In Part 1 and Part 2, we have been working to pull together insights in modern economics from Paul Dumouchel's The Ambivalence of Scarcity with Jesus' exposition of the law in Matthew 5. In this final installment we arrive at Dumouchel's thesis of the modern economic concept of scarcity as a new form of sacred violence and conclude with questions about the fulfillment of solidarity as God's project to transform our economics -- and the call of discipleship to join that project through political engagement.What if we read Matthew 5 in terms of a specific kind of 'law,' namely, solidarity obligations? The Beatitudes begin by striking the clear note of God's solidarity with the least in human community (5:1-12). We are salt and light when follow God's lead (5:13-16). But here's the fulfillment that Jesus comes to bring (5:17-20): such solidarity is no longer to be based on the mechanisms of sacred violence but on the perfect love of God come into the world through Jesus. The antitheses of Matthew 5:21-48 outline how love fulfills the law of solidarity such that amazing things can happen: anger can be defused, accused and accuser can be reconciled, lust can be dissipated, revenge short-circuited, and -- the unthinkable -- solidarity even with one's enemies. We can live that perfect love of God in ways that begin to fulfill God's true intent for the law -- solidarity of God's household, the family of creation.
"Economics": from the Greek oikos and nomos, "household law." In ancient times, that law was experienced through solidarity obligations that placed the emphasis on making sure the least in the household had their needs met. No one was in danger of dying of hunger unless everyone was. But the cost was having those obligations founded in sacred violence. When a situation arose that modern people call "extreme scarcity," a situation of everyone going hungry, it was the return of community-dissolving violence that was experienced, not "scarcity."
On what, then, is our modern economics grounded in? Not solidarity obligations. The effect of the Christian Revelation has been to loosen the underpinnings of sacred violence from such obligations, so that solidarity is an individual choice made within a system whose main protection is precisely for the individual (which Dumouchel calls the "law of exteriority"(1)). Modern individualism thus allows persons to choose against solidarity with the least, and hence, ultimately, against the common good of the community. The gist of the opening quote from Dumouchel is that modernity follows the path of the Christian Revelation into a relaxing of many obligations held in former human political arrangements, but rejects the fulfillment of the most important of those obligations, solidarity with the least, that is central to the Christian Revelation.
We may thus propose that modernity has meant the rejection of God's Economics in light of Jesus' clear mission of launching "God's Kingdom." That the fulfillment of solidarity of all God's household is the coming of "God's Household Law" is decidedly not what we have with modern economics, where solidarity with the least is, at best, a sometimes-applauded individual choice. (With the philosophy of folks like Ayn Rand, solidarity with the least is even derided as a Christian vice that works against the virtues of the wealthy capitalist.(2)) At worst, Dumouchel effectively argues that the concept of scarcity in modern economics serves the same role of sacred violence -- that of justifying an allowable violence in the name of keeping other kinds of violence at bay. But the allowable violence justified by scarcity is quite different and uniquely modern: the violence of indifference to those who cannot survive without the help of others.
The modern person no more sees such indifference as violence than did the ancient person see immolating a person on an altar to the gods as violence. Dumouchel confirms Mahatma Gandhi's famous dictum that, "Poverty is the worst form of violence":
The invisibility of violence does not entail the invisibility of its consequences. Third parties are violent to one another in ways that they do not see and that are, paradoxically, the worst forms of violence that occur inside the system. We see around us the emergence of impoverished, miserable, excluded people to whom we have done nothing and never wished harm. Sacrificed victims appear, and we are the ones who have sacrificed them, by our indifference. Yet they are not generally our own victims. Since we do not see the link between our actions and these consequences, between our indifference and the poor, this strange phenomenon puzzles us.(3)Modern followers of Christ may recognize this indifference as violence. Spurred on by the best of our leaders and writers -- Charles Dickens' famous example, for instance, of the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol -- individual disciples may find their indifference transformed into a compassionate solidarity with the poor, through at least the individual choice of charity to those in need.
But here are the central questions posed by this essay: Can charity alone -- an individual's choice to reach out to the poor -- achieve Jesus' promised fulfillment of the law as solidarity of God's household? Or within the modern "law of exteriority" (the 'sacredness' of individualism) is charity only a partial fulfillment? Does the persistence, and even worsening, of poverty in our world confirm charity as only partial? In short: does the fulfillment of solidarity with the least in God's household ultimately mean a transformation of our human economical relationships? What would happen if the modern economic justification of indifference by the concept of scarcity was replaced by giving priority to valuing solidarity, based on a growing awareness of abundance? Bottom line: Does Jesus' promise that disciples may exceed the justice of the Pharisees mean that disciples are called to go beyond charity to political engagement? Are disciples of Jesus called to advocate for 'household laws' that more truly work for the common good of all?
Theology & Peace
1. Paul Dumouchel, The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays [MSU Press, 2014], 41-44. In previous human political arrangements, individuals viewed themselves as related internal to their group, with binding solidarity obligations. In the modern age of Western culture, with solidarity obligations weakened or relaxed, our relationships within any groups to which we belong are easily abandoned if they are felt to impinge on our freedom as individuals. Each person, when push comes to shove, sees him/herself as externally related to all others. Dumouchel's "law of exteriority" is "simply the pure evolution of modern individualism, the gradual externalization and alienation of members of society" (44) -- with the result that, "The exteriority of members of society transforms all individuals into potential sacrificial victims" (50). In short, we have the modern 'truth' that each person is only one personal disaster away from homelessness, with no one else bearing any obligation to help them.
2. Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University, wrote this column, "You can't reconcile Ayn Rand and Jesus." For a similar viewpoint, but friendlier to Rand, see Yaholo Hoyt, "Ayn Rand vs. Jesus Christ: FIGHT!" But at a pivotal point of this latter essay, Hoyt proposes, "I think it is important to point out that Jesus made no direct claim that what he was asking us to do was better for society. In fact, the positive consequences of Christ's teachings are admittedly not fully provided in this life at all but 'in heaven.'" My viewpoint in this blog is that Jesus is making a direct claim for a better society -- a fulfilled creation, no less. The promise of God's law of the household being fulfilled is not only for 'in heaven' but for, as we pray, "on earth as in heaven."
3. Dumouchel, Scarcity, 53.