Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Economics and anarchy

From Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
(Photo by Nils Geylen via Flickr)
As of yesterday I am able to say for the first time in my life that I have read the entire Old Testament of the Bible. For some reason this continues to strike me as odd given that I spent four years in seminary, but that's not the focus of this post.


My reason for mentioning this is that, at least the way the Christian canon is arranged, the last 17 books of the OT are prophetic literature. Which means that's where my biblical head's been buried for a while, and it's affected my imagination (as it should).

The prophetic books cover the last few hundred years of two-kingdom monarchy in biblical Israel, a project that was - by many prophets' own accounts - a calamitous failure. The divine negative judgment was often focused on the kings and economic and religious elites of the nations, and their collective idolatry and unfaithfulness. Such idolatry was often constituted by gross injustice exercised on the marginalized in society - the widow, the orphan, and the alien. Such injustices were violations of God's covenant laws.

Nearly two years ago I griped about about a NY Times piece by Paul Krugman, who was asserting that economics is somehow amoral. This struck me as deeply wrong, and my response then was "Economics is ALWAYS a morality play." After two more years of reading lots of political theology and philosophy, that sense has only deepened. It's only the dichotomous, fragmented kind of Enlightenment thinking that makes it possible to imagine that economics doesn't somehow assume, exude, and "educate" a certain kind of morality.

Anthropologist/anarchist, David Graeber, agrees. In this great interview, he mentions that in his recent book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years:
one reason why medieval theologians, whether Christian or Muslim, seemed so inherently suspicious about usury is because it creates a moral imperative that tends to trump all others. They recognized a potentially dangerous rival when they saw one, a moral system that would completely overwhelm their own if it was allowed full rein.
This seems exactly right, and I think it resonates with the wisdom of Old Testament laws related to care for the marginalized, which are brought into start relief by readings of the prophetic literature to illustrate what went horrendously wrong when those covenant laws were repeatedly and protractedly broken by those in power in Israel.

In pre-modern thought and practice, there is no hermetically sealed sphere called "economics" that is somehow separate from, say, "politics" or "religion." It's all of a piece.


The second bit of this post relates to David Graeber being an anarchist. A question I've recently been pondering is: Would I characterize myself as a Christian anarchist? I have for years unapologetically described myself as a Christian pacifist. Does Christian pacifism necessarily imply some form of anarchy? It might...but the emphasis here is on the "some form."

Tripp York, on his Amish Jihadist blog at The Other Journal has most recently prodded my thinking forward, in his post The Ballad of Will Campbell. He cites Campbell:
Are we talking of anarchy when we suggest that Caesar’s, and society’s, nomenclature is irrelevant to us? Perhaps so. But let it be the Christian anarchy Vernard Eller and Jacques Ellul so ably describe, not the anarchy which simply becomes another political position to be campaigned for. In Christian anarchy there is no Left, Right, or Center. Christian anarchy has to do with grace and human freedom. And it is human freedom which seems to me to be the essential message of Jesus... Thus my seeming contradictions, in a life which has spanned almost 70 years, reflect an effort to survive as a human being, free of other archeies which inevitably define a channel in which its adherents must swim or be excluded, and which, by nature, are enslaving, for they claim ultimate allegiance.
It's that "other archies" that's important. "Anarchy" - or "without leader" - in a Christian context seems a tricky term. The central Christian confession, "Jesus is Lord," is a "yes" to a certain kind of ruler/archon and a certain kind of rule/archein. This necessarily entails a "no" to, or freedom from, "other archies" as Campbell puts it. The "no" part seems to be the "anarchy."

So in the way I've laid it out, "pacifist" seems to be positive while "anarchist" seems to be negative, or critical. Not that there's anything wrong with being critical - as my writing very often tends to be - but only insofar as it is joined to the beatific vision of the peaceable kingdom under the reign of a lord who
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)
That passage, by the way, is immediately preceded in verses 3-5 by the moral imperative that we - the church - should be of the same mind like that of Jesus Christ, described above. (Read it all together.)

So maybe I am a Christian anarchist after all...
(With additional thanks to Ted Grimsrud and Jonathan McRay for stimulating conversation.)

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