Monday, September 5, 2016

Our Religion of Economism is Bankrupt (Brian E. Konkol)

This article was first published with the Huffington Post on September 5, 2016, and can be found at the following link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-e-konkol/our-religion-of-economism_b_11865930.html?

In both religion and economics, absurd belief too often leads to atrocious action.

While the consequences of misguided belief are well-documented in the study of religion, we rarely use comparable standards to critique the religious-like faith bestowed upon our current economic system. We believe that economic “growth” is the single most important key to unlocking the sacred doors of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, the facts of the matter and narratives of the masses reveal a far different picture. As our globalized fiscal cycle is now calibrated to impose repeated tragic failures, and because it seems to legitimize inequality and destruction of the Earth as virtuous and inevitable, the time is long overdue to expose the false beliefs and oppressive impact surrounding our contemporary economic edifice.

Our present condition, often known as “neoliberal capitalism”, which rose to prominence through Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, seeks to transfer control of the global economy from public to private sector under the belief that such a transition will produce a more efficient government and improve the livelihood of all nations. Through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and World Trade Organization (WTO), neoliberal policies are currently imposed - often without civic consent - upon much of the world, to the detriment of both people and the planet. As Naomi Klein accurately stated, “our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life”. Through massive tax cuts for the rich and methodical annihilation of trade unions, the neoliberal movement has led to massive consolidations of power and privilege, thus multinational enterprises - motivated by profit and mostly unaccountable to any electorate - use their strong financial influence to push governments into deregulation-orientated policies for the steady flow of products, currency, and factories. While such strategies have created tremendous financial wealth, the distribution of positive and negative consequences is increasingly disproportionate, and the current world population of seven billion is mostly controlled by an overlap of a few hundred billionaires.

As Jim Wallis correctly indicated, we possess an “un-Economy” that is un-fair, creates a world that is both un-stable and un-sustainable, and leaves the far majority of global citizens totally un-satisfied. Why do we continue to believe in such a damaging arrangement? The negative consequences are both ethically alarming and empirically clear, yet similar to the ways in which some people of faith are conditioned not to interrogate their longstanding religious customs, it appears that far too many citizens are forcibly encouraged not to examine the basic practices of our dominant and destructive economic structure. Furthermore, just as there is sparse awareness of alternative approaches to the organized religion of certain faith traditions, there is insufficient knowledge of diverse methods in the realm of economics. For too many of us, we simply cannot imagine another way. In the midst of it all, our collective and blind faith in the divine-like invisible hand remains strong, and we relate to it like an omnipotent deity that must be piously and repeatedly praised and pleased. As a result, one can persuasively argue that we are increasingly “Economistic”, as production and consumption has become our communal worship, because rising gross domestic product is our salvation, the market is our god, and “Economism” is now our most popular and prosperous religious practice.

Economism, a term coined by Joel Kassiola in 1990 and later used by Paul Ekins and Manfred Max-Neef in 1992, is our most organized and flourishing popular religion. As theologian John B. Cobb wrote at the turn of our current century, religion is ultimatley “whatever binds the multiple aspects of human existence together”, and faithfulness to the holy creeds of economism redefines citizens into consumers and affirms competition as the defining characteristic of all human interactions. In doing so, Economism requires people as homo economus to believe that economic growth will somehow directly solve any and all of our most pressing problems, and ultimately, provide the resources needed to pursue any and all of our most important values. The dogmas of economism require, both directly and indirectly, that the structures and systems we set are all designed in such a way that our faithfulness is judged primarily in financial terms, as if our deliverance is somehow determined by whether or not the invisible hand is worshipped and pleased. Our ultimate concern, therefore - especially in times of difficulty - becomes a narrowly and erroneously defined notion of public health and personal wellbeing, and our prayers are most zealously offered to the real god of our communal devotion: the almighty market.

During a previous time of economic transition, Victor Lebow stated that “our enormously productive economy ... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption ... we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.” Is this a redeemable description of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? As is the case with other destructive beliefs and practices, in order to break free from such chains we must recognize consequences and propose alternatives. Thankfully, resistance and revolution is already happening, as more people are awakening to the knowledge that what they have been sold in recent decades is contrary to what reality can actually deliver. In addition to the popularizing of democratic socialism, we also hear more about a “sharing economy” or the “commons” and “peer production”, all in order to shape our society around innovative and life-giving metrics such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and Economic Bill of Rights. By providing such means to organize and assess our global household, together we might re-learn how to define human interactions not by what we buy or sell to and from one another, but through a collective affirmation that our lives ultimately do belong to each other.

Our religion of Economism is bankrupt, yet the spirit of our human community is overflowing with abundance, and a more liberating collective faith can point us toward a more authentic flavor or freedom. The rules which were made can also be unmade, and the ill-advised trust that supports such repressive rules can also be rejected and transformed. We are better together when we share a vision of a more benevolent and balanced economic order - based on representative planning and cooperative market mechanisms - to achieve an equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a nourishing environment, sustainable development, gender and racial equity, and non-oppressive relationships. The scales which blind us to such emancipating truths must fall off our eyes, to imagine and ignite new ways of being, and to experience the gift of life in its fullness. Since our beliefs do indeed lead to our actions, the most important step forward might be to believe that such a way is indeed possible.

The 52nd Nobel Conference, “In Search of Economic Balance”, will take place at Gustavus Adolphus College from September 27-28, 2016. For more information, including tickets and livestream viewing, see https://gustavus.edu/events/nobelconference/2016/

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Choosing a College for a Common Good (Brian E. Konkol)

This article was first published on the Huffington Post on August 4, 2016, and can be found at the following link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-e-konkol/choosing-a-college-for-a-_b_11295676.html?

Before asking “where” or even “how much will it cost”, perhaps it is most worthwhile to first consider “why” when choosing a college.

Why college? For starters, one should challenge the common assumption that campuses are mere four-year corridors to higher wages, elevated social status, and comfortable lifestyles. A reputable college degree often leads to such outcomes, yet higher education is supposed to provide something far more valuable. Since “civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe”, as H.G. Wells argued, then personal education should ultimatley lead to public transformation, thus the aim of college should be to think and act free for the sake of serving a common good.

“The common good” is why one should choose a college.

The contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are...equally to everyone’s advantage”. This notion includes earning a fair income through meaningful employment, and also incorporates social systems, institutions, and settings that benefit the good of all people. Examples of the common good include an accessible health care system, effective and affordable education, safety and security, peace among nations of the world, a just legal and political organization, an unpolluted natural environment, and a flourishing and fair economic system (which includes minimal burdens surrounding student loans and longer-term debt). As such structures, institutions, and settings have a direct impact on the wellbeing of all in society, it is no surprise that virtually everyone and everything is linked to how well these structures and institutions function. There are few vocational pursuits that fall outside the realm of the common good, thus (not coincidentally) there are few employers not interested in potential employees that are equipped to think and act in such virtuous and valuable ways.

North America is filled with excellent institutions of higher education, and selecting a college is one of the most important, exciting, and difficult decisions one will face. There are numerous factors to consider surrounding available classes, extracurricular options, campus culture, housing, possible career path, and of course, total financial cost. The context of such a decision should impact its content, and in challenging times such as ours some questions can take a higher priority than others, such as: Where will I live into my full potential by learning to engage ethical issues, build peace, act for justice, explore faith and values, develop as a leader (and discover how to develop others as leaders), be empowered for service and advocacy, grow in both knowledge and wisdom, transform conflict, honor human worth, and celebrate the diversity and unity of community? Perhaps most importantly, where is a college that will provide life-long opportunities to repeatedly live into the “why” one attended college in the first place?


Why college? At a time when our local and global communities are increasingly connected yet ideologically isolated, diverse yet distant, and filled with hope and optimism yet also panic and aggression, higher education is one of the best public and personal investments possible, as colleges remind their communities (and communities teach their colleges!) that we all belong to each other, and we need each other to become ourselves. As the African proverb reminds us, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This embrace of education for a common good honors our personal opportunities and embodies our public responsibilities, which means selecting a college is less about the professional ladders one seeks to climb, and more about the public chains one wishes to break. For such reasons, when choosing a college “where” and “how much” are indeed critically important to consider, yet “why” should be at the forefront, as one should expect far more than a stepping stone to an entry-level job, but instead yearn for a launching pad to an exceptional life.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Give the Department of Peace a Chance (Brian E. Konkol)

This article was first published with the Huffington Post on May 5, 2015, and can be found at the following link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-e-konkol/give-the-department-of-pe_b_9844474.html?

In February of 2009 the U.S. House of Representatives heard H.R. 808 (first introduced in July of 2001, just months before the Twin Towers fell in New York on September 11th), to design a Cabinet-level Department of Peace and Nonviolence that embodies a broad approach to peaceful conflict resolution at both domestic and international levels. The Department would promote non-violence as an organizing principle and help to generate the conditions necessary for a more peaceful world. In light of sustained violent conflict, both locally and globally, such a department would serve in the advancement of peace, both in the present and for the sake of future generations.

The following are some highlights from the proposed legislation:

* Headed by a Secretary of Peace and Nonviolence, appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, the Department would be dedicated to peacemaking and the study of conditions that are conducive to both domestic and international peace.

* The mission of the Department shall be: to hold peace as an organizing principle of life; endeavor to promote justice and the expansion of human rights; strengthen non-military means of peacemaking; promote the development of human potential; work to create peace, prevent violence, divert from armed conflict and develop new structures in nonviolent dispute resolution; and take a proactive, strategic approach in the development of policies that promote national and international conflict prevention, nonviolent intervention, mediation, peaceful resolution of conflict and structured mediation of conflict.

* The Department will create and establish a Peace Academy, modeled after the military service academies, which will provide a four-year concentration in peace education. Graduates will be required to serve five years in public service through programs dedicated to domestic or international nonviolent conflict resolution.

While the specifics of H.R. 808 require further analysis and input from U.S. citizens, one would like to believe that the core idea of peacebuilding would receive significant bipartisan support, especially among military veterans with firsthand experience of violent warfare. However, the U.S. has resisted this policy proposal for generations, for even as far back as 1792 a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, along with Benjamin Banneker, suggested the blueprint for an Office of Peace (intended to counter what was then known as the Department of War). President George Washington stated that his first wish was “to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth”, yet legislation for a Department of Peace was not introduced until 1935, which, by 1969 was followed by nearly one-hundred additional bills. While many U.S. citizens state a longing for peace and nonviolence, we lack the political will and public motivation to make it a reality, and the result is a continued state of aggression and destruction.

The time is upon us to recognize that peace is not merely a destination, but a journey, and not merely a noun, but a verb, for we can be people of peace even in the midst of a violent world. Our culture of cruel and unusual conflict, often fueled by fear and greed, is both unacceptable and unsustainable, and a U.S. Department of Peace would be a positive step in a peaceful direction. While the total removal of human brutality is unimaginable for most, such legislative efforts would affirm that the reduction of violence anywhere will inevitably do something for the reduction of violence everywhere. Since our federal budget is indeed a moral document, instead of only spending billions of dollars each year defending ourselves from our neighbors, the time is also upon us to invest more fully in methods of making peace alongside our neighbors, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Scandal of God's Criminal Justice is Forgiveness (Brian E. Konkol)

The following homily was published with the Huffington Post on April 12, 2016, and is taken from a homily given in Christ Chapel, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN) on April 11, 2016. 

The 2nd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel holds a most horrific story, as it shares a section of Scripture that many not only detest, but simply wish did not exist. As this marginalized portion of the Christmas narrative reveals, when King Herod learns that a threat to his power was born in Bethlehem, he subsequently orders all male infants under the age of two in and around the area to be killed. This is, of course, a segment of the Christmas story that we so often suppress while cozy with our gifts around the Christmas tree. The vicious depiction is simply too agonizing, too awful, and too authentic. 

Shortly after Jesus was born, when King Herod devised his plan to commit genocide as a means to protect his empire, an angel in turn warns Joseph, who subsequently removes the infant Christ from danger. Tragically, countless others would not be so fortunate, and as a result, an incalculable amount of lives were so painfully taken so painfully early. This is one of the most gruesome portions of the entire Bible, and as we consider this dark massacre of holy innocents so brutally brought to light, there are numerous important lessons to consider, and as a result, many disturbing questions to ponder. One such question surrounds the scandal of God’s criminal justice. 

As we examine the nature of God’s criminal justice, we recognize that it is not difficult to be anguished, or even outraged, by what happened in this often ignored text from Matthew’s Gospel. The mass-murder of small children is beyond sickening. However, the source of our collective distress is not only the horrific sights and sounds of violence and terror, but deep down, through such dreadful disasters we also struggle with our common conceptions of a loving God. While we wonder where God is in the midst of such tragedies, and while others question why God does not (or perhaps cannot) prevent such bloodshed from taking place, we are ultimatley troubled with our basic and longstanding beliefs of where God’s love is placed in the unfolding aftermath. We wonder: What exactly is God’s justice in the context of such terrible catastrophe? Furthermore, the question that lies beneath such a question is whether or not there are any limits to God’s forgiveness. Which, in turn, leads us to consider if there is anything - or anyone - that is beyond the scope of God’s so-called amazing grace. Is there anything simply too awful, and is there anyone simply too evil, to receive God’s love? 

If we explore such existential inquiries through the lenses of the Risen Christ, we are quickly left with a bit of a prosecutorial problem. 

In our current day and age, as well as thousands of years ago, as people with a model of justice that is so often based upon “get back” and trying to even the so-called scale, we are presented with a spiritual and social puzzle that is by no means easily solved. For those of us that have caused great harm, God’s criminal justice does indeed look merciful and compassionate. However, for those of us that have survived great harm at the hands of others, God’s criminal justice often looks anything but just. Because, God’s criminal justice - which is modeled through Jesus’ death and resurrection - leaves the survivors of harm among us - in some ways - rather unsatisfied. While we have a God that seems to despise our human offenses, this God seems to honor the humanity of both the offended andthe offender, which in turn means that we are both comforted and confronted as we consider the exploits, not only of King Herod thousands of years ago, but of those in our current day and age that are responsible for great pain and terrible human suffering. 

We are disturbed with the details of such a scandalous Gospel, as God’s criminal justice, grounded in grace with a kenosis trajectory that resists retribution and moves us toward restoration, is far beyond our most common public policies and unimaginative personal practices. God’s criminal justice is about restoring community through radical hospitality, rather than dividing communities through retribution and brutality. 

On a personal note, a few years ago I volunteered at a high security juvenile detention facility, a rather intimidating and trying assignment, as the location housed young adults that made some very unfortunate, and yes, very violent choices. While the courts labeled these young and incarcerated people as criminals, and some even as monsters, I was given the opportunity to learn their names and stories. In doing so, I soon realized that with every offense, it is not difficult to see both offender and offended as victims. Among other things, what I learned was that, despite the common “tough on crime” claims to the contrary, the young people I met were beloved Children of God, who both created and experienced severe suffering. The opportunity to accompany those labeled as delinquent was an experience that - to this day - grounds and guides my understanding of who God is and what God does.

In light of it all, God surely knows that we all make our share of mistakes, and we all have helped to create great harm. Despite our best of intentions, we all commit crimes against humanity, countless times, each and every day. But of course, unlike the far majority of those caught within the cruel cycles of the correctional system, the mistakes we make are often shielded by a swath of social institutions and fortified with unwritten communal codes. These associations and administrations protect us from both surveillance and prosecution, and in doing so, we are shielded from receiving the label of criminal that countless others not born into our privileged situations so sadly receive.

In all of this, it is not to say people should not be held accountable for their actions. That is not the point.

The point is that, ultimatley, who among us actually gets what they deserve in life? There are those that get more and others that get less. Which means that, just as we should hold others accountable for their actions, we should also hold ourselves accountable for the actions of others. We all ultimatley belong to each other, and our current system of grossly over-individualized prosecution and punishment is simply a means to relieve ourselves of community responsibility in general, and excuse ourselves from personal guilt in particular. This collective consciousness and shared responsibility, on our best of days, should prevent us from self-righteousness, even in those moments when we are tempted to join the crowd, grab our moral pitch-forks, and seek mob justice when crucifixion seems most convenient. 

When Jesus said to take up our crosses and follow him, it was not in order for us to nail others to the crosses we carry. This is the comfort and challenge of the Gospel, for God embraces the humanity in both offender and offended, as each of us is both offender and offended, thus we are called to resist the temptation of retribution and engage the process of restoration. Because, ultimatley, the scandal of God’s criminal justice is forgiveness.

The scandal of God’s criminal justice is forgiveness. 

It does not mean that we should accept all things, nor does it mean that we should forget all things. It does not mean that we should simply give out a free pass, nor does it mean that reparations should not be sought. Yet it all does mean that we are called to forgive as God first forgave us. Why? Because resentment is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die, and forgiveness allows us to let go of our false hopes for a better past. In walking this way of the Risen Christ, the aim of God’s criminal justice is not to put offenders in chains, but to release us all of our own. 

We receive an example of such restoration from across the ocean in Zambia. In the Bemba tribe, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, they are placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. We can imagine the scene. In response to an injustice, all work ceases, and every man, every woman, and every child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then, each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, not to offer words of judgment or condemnation, but to recite the good things that the accused has done in their lifetime. Every life-giving experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted, and shared publically, for all to hear. Why? Because such affirmation is a reminder of who that person truly is. This ceremony often lasts for days, depending upon the severity of the offense, and at the end, when the circle is broken, a closing ritual occurs, and the accused is symbolically - and literally - restored, back into the fullness of the community.
This is how God’s criminal justice works. 

When we are at our worst, we are reminded that, at our core, with the Crucified and Risen Christ as our guide, we were created to be connected as community, which means, when the bonds are inevitably broken, the goal is to intentionally restore, repair, and to the best of our cooperative abilities, even resurrect. For as difficult as it may sound, accountability and absolution can join together, as justice and mercy are mutual partners in the grand dance of life in its fullness. Although reaching for such restoration may not quench our steadfast thirst for revenge, this is our path to sustainable peace, for it is the example we receive in Jesus, and our key to unlocking the beauty and freedom of God’s criminal justice. 


As people of God, both offenders and offended, the scandal, the beauty, and the freedom of God’s criminal justice is forgiveness. May we receive it, when the fingers of the community are pointed at us. May we share it, when our fingers are pointed at others. This day and always. Amen.