Now that the sky has fallen on the U.S. economy, and terms like bailout, foreclosure, and recession have become a normal part of our everyday reality, it’s important for the United States to do some serious self-reflection. Based on the economic disparities in this country and around the globe, should our current crisis really come as such a surprise?
I find it ironic that the economy was not under the same degree of scrutiny before the Wall Street crash. The world took note when Wall Street’s sins began affecting the middle-class population of “Main Street,” but all along we’ve had people going through the pressure cooker of life on the MLK Boulevards of America, the colonias of the U.S. and Mexico, and the backcountry settlements of the Third World.
For too long, the world economy has been driven by a seeming passion for the rich and elite but has had no conscience or concern for the marginalized, impoverished, or disenfranchised people of the world. Global economic systems have been driven by profit-making capitalism and free — but not fair — trade, which has been celebrated and praised, even in the midst of an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
Lessons from Abroad
In South Africa, the land of my birth, I have observed these economic disparities firsthand. Our new economy provided wonderful opportunities of wealth and development for some South Africans, but in the very same breath there are hundreds and thousands of citizens who can tell you stories about their economic demise and continued struggles within a democratic South Africa.
The United States and South Africa have comparable narratives as it relates to being racialized societies that have experienced human-rights violations under governments that have dehumanized some and privileged others based on race. Furthermore, the United States, like South Africa, fosters an imbalance between the rich and the poor, between the elite and the marginalized, between the economically enfranchised and the disenfranchised.
Such realities were in existence long before the Great Depression and the current Wall Street crash, and they will continue long after the U.S.A. and the world regain their economic fluidity. The question is, will we ever become more sensitive to the recessions and depressions that are happening around us every day? Financial calamities are gripping certain members of our communities on a regular basis, even while the rest of us are thriving from the latest economic boom. But will we ever care enough to say, “No more”?
Our Moment of Opportunity
We should embrace this present moment of national and global introspection as an opportunity to call attention to the fragility of our human institutions. When powerful, world-class banks and insurance companies are riding high one day and selling off their assets the next, this should serve as a warning about the finitude of our seemingly indomitable financial systems.
Through government intercession, Wall Street’s powers-that-be will ultimately be delivered from this current crisis. Many people in the middle class will feel the pinch but endure. Many others will fall from their precarious positions of relative security into the ranks of the unemployed or working poor. Meanwhile, the severely destitute and marginalized people among us will toil on in invisibility.
We need leaders of compassion and integrity who will seize this moment in history to rectify the ethics of an economics that has shown no true concern for justice, fairness, and equality; an economics that has shown no real interest in creating equitable access to life resources and adequate standards of living.
Who will be the voice in the wilderness calling for a re-stratification of global economics driven by a passion for the humanity of all people? Who will call out for international trade agreements that are both free and fair?
Today, developing countries like Haiti, India, Indonesia, and South Africa have to export more to earn the same amount of foreign currencies than in previous years, which points out the bias and injustice of international trade. These countries are exporting more but earning less. This vicious cycle of economic entrapment has a ripple effect that creates further crises and internal strife.
For many developing nations, economic growth cannot even be considered when people are still facing the trauma of political instability. Sudan, for instance, has lost 17 percent of its skilled workforce due to wars stemming from religious persecution and political injustice, and its people continue to face an oppressive regime. There is great need for honest governments and stable political leadership that will be the voice of the marginalized peoples within developing countries.
According to Allan Boesak in his book The Tenderness of Conscience, “Poor countries are now transferring more than 21 billion dollars a year into the coffers of the rich…. The necessity for seriously calling for the cancellation of debt for the Third World countries was never more urgent than now.” Boesak’s call for dropping the Third World debt will never be heard or seriously considered against the backdrop of this current crisis, but it serves in exposing the extent of the economic disenfranchisement of developing-world countries.
World politics may have to investigate economics that falls outside the traditional neo-liberal framework. Take, for example, Muslim economic business practices, where money is loaned without interest. People in the 21st century could probably learn a lot from observing how many of our Muslim friends invest in the uplifting of one another, thereby allowing their businesses to develop without need for major bank loans. This, in turn, spurs development and growth of individuals, families, and entire communities.
A Faith-Inspired Economics
More importantly, consider the voice of Jesus Christ which underpins a revolutionary approach and propels a model of activism in engaging the social realities of human depravity as Jesus saw it. In the midst of this extraordinary global crisis, hear His words in Luke 4: 18-19:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has appointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of the sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (NIV).
People of faith must arise and get to work as advocates for the rights of the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed. This is how our faith is put into action. The year of the Lord’s favor, as understood in Scripture, brought a release from debts. It freed the debtor from his pecuniary obligations to his creditor. It served as a human demonstration of God’s radical grace.
A faith-inspired brand of economics, as evidenced in the teachings of Jesus Christ, runs contrary to everything we’ve been taught and told about successful systems of business, investment, and capitalistic profit making. Nonetheless, it may be instructive to our discussion of this current crisis to study such a model, with the hope of pursuing a more just economy and advancing a more equitable vision of the world.