Building an Ethical Economy

Last week I attended a conference entitled “Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace.” The speakers were previously recorded (in January) at the Trinity Church on Wall Street, and included Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury), Dr. Kathryn Tanner, and Dr. Partha Dasgupta. Their talks are available free online if anyone is interested in hearing them. I particularly enjoyed William’s talk, in which he stressed that market transactions are just one of many human activities and that they should be open to the same ethical critiques as any other actions.

About 60 people attended the symposium, representing local churches and community groups. 30-minute videos were followed by breakout discussion groups in four blocks over a two day period. Admittedly, this was “preaching to the choir” in some sense, but I found the discussion to be refreshing in light of the all-too-common link between conservative Christianity and the idea that markets are simply efficient means of allocating resources that ultimately benefit all people. To hear religious leaders say that markets sometimes work in ways that harm individual people, nature, and society at large was refreshing. The message that we make the economy through our actions (or lack of actions) and that we are responsible for making certain futures possible (or impossible) deserves to be more widely spread.

My friend C. said recently that most Americans want to see a free Tibet–but that very few of us are willing to avoid buying items that are made in China. Many of the people I talked to felt that ‘the system’ is too big to address. Ideas that came out of groups included living simply and focusing more on local economies and small companies. A bigger challenge that was raised was that, for some clergy, asking church members to rethink the way that they engage with the economy might be the last sermon they give.