Friday, July 24, 2009

"An Economics of Enough"

This was the title of Denise Ackermann's keynote at the Theological Society of South Africa meeting on June 25. Ackermann is a well-respected South African Anglican feminist theologian, founding member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, and mentor to many of my friends. I have to be honest, though. When I saw the title of her lecture I immediately thought, "well, I've heard 'more than enough' on this particular topic. And surely Ackermann's 'preaching to the choir' at this kind of event." But in the end I thought what she said was very refreshing coming from a distinguished theologian with impeccable liberationist credentials. Moreover, it was good to hear this in a South African context, especially since she didn't take the typical route of much public theology in allowing secular sociology to set the agenda for the church. To this end, I she made good use of three of my favourite 'post-secular' theologians: the contemporaries Bill Cavanaugh and Charles Mathewes, and their mentor the classical St. Augustine (yes, Augustine is 'post-secular'--or at least 'post-secularist').

Ackermann began by stating the obvious: South Africa is a place of great contradictions. While it spents a high proportion of its GDP on social welfare, South Africa still displays one of the worst GINI coefficients (the gap between the richest and the poorest) in the developed world. Born in the hope of revolutionary redistribution, the New South Africa soon took its place firmly within the modern world in its reliance on the market as a generator of revenue. The best way to address inequalities was to join the global marketplace. And yet the marketplace benefits only those at the top of the 'GINI pool'.

"The market created modernity." This was a key statement for Ackermann to make, for it names the problem at its root. It implies that modernity, its values, its institutions all spring from and give nourishment back to to the market. And just as modernity represented the suspension of teleology (the idea that there's a proper, given destiny for creation), so the free market has no substantive concept of the good. In other words, what's "good" is that we freely choose... whatever we happen to desire. Things only have meaning insofar as they serve as attainable objects of our desire. Paradoxically, Ackermann suggested, we're told we have free choices, but our choices are actually limited, shaped by market forces. Multinationals have the power to move our desire toward whatever products they have to offer. (Don't believe anyone who says "we're just giving the people what they want". If you need more encouragement, watch this documentary.)

The mantra of capitalism is that "a rising tide lifts all boats." But beyond the fact that not all humans even have boats, it's simply not possible to maximize human flourishing by maximizing profit. Even more radically, Ackermann continued, when all value becomes a matter of exchange, "what I can get for something," it becomes impossible to live as God's image. Our lives, our selves, our identities fragment as we come to indwell different niche consumer worlds, each customized ad infinitum.

I could hear strong Augustinian overtones in Ackermann's words. Common space and a true public requires a different kind of freedom: a true freedom in which I am free not merely of constraints to the exercise of my will in attaining the object of my desire, but in which I am free for the other, and for God as tout autre. Biblical freedom, in other words, cannot be understood apart from responsibility for my neighbour.

Ackermann then turned to globalization, one of the great hype words of our time. It's a word, she thinks, almost "magic" in its seeming ability to conjure benefit for the world. Magic... and illusory. For the assymetry of globalization means that it's primarily the global north (and, I would add, elites in the global south) that cast the spell, and consequently are the beneficiaries of the result. In fact, what the majority of the world sees is "a casualization of labour" and "the feminization of poverty." Globalization needs to be demythologized, and Ackermann made a start here.

Now of course Ackermann knew she's treading on familiar theological ground here. After all, globalization and Christianity cannot be separated. The Gospel embraces all nations; it's scope is "all the world". Here she invoked that other favourite theologian of mine: Bill Cavanaugh. Globalization is a parody of the Christian eucharist, where Christ is the concrete universal whose presence is fully available in each locality where his Body gathers. Globalization's is a false catholicity which seeks to efface the particularity of the local by evacuating it of meaning and turning it into a consumer product in the playgrounds of the global north.

OK, so I added a bit of flavour to that last point. But I think it deserves underscoring. Someone suggested recently that a good example of globalization as false universality is the food court at your local shopping mall. Here you've got the world at your disposal, and you can mix and match at will. An Indian main course and a Thai dessert? You can do that within the collapsed space of the food court. But the cost is that all cuisines (and the cultures they represent) are hollowed out and reduced to different versions of the same thing: a consumer product. It's the culinary version of channel surfing or net-browsing. But no more real. Sorry to break the news fellas, but Taco Bell is only a simulacra of "Mexican food." But I digress.

Spirituality is liable to the same "marketization," said Ackermann. In fact, consumer spirituality is "self-centred, immature... a form of religious tourism." It can never be satisfied because it doesn't seek a true Other outside the self. Consumer spirituality (what Reg Bibby calls "religion a-la-carte") is not the same as the quest for God classical theologians have described, a quest that requires discipline of the self and the shaping of desire God-ward. The highest human desire is the desire for God (here she summarizes Augustine's dictum "one is as one loves"). But this desire for God cannot be separated from the desire for the Reign of God. In other words, authentic spirituality thirsts for the justice that characterizes God's presence.

"Can we make a difference?" Ackermann asked. [I was disappointed here, because "can we make a difference?" seems the wrong question to ask. Saints are not those who tried to make a difference; rather, they are those who strove to be faithful where they were, trusting that God could make something of their obedience. I often find with my students that they're so passionate about "making a difference" that they end up paralyzed--or cynical--when they realize how the principalities and powers organize the world. However, once again I digress.] Her pithy saying from the Dali Lama, "if you think you're too small to make a difference, you've never been in bed with a mosquito," indicated however that if there's a "difference" to be made, it will be on the order of a subversion, of covert tactic, not overt strategy.

We have to move beyond simplistic rhetoric in order to understand what "enough" means. But even more: we have to learn from those who don't have enough how to live in reliance on God, all the while without romanticizing poverty. A tall order indeed.

But we start with ourselves and our own implication in the running of the market. The first keyword is discernment. Being attentive to the inner promptings of the Spirit which move us toward God and God's reign will help us see the falsehood of desire's manipulation by the market. So again, the starting point is spirituality (in the full-bodied, traditioned sense, I think she'd say). The second move is resistance--resistance especially to the fatalism that says "the world is thus." This resistance (and here I was completely with her) means spawning those subversive acts that make us long for the reign of God. Thirdly, such a spirituality that issues in resistance means nothing other than continual conversion.

Ackermann concluded by concretizing these three words with seven points that point to a "sustainable community" modelled by the church:

  1. Self-examination of our own habits of consuming, and especially the way we interpret the world (where are we and what do we need to flourish).
  2. "Tactical choices" that can engage the market, for instance choosing "fair trade" products. However, we must be careful as "green consumerism" is a growing niche in the market.
  3. Developing a "theology of work," and resisting labour practices that exploit. Integral to this is an ecclesiological understanding that understands collective task but not at the expense of the giftedness of each person.
  4. Sharing with the needy as developing out of the principle of solidarity. In so doing, we make God visible.
  5. Nurturing a sacramental imagination. This means going beyond simple criticism of consumption to address the way we see and interpret the world.
  6. Theologians that speak in understandable terms. [What? Don't we always?]
  7. The Eucharist as core Christian resource. [I wish she'd used different words, though. "Resource" is far too pragmatic. The Eucharist is not a means to an end; it's the end itself. We're made for communion, and Eucharist names our telos, our proper destiny as being consumed into God. I think in what follows, however, she reflects this more catholic understanding]. Again she gestured toward Cavanaugh: our consumption of the Eucharist turns things inside-out as we become food for others.
Invoking Charles Mathewes (and Augustine), Ackermann stated in summary that we love the world in God by participation in God's love of the world. Here's the link between sacramental imagination and political practice. On the other side of the Eucharist, we see in a radically different way. She left us with a memorable image: the image of a poor man on a borrowed donkey as counter to global capitalism. That's where the reign of God begins. That's the example we're called to follow.

Steve de Gruchy made a very important observation in the discussion that followed. The market in and of itself is not the problem. Markets (and trade) can be good or bad. And the particular kind of market that's arisen in Africa (my example for this are the informal traders on the streets outside Claremont's Cavendish Square--a posh shopping mall in Cape Town's suburbs built on land appropriated from displaced "non-whites" during apartheid--who sell all kinds of "fake" brand-name goods) points to a version of the mosquito bite. Well, de Gruchy didn't refer to the Dali Lama quote, but I think it was implicit. This is an unusual but "stinging" undermining of the control of globalization by multinationals.

I certainly appreciated Denise Ackermann's talk--not because it said much that was new, but because it represented a robust theological engagement of the shape of our modern world that actually put ecclesiology and sacramentality at the centre.

1 comment:

wilma jakobsen said...

Steve this is great. Thanks so much for writing itup. Though the title of her paper was actually 'Faith and the Market: Contemplating a Theology of Enough.' I am determined to work this into my sermon on Sunday :)