03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

When the "Invisible Hand" of the Market Slaps Us in the Face

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Rev. Jim Wallis, one of our most prolific and prescient faith leaders, has a new book out that makes a compelling case for taking that adage seriously. Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street - A Moral Compass for the New Economy is a timely call for restoring a common-good ethic to our financial system and reevaluating a "greed is good" cultural mantra. Wallis, the President and CEO of Sojourners, who seems to crank out an important book every year, sat down earlier this week for a discussion with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. at the Brookings Institution.

Amid the wreckage of home foreclosures, rising unemployment and growing income inequality, Wallis is asking for a "new conversation" that recognizes the solutions to the financial crisis should not be left to economists and politicians alone. Faith communities, families and nonprofit agencies must all evaluate how we lost our way so dramatically. While the good preacher rails against "social sins" often ignored in a hyper-consumerist age, he isn't just wagging a scolding finger at those corporate titans paraded before Congress this week. Wallis is right to insist that we need to examine our own personal lifestyle choices, resist a culture of instant gratification and get back to those "old fashioned" values that honored saving and the long view. While prognosticators muse over when the current economic recession is going to end, Wallis believes the more important question should be -- how has the crisis changed us?

From the interview:

People feel in their heads and in their hearts that our economic crisis is a values crisis, a moral crisis. What do you do when the invisible hand of the market lets go of the common good?

Wallis' clear thinking on the need for just social structures as well as greater personal responsibility helps his argument transcend the easy liberal/conservative ideological typecasting that derails many debates over complex issues. It also echoes centuries of Catholic social teaching about the moral context of economic systems. While it wasn't summer beach reading last July, Pope Benedict XVI released an encyclical (hat tip to you armchair theologians who can read the whole text) that offered a bold critique of free-market fundamentalism and also called for individuals to make more prudent personal lifestyle choices when it comes to consumption. Pope Benedict goes where many U.S. politicians fear to tread in his call for equitable distribution of wealth, robust financial regulations and belief in the essential role government has in promoting the common good. If the pope were running for political office in the U.S., you can imagine the attack ads blasting him as a socialist. (remember Benedict is the green pope not the red pope!) While the pope is not stealing lines from Marx, he insists, as Wallis does, that markets must have a moral compass and serve the human person.

At a meeting of the Confederation of Italian Labor Unions, Pope Benedict XVI stressed that finding solutions for the global financial crisis requires "a new synthesis between the common good and the market, between capital and labor." Franklin D. Roosevelt drew heavily from Catholic social thought in shaping the New Deal. This social justice heritage can help us think anew about applying these values to current economic challenges. Those who trumpet a holy trinity of tax cuts, unfettered markets, and a savage brand of corporate capitalism serve narrow ideologies hard to square with the teachings of Jesus, who preached "good news to the poor" and kicked the money-changers out of the Temple. While the American ethos of "rugged individualism" and self-reliance often chafes against Judeo-Christian notions of solidarity with the poor, the scope of the economic crisis offers an historic opportunity to rebuild our economy to serve all Americans, not simply the privileged few.

Wallis' book is also an antidote to the prosperity gospel schlock pushed by some pastors who offer their congregations simplistic creeds about personal holiness leading to financial success. These spiritual CEOs offer a wide smile and a soothing version of faith that assures believers they will be blessed with material bounty. In a nutshell, the formula says go to church (more importantly give money to the church), live a "righteous" life and there is a good chance God will bless you with that SUV you've been eyeing for months. Over the years, and again in this book, Wallis reminds us that a lived faith is about something much harder and, ultimately, more meaningful. It's about walking with the poor and changing those systems that perpetuate inequality.

When asked by E.J. Dionne if President Obama (Wallis serves on the president's faith advisory team) was too cozy with Wall Street to make fundamental changes, his answer reflected the reality that the status quo can't be transformed by electoral politics alone.

"This year has shown me as much as any other year how Washington is wired to block change. Electing the most charismatic, transformational, new generational, game-changing candidate in a long time has not changed that...there are three pharmaceutical lobbyists for every member of Congress. How many are there for those being foreclosed on? The power of money over politics in this town is clearer than ever."

It will take a social movement to bring about the changes Wallis is proposing. Faith communities have long been on the front lines of struggles for justice and human dignity. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that the next frontier of the civil rights movement required bearing witness to the scourge of poverty plaguing the richest nation in the world. His vision for a "Poor People's Campaign" bringing together a multiracial coalition united in the belief that the moral measure of any society is found in how we treat the least among us fizzled after his assassination in 1968. Today we need a new generation of prophetic leaders in the streets, our churches and our boardrooms. Hope is not a fuzzy emotion. It's a clear-eyed decision that another world is possible, and we are all in this together.