The movie Babel, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu touches on the theme of a globalized connected world, where the innocuous (and even generous) sale of a rifle has radical ramifications for all involved across continents and cultures. Here the affluent of the first world suffer, but are able to pull themselves free by the nature of their wealth and standing in the world. The poor Mexican and Moroccan families are punished for their naivety and attempts at normalcy, within a faceless system, where every action has a reaction. The affluent are kindly people still, as one character hands everything he has in his wallet in a desperate gesture of thanks to the poor Moroccan who has so helped him and his wife during a catastrophic accident. The Moroccan man refuses, and Western guilt oozes off the screen as the helicopter evacuates the American couple away to safety. In the complex reaction to every action, those without are crushed under the system.
Polanyi points out the international free market system creates a kind utopian capitalist ideal, which sputters and limps back and forth between the extremes of the free market, which when untamed will crush those in its way, and the intervensionist movement, which slows down the market but at the same time creates tensions. Both, movements tied to the international commodification of land, labor, and money (particularly tied to international trade and the stability of nations) spur governments and international agencies to intervention against, or enforcement of the free market. What comes about is the new world system (mired in modernist utopianism) which Polanyi explains spread across the world, creating massive “cultural denigration” as peoples are swept in the tide of the transformation, but also clash directly with other cultures. In this traditional forms of existing culture based around economic systems are forced into great upheaval. Polanyi mainly points to the changes in England through massive economic shifts leading into the Industrial Revolution and into the periods of WWI and WWII. He also touches on the history of Europe, the US and Africa.
I certainly agree with Polanyi’s thesis that we are living in times of a double movement within modern global economics, between the binaries of free and intervention, and that this has created in itself a global system of sorts, that teeters on instability. I do wonder if Polanyi relies too much on his personal interpretation of English history and an over reliance on the Speenhamland and Poor laws? Also, one has to think that Polanyi may be reductionist in making all of modern human history into a matter of economics. While, Polanyi is careful to explain that culture and various other complicated factors influence the political and national movements and paralysis that hampered the early 20th century, he never really show the other side of any argument.
What Polanyi and Iñárritu get correct is that there is a system (or a broken system), a sweep of history that is uncontrollable, and unpredictable which crushes and is particularly vicious towards the poor and marginalized. Cultures clash. Poor economic decisions in one decade can be catastrophic for the next. Job’s story seems pertinent in this type of modern world. In fact, our postmodern emergence has rejected the idea of Polanyi’s time that ultimately we can come to a utopian system. Instead, the system is out of control, even for those who pretend to control it.
But this is really nothing new… as Job would certainly scold us. A few examples come to mind from my home peninsula and Japan. Tempura is a popular Japanese food. However, it is not Japanese; in fact, it is Portugese, introduced to the Japanese by Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century. I wonder how this clash of cultures and economies affected the Japanese of their day. In Spain, there is a town near Sevilla, called Corria del Rio, where in the 16th century the first Japanese consulate to Europe was set up. A group of Japanese was left there who eventually blended into the populace. There are still people there with the last name of Japon (Spanish for Japan), and who exhibit Asian genetic features. The great Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo wrote of these first Japanese voyagers in his historical fiction The Samurai. In it the main character (a samurai) is sent on a long journey to Spain to establish trade. In Mexico he encounters the Jesus of the cross, and in Spain he encounters the Jesus of Christendom. He ambiguously converts to Christianity, thinking it may help with trade negotiations, and on his return is unknowingly executed for his conversion. How many millions have been crushed in the dance of governments and economics? While, Polanyi is right to observe that the free market has exploded into existence, he misses the scope of the reality that there has been and will always be a system, corrupted and chaotic, which runs amok crushing who it pleases. Paul and the earliest Christian understood this more than anyone.
The only certainty is uncertainty. Modernism rails against this. Our postmodern world seems to embrace this. But, what does this signify for the church and the gospel? I have been reflecting more and more on Buackham’s emphasis on the need for witness to the full truth of the gospel, against the meta-narratives which crush. In a world where the modernist (and liberal democratic) fantasy of stability and ultimate progress has been rejected, the truth of a savior who has entered into our chaos to begin the process of rebuilding a kingdom of ultimate justice, mercy, and love, offers true hope.
Here are some more thoughts about how the church should live in Polanyi’s world.
We must avoid our evangelical, and American, and even human need to construct a new utopia, to impose our own new meta-narrative, or corrective, or will to power for the “next thing” which invariably as Polanyi shows will have its own series of complicated failures, movements, and counter-interventions.
We must resist the postmodernist urge to condemn, or judge a system, or even those in the system. Possibly it is better to see the free market, capitalism, and democracy as part and parcel of our world human, societal system. It certainly can’t be perfect for the myriad of complications of culture, society, history, etc.; however, quite possibly it is best we have now, this side of the Kingdom. Perhaps our better stance is to try to witness within the system and to strive for discipleship that works for fairness and justice within the system. Possibly we can bring our little pieces of the Kingdom to where ever our church or influence allows.
We must equally avoid the equally modernist acceptance of the blind faith in the progress of the system to bring us utopia. Calamity happens, whether economic, cultural, natural, political, or pure accident. Belief that a human system will forever bring peace and stability is quite possibly idolatry, and certainly erodes the fidelity of the gospel. Still, between revolution and ambivalence, we must live as witnesses to the truth of the gospel, allowing Jesus’ love and grace to transform all areas of our lives and influence. We also must live in the reality of hope.
We must not fall into the trap of seeing this issue as a black and white struggle between rich and poor. We must judge neither, and romanticize neither. We must realize all are worthy of God’s grace, and in process. The church is the shelter where each sinner can find transformative grace in their own time. We must find a way to encourage and lead both towards a witness of the gospel in their contexts. The system touches us all, affects us all, for good and bad, yet it will only be in the community of the cross where real reconciliation and koinonia will happen, despite the accidental and voluntary calamities. Can the community of repentance and forgiveness truly stop the sins we perpetuate against each other?
Both the rich and the poor are crushed by the calamities of the world, both historical and economic sweep, and by the presence of sickness and death. Perhaps in our common humanity of crushedness we can find common ground. Perhaps by entering into the communion of Jesus the Christ, who himself was willingly crushed by the sweep of history, we will all be healed.
I believe that it is in Christianity where we find the only hope for true community and interaction between the rich and the poor amongst the sweep of history. It is here that all patronizing, exploitation, rebellion, and envy can be dissolved in love and grace, and wrapped back up into Luther’s sense of “the calling” of vocation and purpose, which can give true value to all humanity regardless of job or social position.
There is good news. In the past, economic and governmental forces have worked to end slavery. The world response to the horrors of King Leopold of Beligium’s forced subjugation and exploitation of the Free Congo State (guess which words do not fit) in the early 20th century was a victory for justice. Today PEPFAR, Stop the Traffik, International Justice Mission, and myriad of partnerships, organizations, and governmental initiatives lead by or connected to faithful Christians are fighting for justice and civil rights around the world.
Ultimately, are we trying to fight a system, so we can replace it with our own? Or are we entering into loving relationship with both the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots, the powerful and the weak to live out the love of Christ on all levels?