Tag Archives: Capitalism

Socialized Risk: The Economics of Anonymity

It is no secret that the debates about health care have been heated and acrimonious. Even the fact that the Affordable Health Care Act received a six hour series of hearings before the Supreme Court should tell us that there is much to discuss. I am not so much concerned about the discussion of legislation or policy. Yet, I think the realities of our insurance system present the Church with an interesting look into the ways we are defined by economic practices. In short, we have come to accept the practices of the insurance industry as definitive of our relational practices. That is to say, in more simple terms, that we prefer the anonymity of insurance over the deep relational work of being the Church. Mutuality asks too much of us, both in giving and in receiving.

Insurance works on the principle of socialized risk. In essence, the idea is to gather money from a pool of customers in diverse categories of age and health conditions. It is this range that helps distribute the risk across the the pool. For example, if my dad and I were in the pool together we would pay the same premium, yet I would not be expected to use the full amount of my contributions because of my age. The assumption, based on huge algorithms and statistics, is that my dad would use more cash than he contributed. The payouts would, in a perfect pool, not exceed the money collected from each customer. Yet, some would pay more than they use while others would withdraw more than they contribute. The risk, then, is said to be distributed or socialized.

It should be disturbing that the whole process is based on anonymity. We never fully know who is in the pool and we never know who is withdrawing funds for any number of reasons. What is more, we barely know the full extent of need. A person’s health and thus crises are hidden in a system of socialized risk which seeks to privatize any benefit. Each person and their need is concealed in a series of identification numbers and balance sheets. The system is based on the best of social networks without any of the responsibility demanded in true social support. Basically, I need you, but I don’t need to know you. Just give me the money.

Such a practice should sting our Christian sensibilities. When we read of Jesus’ compassionate ministry it is clear that healing and faith are relational categories. The hemorrhaging woman touched the hem of his robe (Luke 4:43-48). The blind man was healed with spit, dirt, and a touch of Jesus’ hand (John 9:6-7). The multitude was fead by the giving of real food and the public giving of thanks (Mark 6:41-44). Even the centurion whose son lay ill sent someone to encounter Jesus and tell the family’s story (John 4:46-54). These acts are not done in isolation. Healing is not privatized gain, nor is it the product of anonymous socialized risk. Hence sharing is the root of word compassion- a co-passion, a sharing of suffering and want.

Luke tells us in the book of Acts of a couple in the Church who tried to socialize the risk and privatize gain. Ananias and Sapphira, forever known for their deceit and death in shame, tried to have all the benefits of the Christian community without assuming any of the risks (Acts 5:1-11). By keeping back some of the capital from the sale of their land, Ananias prefigured much of the individualism of our current economic system. Instead of risking the hard work of true community he hedged his bets by only giving some of the proceeds to the common treasury. His effort to privatize the gain subverted the sharing described earlier in the idyllic portrait of the first Church: for they would “distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:15).

The practices of modern insurance have shaped us into a people who value the maxim of anonymous social risk. Today we assume that our needs are private matters yet we expect the help of others. We want assistance, primarily in the form of money, without having to ask or without having anyone know we are struggling. The prospect of naming our needs in the presence of others, even those closest to us, is simply too humbling. We would rather submit to anonymous systems of exchange than submit to the requirements of true community.

Our discomfort with the rite of feet washing reveals the problem. When we speak of the practice as service, it is rather easy to wash another’s feet. By tying the towel around our waist, we say to the other “here let me help you.” Yet, when we are seated and waiting for someone to wash our own feet, the discomfort rises. We’d rather not reveal how dirty we are. We don’t want someone else to stoop before us. To say we need help runs counter to every social value we pick up in our wider lives. Our unease with washing feet is not about serving others, but in the mutuality of receiving service from a sister or brother.

This is often the case of playing Church. It is too easy to dismiss the portrait of the first Christians in Acts as fanciful or unrealistic. So, we expect the standards of socialized risk and privatized gain as the modus operandi of being the Church. Here, the values of individualism trump any vision or practice of mutuality. What is more, we prefer that the community not place and expectations or demands on our way of life. So we practice Stewardship Drives concealing our finances so that others might not question how we live outside of our Sunday gatherings.

Our lives are just business as usual, in all meanings of the word business. It is as if the Easter event had never happened. What is more, it is like our baptism has had little effect on the ways we live, move, and have our being. Instead, we assume that the markets are just the way things are, and live without questioning our economics and social interaction.

But as we see in the book of Acts, the Resurrection changed everything. Language and cultural barriers were overcome. Economic stratification was eliminated and needs were met. We often forget that Resurrection changes how we live and how we interact with one another. When we continue the practices of cultures that have yet to know the Resurrected Christ we continue to shape our actions, hearts and minds in ways contrary to the very Resurrection we proclaim on Sunday.

Insurance, and the anonymity of socialized risked, continually subverts the Easter vision we celebrate in this season. While Americans have debated the policy of health care based on inequality or theories of individual freedom, we as the Church have set aside the Post-Easter vision of community. We have forgotten that the practices and values of Christ’s body counter the very principles of anonymity and socialized risk. Inequality exists as people isolate themselves one from another, expecting support without compassion. When the so-called boundaries of individual freedom are overcome through mutuality, the community cannot help but take care of one another in body and in spirit.

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Diagnosis: Modernity

“The answer to poverty is community”- Jurgen Moltman

It is no longer easy to avoid the ravages of poverty.  A drive through any city today reveals the extent to which wealth and the lack of viable income can coexist within a single city block.  Even a quick glance at the news in any medium reveals that homelessness is closer to all of us than we care to imagine.

The response is generally the same for any political group, regardless of culture war colors.  Each party and interest group assumes that the answer lies in some sort of political solution, some act of government.  Justice, they shout, comes through legislative decision.  For these groups, it is the elected community which will solve the issues of wealth disparity and poverty is the American political and economic community, whether federal or local, free-market or government funded entitlements.

This assumption is rooted within the modern project.  Modernity, through the likes of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, has sought to erase contentious religious systems from the public square to be replaced by a reasoned political system.  The modern vision, then, is for all communities to be related and subsumed under a public politic, relegating religion to private belief.  The over arching system of government is then, the one legitimate community.  In short, the answer to any social struggle is the political/economic system. So whether Tea Party or Green, Democrat or Republican, even Libertarian or Socialist the Modernist assumes some degree of governmental response to the questions of the day. (Note)

The Church today, even those most rooted in a Post-Christendom model of Church and State, continues to follow this Modern assumption.  It’s the one facet of Christendom that we cannot seem to shake off.  But really, it’s not much of a surprise.  In the Tercentennial study of the Church of the Brethren membership it became clear that we are more identifiable by our political party affiliation than by shaped by Brethren values.  We are more Red and Blue than we are “Continuing the Work of Jesus.”  Well, more accurately, and more respectfully, our senses of what it means to follow Jesus look more like our party affiliations than anything else.

Within the history of radical Christianity, from Acts through the desert ascetics all the way through to the Radical Reformers, the emphasis has fallen on the Christian community as the treatment for social ills.  Poverty, disproportionate gaps in wealth, health care, even natural disasters all received the same response- The Church, not the State, came to the aid of believers and non-believers alike.  For example, the great story of the Middle Ages is that more priests and monks died of the Black Death than any other vocation because they were the ones out tending to the sick and dying.  Kings and Lords did not enter their streets to save the citizenry.

The effects of this Modernist infection are two fold. First, we assume that the proper expression of doctrine occurs within the secular political process. We simply translate our systems of belief and values into the agnostic realm of government. Second, and probably less obvious, is the translation of secular modes of politics and decision making into the life of the Church. Here we assume that votes and position platforms, uniformity of belief within camps, and even debates and sound bites are the norm for discernment and decision making. The irony is that as we look back on Church History and condemn the presence of armies at ecumenical councils such as Nicea and Constantinople, while at the same time we adopt the swordless system of Modern politics as our own.

It was recently asked why the Church of the Brethren today is so divided.  The answer is simple- We are more defined by political affiliations and the idea that political processes will restore the Church.  We expect the political systems of governments to resolve the needs and struggles of everyday life and unite the Church.  We think that discernment is a 51% game, and that those in leadership or power have agendas to fulfill.  We think our Church is the holy image of American representative democracy.  The problem is that progressive and traditionalist alike have sold out to the wider political narrative and practices of Modernity, only to forget that we as the gathered Body of Christ are set apart, and must find ways of being together that are more reflective of God’s narrative of reconciliation.

Our diagnosis is simple we have an acute case of Modernity. The cure, not so simple: We cannot wait for the State to save us. Nor can we expect the practices of public politic to redeem the Church.

Note The nature of each of the these groups is really one of degree: To what extent need the government be involved for the well-being of the most number of people? Even here the assumption is that the government’s own self-limiting is a response to the problem. I also am aware that I assume the economic system is a form of the political, whether a laisssez faire or interventionist capitalism.

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Keeping Time

This message was shared with the Church of the Brethren Office community September 29th 2010.

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Acts 2:46-47

There is a story, of which I can’t speak to its accuracy or veracity, about two neighbor boys. One winter day they began to talk about snow and the coming holidays. In the process they soon realized they were talking about two different “holy days”. When the one talked about 8 days of gifts the other perked up: “What do you mean eight days?! Don’t you mean one?” From then on this Jewish and Christian pair entered into the world of comparative religion. That spring, the Christian boy attended his first Sedar and experienced the whole exodus narrative in one multi-sensory night. The trade off came finally on Easter morning when the two attended the celebration of the resurrection. When it came time for the sermon, the pastor took off his watch and laid it onto the pulpit. The Jewish boy, accustomed to the question and answer of the Sedar ritual turned to his friend: “What does that mean?” Having experienced the fullness of the Hebrew symbols, the Christian boy rolled his and sighed: “Nothing.”

Keeping time must be a multi-million dollar industry. Not accounting for the changes in smart phones, we are at a fever pitch about time. Calendars to keep events, watches to tell us time, alarms to make sure we get there on time, and probably timers on our computers to tell us when its time to leave. So its no wonder the boy was dismayed when the watch came off, it meant that time had no hold on that Easter service. No matter how long the roast had been in the oven, the preacher would go on and on….and on….and…

Really time is precious. The idioms of our culture make it clear to us: Time is of the essence, Time is fleeting. Time is money. It’s difficult to say which came first, the nice capitalist awareness that time is money or the ability to count milliseconds. No matter the correlation we can easily say we have an unhealthy sense of time. We turn on lights so we can work into the night and we light up the desert so we can play into the morning.

So its no wonder that worship attendance in any christian community is waning and its no surprise that any activity during the week barely draws a tenth of the congregation. “We just don’t have time!” I call BS on that. I mean with all that money being spent on making the most of our time, on keeping track of time, of managing our time how is it possible that we can have no time? If we gaged minutes by dollars spent, our clocks should be turning backwards!

The answer is simple: we’ve missed the point. Once we exit the baptismal waters, our relation to time completely changes. No longer are we defined by a need to cram everything into the few seconds of a lifetime, but are in fact managed by Everlasting to Everlasting. Its no wonder that Jesus’ words in Revelation hold together past present and future- I am the Alpha and the Omega (22:13). In one sentence, the beginning, present and end are one. Our time is defined by our living in Christ, living in the past, present and future. In essence time stands still before Christ and, by our adoption into Christ, before us.

That must have been something understood by the first Christians Luke tells us about in Acts. From our capitalist, time is money obsession, those disciples didn’t have a clue: They spent their day singing, eating and listening to sermons. I mean really, what got done! Didn’t they have missions to enact, congregations to support, pensions to maintain. Hell, didn’t they have a budget to balance? …Wait, that’s us.

Well, in a short and simple answer, no. No they didn’t have to work and produce like their lives or their church depended on it. Their daily rhythm was defined by other things: It was defined by Christ, crucified, buried, and risen. Each day was a microcosm of all history: its beginning and its end. What mattered most, what mattered first of all, was being present to the great I am.

So we read of things which sound strange to us today such as the practice of gathering at the church house to pray into the sunset while lighting the vigil candle as if Christ was buried each night. And we read of how, before dawn, these same followers of Christ would return as if Christ was rising again each new day. We read later of monks who maintained such practices by not only praying at night and morning, but at the 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours to remember daily the significant moments of the crucifixion.We read of the early preachers calling Sunday, not the Sabbath but the eighth day, when creation was begun again in the rising of Christ. We read in the Didache that Christians were to fast on Tuesday and Thursday so as to mark their weeks by the resurrection of Christ. ALL of time, not just hours of work and leisure, were defined by the resurrection of Jesus. The calendar was not set by imperial decree, but coincided with the coming of the Messiah. The only thing we have left to remind of this is the antiquated marker of the age as Anno Domini.

So then, friends, what measures our day? Prayer with the living Christ, or an arbitrary system of seconds and minutes? I wish I could say that taking off my watch was a way of living into Christ, but really, it means nothing. I am still tied to a means of production, I am still tied to an alarm, and I am still keeping time by whatever means helps me produce. This does not mean that time isn’t precious, but simply to say that are there not better, more faithful ways of living each day than by production? Might not we be better off as the Church to organize ourselves around practices of what Benedictines call prayerful work, of labora et ora?

Brother’s and sisters, may our ancestors in Christ remind us that there is nothing better than to eat, sing, and pray together in Christ.

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