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The Great Recession: A Spiritual Crisis

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The Great Recession is not just an economic crisis, it is the result of a loss of values, a moral crisis. And to say that it is a moral crisis is also to say that it is a spiritual crisis. At the center of most religions is the question of who and what we worship? Where is our deepest allegiance?

So the Great Recession bears some "religious" reflection, as the market has gradually become all pervasive--a replacement for religion and even for God. It is the Market now that now seems to have all the godlike qualities--all-knowing, all-present, all-powerful, even eternal--unable to be resisted or even questioned. Performing necessary roles and providing important goods and services are not the same things as commanding ultimate allegiance. Idolatry means that something has taken the place of God. The market can be good thing and even necessary; but it now commands too much, claims ultimate significance, controls too much space in our lives, and has gone far beyond its proper limits.

Idolatry comes in a lot of different forms. Today, it is much more subtle than bowing down to a golden calf. It often takes the form of choosing the wrong priorities, trusting in the wrong things, and putting our confidence where it does not belong.

Today, instead of statues, we now have hedge funds, mortgage-backed securities, 401(k)s, and mutual funds and, for some, bonuses. We place blind faith in the hope that the stock indexes will just keep rising and real estate prices keep climbing. Market mechanisms were supposed to distribute risk so well that even those who were reckless would never see the consequences of their actions. Trust, security, and hope in the future were all as close to us as the nearest financial planner's office. Life and the world around us could all be explained with just the right market lens. These idols were supposed to make us happy and secure, and provide for all our needs. Those who manage them became the leaders, to whom we looked, not just for financial leadership, but direction for our entire lives. That is indeed idolatry.

Rich and poor alike were sucked into making heroes out of those who seemed to be able to turn everything they touched into gold. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel lost virtually all of his personal wealth and his foundation's, up to $37 million, to Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. "We gave him everything, we thought he was God, we trusted everything in his hands," Weisel said.

The market even has its priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, and shamans. These money and market commentators translate the often confusing signals of the Dow, international currency exchange rates, or futures indexes and tell us all what they mean and how they should act as a result. Sometimes they preach famine and the retribution of the market for the sins of the people, and other times they praise the market and the feast it provides. Those who question the market "god" are called heretics and lunatics and are burned at the stake on conservative talk radio.

In claiming the power to define what is real and true, and bowing to no limits beyond itself, the market now claims "a comprehensive wisdom that in the past only the gods have known," according to theologian Harvey Cox. And like a god to be feared and worshipped, we now can even know the market's moods on a daily basis--moody, angry, restless, or satisfied. And to even question the market's "high priests" and their declarations is now to commit heresy. The worship of this false god, The Market, has become quite ecumenical. Across denominational and faith persuasions, herds of us are bowing down to the doctrines and dictates of The Market.

But this crisis presents us with an opportunity, not just to be smarter and more prudent about our economic lives, but to change something much deeper--to reject the idolatry of our market worship, to expose the idols that have ensnared us, and to reduce "The Market" to simply "the market," asking the market to again serve us, rather than the other way around. According to John Deere CEO, Bob Lane, the market is to be "a means, and not an end." That's good theology.

Indeed, it could be that the religions of the world might help lead the way here, challenging the idols of the market and reminding us who is God and who is not--a traditional and necessary role for religion. "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world, and they that dwell therein," say both Christianity and Judaism: it does not belong to the market. Let us also remember that human beings are merely stewards of God's creation; not its masters. And we humans are the ones who preside over the market--not the other way around.

And despite our differences, the religion of the market has become a more formidable rival to every religion than we are to one another. But together now, we could challenge the dominion of the market, by again restoring the rightful worship of God. The market's false promise of its limitless infinity must be replaced with the acknowledgment of our human finitude, with more humility and with moral limits--which are essential to restoring our true humanity. The market's fear of scarcity must be replaced with the abundance of a loving God. And the first commandment of The Market, "There is never enough," must be replaced by the dictums of God's economy; namely, there is enough, if we share it.

For people of faith, there is another question: What is a Christian, Jewish, or Islamic response to a deepening economic crisis like this? What should people of faith be thinking, saying, and doing? What is the responsibility of the churches, synagogues, and mosques to their own parishioners, to their communities, to the nation, and the world? And where is God in all this?

What do pastors, lay leaders, activists, and practitioners say about creative opportunities and new solutions that could come out of all this: the possibilities of mutual aid, congregational and community credit unions, and new cooperative strategies for solving problems like health care, housing, and even jobs. How can an economic crisis reconnect religious congregations with their own communities? How might a crisis be an opportunity to clarify the mission of the faith community?

One good example of a response is the Vineyard Church of Columbus, Ohio. On Palm Sunday, Pastor Rich Nathan told his congregation, "We want to help families and individuals who have lost their jobs by taking a special offering." The collection that followed was an amazing surprise to everyone - raising $625,000! The church is now using these funds to provide resources, coaching, counseling, and networking events to assist people with securing employment; to both its members and the wider community.

And at a larger level, the basic teachings of our faiths, from our many traditions, offer useful correctives to the practices that brought us to this sad place. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount instructs us not to be anxious about material things, a notion that runs directly counter to the frenzied pressure of modern consumer culture. Judaism teaches us to leave the edges of the fields for the poor to "glean" and welcome those in need to our tables. And Islam prohibits the practice of usury. And the core religious values of simplicity, stewardship, humility, patience, and modesty are now just what we need.

This is already a time of great anxiety for many. But it could also be a time of prayerful self-evaluation, redirection, and even new relationships with others in our congregations and communities, with our families and children, and even with our God.

Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.

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