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God, the market, and me

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

In search of root causes of hunger

One thing we at ELCA World Hunger try to study and teach others about is the root causes of hunger. I have been keeping up with Jubilee USA’s blog, and have been thinking a lot about one root cause of hunger in particular: debt. According to Jubilee USA, an organization that works for debt cancellation for impoverished countries, “Today international debt has become a new form of slavery. Debt slavery means poor people working harder and harder in a vain effort to keep up with the interest payments on debts owed to rich countries including the US and international financial institutions (IFIs)…”

In order to get a better picture of how debt to rich nations and IFIs affect the lives of those in poverty, I did a little research. Many countries that are in debt have millions of people in poverty. Many of these people did not benefit from the money that was loaned to these countries. Much of the money was used to fund development projects such as dams and coal burning factories which did little to make the lives of the poor better and left the environment damaged. Often times this is due to corruption and unfulfilled promises within the government. While the loans many times did not reach those in poverty, they are the ones forced to “bear the burden of repayment.” Countries who owe money are constantly making payments on the interest from these loans, which draws money away from funding things like health care, education and food security. Kenya provides an example of this. According to Jubilee USA, Kenya’s 2005/2006 budget dedicated 22% of government expenses to their debt. This amount of money was equal to Kenya’s budgets for health, roads, water, agriculture, transportation and finance expenses. Debt Payments slow down social and economic development that could be essential to helping people out of poverty. Debt cancellation is important because it can allow economies to grow to meet people’s needs (University of Iowa Center for International Finance and Development).

After learning more about debt, I became curious about Jubilee USA’s name, and stumbled on the theological basis of debt relief. Leviticus 25 talks about the “Year of Jubilee” occurring every seven years in which all debts are cancelled and all slaves are freed. Verses 36-37 state “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit.”

It is important to keep in mind how international debt affects our neighbors around the world and to do what we can to keep them “living among us.” Poverty is complex, and debt is one of the many factors that influence it. To take action or to learn more about Jubilee USA’s work, visit

-Allie Stehlin

Back to Beef

I just read an interesting report from the Global Policy Forum that makes important connections between food and finance. One little factoid that struck me: more than half of U.S. grain and nearly 40% of world grain is being used to feed livestock. The author of the report cites a 1997 news release from a Cornell ecologist who suggests that the U.S. could feed 800 million people with the grain that livestock eat. Granted, not all the grain that cattle eat is suitable for human consumption (thank you Mark Goetz for pointing that out to me), but again this underscores for me how lowering our own meat consumption could be an effective way to lower food costs and perhaps improve food distribution (to say nothing of the amazing environmental benefits of consuming less meat).

On a related note, Lent is just nine days away (and yes, as you may have already guessed, it is my favorite church season). One way to experiment with consuming less meat would be to practice the ancient and venerable tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays (and Wednesdays if you wish!) for the six weeks of Lent. Or if you’re adventurous, you could fast from meat for the whole 40 days. I am tempted to do just that, and I would probably succumb to peer pressure if I heard from enough people who would join me…

David Creech

How Should I Respond?

Last night while perusing the New York Times online, I ran across this little article. It outlines just how difficult it would be for those poor Wall Street executives to live on a measly $500,000 a year. The article spells out the cost of maintaining an executive lifestyle: the cost of a nanny, private school, personal trainer, summer houses, European vacations, charity galas, and so on. The article concludes that at least 1.6 million dollars a year is needed to live comfortably as an executive.

What is troubling to me is that we find ourselves in very difficult circumstances due to (at least in part) the greed of Wall Street. As I noted in a previous post, by the time we begin to emerge from this downturn, as many as 50 million people in the U.S. could be living below the poverty line. That’ll be nearly one-sixth of the U.S. population dealing with the stresses of basic needs like food, housing, and health care.

So, my first reaction to this article is less than empathetic. I think that watching the Catholic Charities Poverty Tour offers a far more compelling case for fair compensation (if you’ve not seen it yet, take five minutes to do so now).

But is my response fair?
David Creech

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas… (drum roll, please)

With the Christmas season winding down and the routine of the new year slowly settling in, I thought it would be a good time to introduce some of the issues that ELCA World Hunger will be especially focused upon in 2009. Over the next couple of weeks, I will briefly highlight in four posts each of our focus areas: Food, Fuel, and Finances; Climate Change and Hunger; HIV/AIDS and the Lutheran Malaria Initiative; and Intentional Living: Food Practices. I invite you to offer your own reflections and/or resources you have found particularly helpful in thinking about these topics.

Food, Fuel, and Finances

The three F’s are deeply intertwined and of late extremely volatile. In 2008, the price of many staple foods (such as wheat, rice, and corn) rose globally as much as 130% ( The spike in food prices culminated in riots in about 30 countries. This spike in food prices is related to (among other things) a sharp rise in gas prices, which peaked nationally in June and July at about $4.15 a gallon ( The rise in gas prices affects the price of food because modern production and distribution of food is heavily dependent upon petroleum. Moreover, in the quest to find alternatives to gasoline, farms previously used to grow food now are used for the production of biofuels. As 2008 drew to a close, global financial markets tumbled as the subprime lending mess reverberated throughout many financial sectors.

Each of these hardships is particularly devastating to those who are poorest. This year we will engage the food, fuel, and finance crises from their perspective, raising awareness and advocating on behalf of those who are most vulnerable.

-David Creech