“Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
This past Thursday morning several New York University graduate students and I gathered for our first Prayers of the People meeting at NYU’s Kimmel Center. During these meetings we prayerfully read through the assigned Daily Office Lectionary texts, taking a few minutes to reflect on the meaning of these Scriptures for our lives, and then we prayerfully read through The New York Times together discussing the ways the day’s assigned scriptures might inform our thinking and praying about the day’s news.
The day’s texts were Psalm 105, a celebration of God’s mighty deeds in Israel’s history; Malachi 2:1-16, a prophetic indictment of Judah’s priests for being corrupt and of Judean men for both indulging in idolatry and being unfaithful to their wives; James 4:13-5:6, the brother of Jesus’s warning against overconfidence in our plans and a condemnation of wealthy landowners who cheat their laborers; and, finally, Luke 17:20-37, Jesus’s cryptic, apocalyptic response to the Pharisees’ questions about when the Kingdom of God would come. The Gospel text raised for us the questions: How do we think about where history is going and about what the End (or eschaton in Greek) of history will be? How does our thinking about the End shape how we think of the end (as in telos or purpose or goal) of our living, our working, and our praying together as a people? The theological term for reflection on this subject is eschatology, or “talk about the End.” As we reflected on the day’s news in light of these scriptures we found ourselves confronted with several rival eschatologies, rival visions of the End of history—some secular and others religious or quasi-religious—that are shaping our world and our lives today: Globalism, Technocracy, Dispensationalism, and American Exceptionalism. This week I will share some of what we discussed regarding the first of these eschatological rivals, and I’ll return to the others after Thanksgiving.
Globalism & Inequity
One of the first Times articles we discussed Thursday, “As Employees Battle Walmart, China Warily Holds Its Tongue,” drew our attention to labor strikes, lawsuits, and protests by Walmart employees in China who are demanding back pay. Javier C. Hernández reports, “As the Chinese economy has slowed, strikes and labor protests have broken out across the country, mostly scattered episodes targeting a single factory or business.” While the Chinese government has mostly been cracking down hard on such activists, in the case of protesting Walmart employees, the government has been reluctant to get involved “workers in several cities agitating against the same company, bypassing official unions controlled by the Communist Party and using social media to coordinate their actions….” Here we have a Communist government, supposedly ideologically committed to protecting the working class against exploitation, unwilling to take on a powerful American-based multinational corporation. This is the shadow side of globalization.
Globalism, roughly speaking, is an ideological commitment to the process of Globalization, the formation of a global free market economy and the worldwide expansion of a neoliberal politics. It is the belief that Globalization is fundamentally good for humankind, such that its processes are identified with human “progress,” and that a Globalized world is the wave of the Future (with a capitol “F”). Globalism, in other words, is a sort of secular eschatology, a vision of where history is headed that shapes our action in the world today.
The committed Globalist will look at the current unrest among the working class in China and in rust-belt America as merely unfortunate growing pains. Believing that if we just let globalization run its course, we will eventually arrive in a neoliberal One-World Utopia, a Globalist is willing to accept the current exploitation of workers at home and abroad as collateral damage.
But a Christian has a very different eschatology and, so, a very different understanding of how we treat laborers. The Creator of the universe, whose image we all bear, has a vested interest in even the most destitute human beings, and so, at the End of history, He will call to account anyone who exploits or defrauds their more vulnerable neighbors. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “You have never talked to a mere mortal.” There can be no throwaway people if all people are bearers of the divine image. “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” That is why, in last Thursday’s assigned New Testament reading, Saint James has such hard words for wealthy employers who shortchange their employees:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. (James 5:1-6 ESV)
The future does not belong to the outworking of some impersonal force like “History” or “Progress” or “Globalization,” but rather to the ultra-personal God who will one day set the whole world right and will render justice on behalf of the oppressed. Transnational corporations like Walmart would do well to take heed.
And so would we. It’s probably safe to assume that most readers of this blog are fabulously wealthy when compared with, say, a Chinese Walmart factory worker. We Christian consumers need to ask ourselves whether our buying habits defraud our global neighbors. Does not affluent, consumeristic America’s insatiable demand for cheaper and cheaper goods come at the expense of laborers like the overworked and underpaid Walmart employees in China? Of course it does. On page B10 of Thursday’s paper we find another article that is, I think, implicitly connected to the piece on Walmart and China: “Avoiding the Black Friday Blues: How not to Overpay at the Mall? Let the Web Be Your Guide.” In our globalized economy, the ultimate result of Americans’ neurotic fixation on not “overpaying” for our TVs and teeshirts and other trivialities is that our neighbors half a world away are not paid a living wage. What might Saint James have to say to us?
The Christian knows that the “Black Friday Blues” cannot be averted just by paying bottom dollar for video game consoles and household appliances, particularly when we do so at the expense of our global neighbors. “Overpaying” for things we probably don’t need is not the root of our unhappiness, and it’s a mistake to think that in our search for true joy and meaning that the Web should be our guide. But that’s a conversation for another post.
Next week: Technocracy.