This is an approach to economics that has E. F. Schumacher as its father, and John Ruskin as its grandfather, and probably aspects of it go back to some of the Diggers and medieval agrarian reformers, even perhaps the Peasants Revolt. It claims a broader remit than conventional economics, and draws inspiration from aspects of the spirituality of William Blake, the radical self-sufficiency of Thomas Jefferson, and the visions of peaceful co-existence of Gandhi and Kropotkin.
What all these thinkers have in common is an approach to economics which is sceptical about money: which understands that human happiness and well-being are not measured very well in terms of money wealth, and that just as money is subservient to morality, spirituality and humanity, so economics is part of a wider eco-system that explains it, limits it and makes it real. It is an economics that broadens our definitions of wealth, rather than narrows them down to an abstraction that may or may not relate to human fulfilment.
In their new book, An Other Kingdom: Departing Consumer Culture, Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann and John McKnight offer a critique of what they call the predominate ideology of our age: Free Market Consumerism. In my own experience I have found that many people do not even realize that this ideology is both dominate and destructive. So, with the help of Block, et al., I wish to simply elaborate what “Free Market Consumer Ideology” means and how it impacts all of us.
FREE – indicates the idea that participants in the market (individuals and institutions) should be constrained as little as possible; regulation/limitation is bad. The freedom of the individual is what matters most. Recently I saw someone post on FB a video of Milton Friedman “destroying” a socialist debate partner. In the video Friedman says that what makes the world go ’round is “individuals pursuing separate self-interests.”
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One of the most common metaphors used in the New Testament to describe the relation of the church to the gospel is that of stewardship. The church, and especially those called to any kind of leadership in the church, are servants entrusted with that which is not their property but is the property of their Lord. That which is entrusted is something of infinite worth as compared with the low estate of the servants in whose hands it is placed. They are but mud pots; but that which is entrusted to them is the supreme treasure (II Cor. 4:7). The treasure is nothing less than “the mysteries of God” (I Cor. 4:1), “the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19), “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and… made known to all nations… to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:25-26). It is “the mystery of his will… to unite all things in him” (Eph. 1:9-10). It is the open secret of God’s purpose, through Christ, to bring all things to their true end in the glory of the triune God. It is open in that it is announced in the gospel that is preached to all the nations; it is a secret in that it is manifest only to the eyes of faith. It is entrusted to those whom God has given the gift of faith by which the weakness and foolishness of the cross is known as the power and wisdom of God. It is entrusted to them not for themselves but for all the nations. It is Christ in them, the hope of glory.
Lesslie Newbigin. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Kindle Locations 2551-2560). Kindle Edition.
mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
As I reflect on the meaning of praxis in relation to development within my current context, a very special friend comes to mind: Mr. JB. I met JB ten years ago as I served with Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM) for a summer leading home repair mission teams. My encounter with JB is likely the single-most influential factor in my decision to return to ARM in 2014 to join the full-time staff. In this context of ministry with ARM, my understanding of praxis – generically defined as “a unity of theory and practice” (Ledwith, 2009, p. xiv) – has been shaped by the stories of families in rural Alabama who strive to live lives of dignity and purpose in spite of their poverty housing conditions. These stories reveal how Alabama fails to be a “sweet home” for so many of its residents. Unlike my privileged experience as a middle-class, Euro-American, raced as white, able-bodied male, the experiences of families I have come to know through ARM are marked by various struggles with systemic injustice and marginalization due to race, class, gender, and (dis)ability. My friendship with JB was my informal introduction into this new, bewildering reality of poverty in my own backyard. As I try to be friends with JB, I am led into situations that call for a special kind of action – prophetic action – inspired by the Spirit of Jesus who still anoints God’s children to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to liberate the oppressed” (Lk. 4:18b, Common English Bible). This prophetic action is founded on the hope of “the day of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:19), which is a day of joy, peace, holistic and dynamic flourishing, and perfect community with God, neighbor, self, and all creation – a day of shalom. These three themes – friendship, prophetic action, and shalom – inform the praxis I am seeking to embody. After reviewing common definitions of praxis, this essay will briefly explore an understanding of praxis as friendship in prophetic action for shalom.
In most cases, praxis refers to a synthesis of thinking and doing, acting and reflecting. The term arose as a response to modern, Western culture which is rooted in “a dualistic post-Kantian epistemology which presumed a fundamental dichotomy between… thought and action” (Markey, 1995, p. 193). However, praxis can also take on broader, less specific meanings. Markey (1995) finds at least three fundamental understandings of praxis in common usage. Following Aristotle, praxis can be synonymous with practice or any kind of “direct activity.” Second, following Kant, praxis becomes “any ethically relevant human behavior” (Markey, 1995, p. 180-1). These two understandings remain ambiguous since neither explains the purpose or goal of praxis. However, the third way of understanding praxis as identified by Markey’s (1995) analysis is more explicit about its purpose. Following Marx, praxis is seen as “human creative activity” that transforms history and people, as social praxis that shapes culture, and as revolutionary praxis which “works to subvert, counter, and overturn the existing social praxis” (Markey, 1995, p. 181). This particular understanding of praxis is the most applicable to the aims of development, which seeks the transformation of individuals and socio-economic processes including subversion of the status quo in contexts of systemic injustice and oppression.
My friendship with JB and reveals the need for the kind of revolutionary praxis that Marx suggests. Even though he and I grew up in the same county in rural Alabama, our life experiences could not be more different and more unequal. JB is an African-American man, raced as black, twice my age, who is unemployed, and lives alone in a severely dilapidated mobile home where he gets by on a very low income from government assistance. JB has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, has struggled with alcoholism, and has not been able to keep healthy relationships with his family or his surrounding community. JB’s home is very close to the town where I grew up in a very comfortable home, received a decent education, and was given all the love, support, and opportunity I needed to thrive. If not for my service with ARM’s home repair ministry, I would not have crossed JB’s path because social life in Sumter County is still sharply divided by race. My church, my school, my neighbors, and my friends were virtually all white in a town where African-Americans made up nearly 75% of the population. This oppressive reality of social division and inequality stands in opposition to the will of God who desires an abundant life of justice, love, and community for all people in all places, Sumter County included. A truly Christian praxis, which will be even more radical than Marx’s understanding of revolutionary praxis, is desperately needed to create a space for God’s healing and redemption to unfold in Sumter County and other rural communities across the state. This Christian praxis will be characterized by friendship in prophetic action for shalom.
Through my experiences with JB and many others I have come to know in rural Alabama, I have been convinced that Christian praxis must begin in friendship because praxis is, first and foremost, an embodied response to the God who is Love. As Gustavo Gutierrez (1988) makes clear, “if there is no friendship with [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to [the praxis of] liberation, because love exists only among equals” (p. xxxi). Beginning with friendships makes space for people to learn to give and receive from one another, to trust one another, to care for one another, and to share their stories from the heart. This foundation of love, trust, equality, and mutuality are essential to Christian praxis. What’s more, in order for these praxeological friendships to be truly Christocentric, they should be shaped by God’s option for the poor “not because Christ is with the marginalized but, rather, Christ is the marginalized” (De La Torre, 2004, p. 57). For me, this means trying to be friends with someone like JB who reveals Christ to me in uniquely powerful ways. I have come to learn that “Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those [like me] who serve the poor,” because “God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed” (Oliver, 2009). Those who pursue friendships of solidarity with the poor as part of their praxis must be involved in the transformation they seek to see in others and their communities, and be ready to be transformed themselves. As Ledwith (2009) notes, praxis is not an individualized experience because “in praxis, my journey comes together with others in the quest for critical consciousness: making sense of the world in order to transform it as a collective experience” (p. 41).
Christian praxis begins in deeply personal friendships, but it must move on to prophetic action. As stated previously, praxis is understood generically as a unity or synthesis of theory and practice. This dynamic is usually described as the action-reflection cycle. For Freire (2000), the two are inseparable such that “true reflection… leads to action… [and] that action will constitute an authentic praxis only if its consequences become the object of critical reflection” (p. 66). However, this is not a linear, step-by-step process. Instead, according to Freire (2000), “action and reflection occur simultaneously” (p. 128). This cycle is articulated well within Brueggemann’s (2001) concept of prophetic ministry which seeks to “to nuture, nourish, and evoke [an alternative] consciousness and perception” that simultaneously “serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness… [while,] on the other hand, [serving] to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move” (p. 3).
Christian praxis is prophetic to the extent that it employs a critical analysis of power, ideology, and hegemony. This reflective analysis will reveal how power “is located within a multidimensional system of oppressions in which we are all simultaneously oppressors and oppressed” (Ledwith, 2009, p. 143). In response to these death-dealing systems of oppression, prophetic Christian praxis will invite a “public sharing of pain,” which “seeks to penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we are caught” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 117). This lamentation goes deeper than political protest, and allows the voices of those who suffer most to be heard the loudest.
At the same time, prophetic Christian praxis will bring people together to work for concrete changes in their lives and communities. This will mean interacting with and possibly challenging “the political and social structures that normalize injustices” (De La Torre, 2004, p. 47). However, this political action, founded as it is in friendships, will begin locally and, over time, extend to develop “a [global] reach that aims to transform the structures of oppression that diminish local lives” (Ledwith, 2009, p. 3). This transformative action will look different in every context, but will, in every context, consist of “offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 116). Christian praxis as prophetic action must build upon its personal relationships to inspire movements for structural change that can adequately criticize the status quo while energizing diverse groups to pursue in unity a renewed common good where “justice [rolls] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
Finally, Christian praxis that begins in friendship and leads to prophetic action will be inspired by a vision of shalom. Or, as Gutierrez (1998) says it, praxis is “the activity of “peacemakers” – that is, those who are forging shalom” (p. xxx). This Hebrew concept found in the writings of the prophets is usually translated as “peace,” but its original meaning is much richer. According to Myers (2011), shalom summarizes God’s “kingdom vision for the better human future”, and describes a community of “just, peaceful, harmonious, and enjoyable relationships with each other, ourselves, our environment, and God” (Kindle loc. 3778). All Christian praxis must be evaluated in the light of this holistic, comprehensive vision of redemption.
However, the light of shalom shines into the present from the future that God and God alone is working out. Shalom is the hope of those who pursue Christian praxis – not their reality – and “hope must be an inherent part of our present commitment in history” (Gutierrez, 1988, p. 11). The pursuit of Christian praxis will face challenges, setbacks, and obstacles at every turn. The structures of social injustice it seeks to transform are deeply embedded, and change will sometimes be slow. And, hardest of all, Christian praxis “will always be practiced through our own conflicted selves,” which are just as caught up in systems of oppression as those oppressed (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 118). Ultimately, our praxis towards shalom can only be a participation in God’s much bigger praxis towards shalom. Praxis, therefore, is a gift received by grace through faith. For now, this gift of shalom is only seen in part – “a reflection as in a mirror” – but on the coming day of the Lord “we shall see [it] face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).
What does this understanding of Christian praxis as friendship in prophetic action for shalom mean in my context of ministry among children and families in rural Alabama? First, it means making friendship with those I serve not only a personal priority, but a matter of organizational culture and ethos. It can be easy to see ARM as just another “social service agency” where people with “needs” go to get their needs met and where people who like to “meet needs” go to volunteer. In pursuit of Christian praxis, ARM will need to be transformed from a social service agency to a social capital enterprise where friends – not “needs” – are met. Second, it will require creating a space for with whom we serve to voice their grief and struggles. Both myself and ARM’s volunteers need to hear and come to know the depth of suffering that is endured by families in rural Alabama who live without adequate housing. Third, Christian praxis will require an expanded advocacy role, especially on the state level, which engages and challenges Alabama’s political structure. ARM is already involved in this work in very small, indirect ways, but a deeper commitment must be made. This commitment to political change must be informed by and even led by those families with whom we serve. Finally, the gift of shalom as our hope reminds us to rest, enjoy, and celebrate God’s faithfulness together. Along with all the “doing” of ministry, there must be time simply for “being” together in God’s presence. ARM already tries to incorporate rest and times of fellowship between families and volunteers into its ministry design, but this practice must continue to grow even more widespread. As I recall my friend JB in light of this essay, I wonder: how can I be his true friend? How can I listen, amplify, and share in his pain? What are the socio-economic powers at work in his life and community? Who can come together to challenge these powers? What does shalom look like for JB?
- Brueggemann, W. (2001). The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
- De La Torre, M. (2004). Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
- Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary edition. New York: Continuum.
- Gutierrez, G. (1988). A Theology of Liberation, 15th anniversary edition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
- Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.
- Markey, J. (1995). “Praxis in Liberation Theology: Some Clarifications,” Missiology: An International Review XXIII (2).
- Myers, B. (2011). Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
- Oliver, C. (2009). “Why I Stopped Serving the Poor” (unpublished essay).
The Vineyard Church, a young Christian denomination at the forefront of the “third wave” of charismatic renewal which swept through American evangelical churches in the early 1970s, has become the tradition with which I am most at home. This reflection will explore the Vineyard Church’s political engagement with human trafficking. In addition, I will personally reflect on the nature of this engagement, and will offer a brief comparative look at the Anglican Church’s political engagement with human trafficking.
Three of the Vineyard Church’s five core values reveal their expectation for socio-political transformation as a result of their discipleship. These values – the theology and practice of the kingdom of God, reconciling community, and compassionate ministry – compel Vineyard churches to be engaged with socio-political processes (Vineyard USA, n.d.-c). The Vineyard’s primary expression of this engagement is the Vineyard Justice Network (VJN), which trains “the people in our churches to think and respond strategically to the interconnectivity of human trafficking, poverty, and the environment” (Vineyard Justice Network, n.d.-b). Since VJN began as the Vineyard Anti-Slavery Team, “freeing slaves” from human trafficking is one of its main concerns.
VJN encourages Vineyard churches to pray for victims and survivors of human trafficking, identify and support those at risk of being trafficked in their communities, and care for survivors. Specifically, VJN “lifts up prevention work as the key way Vineyard churches can fight modern-day slavery” (VJN, n.d.-a). To this end, they provide an impressive array of online resources to individuals, which empower them to engage in hands-on ministry with organizations working in their communities (Vineyard USA, n.d.-b). These “action steps” include organizing “Stop Modern Slavery” among community and church members, as well as advocating for change by calling or writing elected officials (Vineyard USA, n.d.-b). In addition to these individual resources, prayer guides, Bible studies, educational toolkits for awareness building, and information articles are provided for Vineyard church groups (Vineyard USA, n.d.-a). While the VJN does not organize any direct socio-political action related to human trafficking, it hopes to inform a grassroots movement within Vineyard churches which can engage local communities, as well as local, state, and national governments, in order to prevent the spread of human trafficking and care for survivors.
This kind of de-politicized, grassroots approach to the engagement of human trafficking locates the Vineyard Church within the evangelical tradition of church and state relations. As Shah (2009) highlights, “evangelicals believe that… change comes not through top-down, state-centered legal and policy schemes but through the bottom-up transformation and mobilization of individuals” (p. 137). The state’s primary task for evangelicals is “to defend the innocent and vulnerable,” which aligns well with the Vineyard’s emphasis on supporting, empowering, and caring for survivors and those at risk of human trafficking (Shah, 2009, p. 137). In addition, the Vineyard’s charismatic roots also influence its socio-political engagement. As Swindle (2009) explains, the Pentecostal church once emphasized a holistic, communal understanding of holiness that was “dissatisfied with surrounding injustices and committed to an alternative vision of the world and society” (p. 154). This Pentecostal vision of holiness as “new creation” inspires and animates the Vineyard’s theology and practice of the Kingdom of God, which compels them to be engaged with their communities in very practical, hands-on ways.
I deeply appreciate how the Vineyard’s unique blend of charismatic evangelicalism leads to a person-centered approach to issues such as human trafficking. For Vineyard churches, the reality of human trafficking is not an abstract issue; it is people with faces and stories. This personal approach is oriented towards the development of mutual relationships of love, solidarity, and compassion, which are the necessary starting point of any truly Christian socio-political engagement. However, they cannot be the destination. The love shared between a Vineyard church and survivors of human trafficking must become the driving force behind a larger, broader campaign for justice in which human traffickers are stopped and the risk factors for human trafficking victims are mitigated. With their deep distrust of government, evangelical churches are typically hesitant to move beyond one-on-one relationships into the realm of public policy change. As the Vineyard grows in its response to human trafficking, I pray it will not make this mistake.
To do so, Vineyard churches would be wise to look to the example of their Anglican brothers and sisters. As Anderson (2009) notes, the Anglican tradition “acknowledges [the state] as a partner worthy of cooperation” (p. 110). The Anglican tradition expects the church to be politically active (Anderson, 2009, p. 104). This Anglican approach comes to light when comparing the Episcopal Church of the USA’s advocacy website on human trafficking with that of VJN. While the Episcopal Church offers many of the same kinds of resources to empower individuals, groups, and local churches to respond, it also reports how Episcopal advocates supported the passage of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which became US law in 2015 (The Episcopal Church, n.d.). Going even further, the Anglican Communion has joined forces with an international coalition of interfaith leaders in order to secure commitments to stopping human trafficking around the globe (The Archbishop of Canterbury, 2014). These national and international efforts reveal the scope that is required for the Vineyard’s socio-political engagement to seek faithfully the justice of God’s kingdom.
Anderson, Leah Seppanen (2009). The Anglican Tradition: Building the State, Critiquing the State. In Sandra F. Joireman (Ed.), Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement (93-114). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Archbishop of Canterbury. (2014). Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis back Anglican-Catholic anti-slavery and human trafficking initiative. Retrieved from http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5262/archbishop-justin-and-pope-francis-back-anglican-catholic-anti-slavery-and-human-trafficking-initiat.
Episcopal Church, The. (n.d.). Human Trafficking Resources. Retrieved from http://advocacy.episcopalchurch.org/humantrafficking.
Shah, Timothy Samuel (2009). For the Sake of Conscience: Some Evangelical Views of the State. In Sandra F. Joireman (Ed.) , Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement (115-144). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Swindle, Stephen M. (2009). Pentecostalism: Holy Spirit Empowerment and Politics. In Sandra F. Joireman (Ed.) , Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement (145-164). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vineyard Justice Network. (n.d.-a). Freeing Slaves. Retrieved from http://vineyardjusticenetwork.org/freeing-slaves/.
Vineyard Justice Network. (n.d.-b). Who is VJN? Retrieved from http://vineyardjusticenetwork.org/who-is-vjn/.
Vineyard USA. (n.d.-a). Action Steps for Groups. Retrieved from http://www.vineyardusa.org/site/content/action-steps-groups.
Vineyard USA. (n.d.-b). Action Steps for Individuals. Retrieved from http://www.vineyardusa.org/site/content/action-steps-individuals.
Vineyard USA. (n.d.-c). Core Values and Beliefs. Retrieved from http://www.vineyardresources.com/CoreValuesAndBeliefs.pdf.