for us. We have to be very careful to guard against making “professional” what is a spiritual role. It is the sense of entitlement that I am speaking against when it comes to vocational roles in ministry. I am not against the idea of being paid, I am against the assumption that its the way it always has been and always will be. God does not owe us anything! Not a job, not a title of honor, not an air-conditioned office nor full time hours a week to be a spiritual leader. Now his provision may emody all of that for you, but we have to be okay if it doesn’t. Truly, his grace needs to be sufficient for us and its not our place to demand more. Don’t run from suffering, embrace it. Let it change you. Let it bring you to deeper exeperiences of God’s hand on your life. Sweating blood on your night of Gaethsamane crying out to God to take care of your family is what dependence on Him looks like sometimes. If he desires to move in a different mode of paradigm, in submission, we have to be ready to go with him because there is no one else who holds the words of life. So in this discussion I want to say that we as the Church need to be ready and willing to do whatever it takes to be the people of God on earth and embody his mission here. If it means bi-occupational for a generation or two because of economic and cultural factors, then so be it because the Church moves on. The Church is not bound by the factors, figures and the oil prices of this world. We can change, adapt and transition in new ways because we listen to a differnt King. And that King demands singular allegiance.