Opinion: Perspectives from readersby J. Alden Tyson
While graduation day 2009 seemed like any other—the sense of accomplishment and bands of proud friends and family—it wasn't. The world of today is strikingly different from that of even a year earlier. Graduation 2009 took place in the shadow of a global economy gone awry.
Every graduate repeatedly heard the same comforting words, words spoken with a scent of fleeting conviction. "You will find a job. You will be fine. The economy will get turned around." These undoubtedly well-intentioned words raise the dilemma that my classmates now invite you to dwell within, beside us.
Most of us spent considerable time living in other cultures in foreign lands. Each of us carries a face or two of the global dispossessed tucked in our memory. Whether that face assumes the identity of a Palestinian man working 45 hours per week for the equivalent of $20 or a Guatemalan teenager whose future is likely a black hole of sickness and poverty, we have seen suffering faces and the traces of injustice that mark their path of distress.
In many cases, we witnessed the intertwined economic and military policies of our nation at work. Such cases left us distraught. An example from my own experience could be when I first walked up to the "separation barrier," which makes Israelis and Palestinians no longer neighbors but invisible others, and noticed an emblem reading "Made in the U.S.A." These experiences lead me to be skeptical when considering whether or not I want our economy resurrected.
Economics, under the guise of capitalism, according to the textbooks, is the science that studies the allocation of scarce resources. The assumption is that the created world is one inherently lacking the resources necessary for the equal well-being of its creatures. Thus the doctrine of a scarce world is to capitalism as the book of Genesis is to the Bible. Insofar as capitalism declares that the world was born not with plenitude but with innate scarcity and despair, it lays the foundation for the competition and violence that accompany its global crusade.
Yet peering deeper into the fabric of capitalist economics, we see something even more perilous at work. Capitalism’s creation theology inherently risks eliminating the act of gift-giving. In a scarce world, letting go of your possessions means sacrificing your security. Who among us is willing to do such a thing?
Likely it won't be the recent American college graduate. The Gospels remind us that "the least of these," those with seemingly no possessions, are those most likely to provide hospitality and healing. The very act of gift-giving draws into question our preconceived notions of poverty and wealth.
My Palestinian friends, who welcomed me into their home, gave me a seat at their table and a place to lay my head, did so in a way that renarrated the world as one created by God in plenitude and abundance. As they let go of the few resources they owned to sustain me, I caught a glimpse of the power of what an economy predicated on gift-giving could look like.
It is a reflection on my theological haphazardness that I was surprised by this. Only a few miles from that place, across a giant wall, and up and down a couple of hills lay the ground that held the cross of Christ’s bearing, the gift open to all. The cross, as the forever witness of the Trinitarian gift economy, provides our only basis for an economy of gift-giving. We need nothing else; nothing is left to be seen. The gift of the cross is what John Howard Yoder elegantly named "the grain of the universe."
A fellow classmate of mine remarked in the Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Va.) campus newspaper that we should not desire a return to our nation's "normal" economic policies of expansionism and excess. Instead, what we truly need is to forge new norms. We shouldn’t desire to see our economy turned around; we should desire a whole new economy.
As we dwell between excess and poverty, let us remember that in a cross-driven gift economy nothing is mine that also is not yours. Make this time of economic uncertainty an opportunity to witness to God’s ceaseless generosity, remembering to anticipate being surprised by the unlikely gifts you may receive along the way.
J. Alden Tyson attends Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va.
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