Spiritual Awakening, a New Economy, and the End of Empire
Presentation by David Korten
The Trinity Institute 39th National Theological Conference
Radical Abundance: A Theology of Sustainability
January 21-23, 2009
It is an exceptional privilege to speak in this historic church to this distinguished gathering of religious leaders and to the many who join us through the wonder of electronic technology. Of the many conferences I’ve addressed in my life, I do not recall any that I’ve approached with a comparable sense of responsibility and anticipation.
I was excited about this conference long before I had any idea that I would be launching, here in the heart of Wall Street, a new book proposing that we hasten the fall of Wall Street and build a new economy devoted to meeting the real needs of life. Nor did I know that a new leader of great promise, a multicultural man of color and exceptional ability, would break through the ultimate racial barrier to take the helm of our nation this very week— and call on us to remake America.
Two Defining Issues
We are poised as a nation to take the step from adolescence to maturity. May this be a new beginning for our troubled nation. It is a moment that requires new leadership from our religious institutions as we put aside outmoded assumptions and false values and rededicate ourselves to our nation’s founding ideals of liberty and justice for all.
The problems before us are many, but they ultimately come down to the two defining issues of this conference.
The first is our wanton human destruction of God’s creation — the abundance of the living Earth that sustains us, our home in the vastness of the cosmos. The second is an unconscionably unjust division between the profligate and the desperate of what remains of that abundance —a division maintained by pervasive, self-destructive violence.
Both are crimes against God. Both are crimes against ourselves. Both are by our own collective hand. It is a curious thing. As individuals, we humans appear to be an intelligent species. Collectively, however, we seem to be pathologically suicidal. We must now resolve the conflict intelligence and pathology in the favor of intelligence. We heal our collective self—or we die together. It requires that we replace the culture and institutions of a failed economy with the culture and institutions of a new economy.
A False Story
Our problem begins with a pervasive cultural story, continuously reinforced by corporate media, that leads us to believe our economy is functioning splendidly even when it is quite literally killing us.
You have heard this story many times:
Economic growth, as measured by Gross Domestic Product, GDP, creates wealth to provide material abundance for all, increase human happiness, end poverty, and heal the environment. The faster we consume, the faster the economy grows and the wealthier we become as the rising tide lifts all boats.
Is this story familiar? Have you ever suspected there is something not quite right about it?
GDP actually measures the rate at which the economy is extracting useful resources from nature, running them through the economic system, and disposing of them as toxic waste into our air, water, and soils.
I was stunned when I first realized the truth that our current economic policies and institutions are all based on the stupid idea that the faster we convert useful resources to toxic garbage, the richer we are. The only real beneficiaries of this collective madness are a very small group of very rich people who reap the financial gains generated by large corporations positioned to benefit financially from every economic transaction—irrespective of whether the transaction is beneficial or harmful to society.
For the rest of us, it is rather like intentionally burning down our house to keep warm and fanning the flames to make it burn faster. As individuals, only the terminally insane would make this foolish error, but as a nation and as a species we seem not to notice. We have yet to translate our individual intelligence into an effective collective intelligence.
We cannot resolve the issues of environmental destruction and extreme inequality by treating the symptoms. In most countries, particularly the most profligate, we must reduce overall consumption and we must redistribute available resources from rich to poor and from destructive and non-essential to beneficial and essential uses.
This requires turning our present economic system upside down and inside out. It requires ending war and converting to a peace economy; eliminating automobile-dependence in favor of compact communities that bring home, work, recreation, shopping, and other aspects of our lives into close proximity; curtailing advertising and redirecting those creative and media resources to education; ending financial speculation and redirecting investment to productive sustainable enterprises devoted to meeting community needs. This list is just a start. Note that none of this is about sacrifice. It is about setting sensible collective priorities.
Which Master will the Economy Serve?
It comes down to a basic question: What purpose do we expect the economy to serve? The answer is ultimately spiritual and its framed by this well known scriptural verse from the Sermon on the Mount:
No one can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Matthew 6:24
Mammon refers to wealth as an object of worship; the worship of a false god; a form of demonic possession; an evil force in opposition to the God of Life.
Nothing in our world personifies the worship of the false god of mammon more starkly than the Wall Street financial institutions that surround us here. Money is their only value and the pursuit of money is their only purpose.
Controlling our access to money in a world in which most every aspect of daily life and survival depends on money, these institutions rule the world. They are the masters to which we yield our allegiance, the agents of the destruction of God’s creation. They are the moneychangers who defiled the temple of God by turning a spiritual ritual into an opportunity to extract unseemly profit. Jesus, in his one reported act of violence, sought to drive the money changers from the temple of God. We must drive them from the Temple of Life.
The Wall Street financial implosion of 2008 exposed the corruption of our modern moneychangers for all to see. The implosion born of that corruption is devastating the lives of millions in our country and of billions around the world.
These are the institutions to which we have given the power to decide the values by which we humans will live and to make the decisions as to who will prosper and who will live in desperation. We now bear the consequences of their immoral philosophy — a philosophy that says greed is good and the interests of society are maximized when we each relentlessly pursue our individual financial advantage without regard to social or environmental consequences.
We face a choice: We can accept the status quo of an economic system devoted to the worship of money and the pursuit of individual greed. Or we can create a new economy devoted to the service of life. More than an individual choice, it is a choice we must make as a society, a community, a collective body.
Why have we given over control of our government, our lives, and our collective future to institutions devoted to the service of mammon? I suggest it is because we really haven’t thought through as a nation and as a species the answers to three questions that should be at the center of any theology. What is real wealth? What is our image of God? And what is our human nature?
What is Wealth?
Let’s start with wealth. As defined by our public culture, wealth and money are largely synonymous. Conflating these two concepts easily leads us to believe that those who make money are creating wealth and that financial and housing bubbles are engines of wealth creation. You surely recall that as housing prices were inflating we were regularly told how much wealth or value the rise in market price was creating. As housing prices deflated we heard regular reports on how much wealth or value was being destroyed.
Curious, isn’t it? Absolutely nothing about your house changed except the price. No difference in space, location, functionality, or state of repair, just a change in price—the number of dollars the house would fetch in the market. It’s actually nothing more than a form of inflation. Money increases; real wealth remains the same.
And what is money? The vast majority of money in circulation isn’t even represented by a number on a piece of paper. It is an electronic trace in a computer file. Aside from the metal in coins, what we call money has no meaning or existence outside the human mind. It has value only because by social convention we agree to accept it in return for things of real value: our labor, knowledge and natural resources.
Money is an accounting chit created from nothing with a simple accounting entry when a bank issues a loan. As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith once famously observed, the process by which money is created is “so simple it repels the mind.”
When you take out a loan from a bank, the bank opens an account in your name and enters the amount of the loan. That becomes a liability on the bank’s accounts, off set by the corresponding asset of your promise to repay with interest. Two simple accounting entries, and money magically appears from no where. That simple fact is the key to the ability of the institutions of mammon, the institutions of Wall Street and its global counterparts, to rule the world.
Money, particularly money that is created out of nothing without any contribution to the creation of anything of corresponding value, is phantom wealth—it has no substance or intrinsic utility.
So what is real wealth? We might say it is anything that has a real intrinsic value: land, labor, knowledge, food, education.
Most valuable of all are those forms of wealth that are beyond price: Love, a healthy happy child, a job that provides a sense of self-worth and contribution, membership in a strong caring community, a healthy vibrant natural environment, peace.
In a national poll, 93 percent of adults agreed with the statement: “We are too focused on working and making money and not focused enough on family and community.” Generally, this insight remains our unspoken personal truth. It is not what we hear in public discussion. So collectively we act to increase phantom wealth even at the cost of destroying the real wealth of Earth’s abundance.
What Is Our Image of God?
So what of our image of God? Some years ago I was privileged to share a conference platform with Jesus Scholar Marcus Borg. I will never forget his defining statement: “Tell me your image of God and I will tell you your politics.” Borg explains that the many scriptural images of God largely fall into two basic clusters. One is God the male patriarch with the flowing beard, the God we visualize in human form living in a distant place we call Heaven, the God of Michelangelo’s famous painting in the Sistine Chapel.
The other image of God is the spirit image manifest in all being, the image embodied in the cosmic creation story as told in our opening sermon by Miriam MacGillis.
The patriarch image sets up a hierarchy of righteousness and domination running from those closest to God to those most distant and leads to a competitive individualistic politics of separation, domination, favor seeking, and wealth accumulation. It is the foundation of the Calvinist belief that the rich and powerful are by definition God’s most favored and that financial success and Earthly power are marks of special righteousness. Within this belief system, the world is whatever God the patriarch wishes it to be and it is beyond our means to change it for better or worse.
By contrast, the spirit image, by which we recognize the face of God in every human being, animal, insect, and grain of sand, leads to a politics of community, shared purpose, and mutual service. Everything in creation is both manifestation and agent of a great spiritual intelligence seeking to know itself through the creative exploration of its possibilities. Within this belief system, to do harm to another being is to harm oneself. We see ourselves as co-creators in a grand quest and find our ultimate fulfillment in lives of service to its continued unfolding.
Here again we find a striking difference between the image of God evoked by the language of public discourse and the image of our inner understanding. The God of our public discourse and of most of our formal religious liturgy is the male patriarch to whom we pledge our faith and obedience in hope of winning favor now and in the after life. Because the very word God so strongly evokes this image, I generally prefer to speak in the language of spirit or creation.
Bob Scott, director of the Trinity Institute, recently sent me the results of a national survey he commissioned in his earlier capacity as editor in chief of Spirituality and Health magazine. The findings suggest that for most people, their private belief aligns much more closely with the spirit image than the patriarch image.
Eighty four percent of Americans view God as being “everywhere and in everything” rather than “someone somewhere.” Given a list of characteristics and asked to pick the one that best describes God, 71 percent chose “loving.” Only 5 percent chose “remote” and only 2 percent chose “judging” or “controlling.” I find quite stunning the contrast between what these results reveal of our private images of God and the image evoked by the language of our public discourse and liturgy.
What Is Our Human Nature?
So what of our human nature? We have become so accustomed to cultures and institutions that reward and celebrate our human pathologies of individualism, greed, hubris, deceit, ruthless competition, and material excess that we have come to doubt even the possibility that we humans might have, as a species, the capacity to cooperate in the interest of a common good. We may even fail to notice that most people daily demonstrate our human capacity for caring, sharing, honesty, cooperation, compassion, peacemaking, service, and material sufficiency.
Scientists who use advanced imaging technology to study brain function report that the healthy human brain is wired to reward our positive traits. Merely thinking about another person experiencing harm triggers the same reaction in our brain as that of a mother who sees distress in her baby’s face. Negative emotions suppress our immune system, increase our heart rate, and prepare us to fight or flee.
Conversely, an act of cooperation and generosity triggers the brain’s pleasure center to release the same hormone that’s released when we eat chocolate or engage in good sex. In addition to producing a sense of bliss, it benefits our health by boosting our immune system, reducing our heart rate, and preparing us to approach and soothe. Positive emotions like compassion produce similar benefits.
These findings are consistent with the pleasure that most of us experience being a member of an effective team or extending an uncompensated helping hand to another being.
It is entirely logical. If our brains were not wired for life in community, our species would have expired long ago. We have an instinctual desire to protect the group, including its weakest and most vulnerable members—our children. Caring, cooperation, and service are both the healthy norm and wonderful tonics—and they are free. Behavior contrary to this positive norm is an indicator of serious social and psychological dysfunction. Individualistic violence, greed, and destruction in disregard of others are all within our means, but they are pathologies—they are not our inherent nature. It is our true nature to love, cooperate, and create.
I find the contrast between our public and private understanding of wealth, God, and our human nature to be a great source of hope for our human future. As you no doubt have noted, the understanding conveyed by our public culture affirms the mammon economy of Wall Street. Our private understanding affirms the spiritual unity of creation and our potential to create an economy devoted to the service of life, love, and spirit grounded in the message of the Jesus who sought to drive the moneychangers from the temple. [HALF WAY]
Imagine how different our societies would be if we redesigned our economic cultures and institutions based on what we know in our hearts to be true rather than based on the illusions of our public culture. To turn the human course, we need only to break the silence, make our private beliefs public and thereby change the public story, which then allows us to act in concert to realign our institutions with our true nature. Action is long over due.
Our Tragic History
We humans have a five-thousand-year history of organizing ourselves by dominator hierarchy, with a few people on the top and most on the bottom. Call it the era of Empire. In an earlier time, the rulers were kings and emperors. Now they are corporate CEOs and hedge fund managers. Wall Street is Empire’s most recent institutional stage, and hopefully the last, in a tragic drama we need repeat no longer.
Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Rome were three of history’s most celebrated empires. Each had its moments of greatness, but at an enormous cost in lives, natural wealth, and human possibility, as vain and violent rulers played out the drama of Empire’s inexorable play-or-die, rule-or-be-ruled, kill-or-be-killed competition for power.
During this time, the creative energy of the species was redirected from securing the well-being of the tribe to advancing the technological instruments of war and the social instruments of domination. Resources were expropriated on a vast scale to maintain the military forces, prisons, palaces, temples, and patronage for retainers and propagandists on which imperial rule depends. The underlying dynamic favored the ascendance to power of the most ruthless, brutal, and mentally deranged. Much of this troubled history remains familiar still.
Five thousand years is enough. We now have the imperative and the means as a nation and a species to bring forth new cultures and institutions that affirm our co-inheritance, our interdependence, and our devotion to the service of life—the world of our shared human longing.
In 1992, I participated in the civil society portion of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was a gathering of some fifteen thousand people representing the vast variety of humanity’s races, religions, nationalities, and languages. Our discussions centered on defining the world we would create together.
Out of our conversations emerged an articulation of our shared dream of a world in which people and nature live in dynamic, creative, cooperative, and balanced relationship. The Earth Charter, which is the product of a continuation of this conversation, calls it Earth Community, a community of life.
Its not so surprising when you think about it. Most every human wants to breathe clean air and drink clean water. We want tasty nutritious food uncontaminated with toxins. We want our children to be healthy and happy. We want meaningful work, a living wage, and security in our old age. We want a say in the decisions our government makes. We want world peace. We want a vibrant natural environment.
It is a stunning convergence. The world we must now create, if we are to survive as a species, is the world we want, the world our brains are wired to create, and the world that religious prophets down through the ages have sought to inspire us to bring into being. Among other things, it will require replacing the culture and institutions of an economy devoted to the service of mammon with the culture and institutions of an economy devoted to the service of life. Fortunately, we have a positive base on which to build.
Wall Street vs. Main Street
We hear frequent reference these days to a distinction between the Wall Street economy and the Main Street economy. The difference is crucial.
Wall Street’s specialty is using money to make money for people who have money without the burden of producing anything of value in return. Money divorced from anything of real value is phantom wealth, an illusion, a mirage. Wall Street is a world of financial bubbles, speculation, sophisticated Ponzi schemes, corporate asset stripping, deception, fraud, usury—all to generate unearned claims against the real wealth of the rest of society.
The Wall Street economy and its institutions function as a doomsday machine. They are corrupt beyond repair. We best use this opportunity to replace them with new institutions accountable to our needs.
The Main Street economy is, by contrast, comprised of local businesses and working people engaged in producing real goods and services to meet real needs. It has been battered and tattered by the predatory intrusions of Wall Street corporations. It is, however, in revival as communities all across the nation rally to declare their independence from Wall Street and rebuild the community-serving economies they once knew. It is the logical foundation on which to build a new real wealth economy of green jobs, responsible community-oriented businesses, and sound environmental practices.
Agenda for a New Economy
My new book Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth spells out a number of measures we can take to hasten the fall of Wall Street as we build a new economy on the foundation of Main Street. The very first copies of this book available anywhere are now on sale here at this conference in the registration area. I’ll mention just a few of the necessary measures here.
Use Living Indicators
Let’s start with new performance indicators. The only legitimate function of an economic system is to serve life. At present, however, we assess economic performance solely against financial indicators—gross domestic product, or GDP—while disregarding social and environmental consequences. It was not a wise choice. We get what we measure: phantom wealth in the hundreds of trillions of dollars at the expense of the real wealth of people, community, and nature.
We can instead evaluate economic performance against indicators of what we really want—healthy children, families, communities, and natural systems. This would place life values ahead of money values and dramatically reframe both our public and private economic decision-making.
End Corporate Subsidies
Excessive corporate profits and exorbitant executive compensation packages come at a high cost to society in the form of public subsidies and uncompensated social and environmental costs. To restore balance, we must eliminate the subsidies and assess compensating fees to recover the public cost of substandard wages and working conditions, expropriated and contaminated environmental resources, and excessive burdens on of public services. This will force predatory businesses to close their doors. Responsible businesses will prosper.
In alliance with the Federal Reserve, Wall Street players have used a combination of control over the money supply, predatory lending practices, and legal bribery of politicians to suppress wages, dismantle social safety nets, capture the total benefit of productivity gains for themselves, shift the tax burden from financial speculators to working people, and reduce the poor to debt slavery. To repair the damage and restore the middle class we must restore progressive tax rates, increase the minimum wage, implement public funding of elections and a universal single payer health system, use the tax code to make financial speculation unprofitable, and direct the benefits of productivity gains to the people who produce them. Think of this as our equivalent of the biblical Jubilee, a time to forgive the debts that hold the poor in bondage and redistribute real wealth to restore balance to the society.
Local Living Economies
A healthy Main Street economy is a living economy that mimics the dynamics of healthy locally rooted ecosystems to optimize the health and well-being of people, community, and nature.
Local entrepreneurs and business owners need a fair profit to survive, but their primary return comes from having a place of respect in a healthy local community with a healthy natural environment. Relationships are primary. Profit and money are means not ends.
Researchers report that a person shopping at a farmers' market has 10 times more conversations than one shopping at a supermarket. I know it’s true. I experienced it when I lived here in New York City and did most of my food shopping at the Union Square farmers’ market. I got to know the farmers who grew my food—and my neighbors who also shopped there.
In addition, I regularly patronized the small local hardware store across the street from my apartment and the small local pharmacy around the corner. I not only got to know the clerks, I got to know the owners. I had no need of a car because most places I needed to go were within an easy walk and there was great public transportation.
As the Wall Street economy disintegrates, the communities with the best future prospects are those that have been rebuilding local supply chains, supporting local, low input, family farms, developing local financial institutions, reclaiming their farm and forest lands, concentrating population in compact communities that minimize automobile use, retrofitting their buildings for energy conservation, and otherwise moving toward local self reliance in food, energy, and other basic essentials. This is what organizations like the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies and the American Independent Business Alliance are about—building a people-friendly, Earth-friendly new economy of locally rooted businesses.
YES! Magazine, for which I serve as board chair, spotlights the people and organizations who are engaged in this work to demonstrate the possibilities of a new economy and a new society. Check out our display table in the conference registation area or find us us online at yesmagazine.org.
A Real Wealth Money System
Now let’s turn to the money system. Wall Street bankers have diabolically created a money system designed to crash if the economy does not continuously grow their profits. Recall my earlier mention of the bookkeeping entry by which a bank creates new money when it issues a loan. That entry creates only the principal of the loan, it does not create the amount of the interest the borrower must also pay.
This means that to avoid sending the financial system into default and thereby collapsing the economy—much like we are now experiencing—the economy must grow fast enough to generate sufficient demand for new loans to create the money required to make the interest payments on previous loans. The consequence is ever-increasing debt, inequality, destruction of the natural environment, and destruction of the social fabric of community.
If evil is that which is destructive of life, then our existing money system is profoundly evil.
There is an alternative with far less pernicious consequences. Most people assume money is created by the federal government. It isn’t, but it should be. As new money is required to maintain an adequate and stable money supply, the federal government can and should spend it into existence to fund public infrastructure and meet other public needs.
Publicly issued money would increase financial stability while reducing debt, taxes, inequality, and environmental harm. It would also strip Wall Street moneychangers of much of their power and profits. I’d call this choice a no brainer.
It Begins with a Conversation
So how do we make the changes necessary to turn our economy from service to mammon to service to life in a world ruled by the agents of mammon?
Here we go back to the earlier observation about the stark contrast between our public and private images of wealth and God. The change can begin, indeed, it has already begun, through thousands upon thousands of conversations by which we bring our public culture into line with our private beliefs—thereby replacing a culture fabricated by the institutions of Empire to legitimate their rule, with a culture grounded in authentic values of caring and compassion. This is a tall order, but it can be done.
To set a proper inspirational tone for the challenging work before us, I want share a song that my troubadour friend and colleague Raffi has written and recorded especially for our gathering here in the midst of Wall Street. It’s called “No Wall Too Tall.” After the song, I’ll outline a strategy by which we the people can bring down Wall Street and liberate ourselves from the god of mammon.
So how do we bring down the walls that hold us captive to false stories? How do we cast out the moneychangers from the temple of life? How do we put an end to Wall Street’s imperial tyranny? [PAUSE] Through the power of conversation and a new story. It is a simple, but rarely noted truth: every movement for social transformation begins with a conversation.
Take the women’s movement as an example. Not long ago, the prevailing cultural story maintained that the key to a woman’s happiness is to find the right man, marry him, and devote her life to his service. Any woman for whom the story was not working, was supposed to believe the fault lay within herself.
Then a few courageous women began getting together in small groups in their living rooms to share their personal stories. Low and behold, they discovered that the story wasn’t working for any of them. The flaw was not in themselves, but rather in the story. Making this personal truth public, through an ever-expanding conversation among hundreds, then thousands and then millions of women, they eventually changed the public story, liberated themselves, and unleashed the power of the feminine as a force for social transformation.
The voluntary simplicity movement was born through a similar process of people coming together to share their stories about what brings them a true sense of fulfillment.
As we go public with the truth of our private stories, the false values of the public stories that hold us captive to Empire are exposed as fabrications. Thus liberated, our individual intelligence becomes the intelligence of the group. Let the conversations begin in our homes, churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples to discover and affirm our true nature as spiritual beings having a human experience.
By sharing life-affirming stories of possibility and working together to restore the essential bonds of community, we humans can bring forth the life-affirming cultures and institutions of a new era and align ourselves with the sacred purpose revealed in creation’s grand trajectory.
Once our conversations have aligned our public values with what we know as individuals to be true, we can declare our individual and collective independence from Wall Street, refashion our economic institutions to put service to life ahead of service to mammon, break the self-replicating spiral of competitive violence of five thousand years of Empire, and create the world of which humans have dreamed for millennia.
A global spiritual awakening is already underway, sometimes within our religious institutions, often beyond them—sometimes in spite of them.
As our primary institutions for the examination of values, purpose, spirit, and the human place in creation, religious institutions of all faiths have a special responsibility to come forward to facilitate the awakening, give it visibility in the public discourse, and help it find coherence and direction.
To fulfill this role, however, they must become centers of true spiritual inquiry dedicated to drawing from the whole of human knowledge and experience to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our place of service to Creation’s grand journey.
For five thousand years, we humans have wandered through the valley of the shadow of death. Perhaps it was part of our necessary learning, preparation for the next step in our own evolution as a self-aware species to which Creation granted the power to choose its own future. It is now ours to choose whether we take the step to species maturity and learn to share Earth’s abundance for the good of all, or suffer potential self-extinction as a daring, but failed evolutionary experiment and thereby turn back the evolutionary clock by millions of years.
We are privileged to live at the most dangerous, but also the most exciting moment of creative opportunity in the whole of the human experience. There is no wall too tall. We have the power to turn this world around for the sake of ourselves, our children, and Creation’s grand journey. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Thank you.
David Korten is the author Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and When Corporations Rule the World. He serves as Board chair YES! magazine, a board member Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, and co-chair of the New Economy Working Group