God, the market, and me

Posted on December 5, 2010 by Anne Basye

Do we really worship the Market and not God, as I asked in last week’s post?

After rereading Harvey Cox’s seminal essay, “The Market as God,” I thought I’d watch my own actions this week and see. Is my life all about the Market, with a little lip service given to God, or is God at the center, and the Market at the fringes?

Because it was the end of the month, I spent last weekend checking my balances on various accounts. I updated my Quicken records with recent interest and expenses. I paid my VISA bill and thought about end-of-year donations – how much, to whom?  I wrote an offering check for the church where I would worship Sunday evening. Reading the Sunday New York Times business section reminded me that Cox calls the market omniscient, a source of “comprehensive wisdom that in the past only the gods have known.” And there I was seeking, through reports from Times business writers, to know the Market’s mood and direction. Poor God! There is no religion page anymore—not in the Times, not in my hometown newspaper.

Cox says that the Market is also omnipresent, making decisions that used to be private. I like to think that trying to live simply shelters me from this aspect of the Market, but  the certified letter I received from a lawyer on Friday had a different message. It informed me that in mid-2011, after the estate is settled, I will receive a few thousand dollars from an elderly friend who recently died.

This made me uncomfortable. I was a friend, not a paid attendant!  With no spouse or children, he wanted to distribute his estate among a dozen friends and cousins whose company he enjoyed. But does this legacy somehow commodify our long friendship, assigning it a price tag, as Cox might say?

The commodification of labor turned up Wednesday night, when an midweek Advent event tackled the subject of time—what it means to us, how we use it, how we feel about our schedules. The last time I punched a time card, I was 20 and weighing asparagus in a freezer plant. In the 90s, a company I wrote for made a big deal of removing its punch clocks to demonstrate its confidence in its employees. It was news to me that the new incarnation of the punch clock is the “electronic time card.” At this Advent supper, folks complained about having every moment of their work day  monitored virtually: start time, end time, break time, break length, even the length of customer service phone calls, all measured by software lurking on their computers.

One woman worked for a prominent shipping company. Guess who is demanding the World On Time, as the slogan says? Not some murky “they.” We’re the ones insisting on those electronic time cards, every time we check the status of a package or the value of its company’s stock.

While there has always been a place to trade, says Cox, today we elevate the Market above everything else. We abide by the Market’s rules, not God’s, and our whole system—like those electronic time cards—is designed to enforce them. A short week’s worth of observation confirmed that I am completely tangled up in that system.

What to do? Perhaps revisit the powerful tools God has given us to keep the Market—previously called Mammon—from consuming us. Tools like Sabbath, a radical practice most of us have abandoned. Suppose tired Christians decided to observe an economic Sabbath and not purchase anything on Sunday, so as not to stoke consumer expectations that trap folks into Sunday work shifts. Could we let the World On Time be the World As Is, the World As Appreciated, instead?

Watching myself interact with the Market is a tentative first step in a different economic direction. In coming weeks, the Advent gathering I’m part of will explore Christian practices of Sabbath and jubilee. Harvey Cox wants the Church to recognize the Market for the idol it is so it can provide some serious alternatives. Fair trade, socially responsible investing—these are nice places to start, but how can Christians go deeper? Sabbath may hold a powerful key. Stay tuned.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal

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