DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

My Flourishing is Inextricably Linked to Yours

Written by: on January 21, 2020

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.”[1]  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,”[2] 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.”[3] 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.[4]

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[5] 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[6], 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.”[7]

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.”

~~

[1] Author’s facilitated conversation with Jim Bear Jacobs in Minneapolis, MN on February 10th, 2018.

[2] Clark, Jason. Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship. 2018. 127.

[3] Zaman, Asad. “Summary of the Great Transformation.” WEA Pedagogy Blog. https://weapedagogy.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/summary-of-the-great-transformation-by-polanyi/.

[4] Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Beacon Press: Boston. 2001, 257.

[5] Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. Routledge, 2002.

[6] Genesis 1:26-27

[7] Clark, Jason. Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship. 134.

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

19 responses to “My Flourishing is Inextricably Linked to Yours”

  1. Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer,
    I so appreciate how you share your experiences of the work you do on a daily basis. Thank you for rolling up your sleeves and leaning into the holy work of reconciliation.

    You’ve integrated our recent texts nicely, and while I appreciate your argument, I wonder how you see this new “great transformation” taking hold? As a leader specializing in the area of peacemaking, what strategies do you implement to shift this huge capitalistic, evangelical driven ship toward a new, holistic and loving direction? How do you move people who so embody a scarcity mindset toward one of abundance and grace? I would even argue, in the faith community I was once in, they believed they were doing all the things you are calling leaders to be. There’s a blindness that must be overcome, a new language that has to be learned, an awakening that must happen. What have you found to be effective in driving such change?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Darcy.

      The leaders that we’re working with are restless folk, most of which understand themselves as post-evangelical even though many of them still work within evangelical-rooted organizations. They’re dissatisfied with what they understand to be the imperialist values of white American Evangelicalism are searching for a more authentic Jesus and a hopeful alternative to the colonizing faith that they inherited. They haven’t given up on faith altogether yet, but are navigating that precipice.

      Most of them are entering a period of disorientation. What we’re observing is that many simply return to the familiar, some abandon their faith and leadership calling altogether, and a few make it through disorientation to a restorative reorientation. The question we’re asking is similar to the one you posted: “What are the necessary elements of disorientation such that these leaders view and can navigate it as a necessary pilgrimage?” Implied in that question is that navigating disorientation is a necessary element of transformation for the faith leader of the future.

      So far, we’ve identified immersive learning (an experience of true displacement where the leader is exposed to the lived implications of imperialist theology as well as manifestations of restorative leadership) as an important catalyst into the pilgrimage. Then, accompaniment in the forms of spiritual direction, theological re-education, one:one coaching, and participation in co-creating community is necessary if we want to see leaders move beyond being inspired to becoming transformed.

      What have you found to be essential elements (as well as not so helpful practices) of transformation as you’ve sought to move beyond the status quo and into the more restorative beyond?

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        Jer,
        Thank you for expounding your thoughts here. I so appreciate the work you’re doing. Hold on to those few who do the work of disorientation. They so want to have hope and will walk through fire to get there.

        I think one of the fallacies of evangelicalism is that few denominations share church history, so when confronted with challenges to their ways, they have nothing to fall back on. They have no idea that there’s other ways to follow Jesus. Their perspectives are so narrow. Therefore, it is difficult to hit that space of disorientation while working within a structure they realize was built and continues to function in really unhealthy ways. Personally, I was privileged to not be on staff in such an organization, so as I navigated disorientation I was free to walk away and allow the internal transformation happen in a space where I had more freedom. I had supports from professors, fellow students, my counselor and spiritual director, and friends/family. I also had tons of space to grieve. I’m still in the wilderness, repenting and rethinking my role in this big Church. I haven’t yet figured it all out.

        I love the holistic approach you have for caring for the leaders you work with, and hope that indeed, restorative work is done and shalom begins to be actualized in their communities and organizations.

        • mm Jer Swigart says:

          Ah. Space to grieve. That’s good. So very important. Especially for leaders who were groomed in a system where grief was likely paired with weakness. That’s really solid food for thought for me. Thanks!

  2. mm Joe Castillo says:

    So how do we move in our understanding of Christian faithfulness from unchecked consumerism to pursuing the flourishing of humanity and the planet?

    I love what Mark Sayer says and it came to mind when writed about consumerism.

    Doesn’t everyone want the good life these days? Our shopping mall world offers us a never-ending array of pleasures to explore. Consumerism promises us a vision of heaven on earth-a reality that’s hyper-real. We’ve all experienced hyperreality: a candy so ‘grape-ey’ it doesn’t taste like grapes any more; a model’s photo so manipulated that it doesn’t even look like her; a theme park version of life that tells us we can have something better than the real thing. But what if this reality is not all that it’s cracked up to be? Admit it, we’ve been ripped off by our culture and its version of reality that leaves us lonely, bored, and trapped. But what’s the alternative?

    In The Trouble With Paris, pastor Mark Sayers shows us how the lifestyles of most young adults (19-35) actually work against a life of meaning and happiness to sabotage their faith. Sayers shows how a fresh understanding of God’s intention for our world is the true path to happiness, fulfillment, and meaning.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Joe.

      Really solid quote. Thanks for that.

      While unchecked consumerism is problematic, I agree with you & Sayer that it seems to be in pursuit of a false promise. That “better than reality” dream is unattainable and it only crushes people…causing nightmares for many. Yet, I’m beginning to ponder how unchecked consumerism isn’t an isolated practice, but is rooted in a theology oriented around an image of God who exists to give an unattainable future to those who are deemed faithful. This image of a God who exists to bestow gifts on the winners seems to generate a dangerously consumptive way of life. In my response to Darcy, I offer some reflections on what I think it takes in order for transformation to occur. Give it a read and then I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think it would take.

  3. mm Joe Castillo says:

    Are you familiar with Mark Sayer and what he says about Hyper consumerism? He says that
    “our Western culture has moved away from the religious and spiritual beliefs that have given us solace, meaning, and direction, we have not necessarily stopped acting religiously. For evidence of this, all you have to do is go to a sporting event, or notice the way people get teary-eyed when they hear their national anthem, or watch the way we make a pilgrimage to inventory sales, or note how many people expect the overseas vacation to an exotic land to make then better people. Hyperconsumerism fits as the perfect religion of our age. The real killer is that all of this is occurring at a soul level, an emo­tional level. We are oblivious to this effect upon our lives. But it is deep down in our hearts, guts, and groins that advertising grabs us. That is why experts describe these new religions of the secular West as “implicit religions,” meaning that they are unspoken or unnamed religions. In the absence of an active, soul-filled, emotionally connected faith, we have resorted to another kind. We worship at the mall, buying products as if they were magic amulets; we place our hope and trust in vaca­tions, and SUVs to make us happy, and we work and save and borrow to reach the consumer version of heaven the lifestyle we dream about Peter Brierley says of implicit religion, “leis emotional rather than logical, felt rather than reasoned. It is personal, not impersonal, and thus individualized, the consistent reality is that our culture worship what we see on the outside”.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      No. I’m new to Sayer. Thank you for bringing him to my attention. It’d be interesting to compare his critique of the “heaven on earth” that people are pursuing through a counterfeit/consumptive faith to the “heaven on earth” that was and continues to be ushered in through selfless sacrifice.

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    You stated: “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.” Hasn’t the concept and pursuance of self-interest been around long before the market economy? Was this a driver or the gasoline that turned it into the inferno we see today?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Greg. That’s a really good point. Likely gasoline rather than spark. Polanyi does seem to point to a certain shift in mindset though. What once was a community based on collaboration and equity became a society based on competition for more resources and the power that came with it. Not an entirely new phenomenon, but one that took on a different precedent within European society. Ultimately, I would argue that the accumulation of power at the expense of another first shows up in the relationship between Cain & Able and was rooted in their inability to fully grasp the reality of imago dei in self and one another. What do you think? Where do you see the roots of this?

  5. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, I’m a bit confused with this post. Where does Bebbington point out the “activism of British Evangelicals was focused exclusively on the message of salvation and not the societal injustices generated by the market economy”? Are you making the distinction between British and American activism? I see loads of involvement in social injustices in 19th century Evangelicalism. The founding of many humanitarian organizations and Rauschenbusch’s identification of systematic, social sins, to name a couple. I see the theological debates around Modernist/Fundamentalists and Social Gospel/conservativism forcing a de facto divorce of social concern and evangelism, but not a whole sale negligence by all Evangelicals. Help me see what I’m missing.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      From my read of Bebbington, the humanitarian orgs that were formed were a mercy/compassion response to the societal ills of the time rather than a solidarity/justice response to them. Rooted in the Evangelical values of “activism” and “conversionism” the formation of these orgs seems to me to be far more focused on the redemption of the human soul than the renovation/replacement of the systems that were crushing people. Instead of the latter, British evangelicals then, like many white American evangelicals today, seemed to have benefitted from the broken systems and then, driven by the values of “activism” and “conversionism,” offered acts of mercy/compassion to the impacted communities…most profoundly in the offering of their understanding of the invitation to salvation. While this might have altered the eternal destinations of some, it changed the ontological realities of far too few. Of course, there were/are exceptions to my critique. The bottom line is, too much faith-based humanitarian work appears to be hyper-focused on the redemption of the soul/eternal rather than the restoration of the entire person who lives in a world riddled by systems that are killing them and that must be renovated and/or replaced.

      • mm Shawn Cramer says:

        I certainly can agree with some of what you are writing. There was even a line with one organization “Soup first. Soul Second” or something along those lines. However, if this is a major part of your research or the argument you are building, I suggest a more nuanced and thorough approach to the history. Justice oriented approaches among Evangelicals towards institutionalized sins were many, especially centered around labor rights. This movement of the Social Gospel in the late 1800s and early 1900s declined (in my opinion) because it was lumped together with Socialism during the world wars.

  6. mm Steve Wingate says:

    its economy was based on self-interest…

    I remember reading parts of Adam Smith’s work where he explored the economic effects of self-interest and rational self-interest, The Wealth of Nations. Smith found that self-interest and rational self-interest were powerful motivators of economic activity.

    It is a basic need, yet it’s very interesting to me how Christ turns this on its head.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Steve,

      It is interesting to contrast the “self-interest” that seems to drive the market economy with the “others-interest” that seems to reside in the center of Jesus’ ethic. When thinking of Christ turning “self-interest” on its head, what moment comes to mind for you?

  7. mm John McLarty says:

    Polyani’s chapters on pauperism were of particular interest to me. How the vast amounts of wealth that was generated by the industrial economy directly corresponded to the exponential rise in poverty. I disagree a bit with your read of Bebbington that activism of the early Evangelical churches was focused more on salvation than the societal injustices. I know from my own denomination’s history that many efforts to address the needs of the poor were created during this time. Some endured while others lacked organization and/or funding to continue. But my bigger question in light of your post has to do with intent. Did those who were on the leading edge of industrial capitalism know that they were on a path to making human labor a commodity and creating a system in which the rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer? Looking back over centuries of exploitation, it seems to me that they did. That greed and power are embedded in the human condition. So for those of us who have benefited from from past exploitation, what is the path to repentance?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      John.

      I agree. Greed and power seem to be driving forces behind the rise of capitalism. Could its pioneers foresee all of the implications? Likely not. But I wonder if they cared about the long term impact. What I mean is, so long as capitalism’s pioneers were reaping the benefits, did they have reason to consider the negative implications? Did they have time to, based on what I imagine to be a preoccupation with projecting their ongoing growth of wealth?

      As to my read of Bebbington, my approach to faith-based activism is equally concerned with the flourishing of the human being (physical and spiritual) as well as the long term renovations/replacements to the systems that are generating the needs. I wouldn’t use the term “social gospel” as Shawn refers to above to describe my approach, but, instead, I borrow the term “integral” from my Latinx sisters & brothers.

      Perhaps my use of the word “exclusively” in my piece is an overstatement, but I was left with the impression from Bebbington’s text that the gist behind the activism that marked much of European evangelicalism is that it was primarily concerned with the salvation of souls. Their expressions of mercy/compassion were means primarily toward the spiritual salvation of those who physically suffered and were negatively impacted by the emerging market economy rather than undoing systemic injustice that plagued them.

      My critique is that European evangelical concern for and commitment to people’s eternities seemed to distract them from investing the same kind of energy/resources in the renovation/replacement of the systems that crushed people in the here and now. Generally speaking, I question whether they understood the undoing of the web of systemic injustice that emerged as a result of the transformation to the market economy as an expression of Christain faithfulness.

  8. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Jer, Insightful. Deep. Thank you for the time and care you put into this.

    Appreciate the use of the word ‘ridiculed’ in your opening paragraphs with regards to appropriate land use, perspective on ownership and differing cultural views thereof. Wanted to get a full feeling of this in reviewing definitions and synonyms of the word.

    This kind of interaction certainly does not help connection.
    Bitterness, resentment. Ridicule, implies a deliberate often malicious belittling.

    Connection. How to bridge the gaps? Economy. How to bridge the gaps?

    When it comes to ‘gain’ and ‘loss’, what does it mean to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbour as ourself’? The environment, social exclusion, stewardship of creation, stewardship of one another…perhaps, what a paradigm shift on what ‘gain’ means and what kind of work is required (ie. embracing ‘loss’) for true progress (in consideration of all creation)?

    All the questions. Love the heart that is with you to perceive an activism in the direction of all the big ‘RE’s’ (reconciliation, redemption, restoration, etc.). Your last paragraph is boat-rocking. With you, brother!

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