Jim Wallis has a knack for critiquing the Christian community for ignoring or shirking its responsibility for social engagement. Most Christians tend to be concerned about their private lives, the lives of those closely surrounding them, and perhaps their church community, but many are largely unaware of and passive about the social context in which they live. In a relatively free country such as the United States, with remnants of a Christianized society, we often take for granted the pleasures of such freedom permit us. We live in a world where things tend to be hunky-dorey, and what qualifies as “bad things happening to good people” is a dent in our new car or the neighbor’s dog who makes its business our business. We simply are unaware of greater and deeper problems in society, both in our communities, in our country, and globally. Social awareness does not come easy to the affluent; and if you have a job and a home in the United States, you are affluent from a global perspective.
In January 2009, Wallis was invited to participate in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Since this was about the time markets were beginning to collapse, and everyone around the globe was wondering, “When will this crisis be over?” (read: “When can we get back to business as usual?”), Wallis was asking the most important question: “How will this crisis change us?”
Wallis points out how we as a society misplaced our trust in something called “the invisible hand,” a phrase from economist Adam Smith. If you’ve ever read Jim Wallis before, he is often making snide remarks about the invisible hand, sarcastically dismissing it as a superstitious thing to believe in (what he believes is really going on is not clear). More on that will come from an analysis of Chapter Two, “When the Market Became God.” For now suffice it to say that Wallis is too naive to understand that there is no invisible hand because there is a very ever-present and very obvious hand manipulating the economy. But this is not obvious to Wallis. Either he is unwilling to acknowledge the existence of an evil hand at play, acting very much against the “invisible hand,” or he is too naive to understand the very basics of economics.
Whatever one’s beliefs about economics, the source of the crisis we’re in (Wallis calls it the Great Recession), or our way out, Wallis’ fundamental question is not only valid for us now, but for anybody facing hardship or trials. It is a critical part of faith and trust in God, for events and circumstances in our lives are not what shapes us, but how we respond to the things that happen to us and all around us. How we serve each other, how we love each other, and how we look inward to evaluate and modify our inner lives, are all indicators that we are ever-changing people in the face of crisis.
In normal times, we often don’t spend the time wondering what our values are, what we will stand for, and how we will react to threats against our well-being. As Wallis puts it, this crisis “provides the rare opportunity to ask some fundamental questions about our most basic values” (pg. 7).
Wallis writes, “The twentieth century saw the creation and distribution of goods, services, and ideas with unprecedented efficiency and volume. But wit these great advances, the moral weight of our decisions becomes greater than ever before. We need to determine whether the purpose of business and the vocation of our business leaders is restricted to turning a profit or if it can become something more” (pg. 8, emphasis mine). Here is where Wallis tends to present either/or scenarios with regards to profit. On the surface, it appears as if he is saying that business can legitimately pursue profit, but wonders if “common good” results can come of businesses. But deeper reflection might reveal that if businesses are profiting ethically and legitimately, is not the “goods, services, and ideas with unprecedented efficiency and volume” produced in society itself a common good? Are we not all better off because of such high productivity? It is a common fallacy to divorce “common good” with the idea of “profit,” especially when the idea of profit is used to connote exploitation. Wallis tends to fall into this fallacy, using phrases (in other areas such as health care) “profits before people,” but he is correct when he concludes, “the key will be whether the right questions are asked and whether the common good is part of the answer” (pg. 8). Pursuing the “common good” is an elusive phrase used by most collectivists who see individual interests as subservient to the interests of society. When there is a confusion of the ownership and control over property, notions such as “common good” become metaphorical bludgeons to control the behavior of individuals and circumvent human rights. But true common good would benefit everyone, rather than putting some people’s individual rights as secondary. Indeed, we must have what is called “the common good,” but there need not be a sacrifice of individual rights in order to achieve it, since individuals comprise “the common,” and if it is good for all, it need be good for the individual.
When things go sour in an economy, it takes only a little media coverage to call to surface the fears that we all have inside, and many people let that fear take over their lives. Worry becomes normal, and we simply want things to go back to “business as usual.” Wallis rejects this desire, saying we cannot go back to business as usual, because business as usual is what got us to this place. While I’m completely in agreement with the sentiment here, Wallis has never demonstrated economic knowledge in what exactly “got us here,” but rather blames things such as the “invisible hand” and free markets (even though neither exist). But people of faith are to begin a new conversation, addressing the values and actions that answer the question, “How will this crisis change us?”
The bigger questions are articulated here:
“What does our theology tell us about money and possessions, wealth and power, credit and responsible financial choices, economic values vs. family values, lifestyle and stewardship, generosity and justice, and both personal and social responsibility? What can economists… tell us about economic philosophy, the role of the market, the role of government, the place of social regulation, the spiritual consequences of economic disparities, the moral health of an economy, and the criteria of the common good?” (pg. 10).
While I’m not yet into the next few chapters, my initial hunches about what answers Wallis will likely provide are not very promising. The values he will share and promote will no doubt be biblical, ethical, and moral. Indeed, they will very likely be modeled after the Way of Jesus. And it will not be in those values that I will likely be in disagreement. As I’ve already pointed out, Wallis seems confused about social ethics, creating false dichotomies such as “personal vs. social responsibility,” or promoting fascist ideas such as “social regulation” (which is a friendly way of saying “behavior control”), and commits many economic fallacies.
An important facet of this book is that Wallis’s states purpose is to get a conversation going about our values. Whether one agrees with his prescription for action, his theology, or his politics, Wallis is doing us an incredible favor by asking us to reflect and evaluate who we are, what we value, and how we are living those values in our world.