June 4th, 2010
02:00 AM ET
Editor's Note: Jim Wallis is CEO of Sojourners and author of "Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street — A Moral Compass for the New Economy."
By Jim Wallis, Special to CNN
It was a difficult May for “the market.”
On May 6, the stock market plunged nearly a thousand points before recovering to close a few hundred points down. By month’s end, stocks had experienced their worst May in 70 years. It’s more evidence of a broken system - and that the market has become the end rather than the means. If we don’t rewire our values, our losses will have been in vain.
The cultural messages over the last several decades have clearly been: greed is good; it’s all about me; and I want it (all) now. Not ruthlessly following these maxims has become a sign of weakness and deficiency – or of being stupid for not looking out for “number one.”
Over the past 30 years or so, the market has become like an invasive species, devouring everything in its path. This is what idols often do. The rituals of consumption have replaced the practice of citizenship. And the identity of the consumer has replaced the identity of the citizen - even in the strategy of political campaigns, which are now just marketing blitzes to sell candidates.
When you divorce morality from economy, the moral health of society is the first casualty. And then we all begin to worry about where all the values have gone. When economics comes before values, we have idolatry. If the market ultimately defines what gets our attention, we will be defined by the moral limits of the marketplace.
Let me be clear. Performing necessary roles and providing important goods and services are not the same things as commanding ultimate allegiance. Idolatry means that something has taken the place of God. The market can be a good thing and even necessary, but it now commands too much, claims ultimate significance, controls too much space in our lives, and has gone far beyond its proper limits.
In what became a prophetic essay, the Harvard Divinity School’s Harvey Cox wrote about what was happening to the economy, without any moral or theological reflection, in a 1999 Atlantic Monthly article.
Called “The Market as God,” the piece said that there have always been a variety of different types of markets. But meaning or purpose for life, society, and all of civilization always came from different centers of society.
It has been a slow growth over the past 200 years, and an accelerated growth over the past 30 years, that has elevated “The Market” to a godlike status with godlike qualities. That is why all of this bears some religious reflection: The market now has all the godlike qualities - all-knowing, all-present, all-powerful, even eternal - unable to be resisted or even questioned.
But this crisis presents us with an opportunity, not just to be smarter and more prudent about our economic lives, but to change something much deeper - to reject the idolatry of our market worship, to expose the idols that have ensnared us, and to reduce “The Market” to simply “the market,” asking the market to again serve us, rather than the other way around. Indeed, it could be that the religions of the world might help lead the way here, challenging the idols of the market and reminding us who is God and who is not — a traditional and necessary role for religion.
Christianity and Judaism, in the Psalms, say that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world, and they that dwell therein.” These things do not belong to the market.
Let us also remember that human beings are merely stewards of God’s creation, not its masters. And we humans are the ones who preside over the market, not the other way around. Despite our differences, the religion of the market has become a more formidable rival to every religion than they are to one another.
But together, we could challenge the dominion of the market by restoring the rightful worship of God. The market’s false promise of its limitless infinity must be replaced with the acknowledgment of our human finitude, with more humility and with moral limits - which are essential to restoring our true humanity.
The market’s fear of scarcity must be replaced with the abundance of a loving God. And the first commandment of The Market, “There is never enough,” must be replaced by the dictums of God’s economy; namely, there is enough, if we share it.
The crisis of the Great Recession could do more than prompt a reset of our economic life. It could restore a sense of right worship.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jim Wallis.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.