We treat the economy as if it were God. We try to appease it, worry that it will smite us, and don’t really understand it. We’ve built our ethical systems around it. This became abundantly clear to Methodist Theological School of Ohio professor Yvonne Zimmerman when she was studying the movement to end human trafficking. She noticed that many of the advocacy organizations and nonprofits that comprise this movement use an economic argument to oppose contemporary slavery. People who don’t receive an income can’t be consumers, the rhetoric goes, and this is bad for all of us, since being a consumer helps the economy. But she began to notice that the rhetoric sometimes goes even further, and equates consumerism with freedom. And she began to notice other voices in American culture equating consumerism with the freedom to live a full and meaningful life.
If consumerism becomes a human ideal, then we learn to judge our ethical choices in terms of that ideal. We know we are acting rightly when we act as good consumers, and we expect these actions to make us happier and make the world better. For religious people this presents an obvious problem. To deify the market is to turn it into an idol, and to align all of our behaviors so that they serve the market is to worship that idol and blindly act according to its will. Yvonne wasn’t making an argument against capitalism, or saying that the economy is unimportant. But she was inviting us to step back from it, to critique the market and its call to consumerism, and to understand that the economy, while neutral in itself, is often used to dominate and oppress people.
Since we live in a country that is often dominated by economic concerns, it sometimes becomes hard for us to use any language but that of the market. Hence the reliance on consumerist rhetoric by anti-human trafficking groups. Where, Yvonne wondered, could we find a different language for talking about the purpose of human life, and a different set of ethical standards for understanding whether that purpose is good. She suggested three voices we might want to pay attention to. The first voice is Tex Sample, Professor Emeritus at St. Paul School of Theology, who critiques power, self-interest, and the notion of self in our society. The second voice is Katie Cannon, who discusses in her book Black Womanist Ethics how the goal of slaves and African-Americans living in the Jim Crow south was often survival, rather than success, and how that changed their view of what constitutes an ethical life. The third voice belongs to David Hilfiker, who lays out a Biblical conception of the value of work.
We were meeting at the Wexner Student Center, the home of OSU Hillel. When Yvonne asked for our help in critiquing the market and articulating ethical practices that could reorientate us away from the economy and towards God, our host, Rabbi Feivel Strauss, spoke very eloquently about the Sabbath as a time set aside from consumerism, when one neither sells nor buys, neither works nor relies on the work of others. We were all challenged by Katie Cannon’s work, since she suggests that the centers of power are not the source for moral alternatives, and true moral alternatives often look so alternative that we might not even recognize them as being moral. We talked about the idea that quiet grace or invisible dignity could be moral precepts that one might live one’s life by, and the difficulties that idealistic, passionate people who want to change society have in accepting these seemingly passive ethics. We also talked about the value of work, and whether it’s possible to think of that value in non-economic terms. We didn’t come close to answering the question of how we can live in ways that aren’t arranged around the economy. It’s too big a question for a single luncheon. But by beginning the discussion, we began the search for answers, knowing that those answers can’t be arrived at through discussion, but by the ways in which we choose to live our lives.