It was a cold Minnesota Saturday and local Mohican faith leader, Jim Bear Jacobs, had joined a delegation that I was facilitating in order to challenge our dominant culture understanding of Scripture, Christian faithfulness, and restorative leadership. During the conversation, he brought up the commodification of land by white, European settlers. Referencing what some would call history while others would call myth, Jim Bear told of a group of Dutch colonists who purchased the island of Manhattan for $24 worth of trade goods. Having completed the transaction, he mentioned how the Dutch “landowners” then ridiculed the ignorant Lenape people for selling such an invaluable piece of land for inconsequential goods. He then spoke of how the Lenape ridiculed the Dutch for imagining that land could be owned.
Linking that story to Minnesota, Jacobs next pointed to the piece of land that exists where the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers combine and identified it as the Lakota people’s Garden of Eden. From their ancestral accounts, that piece of land is the sacred space where creation was born. He shared the genesis stories of the Lakota people and then showed a contemporary picture of that exact piece of land where, today, a military base and cathedral now stand. He identified power in the forms of violence and religion as the means by which people and land had been and continue to be commodified.
By conversations’ end, Jacobs made one significant recommendation about what the church could do in order to right past wrongs and pave the way for a more just and equitable future: “deed back the land that your churches are sitting on to their indigenous owners.” While he’s made this recommendation hundreds of times, not once has a church taken action to do so. The reason? Jacobs suggests that the leaders of American churches are terrified that the indigenous leaders will commodify them and their land as they have commodified the indigenous leaders and the land their ancestors had stewarded.
Penned throughout the Second World War and published in 1944, The Great Transformation by historian and political economist Karl Polanyi sought to locate the genesis of the economic reality of his day. Throughout his work, he charts the shift from a traditional economy to a market economy. The former is built upon the communal values of household, redistribution, and reciprocity. It views the land as a resource to be stewarded by the community for the benefit of all. The latter, what became the dominant approach, is built on the notion that businesses are created to produce and distribute goods based on demand. The transformation from traditional to market economies reshaped the contours of society, generated new forms of classism, and reinforced the commodification of land, labor, and money that Jim Bear illustrated in his story.
Being that Polanyi believed that “society and social relationships are vital to humans,” he viewed the self-regulating market as problematic and predicted that a shift toward it would be catastrophic for the human community as well as for the planet. Muslim economist and reviewer of Polanyi, Dr. Asad Zaman points to how Polanyi focused his recommendations on “ensuring that all people have the right to earn a decent livelihood…prioritizing social relationships and subordinating the market to the society.” Further reinforcing his argument that the market economy would produce unchecked consumerism, Polanyi wrote: “If industrialism is not to extinguish the race, it must be subordinated to the requirements of man’s nature. The true criticism of market society is not that it was based on economics—in a sense, every and any society must be based on it—but that its economy was based on self-interest.
The pursuit and preservation of one’s own self-interest seemed to be one of the drivers of the transformation from traditional to market economy. Not only that, the transformation itself seemed to expand the human appetite for more. As a result, societal problems such as homelessness, poverty, unemployment, and child labor emerged for the first time. Not to mention, the earth and her resources began and continue to be mined at an alarming rate. Rather than the memory of the societal approach informing the community’s response to these ills, those who suffered were abandoned, increasing the extent of their desperation and the earth continued to be consumed.
Here, Bebbington’s analysis of Evangelicalism throughout Britain and its commitment to faith-based activism coincides nicely with Polanyi’s work. However, as Bebbington points out, the activism of British Evangelicals was focused exclusively on the message of salvation and not the societal injustices generated by the market economy. Rather than embracing our original commissioning to steward and co-create such that all flourish, the church seems to have abandoned it, replacing it with the marketplace values of ruling and subduing for personal benefit. This reality seemed to accelerate Polanyi’s concern with the market economy as, according to Dr. Jason Clark, Polanyi viewed religion as a resource that could prevent the erosion of “ethical and social obligations.”
So how do we move in our understanding of Christian faithfulness from unchecked consumerism to pursuing the flourishing of humanity and the planet? How do we end the commodification of others in order to attain and maintain the “American Dream?” At what point will we conclude the practice of using others to satisfy our metrics for growth? When will we stop consuming the poor in order to sustain our devastating charity work? Is there a moment coming when those who have been marginalized by our unchecked consumerism will no longer be utilized as political pawns in our games of power?
I argue that a new “great transformation” is necessary. It is the transformation of the faith leader’s interior world and value systems that shifts their posture from a consumptive, power-over approach to that of a sacrificial servant. It will require a transformation in the metrics for success from more to less; from distant to proximate; from charity to solidarity; and from leveraging to laying down. If we are to see a shift in the way the world works, then faith leaders must be transformed to prioritize compassion over capitalism, generosity over consumerism, and “your” flourishing over “mine.”
 Author’s facilitated conversation with Jim Bear Jacobs in Minneapolis, MN on February 10th, 2018.
 Clark, Jason. Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship. 2018. 127.
 Zaman, Asad. “Summary of the Great Transformation.” WEA Pedagogy Blog. https://weapedagogy.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/summary-of-the-great-transformation-by-polanyi/.
 Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Beacon Press: Boston. 2001, 257.
 Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. Routledge, 2002.
 Genesis 1:26-27
 Clark, Jason. Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship. 134.