The Market Idols: A Brass Ring and a Golden Calf


I have been reading through the new book by Jim Wallis, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Main Street. While I don't want to go through a long review of the book and it's outline, I am struck by several aspects of Wallis' approach to understanding American culture. What has struck me most was the explanation of the degree to which we have become an impatient people seeking who seek insight and direction from the Market.

Quoting Harvey Cox, Wallis describes the power of this abstract "Market" as the power of a god. One which we have sought to appease and in which we have lost ourselves. Focusing on the recent global experience of the Great Recession, it is easy to see the degree to which this approbation may be right on. My own experience of devotional awareness to this abstract god has been identified. As I, over the past 18 months have watched my own income decrease in concert with the Dow Exchange. As the Market went down, so did my ability to make ends meet. The Market each day could tell me, I thought, to what extent I would need to brace myself. I looked to see if the bottom had been yet hit. Looking at the Market became a daily commitment to view. As much as daily Bible reading and prayer, I found myself daily checking with the Dow. To what extent was the Market informing my prayer, and visa versa? Thanks to Jim Wallis quoting Harvey Cox, we can now think about it together.

But what happens when we think about it? I hear from people all around me (folks who have even less of a chance of grasping all the promises of the Market than do I) that the Market needs to be free to deliver its promises. In the face of this failing god, there are still those "true believers" not wanting to let go of their devotion. There is the hope, the aspiration that the brass ring needs to be kept large and promising. There needs to be a greed in place for us to feel the inclination to grasp at the ring. Even among the middle-class folks there remains a hands-off attitude toward questions of exorbitant executive pay (why should an executive be paid more than 400 times the amount of the lowest hourly wage?); a hands off attitude toward socially responsible community investment; and recently, a boon to corporate personhood (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/21/AR2010012104866.html) making free speech, at least access to having our voice heard, a market commodity. Trusting the Market with these powers is akin to self-imposed slavery coinciding with the illogical aspiration that one day we'll all be slaver-holders. We are working at cross-purposes with ourselves.

In the Bible, one of the stories of righteous anger describes Moses and his reaction to the people who had just made an idol out of gold. These people had just come out slavery that had lasted for hundreds of years. The slavery in Egypt had been enforced and strengthened by the economic, political, and religious goals of Egypt. The enslaved had often seen animals forged of precious metals. These gods could receive sacrifice, function as divine mouthpieces, and serve as icons and trademarks of the kings. But out of impatience, frustration and fear, the former slaves, now in the desert, forged an Egyptian-ish statue and bowed to serve it. Created with their own hands and imbued with their own mythology, these people were willing to worship the god they made. We have become so similar in our own ill conceived relationship to the Market. We may not have directly created, but we prop it up and imbue with power that is not within our power to give, nor within its power to deliver.

While there are those who have avoided the market, from freegans and dumpster divers, and the bartering networks, most of us do not know where to turn for alternatives. The hope for changing something as abstract and powerful as "The Market" seems daunting and impossible. However, there is wisdom in simplicity and empowerment in local investment. There are personal and community-based ways of checking the power of the Market. Most of the tools at our hands for changing the power of this idol are more akin to recovery programs as well as community development. We are all in this together.