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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

When people become commodities

Sermon for Mattins Sunday, July 3 2011

When people become commodities

It was about 15 years ago and I remember this incident from the meeting very well. It was a university Senate meeting to discuss restructuring plans and there was a moving and decisive moment when one professor rose in protest and said ‘We do not have human resources; we have staff.’ Implicitly a theological issue: am I my brother’s keeper?

What was the outcome? Did people lose jobs? Were careers shipwrecked? The university community was changed.

This week we have heard of the government forcing redundancies in the army and various ministries. We continue to hear of factories closing and jobs being cut – it happens so frequently that we come to regard it as normal: a fact of life. One has the sense of being caught in a machine which we are powerless to control: people are reduced to ‘resources’.

A theological question which is also an economic question: what happens when you treat people as commodities?

  • A question underlying the capitalist system has been how to balance individual self-interest with the good of society as a whole. For instance, one of the most dubious and troubling aspects of capitalism in its various world-wide forms has been the treatment of people as commodities or resources.
  • Huge harm is done. Adam Smith wrote dispassionately of the adjustments of supply and demand – but, dress it how we like, the human cost can be incredible and utterly disruptive with people out of work, companies closing, families forced to uproot and move in search of gainful employment. Self-esteem plunges among the unemployed, communities and their established way of life may be torn apart, families can be broken up and people suffer from grief, loss, anger and anxiety.
  • Even if some people are fortunate enough not to experience any of this directly but simply watch it happening to others, their confidence in this world and their capacity for compassion can be damaged.
  • Even if economic progress is supposedly achieved at the end of it all (which might be a long time coming) one might ask whether the social and cultural disruption, the psychic and moral stresses, make that progress worthwhile. I would express that theologically by saying that something is changed in us. We become less human.

Now – a different example.

I recall a scene from a news item on TV recently: it showed the mayor of a small Greek village walking along the beach and struggling to grasp the awful reality that a government department was proposing to sell the area that his village had used for hundreds of years (no one knew who ‘owned’ the land – the question was never clear). Nonetheless, someone in an office in Athens, as a result of demands by international banks, would take this land and his village would be changed forever. It was unacceptable, he said.

What might the outcome be? Well, we can’t foresee that; but we can say that the relationship of those people with the land will be changed and what has been theirs will be someone else’s – with no attachment – no ‘connection’ and a tourist development will be likely to happen; yes, it will presumably create some jobs locally.

As a reminder that this is not entirely an academic question, I want remind you of a headline in the ODT last week which reported on the rising number of NZ farms that have been purchased by European Investors.

So I want to ask another question – theological and economic – what happens when you treat the land as a commodity? If we were still tribal people the question would be readily answered – the answer would be that you cannot treat the land like that – it is a given, a sacred nurturing reality. However we have become detached from the land over time – and increasingly under the forces of capitalist markets and our own greed we have abused it, exploited it and traded it, having ceased to see it as a trust and the subject of our stewardship. I have a hunch that the way we as a nation work the property market, a market that produces nothing but merely inflates value, may be symptomatic of a deeper malaise.

The OT lesson this morning – let us set aside the thousands of years and differences in circumstances and culture – provides a very different understanding of what matters in the economy. It provides a lens through which we might question what is happening in our nation and the economic system that we tend to accept as normative. Here are some points that I note and am thinking about.

First, Moses calls the people to remember who they are and their dependence upon God for all the privileges they enjoy. ‘Remember who you are, that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord redeemed you.’ To remember in this way is an inner discipline that puts things in perspective: sets a restraint upon the narrow impulses of self-interest and imposes social obligations for the common good. If one expands this – you get a sense of a broad vision (theologically grounded) which creates social cohesion.

Is there a vision for our nation?

Second, the land is worked carefully in such a way that there is provision for others to share in what it provides. There has to be enough left from all that the farmers take that those who have nothing – the alien, the orphan, and the widow - may be able to help themselves and live.

Reflections: 1. while dairy farmers reap high returns from commodity prices, some families in our nation struggle to pay for dairy products; 2. as the ownership of farms passes to international investors, the capacity for the land to serve the common good is diminished.

Third, people are to be treated with respect and not exploited. You may notice that where money has been lent, the creditor must not forcefully extract the pledge but wait for it to be brought to him – and if that pledge happens to be the borrowers only cloak – then it must be given back by night time so he has it to sleep in.

Reflection: What does this say to us about, for example, mortgagee sales?

What happens to us as human beings when we treat people and the land as commodities?

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