For Such a Time as This

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Texts: The Book of Esther
Theme: Economism

Esther came to a very difficult and dangerous decision. She decided to risk her life in order to get her husband, the king, to retract his threat to the Jews. And what we like best about the story is that she succeeded.

Esther is certainly a great heroine. But if we read the story carefully, we see that it took a lot of prodding by Mordecai to get her to act. His argument included the fact that in the end she would herself not escape the fate of the other Jews.

We Christians have a sense that we are called by God for some work or other. For many the call is to play a particular role in the family or community. That role may be heroic or quite ordinary.

But Christians are also called to think and live in ways that are appropriate to the larger historical situation. For Esther the situation was defined by the Persian empire –a very wide horizon. But for us in the  latter part of the twentieth century it has become global. The fate of humanity has become one. We are called to try to understand this global situation; and we are called to think and live in ways that will help to guide the course of events away from catastrophe.

When I was your age the great threat about which we Christians talked was nationalism. We saw that nationalism was a serious competitor of Christianity. Millions of people were more devoted to their countries than to God. Often they spoke of God only to claim divine support for their national causes. Since national interests and the competing aims at glory and power again and again led to war, the problem was not simply the religious objection to idolatry, treating the nations as gods, it was also that enormous human suffering resulted.

Indeed, I grew up at a time when nationalism was taken to an absurd and outrageous extreme–especially in Hitler’s Germany . I belong to the generation for whom the war was World War II. It was not a war to end wars, alas, but that war was the beginning of the end of European nationalism. I do not mean that national feeling is coming to an end. I hope that never ends. But I do mean that national feeling no longer controls the political processes or blinds people to all else. A European consciousness is today stronger than the several national ones. The quarrels among European nations will not again engulf the world in war.

Of course, as nationalism declines in Europe , it seems to rise in other parts of the world. We are embroiled in war with a tyrant who appeals to the nationalist feelings of the people of Iraq to support his aggressions. But even there the deeper feelings of devotion are probably Arab and Muslim, rather than Iraqi.

My concern this morning is not, however, to analyze Saddam Hussein and the loyalties to which he appeals. It is instead to argue that the great force governing the affairs of the world today is not nationalism, but something else. It is this something else that competes with God for our loyalties and that, more than devotion to God, shapes the affairs of the world. It is immensely powerful, but it hardly has a name. I shall call it “economism.” It is this “economism” that has replaced “nationalism” as the greatest threat to Christianity and to the health of the world.

What is economism? It is devotion to the growth of the economy. Just as I distinguished nationalism from healthy national feeling, so I want to distinguish economism from a healthy interest in improving economic wel-lbeing. That interest, I hope, will never forsake us. But by economism I mean making this desirable goal the ultimate goal, the one to which all others are subordinated.

Economism was a new force in the world in the eighteenth century. Its devotees were few at first, but they grew in strength. Its first great center was Great Britain . The great industrialists believed that producing more goods at a cheaper price was the all-important end, and they persuaded the British people bit by bit to adjust their laws and practices in support. Karl Polanyi has written in a moving way about this “great transformation.”

For the first time, Polanyi points out, a people consciously placed economic growth above the values of community and social well-being. All previous societies had regarded the economy as one important contribution to the well-being of the society. But anyone who tried to make money at the expense of others and of the well-being of the society would be condemned. Now society came to exist for the sake of economic growth and was required to sacrifice all its other concerns to this one.

Of course, there were protests, passionate, bitter, and prolonged, especially on the part of those who were sacrificed for the sake of this economic growth. But their voices were silenced, first by force and the threat of starvation, and later by providing to the workers a great improvement in income. As they came to take part in the growing wealth they ceased to protest the system and began only to claim a larger portion of the wealth it was producing. In the end they joined the other forces committed to economism.

You are called to serve God and the world in such a time as this. As a Christian you are called to protest economism as an idolatry. That is, economism puts economic growth at the center of our public life, where God should be. Idolatry consists in treating a relative good as if it were the absolute good.

But here too the reasons for opposing economism are not just that it is an idolatry. Like all idolatries, it turns something good into an evil, an evil that is destructive of human wellbeing. When we seek first economic growth rather than the Kingdom of God , people suffer, and the whole of creation groans.

What I am saying goes against deeply ingrained assumptions. When President Bush in his State of the Union address promised to get the economy growing again, everyone cheered, Republicans and Democrats alike. If there are issues between our parties, they are about how to encourage growth. Growth itself is the goal of both.

What is wrong with economism? Is it not good that it has replaced nationalism as the public religion of our time? Economism calls for peace for the sake of prosperity. It urges universal trade, free from governmental interference. It offers a bigger pie, so that we will not have to fight over the relative size of our pieces.

My thesis is two-fold. Economism leads to the destruction of human community and all the values that go with it. And economism leads to the destruction of the environment, and that means to the loss of the physical basis for human life.

The destruction of human community was the theme of Polanyi. That destruction goes on today. Economism applied to agriculture has eliminated thousands of rural communities and dumped millions of people into our great cities. Many of them end up in the slums that have taken over much of the inner parts of the cities. Children there grow up without the community spirit, the community supervision, and the community values that they so need for becoming socially-responsible adults.

Economism applied to industry means factory-closings with the resulting disruption of urban community. The ideal of economism is that labor follows capital to the new investment opportunities for whose sake the factories were closed. That entails the separation of people from their communities. The hope is that they will establish new communities. But in general the rapid mobility that economism demands means that the new “communities” lack most of the loyalties and mutual commitments that characterized the old ones.

Our nation is paying a high price in family breakdown, deterioration of public education, increase of drug abuse, and rising crime rates for the decline of community caused by economism. The response is often that with the added wealth that economism brings, people can buy the community they need. But community cannot be bought. Human relationships are not for sale. The economy should serve human beings in their communities, not destroy them. Indeed, the economy should serve human community, not insist that community be sacrificed on the altar of economic growth.

Perhaps the conflict is even clearer between economism and the environment. The pursuit of economic growth hastens the heating up of the planet, what we call the Greenhouse Effect. It is becoming harder and harder to doubt that this process has already begun. But the warming trend will accelerate as we follow the requirements of economism. Again economism teaches that the wealth that it generates can be used to rebuild the goods that global warming destroys.

But consider what this means. As ocean levels rise, either much of the low-lying coastal land in the Eastern part of the United States will be flooded, or we will have to build an enormous system of dikes to protect it. Without such a system of dikes, most of Florida will eventually be submerged. But think what that means. Dikes cannot save the beaches!

Think also what it means with respect to economic growth. Diking thousands of miles of coast line will be very expensive. All that expenditure will be counted as increase of gross national product, our usual measure of growth. Those committed to economism will celebrate this growth. But if, instead, we are concerned for human wellbeing, would we not prefer to have no growth of this kind. Would it not be better to have our beaches back and not need the dikes?

I am using this example to indicate that very much of what we celebrate as growth is really just using our resources to counteract the negative effects of the policies we adopt for the sake of growth. For some time now while the high priests of economism tell us how much our economy is growing, real wages decline, it gets harder and harder for young people to acquire a home, and the number of poor increases. The increasing production has not translated into any improvement in the actual economic wellbeing of ordinary people.

The idolatry that is economism continues to guide our nation, and others, into policies that destroy human community and degrade the environment. The supposed increase in wealth turns out to be illusory. Yet economism has gained so deep a hold on the mind of the nation that few voices are raised against it. Before it destroys us all, we must learn to name it and to oppose it.

As my generation fought against nationalism, yours must struggle against economism. We were, in some measure successful, but only because economism replaced nationalism as the dominant force in the world. If now economism has shown itself even more dangerous, even more threatening to the human future, what new dynamic, what new commitments, have a chance of superseding it?

This is hard to say. There is a religious resurgence, and I view it with hope. But in its most obviously powerful forms it tends to accept either nationalism or economism, and sometimes both, as its allies. That will not help.

There is, however, a new spirit abroad, a new devotion. The symbol of this new spirit is the picture of the Earth taken from space. There is a new sense that the Earth is both our home and our sustainer. There is a new love of the Earth and a willingness to adjust our lives to its needs, so that it may flourish and provide home and sustenance to our children and their children after them.

Reverence for the Earth will not put an end to love of country and concern that there be enough goods for all. But it may replace nationalism and economism as the guide and director of our public policies and goals. Some day there may be a State of the Union address that primarily describes the health of the Earth rather than war and economics.

Perhaps you were born for such a time as this, a time when the still controlling ideology is carrying us all to our destruction, a time when only a deep change can save us, a time when the shape and direction of that change is becoming clear and a vanguard is already changing and calling others to change. In any case, it is in a time such as this that you are called as a Christian to find your way–to make your contribution. May you hear and heed that call.