When I was a child, some of our family trips took us down the Dixie Highway through the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee. We were always amused to view, from a hairpin turn high on one slope, a sign someone had suspended out over the chasm: “Prepare to meet thy God.” While those who posted the message no doubt meant it to bring people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, we always saw it as a warning of what would happen if the car failed to make the curve and instead flew off into the abyss. It seems like a good message for our money dealings, too.
While many of our economic activities respond to our day-to-day actions, many also involve a future. The mountain sign, of course, warned of eternity. In terms of finances, we’re more likely to think of more short-term futures: bills coming due, certificates of deposit, growth of our savings, paying off the mortgage, college tuition and board for our children, or even retirement – all topics you could place on the agenda of your money-discussion circle.
While my earlier postings examine interactions with money focused on our differing personal experiences, I’ve also wanted to keep us from becoming overwhelmed by forces beyond our control. Sooner or later, however, we do open out beyond our private enclave. We cannot become entrapped by despair as we look at the condition of the world – the poverty, physical suffering, health coverage, crime, warfare, pollution, global warming, racial and sexual inequalities, abuses of every stripe. We are in this world, and are called to respond, however feeble our efforts appear.
Our faith communities are one place we can do some broad-horizon thinking about coping together with the inevitable changes we’ll be facing. Our cherished values will be essential in addressing whatever lies ahead. For a number of years, midweek presentations in our meetinghouse considered the aspects of creating a more peaceful, more sustainable world and examined issues as far-ranging as energy use, water resources, banking and monetary policy, militarization and arms trade, theocracy and fundamentalism in public policy, minority rights, AIDS and other epidemics, and transportation. Sometimes, seemingly small responses, such as microlending or fair-trade coffee and tea purchases, have enormous impacts. The results of a small lasagna dinner our youth group put on – four or five pans cooked in our kitchen at home – wound up feeding 250 orphans in Kenya three meals a day for two weeks. Not a bad tradeoff.
In a series of lectures based on the New Testament epistles of Paul, Brian Drayton once argued that contemporary Christians need to develop a theology of, among other things, insurance; health care as a right, instead of a privilege or commodity; the private ownership of capital property, versus lifetime stewardship; television and other instruments of mass culture; telephones; statistically-based solutions to human needs and the use of economies-of-scale that economize only on money; a rejection of the commodification of children, and school systems that are based mostly on a factory or delivery-system model of learning, rather than on a vision of children as unfolding spiritual, emotional, and physical beings situated in their communities; the nature of work and labor; race and class relations. Updating his list, he would no doubt include computers, Internet, broadband and television cable access, online commerce, and cell-phones to the list.
Dealing with money is ultimately an act of trust, having as much value as we, as a society, put into it – like our government itself. If there is a social contract of government, as our nation’s founders believed, then what is the unwritten contract of wealth? What are its responsibilities? Am I my brother’s or my sister’s keeper?
The answers have been there all along, even though most people have tried to ignore them. But there have always been a few prophetic voices, standing to the side of the mainstream. They have been urging us, in the fullest sense, of finding ways to best apply our available resources – love and compassion, as well as our cash and our possessions.
Focusing largely on personal fronts of money-related issues, as I approach it, eventually broadens into ways these impact daily encounters and then seeks recover wisdom available through the “cloud of witnesses” in our various faith traditions. Bit by bit, this close look enlarges your priorities from self and family, first, then outward through your neighborhood, schools, nation, and finally the world. Maybe you’ll even reach for the heavens.
How can our awareness of the many energies of money help us transform the groups we have joined and the communities where we live?
What small-scale decisions can we make for the betterment of society?
My wife and I prefer to work with small-scale, decentralized enterprises, whenever possible. We like to support greater individual responsibility and opportunity. For example, my family banks at a locally owned savings institution three blocks up the street and at a credit union. Not only are the interest rates higher and the fees lower than those at larger commercial banks, the officers are more involved in our communities. They have a president here, rather than a general manager who reports to an assistant vice president whose president reports to a vice president somewhere else in the world. When we could no longer put off remodeling the kitchen any longer, we found a local building supplier was not only far more helpful and responsive than the highly advertised “big box” operator, but also more economical. Stopping at roadside stands keeps more of the money on the farm, as well as providing fresher produce and face-to-face conversation.
Furthering “high-touch” personal interaction within our increasingly high-tech society is one way of reducing hierarchies, rather than adding to them. Concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands, accompanied by corporate merger fever, endangers the very independence and democratic decision-making we cherish.
One of the challenges facing contemporary American society is in creating opportunities for meaningful work for everyone, including youth who too often are excluded from activity that contributes to the common good. How much seemingly senseless violence today arises from a disconnection with a meaningful place in society and from an outlook that overvalues possession, especially status symbols, at the expense of integrity and mutuality?
To survive as a society, we need opportunities for each person to build equity in the system itself, in owning “a piece of the pie,” where everyone can share responsibility and accountability in the good of all. In addition, the workplace itself must be ennobled, from a “rivothead hell” where the reward is “only” a wage into a laboratory or a kitchen where every human being is appreciated and helpful. With our money-buddies, we can examine our own experiences within this structure – and on possible small-scale responses. Once again, the discussion group can ponder new avenues of action, suitable for our era.
In mid-nineteenth century London, Friends upheld the value of individual labor by subsidizing the income of seamstresses and other poverty-level workers, so that they might continue their craft in independence and dignity. Similar lessons and challenges remain. Can we respond?
Again, the rubber hits the road.
“Self-reliant communities are the basic units of a peace system,” Arjun Makhijani insists: “The difficulty is that “community” today does not exist in the sense of a non-exploitative, non-violent, nurturing unit. As we look at violence in the home or in the streets and between religious groups, races, and landlords and landless workers in villages, it is evident that today communities do not exist in the sense to which we aspire in a peace system. From wife-beating and dowry murders to closure of factories by corporations seeking only to move to areas with cheaper labor, to city governments so helpless they compete with others for these corporations to come in even though that means the loss of jobs in other areas, we do not have the communities upon which to build self-reliance.”
Who would have ever thought of the family as a unit of economic guerrilla resistance? Or of a local congregation as a center of labor reform? And yet these are within our realm of possibilities. Again, we are reminded of the ways these issues interconnect, and of importance of talking to one another, to encourage each other to the highest goals with the resources at our disposal.