Graduate Theological Union

Beyond Saving: A Faithful Look at the Economy

Given the continued prominence of economic recovery in public debate, two students and one alumna discussed with us the economy from a faith based perspective.

Consumerism as a World View

Christina Ellsworth, a M.A. student affiliated with the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, came to the GTU to study theology and to expand her awareness of alternatives to consumerism. Her senior thesis was on the integration of faith with what we buy as consumers. Ellsworth’s response to the question of “How do we bring hope to a situation of utter hopelessness” pushes beyond the individual point of view to see if there are solutions to consumerism possible at a societal level. This perspective sets the stage for involving others in a process of working towards social change. Instead of passively becoming “the puppets of a puppet master,” as Ellsworth put it, we must assert our God-given right to transform the status quo of a consumer society into a vision of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Ellsworth offers that a complete social response is missing from many theological critiques of consumerism. She strives to go beyond the individual approach to achieving salvation by seeing things from a different perspective. As we come to know more about the people who work and earn so little to make our goods so cheaply, it is difficult to remain neutral. The more we understand the truths underlying the exploitation and oppression of others inherent in our consumer society, the more we are called as people of faith to take a stand for just and fair trade.

Capitalism and Family Life

Sean Bisson-Donahue is a M.A. student affiliated with Pacific School of Religion planning to graduate in December 2012. He was raised by parents who were active protesters against the Vietnam War and has participated in many corporate boycotts himself. A large part of Bisson-Donahue’s religious practice has been based on a critique of the values of capitalism and has inspired his work in early childhood education. Bisson-Donahue and his wife are caring for toddlers, who “don’t generate capital,” which also informs his research.

He is exploring how a growing gap between the rich and the poor challenges cultural values of equity and fairness and changes notions of “family life.” The conventional family structure is disappearing because parents are having to work long hours to stay competitive or to work multiple jobs to survive. Young children are left with surrogate parents at day care centers, losing important opportunities for family intimacy and security along the way. Bisson-Donahue ruefully reflected on his personal experience when he shared that child care providers were trained to see parents as customers. He also endured criticism from friends when his wife chose to remain at home raising their baby for the first three years, indicating how deeply economic priorities are skewed in favor of work over personal relationships.

Bisson-Donahue’s faith-based perspective on the economy has been influenced by the work of Richard Horsley at the University of Massachusetts. In Horsley’s view, wealth comes from somewhere and is taken from someone else. It is impossible to amass wealth without impoverishing other people.

During today’s trying economic times, the Bible’s call for economic justice stands out and reminds us of our responsibility to self, to others and to God. Accepting the faith claims of today’s candidates for political office has become almost impossible because the claims are based primarily on how people relate to money rather than to each other and to God. Economics has become a metaphysical world operating independently of the needs of individuals and families.

Saving at Wal-Mart

Christy Newton is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and completed her Ph.D. at the GTU in 2011. Her dissertation, Saving at Wal-Mart: A Theological Analysis of Relationships in Consumer Culture, critiques the division of theological beliefs from consumer behaviors and proposes a method to transform the abstract and distorted relationships of consumer culture into more intentional and connected personal relationships using Wal-Mart’s material culture as a model.

“Shop for a new way of life at Wal-Mart and save” boasts Wal-Mart’s marketing. Wal-Mart has grown into a spiritual destination for today’s consumer-based religion which derives its spiritual energy from capitalism. Newton, speaking of her home state of Arkansas, said, “There really is no other place to shop than at Wal-Mart.” The choice on where to shop has been eliminated by the growth of the Wal-Mart empire in Arkansas and, increasingly, across the U.S and the world. Wal-Mart, like a Divine agent, directs and maintains the flow of prosperity within a community. The irony, though, is that while Wal-Mart gives to charity, it has largely helped create the need — the demand for the charity it supplies.

Newton’s research outlines how the Wal-Mart way of life comes at a high price to communities. The low cost of Wal-Mart goods has undercut and destroyed numerous local stores and smaller chains unable to compete in a highly biased, neoliberal marketplace which all of us contribute to, whether we are fully conscious of it or not. Not only are cheap goods created by expendable, poorly paid and exploited workers in other countries, but by ordinary people’s drive to consume no matter the social cost. This reality places new emphasis and responsibility in the drive to create genuinely “fair trade” relationships. Instead of allowing profits to remain priorities over people, people of faith — especially — must actively exercise our agency in the marketplace. We must strive to challenge and change the overarching neoliberal ideology that entrenches corporate power and privilege and limits who we are as human beings within human communities.

The things we consume at Wal-Mart have an implicit impact on our economic and spiritual livelihoods. Wal-Mart’s claim that we are saved by consumption and shopping harms human beings and distorts relationships among people and all aspects of creation.

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