In Part 1, we began reflections weaving together Matthew 5 with Paul Dumouchel's insights into understanding the shortcomings of modern economics in The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays. For openers, he challenges that scarcity as a human experience is based on the quantity of goods available. We looked first at the situation of an abundance of goods that is nonetheless experienced as a scarcity. Next . . .That scarcity is a human experience not based on the quantity of goods available can even be seen in the circumstances of lacking necessary goods, if one knows when and where to look. Dumouchel's next key move is to take the readers to that when: back in time to archaic human communities, primarily through Marshall Sahlins' important book Stone Age Economics. (1) Sahlins' study proposes that archaic peoples had no experience of scarcity at all. What they had plenty of he calls "solidarity obligations":
the family-based mode of production involves the failure of a number of units of production -- in other words, the inability of many households to meet their own needs. The rules of social solidarity that govern exchange then intervene to compensate for the failure. The wealthiest take care of the needs of the poorest. (2)In short, "in primitive societies, no one is in danger of dying of hunger unless everyone is." (3)
What happens if everyone is dying of hunger? Don't they experience scarcity? Not really. At that point they experience violence and the threat of a complete breakdown of the community, a situation that tends toward everyone-against-everyone.
Those familiar with Mimetic Theory will recognize this as the "sacrificial crisis," a situation which will end in one of two ways: (1) the 'apocalyptic' dissolution of the community, imploding in its own violence; or (2), a new sacrificial act of all-against-one (or majority-against-minority) violence that re-founds the community. (In an archaic community, could the latter have even included cannibalism as the beginning of addressing the hunger crisis?)
What's crucial to see here is that even the "solidarity obligations" were dependent on the archaic experience of sacred violence, and the punishing gods who prop up the entire system. Solidarity obligations, which compel the richest to take care of the poorest, are certainly a good thing. But their underside was in being compelled to comply under the shadow of sacred violence.
It's time to return to our opening quotes. 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.
In Part 3, we will conclude by considering Dumouchel's basic contention that modern economics replaces solidarity obligations with a concept of scarcity that justifies a new form of sacred violence -- that of indifference to the poor. So we close with questions around whether modern day discipleship can fully participate in Jesus' promised fulfillment of the law without going beyond charity into political engagement in economics.Paul Nuechterlein
Theology & Peace
1. M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (Chicago: Aldine, 1972).
2. Paul Dumouchel, The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays [MSU Press, 2014], 18.
3. Ibid., 19, quoting K. Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1944), 46-47.