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ASKING THE WRONG QUESTIONS
The 2008–2009 economic crisis presents us with an enormous opportunity: to rediscover our values—as people, as families, as communities of faith, and as a nation. It is a moment of decision we dare not pass by. We have forgotten some very important things, and it’s time to remember them again. Yes, we do need an economic recovery, but we also need a moral recovery—on Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street. And we will need a moral compass for the new economy that is emerging. That’s what this book is all about.
The Great Recession that has gripped the world, defined the moment, and captured all of our attention has also revealed a profound values crisis. Just beneath the surface of the economic debate, a deep national reflection is begging to take place and, indeed, has already begun in people’s heads, hearts, and conversations. The questions it raises are about our personal, family, and national priorities; about our habits of the heart, about our measures of success, about the values of our families and our children, about our spiritual well-being, and about the ultimate goals and purposes of life—including our economic life.
Underneath the public discourse, another conversation is emerging about who and what we want to be—as individuals, as a nation, and as a human community. By and large, the media has missed the deeper discussion and continues to focus only upon the surface of the crisis. And most of our politicians just want to tell us how soon the crisis could be over. But there are deeper questions here and some fundamental choices to make. That’s why this could be a transformational moment, one of those times that comes around only very occasionally. We don’t want to miss this opportunity.
OUR CURRENT ECONOMIC CRISIS PRESENTS US WITH ONE OF THOSE TIMES THAT COMES AROUND ONLY VERY OCCASIONALLY. WE DON’T WANT TO MISS THIS OPPORTUNITY.
For some time now, we’ve been asking the wrong questions. Television, magazines, and our whole popular culture, in ad after ad, have asked us: What’s the fastest way to make money? How do you beat your coworker for the next promotion? Is your house bigger than your neighbor’s? Are you keeping up with the Joneses? What do you need to buy next that will truly make you happy? What is wrong with you, and how could you change that? What should you protect yourself from?
Advertising has preyed upon two of our deepest human emotions, greed and fear—what do you want and what are you afraid of? Sometimes the ads answered questions we hadn’t even thought to ask, about the whiteness of our teeth and the style of our clothes, but once we saw the answers they gave us, we began asking the same questions.
This book came out of some conversations I had almost a year ago. In January 2009, I was invited to participate in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Every morning, during that annual gathering of the world’s economic and political elites, CNN interviewed a bundled-up CEO with the dramatic, snowy “Magic Mountain” of Davos in the background. It was always the same reporter, and the question was always the same: “When will this crisis be over?” CNN actually had a whiteboard, on which each CEO would write his or her answer predicting when the economic crisis would finally end: 2009 … 2010 … 2011 … later. All the delegates to the World Economic Forum woke up every morning in their hotel rooms to that CNN discussion.
But on an unusual plenary panel at Davos titled “The Values Behind Market Capitalism,” I suggested that CNN was asking the wrong question. Of course, we all want to know when the crisis will end. But, I challenged the audience of CEOs and heads of state, the much more important question is, “How will this crisis change us?” How will it change the ways we think, act, and decide things; how we prioritize and value our success, how we do business, and how we live our lives? Yes, this is a structural crisis that clearly calls for new social regulation. But it is also a spiritual crisis that calls for new self-regulation. We seem to have lost some things, and forgotten some basics—like our oldest and best values.
I SUGGESTED THAT CNN WAS ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION.
We have trusted in the “invisible hand” of the market to make everything turn out all right, and we have believed that it wasn’t necessary for us to bring virtue to bear on our decisions. But things haven’t turned out all right, and the invisible hand has let go of some crucial ideals—like “the common good.” The common good hasn’t been very common in our economic decision making for some time now. And the situation has spun out of control.
I recited Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Social Sins to the world’s business leaders, because they seemed an accurate diagnostic for the causes of this crisis. The social sins that Gandhi used to instruct his young disciples in his ashram were:
- Politics without principle
- Wealth without work
- Commerce without morality
- Pleasure without conscience
- Education without character
- Science without humanity
- Worship without sacrifice
For days after the Davos “values panel,” participants would come up to me, pen and paper in hand, to make sure they got them right.
There were other sessions at Davos on these subjects, as there always are. One was called “Helping Others in a Post-Crisis World.” It was full of the insights of social entrepreneurs and innovative philanthropists, all discussing new patterns of social enterprise—where capitalism is again in service of big ideas and big solutions, not just making money. But the session was held early in the morning in a small room, not the big Congress Hall. And it wasn’t full. New ideas of business with a social purpose have been part of Davos before, but as in the global economy, social conscience has been a sidebar to business. Social purposes were somehow extracurricular to real business. But this year, the sidebar hit the main hall of discussion as a plenary discussion on values, and went to the center of the way participants were talking about how we do business.
When you start with the wrong question, no matter how good an answer you get, it won’t matter very much. There was a shift that occurred throughout the week that you might not have seen in the television coverage, as participants began to ask a very different question: “How will this crisis change us?”
If our goal is to get back to business as usual, we will soon be right back to what got us into so much trouble, because what was usual is exactly what got us here in the first place. To go back to business as usual would be to miss the opportunity this crisis provides to change our ways and return to some of our oldest and best values.
WHEN YOU START WITH THE WRONG QUESTION, NO MATTER HOW GOOD AN ANSWER YOU GET, IT WON’T MATTER VERY MUCH.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who was also on the values panel, told me afterward that were it not for this deep crisis, Davos wouldn’t be having such a discussion and wouldn’t have included “somebody like you” (a religious leader). But the panel discussion on values became the buzz of the conference. And the spiritual conversations (sometimes quite pastoral and almost confessional) that followed over the course of the next few days were, for me, a real sign of hope.
The economic tide going out has not only shown us who was “swimming naked,” as Warren Buffett put it, but it has also revealed that no invisible hand is behind the curtain guiding our economy to inevitable success. It is a sobering moment in our lives when we can see our own thoughtlessness, greed, and impatience writ large across the global sky. With some of the world’s brightest minds, boldest leaders, and most innovative entrepreneurs gathered at one Swiss retreat, it seemed like a good place to start asking better questions.
This book is intended to help us do just that—to ask the right question. Again, if we start with the wrong question, it doesn’t matter how good our answer is, we’ll always end up in the wrong place. If we only ask how to get back to the place we were before this crisis began, we will miss the opportunity to stop walking in circles and start moving forward.
As I said, the worst thing we could do now is go back to normal. Our normal was, indeed, what got us into this crisis, and going back to it will just repeat the crisis over and over again. We need a “new normal,” and the economic crisis is an invitation to discover it.
THE WORST THING WE COULD DO NOW IS GO BACK TO NORMAL.
So the question that underlies this book is a simple but hard one: “How will this crisis change us?” The answer isn’t going to be found in reading the newest economic analysis, hoping for better indicators, following a political ideology, or even updating the economy. It will be found as individuals, families, friends, small groups, churches, mosques, synagogues, and entire communities wrestle with the question of values together.
We need to find where we made our wrong turns and how we got off track; then we need to face the truth of what brought on this crisis—even if that truth is uncomfortable and, especially, if some of those answers can be found in the mirror.
Our country has had times of great prosperity when the rich, the poor, and everyone in between enjoyed the fruits of their labor. Not all of our old habits, behaviors, and institutions are bad, just as not all new ones are good. We need to uncover some forgotten lessons that have served us well in the past and make sure the baby of our better choices doesn’t get thrown out with the bathwater of our mistakes.
WE NEED TO UNCOVER SOME FORGOTTEN LESSONS THAT HAVE SERVED US WELL IN THE PAST AND MAKE SURE THE BABY OF OUR BETTER CHOICES DOESN’T GET THROWN OUT WITH THE BATHWATER OF OUR MISTAKES.
To get out of a destructive cycle, to stop spinning in circles, and to break bad habits, we need a change, a different direction, new habits. When we clear the space of something old, we finally have room for something new. If we clear out the weeds, we can let the new flowers grow.
The crisis is deep and wide, and to get out, change needs to come from families, communities, and our whole society. These kinds of changes are never quick or easy solutions but, rather, long-term shifts that we must choose and rechoose every day.
We are indeed in a crisis, and it’s a global crisis—one that provides the rare opportunity to ask some fundamental questions about our most basic values. In fact, the values question lies just beneath the headlines and the media discussion about our severe economic recession. The values conversation is the one begging to be had from Wall Street to Main Street, to the back streets of American life, and to Your Street. This book is about that values conversation.
The crisis goes deeper as jobs are lost, houses are foreclosed upon, savings destroyed, and future hopes undermined. The global economy has not seen a decline of this magnitude since the Great Depression. We are in the midst of a fundamental shift in which the old foundations have shown to be nothing but the shifting sands of speculation. Lying beneath the economic measures of the market is a moral deficit that is increasingly apparent and a growing hunger to recover former values. To make sure we do not simply repeat the mistakes of the past that led to this crisis, our economic recession must also be answered with a moral recovery.
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.
The twentieth century saw the creation and distribution of goods, services, and ideas with unprecedented efficiency and volume. But with 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. We face great challenges that need even greater ideas to overcome them. We have big obstacles that need even bigger vision to see past them. Will our business community transform itself to meet those challenges, or is it just waiting to get back to business as usual? The key will be whether the right questions are asked and whether the common good is part of the answer.
And as far as the faith community is concerned, we need nothing less than a pastoral strategy for an economic crisis.
As the polls and media pundits have pointed out, many Americans are angry about this financial crisis, angry about a rescue plan that seems to bail out Wall Street more than them, and frustrated with the lack of clear solutions being offered by politicians. But underneath the anger, there is a deeper level of fear, and I am hearing that fear from across the country. How will this affect me and my family? What will happen to my retirement funds, to the college account for my kids, to the value of my home? Am I going to lose my home or my job? When you hear financial consultants report on CNN that some of their clients are already living in their cars, you can feel the fear gripping many Americans. A friend of mine, who is also a financial planner and is now engaged in intense daily conversations with his clients, just left me a simple voicemail— “Please pray for me.”
WHEN YOU HEAR FINANCIAL CONSULTANTS REPORT ON CNN THAT SOME OF THEIR CLIENTS ARE ALREADY LIVING IN THEIR CARS, YOU CAN FEEL THE FEAR GRIPPING MANY AMERICANS.
It’s not often that most Americans are feeling the same thing at the same time, talking about the same thing, and all worrying about the same thing. The last time might have been just after 9/11. But it is increasingly clear that most Americans are now focused on the same thing. The collapse of Wall Street and what we can now call the Great Recession (the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression) has become the overriding focus of national attention.
But for people of faith, there is a second question, or maybe one that should be the first question: What is a Christian, a Jewish, or an Islamic response to a deepening economic crisis like this? What should people of faith be thinking, saying, and doing? What is the responsibility of the churches, synagogues, and mosques to their own congregants, to their communities, to the nation, and to the world? And where is God in all this?
What does the Bible say about all the issues now being raised? 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, some of whom are also people of faith, 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?
FOR PEOPLE OF FAITH, THERE IS A SECOND QUESTION: WHAT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE CHURCHES, SYNAGOGUES, AND MOSQUES?
What do pastors, lay leaders, activists, and practitioners say about creative opportunities and new solutions that could come out of all this: the possibilities of mutual aid, congregational and community credit unions, and new cooperative strategies for solving problems like health care, housing, and even jobs? How can an economic crisis reconnect religious congregations with their own communities? How might a crisis be an opportunity to clarify the mission of the faith community?
One good example of a response is the Vineyard Church of Columbus, Ohio. On Palm Sunday, Pastor Rich Nathan told his congregation, “We want to help families and individuals who have lost their jobs by taking a special offering.” The collection that followed was an amazing surprise to everyone—raising $625,000! The church is now using these funds to provide resources, coaching, counseling, and networking events to assist people with securing employment, for both its members and the wider community.1
Pastors will need help with preaching resources at a time like this, and local congregations will need adult Sunday-school curricula on money and all the related issues of this economic crisis. What about pastoral care in a time of economic crisis? How do we listen to people, be present to them, comfort them, and perhaps help them reexamine their assumptions, values, and practices? This is already a time of great anxiety for many. But it also could be a time of prayerful self-evaluation, redirection, and even new relationships with others in their congregations and communities.
This book takes up all of those questions. It is designed to provoke a wide-ranging discussion and collective discernment of the moral issues raised by this economic crisis.
I’ve listened to the economists who also are trying to address some of the fundamental moral issues of economic philosophy and policy. I’ve sought the best thinking of many theologians on the religious and biblical issues at stake. I’ve asked pastors about the realities now facing the members of their congregations and what spiritual formation means in a moment like this. And I describe the emergence of a pastoral strategy for an economic crisis.
While you can read this book by yourself, it is not meant to stay with just you. Share the conversation with your friends, your family, your coworkers, your clergyperson, your congregation, and your community. Use it as a way to have difficult conversations or as a way to change your own life and relationships with those around you. The changes that we need to make will happen person by person and also community by community. While you can read this book on your own, you can’t live it on your own.
The book is written to help spark a conversation that is begging to be had and is already occurring. It is designed to get the wider community talking, praying, and acting in this time of challenge and opportunity. It is full of stories and, hopefully, will encourage many more stories. In a crisis like this one, prophetic action is called for and pastoral care is needed. My best hope is that this book helps to begin a far-ranging conversation on the shape of both.
With this book, we have also created an interactive website, rediscoveringvalues.com, with a variety of resources to help people of faith and conscience respond to this historic crisis. By gathering the wisdom of many voices, we can enliven an extended community of discourse, discernment, and decisive action that could help get us through and past this crisis. We can share ideas about the practical support we can offer one another, the creative solutions we can help forge, and the prophetic leadership we can offer the country.
IN A CRISIS LIKE THIS ONE, PROPHETIC ACTION IS CALLED FOR, AND PASTORAL CARE IS NEEDED.
I invite you to join the conversation as together we offer a moral compass for a new economy. Let us learn together what it means to be responsible and faithful in a time such as this.
© 2010 Jim Wallis