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A Device, not a Dogma  

by Fr. John Rausch

            Faced with few possibilities for employment in her area, Linda considered moving from her mountain home to a distant city to earn her livelihood. She lived on land in her family for three generations and she wanted to raise her granddaughter in the splendor of Appalachia. The conventional wisdom of the marketplace says the unemployed should move to find work, but Linda understood place, tradition, history and community. The market promises rewards to the faithful, but Linda wanted connectedness to her roots.   In the end she did with less, made do with local opportunities, and stayed on the land.  

                The market system strongly influences people’s decisions about their lives and what they do. Families move hundreds of miles away from relatives and supportive friends for the sake of a job. Workers endure undesirable employment to maintain a modest standard of living, and people work harder and longer to keep up with their neighbors. In this perpetual motion few hit the pause button to examine the economic forces on their lives. 

                Writing in the March 1999 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Harvey Cox, a professor of divinity at Harvard University, reflects about society’s unquestioning respect for the invisible hand of business and commerce. His article, "The Market as God," compares the market as a source of power and understanding for society with attributes usually associated with God. He claims society bestows on the market the divine abilities of being omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all knowing) and omnipresent (existing everywhere). Follow the argument.

                Divine omnipotence can do anything, and hence displays the power of creating. Whereas God creates the universe, the Market creates commodities. The Market seemingly possesses a limitless ability to convert a part of creation into a product for sale. Sacred places like ancient burial grounds or holy mountains can wear a sticker price as real estate. The human body not infrequently displays a price tag for blood or bodily organs. The Market’s omnipotence can sell whole towns or disrupt vast areas of nature when it decrees the need for more commodities.   While God knows the secrets of the heart, the Market knows the cost of crude and the price of potatoes.  

                 The fluctuations of the stock market signal the prophetic truth about buying or selling. And, if some government policy interferes too dramatically with the potential of profit making, the Market cries heresy. The Market knows all and acts best.

                Finally, believers walk confidently with God by their side. Comparably, disciples of the Market proceed knowing an awareness of financial consequences will influence nearly all social decision-making, whether in business, in government or in the individual. A simple appeal to budget considerations reminds combatants of the omnipresent Market and stops many an argument. 

                Linda represents someone whose values challenge an uncritical acceptance of the market’s authority. If Linda had followed the market’s wisdom, today she would be working in some office or factory. Instead, as an alternative she remembered that her grandparents in the Appalachian tradition dug herbs in the forest for health and medicine. Linda now makes her modest livelihood with some of her neighbors in a co-op selling herbs. 

                While the market represents a marvelous mechanism for allocating most goods and services, it has its limitations. Ultimately for believers the market is a device, not a dogma. The sacredness of life, the stewardship of creation and the respect for community supercede the market’s promised rewards of lucrative employment, cheap prices and expanded choices. These spiritual considerations temper the uncritical acceptance of market wisdom. 

              Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, teaches at the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center, Berea, Ky.   His column appears monthly in many Catholic journals and in ours courtesy of the Friends of the Good News.  Join the Friends of the Good News and help spread the Gospel.
Read other articles of Spiritual Enlightenment in the December 2000 edition of The Charismatics or return to the Main Menu by clicking on the blue.