Neighbor-love’s Moral Framework: From Markets That Concentrate Wealth to Markets That Serve Abundant Life for All

Copyright 2014, Lutheran University press, reprinted by permission. This essay is one of the papers presented at the 2013 Convocation of Teaching Theologians. 

[1] If the market has become God in contemporary society, what does it mean to confess Christ? From a Lutheran perspective it means trusting what Luther called the first principle of Christian doctrine. It is the gracious love of God given in Christ, a saving love that cannot be shaken from us or diminished by any force in heaven or earth. Secondly, confessing Christ means heeding what Luther identified as the second principle of Christian doctrine, the call to embody God’s love in our lives by loving neighbor as self.  The second principle, he writes, “is love . . . as he gives himself for us . . . so we too are to give ourselves with might and main for our neighbor.”[1]  

moe-lobeda x250.jpg[2] The two, Luther insists, are inseparable: they are “inscribed together as on a tablet which is always before our eyes and which we use daily.”[2] He preaches, “God makes love to our neighbor an obligation equal to love to himself.”[3] For Luther, this vocation of neighbor-love shapes every aspect of life, including specifically our behavior in the market. 

[3] Loving neighbor is being, in Luther’s terms, “hands and feet of Christ,” or God’s always “rusty tools.”[4] I relish that term. It acknowledges from the get-go that we always love fallibly, partially, sometimes even doing harm in out attempts to love. 

[4] Where other Gods – such as the market – reign, they seduce us into forgetting who we are. Primarily, we are recipients of a love that will not desert us for any reason, a love that we cannot earn. And then, as a consequence, we arerusty tools” and bearers of that love, called to live it into the world. 

[5] The latter – our being as bearers of God’s love for the world – exposes the grave danger of the market as God. The current form of market economy demands that we defy who we are as God’s hands called to neighbor-love, and it lures us into believing that we have not abandoned that call. By claiming that the market demands “defying” or “abandoning” who we are as God’s hands called to love neighbor, I mean two things. 

[6] First, our relative wealth depends upon impoverishing others – not intentionally or knowingly, but by virtue of our consumption and the economic policies and practices enabling it. (My task here is not to argue that point. I have done so extensively elsewhere.[5]) Secondly, the economy that fuels our excessive material consumption is devastating Earth’s regenerative capacities. Instead of serving God’s creative loving ends, we are undoing them in relationship to the Earth.  The first act of the God, according to the biblical witness, was not merely to create a magnificent world but a magnificently life-furthering world that mirrors and embodies the life-creating God who brought it into being. According to the first creation story in Genesis, “God saw that it was tov.”  The Hebrew tov, while often translated as “good,” also implies “life-furthering.”  God said time and again that this creation was tov. The scandalous point is this.  We are undoing that very “tov,” Earth’s life-generating goodness. We – or rather some of us – are “uncreating.”[6] This damage to Earth is, in general, far more life-threatening to people who live at subsistence levels than it is to us. 

[7] The point is that, according to Luther, Christians cannot live in ways that impoverish or otherwise harm the neighbor. According to him, economic activity is intrinsically an act in relationship to neighbor, and all relations with the neighbor are normed by one thing: the Christian is to serve the neighbor’s well-being, while also meeting the needs of self and household. About this Luther was vehement and specific. He helped to establish a local social welfare system that provided material goods and created jobs for the unemployed. He theologically denounced certain aspects of the emerging capitalist economy that exploited the poor and admonished preachers to do the same.[7] Do you recognize this statement of Luther’s? Speaking of the “free public market,” Luther writes, “Daily the poor are defrauded. New burdens and high prices are imposed. Everyone misuses the market in his own willful, conceited, arrogant way, as if it were his right and privilege to sell his goods as dearly as he pleases without a word of criticism. He taught that widely accepted market practices which undermined the well-being of the poor ought to be rejected in daily practice by Christians. 

[8] As alternatives, he established norms for everyday economic life that prioritized meeting human needs over maximizing profit as the central aim of economic life. For example: Christians, according to Luther’s economic norms, must refuse to charge what the market will bear when selling products, if doing so jeopardizes the well-being of the poor.[8] Likewise, Christians may not buy essential commodities when the price is low and sell when it is high, for so doing endangers the poor.[9] Whoa, is not buying low and selling high central to economic life as we know it? Certainly for anyone who owns shares in a mutual fund or stocks!

[9] The epic task before the generations of people in this room is to forge ways of economic life – principles, policies, and practices – that work within and replenish Earth’s great economy of life and that do not enrich us by impoverishing others. This is the great Lutheran and interfaith work of our day for people of the Global North. In Lutheran theological terms, the task is to re-orient economic life around the norm of neighbor-love. 

[10] To do so, the global economic order that we assume as a given is not an option.All moral considerations aside — and this is important — this form of global economy literally cannot continue. Earth’s atmosphere and other services cannot support it. 

[11] This is not an ideological statement or a political or moral opinion. It is a statement about physical reality. And this point is crucial for considering alternatives.  Earth as a bio-physical system cannot continue to operate according to the rules of capitalism in its corporate and finance driven form. This form of market requires and presupposes what Earth can no longer provide:

  • Unlimited economic growth​
  • Unlimited “resources” (oil, minerals, cultivable soil, air with CO2 concentration between 275 and 350 ppm, ocean’s food chain, potable water, etc.)
  • Unlimited services provided by Earth (atmospheric balancing, balancing ocean’s pH factor, etc.)​

[12] Said differently, Earth cannot physically sustain a global economy in which the most powerful players are companies with:

  • A mandate to maximize profit and externalize the cost
  • No accountability to citizen publics, be they cities, states or nations
  • The right to privatize and sell goods long considered public (e.g. water)​

In yet other terms, Earth cannot physically sustain a global economy in which individuals and companies may do as they please with economic assets, generating relatively unlimited carbon emissions and pollution, and promoting speculative investment that may result in the economies of nations crashing. 

[13] Since Earth physically can no longer support these requirements of the market economy as we know it today, carrying on indefinitely with it is not an option.[10]

This is not a stand against business.  It is a stand for business under somewhat different rules of the game that are not dominated by mega-corporations and the demands of maximizing profit. And it is an appeal for business to become an active force of ecological sustainability and restoration. Moreover, it is a firm appeal to resituating the market as one instrument of society, rather than the determining actor in society. 

[14] While we have no choice in whether or not economic life will change, we have tremendous choice about the nature of that change. Here enters ethics and morality.Thus, the question is not whether the global economy will change, but rather in what directions it will change. Whose voices will be heard in determining that direction, and who will lose or benefit? That is the question before the faith community. The response will determine life or death for countless people whom God calls us to love. 

[15] This is a question of power. Who will have the power to determine who has access to air, water, protein, grains, cultivable soil, health care, and education in the world? 

[16] Our last speaker ended with crucial questions:

  1. Can a greed-based economic order of incredible power be transformed?
  2. Can the practices of individuals and communities reverse seemingly overwhelming principalities and powers? ​

[17] It does not look good.  We have reached 458PPM CO2 in the air. That is, we have passed the upper limit of atmospheric CO2 that is tolerable for life on Earth.[11] 

[18] Luther, I am told, declared that if the world was to end tomorrow, he would plant an apple tree.  What does it mean to plant an apple tree today? 

[19] What does it mean to “hope for things yet unseen” (Heb 11:1; Rom 8:24-5) and trust in the “sure promise of things to come (Rev. 21: 2-7)? It means to trust that whatever the future is for his planet and this dangerous species, God’s gracious love will prevail. It means to live as “Christ’s hands and feet or God’s rusty tools, dedicating our creative, intellectual, moral, spiritual energies to the vocation of neighbor-love and earth-care. 

[20] This is easily said. However, the path from that heartfelt longing to actual change at the societal level seems to travel through a thick and swirling fog of complexity. To call for a radical change at individual and societal levels borders on the absurd if not accompanied by some kind of framework for unraveling what that conversion entails and some practical illustrations of it.  This paper considers a few crucial components of such a framework. 

[21] In theological terms, it is a framework for embodying neighbor-love in the economic and ecological dimensions of our lives.  We begin with “sources of moral wisdom.” 

Sources of Moral Wisdom 

[22] Moral agency in the face of systemic injustice depends upon people’s capacity to imagine and live toward freedom from it.  That imagination and movement depends upon what we know–consciously and not–from the sources of moral knowing that inform our lives.  In Christian ethics the sources traditionally are understood as four: Scripture, the tradition of the church throughout the ages, experience, and other bodies of human knowledge.[12] However, this configuration of sources is dangerously flawed. As traditionally used, it perpetuates an anthropocentric and winner-centered moral consciousness. Contemporary Christians moving toward a world shaped along the lines of social justice and ecological well-being will need two modifications in where and how we gain moral wisdom. 

[23] One is to place a modifier on these four traditional sources.  We, the uncreators, will seek to “read” scripture, tradition, experience, and other bodies of human knowledge from standpoints of people who are on the losing side of the global economy and more specifically, people whose lives are damaged or threatened by ours. We will “learn from people whose different stories reveal our participation in” structures of injustice.[13] “Experience” no longer will refer primarily to my experience or the experience of people “like me.”  To learn from experience will mean to learn also from the experiences of people who suffer because of the systems that bring our material excess and who are proposing alternatives.  And it will mean to learn from the experience of “the Earth.”  

[24] The idea of “learning from people on the margins of power and privilege” has become standard in the rhetoric of Christian ethics. Not yet standard is acknowledging the enormous obstacles to it and suggesting how to go about such an epistemological revolution.  How might we operationalize the epistemological “privilege” of those who are, in George Zachariah’s terms, “uprooted from life?”[14] How am I to learn from people whose lives are threatened by mine when I do not even know who most of them are? How do I “learn from” people without repeating the colonizing assumption that “I” have the right to possess what is theirs, in this case knowledge?

Exploring this confounding shift in the grounds of moral knowledge is a fascinating calling to Christian communities of relative privilege today. 

[25] The other alteration in sources of moral knowing is to add a fifth source: other-than-human voices of the Earth.  The Earth crisis casts unfamiliar meaning onto the ethical principle of seeking moral wisdom from the underside of power and privilege.  Earth’s waters, soil, air, fauna, foliage, and bio-sphere have joined that underside.  Human creatures are invited to learn—from the other-than-human parts of creation that now “groan” (to use Paul’s term) under our weight—wisdom for living in sync with Earth’s well-being.  Moral knowing informed by Earth is uncharted epistemological terrain. Learning to negotiate it is an intriguing step for the “uncreators” seeking paths to becoming tillers and keepers of God’s glorious garden.[15] 

Vision of a Moral Economy 

[26] The framework moves now to vision of a moral economy.  “Moral vision is the–often unconscious—vision of the good we hold. It is shaped by the norms and practices of society, and is taught by the narratives of history, advertising, religious traditions, news media, and more. A moral vision tells us what is good, right, and true for economic life. 

[27] Moral vision shapes how people live. An economic moral vision in which people are rewarded for accumulating wealth to the legal extent that they are able encourages doing just that. If, in contrast, according to the prevailing moral vision, wealth accumulation beyond a certain point was considered morally repugnant, people would be far less likely to pursue it.  

[28] A changed moral vision affects all elements of life. When what is considered in a particular society to be moral becomes seen as immoral, human behaviors, policies, and institutions change.  Institutionalized race-based segregation moved from being considered moral to immoral in the span of a few decades. It was a shift in moral vision resulting in changed public policies, institutions, and norms for marriage and other human relationships. Still, more change is needed. 

[29] As it is with an overall moral vision, so it is too with the vision of a moral economy: changed economic moral vision yields changed behaviors, public policies, institutions, and more. The film “I Am” includes a brief provocative animation. The character inhabits a world in which it is considered insane to accumulate more than what is needed for a healthy happy life.  The animation–only moments long–swept across my mind with the power of the boy who revealed that “the emperor has no clothes.”  It disclosed our accumulation and consumption-based economic vision as the social construct that it is.[16] 

[30] When moral vision changes, what is perceived as possible also changes.  A few centuries ago in many Western societies the legal equality of women and their legal right to freedom from nonconsensual sex would not have been considered possible. The moral vision shifted and with it the seemingly impossible became possible. 

[31] Economic moral vision shapes life decisions. My students who understand that their families will be proud of them and consider them “good” people if they make a lot of money, buy a luxurious house and drive a sophisticated car,  tend to make certain choices during their college years.  (According to many students’ accounts, these may not be the choices that they wish to make.) Students who sense that their parents envision for them a life of service to society or artistic production and who might be a bit chagrined by the big house and fancy car, tend to go in other directions. The two sets of students are responding to differing economic moral visions. 

[32] An account of a young Cherokee boy growing up in the early 20th century described the hunting philosophy of the boy’s people. As the boy’s grandfather explained, they were to hunt only the animals that they needed for food. He was describing a lived economic vision. It contrasted starkly with the prevailing economic vision of his day, and it shaped a way of living. 

[33] Moral vision–for an economy as powerful as that of the United States–can determine life or death for millions. 

[34] An economic moral vision for today, grounded in the call to love neighbor as self and to be gardeners of God’s good Garden, calls forth economies in which:

  1. All people have the necessities required for a healthy life,
  2. Earth’s life systems are sustained and regenerated, and
  3. None accumulate vast wealth at the cost of impoverishing others or Earth’s life support systems. ​

Defining Principles of this Vision 

[35] It is one thing to envision such an economy. It is another thing to move in that direction. The next step is identifying defining features or principles of this economic vision. Lutheran theology calls for principles that embody neighbor-love and Earth-care and that mitigate against the ubiquitous presence of sin in its structural form, namely, the tendency of concentrated power to serve itself by accumulating wealth and more power.  Four principles are emerging across the globe. They are:

  1. Ecological sustainability: Human markets will function within Earth’s “great economy of life.”[17]
  2. Economic equity: Economic policy and practice will prioritize need over wealth accumulation.
  3. Democracy (distributed accountable power): Economic powers such as large corporations:
    • will be accountable to bodies politic (be they of cities, states, nations, or other), and
    • ​will favor distributed power over concentrated power.
  4. Environmental equity: Societies and individuals with enormous ecological footprints will vastly reduce them, use up less “environmental space”, and  begin to account for ecological debt to the Global South.​

At first glance, these aims may seem far beyond the realm of the possible. They are not. 

[36] As we have seen, these principles cannot be approximated within the current form of global economy, known as neo-liberal capitalism. It would be absurd not to acknowledge the daunting reality that emerges from the contradiction between the proposed economic moral vision and neo-liberalism.  It is this: The forces and interests lined up to perpetuate the concentration of financial capital and other wealth—and hence of power—in the hands of the most wealthy are monumental and formidable.  The recent and, for many people, continuing global economic meltdown is evidence. The raw power of unregulated finance capital motivated to maximize profit regardless of the cost to others cast countless people into misery and managed to remain unaccountable to the “demos” (the body politic). Movement toward distributed accountable power, equity, and ecological sustainability (the principles of a moral economy) directly counters that concentration of power. 

[37] No less significant is the fact that courageous people around the globe already have lost their lives in struggles for economic and ecological justice. My point is not that privileged United States citizens are likely to be killed in the quest for a more just and sustainable economic order. Rather it is to face the reality of “what is.”  Some people will go to any length to maintain their power and wealth.  Without the sustaining power of community and resources for hope and courage, the challenge might be insurmountable.  

Goals to Realize the Principles

[38] A cavernous gap separates these four principles from “the way things are.” One test of a moral vision and its defining principles is whether one can construct practical steps for bridging that gap. Those steps include midway-goals, known in ethics as “middle axioms.” They serve as criteria for whether a particular policy or practice accords with the moral vision. These goals are more specific than the over-arching principles, yet not as specific as the actual public policies and practices that reach toward the goals. 

[39] Here we illustrate a few of countless goals along the way to a more sustainable, environmentally and economically equitable, and democratic economic order. They pertain to the high consuming world, the Global North. I am not proposing goals for the Global South. 

  •  Vastly reduced energy use through energy efficiency and reduced consumption.
  • Conversion to renewable non-polluting energy for that portion of current fossil fuel use that can be converted. (This may be expressed as a shift from a carbon-based economy to renewable energy economy.)
  • Far higher percentage of businesses being locally owned, accountable to stakeholders, and not “too big to fail.”
  • Far higher percentage of businesses–including large corporate business—operating with a triple bottom line (financial, social, environmental).
  • Primarily (but not exclusively) local and regional food production and consumption loops; prioritizing agriculture for local and regional consumption.
  • Primarily small-holder agriculture.
  • Agriculture that prioritizes long-term sustainability of the soil and is in line with the eco-systems of bio-regions, rather than use of agro-chemicals and mono-cropping.
  • Reduced influence of wealth in legislative and electoral processes,  international trade treaty formulation and other public policy related  mechanisms.
  • Control and regulation of global financial markets.​[18] (Said differently, constrained speculative investment and constrained international mobility of finance capital.)
  • Increased citizen control (public accountability) over what is now the limited liability publically traded global corporation.
  • International trade agreements and trade relations that favor “fair” over “free” trade.[19]
  • Cancellation of the debt of the highly indebted and highly impoverished nations; responsible and accountable lending.
  • Taxation that favors wealth distribution over wealth concentration.[20]
  • Some form of accountability for the “ecological debt.” 

[40] These goals counter the power imbalances at the heart of the global economy. With significant movement toward these goals, many of the women in my church’s shelter program would not be forced into homelessness while working for people receiving 400 times what they make. We would not fill our plates consistently with food that is trucked to us over hundreds of miles by carbon-spewing vehicles, and that is grown on land desperately needed by impoverished people to produce their own food. Thousands of Indian farmers would not be committing suicide due to the destruction of their livelihoods by giant global seed and agro-chemical corporations. Nor would hundreds of thousands of Americans lose their savings and livelihoods to speculative investors.  

[41] The crucial point and the transformative reality is this: while for many of these goals, fulfillment is a long way down the road, they may be achieved through the commitments, decisions, and actions of human beings working together. Moreover, people around the globe are working avidly toward each one of them.  

Policies and Practices to Realize the Goals 

[42] A moral vision and the goals for reaching it depend upon people putting them into practice.  Vision, principles, and goals must be lived.  The next steps in a moral framework leading from an economic moral vision toward its realization are practices and public policies consistent with the goals. 

[43] By “practices” I mean what individuals, churches and other organizations, corporations, governing bodies, and other units of society do on an on-going basis. 

Forms of Practices 

[44] Practices or actions to build economies – local, national, and global – marked by ecological sustainability, economic and ecological equity, and relatively shared power take countless forms. In discerning the faith community’s places in the movement toward more just and sustainable economies, it is useful to view the range of actions. Here then, is a typology.  Its ten categories are neither rigid nor mutually exclusive. The value is not in establishing a particular set of categories. Rather, the value is in revealing multiple forms of practices and how they enable each other and contribute to reaching the goals identified above, and the myriad others we could identify. 

[45] The practices in this schema stand in three kinds of relationship to the identified goals.  Some practices contribute directly to one or more of the goals. Supporting economic alternatives such as independent local businesses is an example.  Other practices – such as legislative advocacy – aim at changes in public policy that lead toward one or more of the goals. Still other practices contribute to the goals by forming people capable of making choices in their direction.  Earth-honoring worship exemplifies this kind of relationship.  

[46] These are practical forms of “loving neighbor as self” in our context. They can weave integrally into the life of Lutheran congregations, universities, and seminaries. As you know, that has been happening for some time.

  1. Worship and prayer

    • Earth-honoring liturgy, hymnody, art
    • Public lament
    • Celebrating religious heritage of resistance
    • Prayers of repentance and for courage and wisdom
    • Eco-hermeneutics
    • ​Eucharist and baptism (Luther: “Thus by means of this sacrament, all self-seeking love is rooted out and gives place​ to that which seeks the common good of all.”)

​     2. Biblical study and theological education

    • ​The papers at this conference illustrate

​     3. Lifestyle changes

    • Housing, transportation, eating, consumption levels, travel and recreation.

    4. Economic advocacy

    • Boycotts, shareholder advocacy,[21] socially/ecologically responsible buying, socially and ecologically responsible investing

    5. Legislative advocacy and electoral advocacy[22]

    • Local, state, national

    6. Community organizing campaigns

    • Examples noted in this text include the Immokalee tomato growers, Jubilee Campaign to cancel the debt, living wage campaigns, and more

    7. Education and consciousness-raising

    • Alternative  sources of news and information
    • Regularly seeing the “total cost” of a product rather than only the monetary price to be paid for it
    • Public art, including theatre, for social justice
    • Resisting the lure of advertising and corporate public relations

   8. Public witness

    • Public protest and demonstrations
    • Public art, including theatre,  for social change
    • Civil disobedience

    9. Economic alternatives

    • Co-ops; worker-owned business; municipality owned services such as cable, telephone, and internet services; local or regional reinvestment banks; community supported agriculture and farmers’ markets

    10. Direct service to people in need and monetary contributions

    11. Transgressing the boundaries of our privilege to have a foot in a world on the margins:

    • Building coalitions across “class lines” and national borders
    • Listening to and “companioning” movements domestically or in the Global South that are resisting exploitative enterprises
    • Learning from social movements of people flung from their homes, lands, livelihoods, or lives by the economic systems that put food on our tables and money in our pockets
    • Finding ways to disavow some of the unwarranted “advantages” that come with privilege based on class, race/ethnicity, gender, or caste.[23] 

​[47] These practices of neighbor-love are steps toward the aforementioned goals. As such these practices are means of building more equitable, sustainable, and democratic economic life. 

The Paradox of Practice  

[48] A tree grows near the street on which I live. One small strand of root pushes up against the asphalt and the concrete has no apparent impact. It is as inconsequential as my divestment in large scale banking and investment firms. However, many strands of root woven together and persisting in their effort to nurture the life of that tree have pushed up large blocks of the concrete sidewalk and the asphalt street. Trucks driving over the ridges in the road rattle, so great is the disruption caused by those tenacious strands of root working together on behalf of life. If each strand of root opted out on the basis of its insignificance, the powerful force for change would go untapped. 

[49] A sharp tension accompanies any honest look at the practices entailed in movement toward economic lives that do not exploit and endanger neighbors and Earth.  I refer to it as the paradox of practice. Depending on how it is perceived, this paradox may render moral defeatism in the quest for justice or moral tenacity for pursuing it. 

[50] Few concepts are more important to moral agency than recognizing the constructive interplay between individuals’ actions and social structural change.  Many of my students argue that what individuals do in their everyday practices – riding bikes or busses, giving up beef and packaged food, Earth-honoring liturgy, boycotting Wal-Mart, shopping at coops, etc. – are ineffectual and relatively insignificant.  What is needed, they insist, is major public policy change, legal mandates, and large-scale institutional change.  

[51] Other students insist the opposite. Social structural change through public policy and legal mandates, they aver, will not occur to the extent that we need it.  What is needed are individual people and households deciding to live in ways that are ecologically sound and economically nonexploitative. 

[52] It is a delight to help them unearth the synergy between behavioral change and structural change at varied levels.  Imagine city streets in the U.S filled with bicycle riders, as are many streets of Amsterdam.  How do we get there?  People are more likely to ride a bike to work (behavioral change) if city policy makes bike-riding safer and more convenient.  (These policies would provide bike lanes on all arterials; low-cost bike acquisition programs for low-income people; more buses; etc.) Such policies will come about because of individuals changing their outlook and behavior. 

[53] One’s everyday practices in fossil fuel use, food-related decisions, and other consumer choices may seem inconsequential for change at the macro level. Yet, these practices are necessary and “effect”ive.   Every “system of evil requires personal actions to make it work.”[24] Thus every system of evil also requires people to resist their own and others’ participation in it, even while acknowledging that their acts of resistance in themselves appear relatively ineffectual.  Corporate power continues unfettered because “so many players, right down to individual human beings, facilitate its operation.”[25] In short, while individual acts will not in themselves change the course of social structures – including the global economy – they are necessary for that change to be achieved. 

[54] The paradox of practice invites two contrasting and morally weighted responses. One is a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. Its cost is astronomical – widespread failure to challenge the structural injustices that shape our lives. 

[55] A far more empowering response is recognizing that while structural injustice transcends individual agency, it does not transcend collective agency; collective agency can overcome structural injustice, and collective agency requires individuals’ agency.  As “I” becomes “we,” individuals’ practices bear rich fruit. The channels of impact are psychological, political, economic, and cultural. Elsewhere I have elaborated them.

  •  Practicing more just and ecologically sound alternatives is an example to others. People learn by modeling.  A few years ago many students would arrive in my classes with purchased water.  One woman, in striking contrast, consistently entered the room with her own water container full of tap water dangling from her backpack.  At one point she spoke briefly about the devastating impact of bottled water, and the values of tap water. By the term’s end a number of other students began appearing with their own containers of tap water.
  •  Individuals’ actions influence the public moral climate, paving the way for policy change and institutional change.  Not two years later, a student movement was afoot to ban the sale of bottled water on the Seattle University campus. It succeeded.
  •  Practicing justice-making and Earth-care actively counters powerlessness, denial and despair for oneself and for others who see that practice.  Citizens around the globe who took part in the Jubilee Campaign to cancel the debt of highly impoverished countries proved that people working together can influence some of the world’s most powerful institutions in the name of justice.
  •  Individuals’ practices reveal that opposition exists. The farm workers union would not have made the gains it made for migrant laborers had not protestors and boycotters countrywide proved to exploitative employers that opposition was strong.
  •  Practicing alternatives reveals to the world that alternatives are possible. Taking one’s money out of Bank of America opens that door for others who did not realize that alternative banking was alive and well.
  •  What people do influences policy. Civil rights legislation required a groundswell of people resisting segregation and practicing desegregation in their daily lifestyles. 

[56] The classic feminist adage, “the personal is political,” rings true. Personal practices and public policy are inextricably related. Change in the one catalyzes change in the other. Choices in personal life have political impact.  

[57] If time allowed, we could note other elements in a moral framework for just and sustainable economies grounded in neighbor-love. They would include:

  • a radically revised theological anthropology
  • an extension of neighbor-love beyond the human
  • moral formation and the role of faith communities in it
  • two streams of movement for change—resistance and rebuilding,
  • four change agents and arenas of action—individual, corporate, institutional, and public policy. ​

To Close 

[58] The current form of global economy must change, if for no other reason, than Earth’s atmosphere and “services” cannot support it. The question is: “In what direction and how will it change?”  The call to love neighbor as self – as an economic and ecological vocation—is a partial response. This paper – and I would suggest this entire conference – is one tiny part of a much larger human endeavor, the seeming impossibility of which should dissuade no one from joining. The endeavor is to embody love for the neighbor whose life is imperiled by the current form of global market.  It is the re-orienting of economic life to render it both sustainable on this Planet Home and marked by increasing degrees of economic justice. This endeavor is a trusting commitment to plant an apple tree when we realize through the best of science that the world as we know it is ending. 

[59] In this re-orientation we are called to praise God for the promise that life in God will reign on this bountiful and broken Garden planet, and to praise God for the “dew of the Holy Spirit dispersed through all the Earth,” watering us so that God’s two hands – Word and Wisdom – can mold us. Let us give thanks too that we are forgiven for the boundless failures and shortcomings that inhabit our efforts to live as God would have us live. Finally, may we ever relish and revel in the garden’s beauty, unfolding complexity, and life-generating goodness. 

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda is Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Seattle University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies, School of Theology and Ministry, and Environmental Studies Program. 


[1] Martin Luther, “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics,” in Timothy Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 331. Luther also refers to these principles as Paul’s two teachings. See Luther, “Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity,” in John Nicholas Lenker, ed. and trans., The Sermons of Martin Luther (Baker Books, 2000), 8:278.

[2]  Luther, “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against Fanatics,” 331.

[3] Martin Luther, “Sermon on the 4th Sunday after Epiphany,” in Lenker, 7:69.

[4] Martin Luther, D. Martin LuthersWerke: KritischeGesamtausgabe (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883–  ), known as the Weimar Ausgabe (WA), 2.413.27, cited by George W. Forell, Faith Active in Love (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1954), 92.

[5] Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), chap. 2, and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Healing A Broken World: Globalization and God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), chaps 1-3. 

[6] While climate change is the primary instance of our “uncreating” Earth’s regenerative power, another of countless examples is the “terminator seed” developed by Monsanto. The terminator is designed to be incapable of reseeding itself. Subsistence farmers who have been sold the terminator must rebuy seed each year. Monsanto profits. Small-scale farmers often go under. This is a significant factor in the thousands of farmer suicides yearly in India. The terminator seed is a quintessence example of “uncreating” the life-furthering capacity of life in the name of profit. 

[7] See for example, Luther, “Admonition to the Clergy that They Preach against Usury,” Weimar Ausgabe 51.367, cited in Ulrich Duchrow, Alternatives to Global Capitalism (Utrecht: International Books, 1995), 220-21. Speaking of the “free public market,” Luther writes, “Daily the poor are defrauded. New burdens and high prices are imposed. Everyone misuses the market in his own willful, conceited, arrogant way, as if it were his right and privilege to sell his goods as dearly as he pleases without a word of criticism.”  Luther’s comments on the tenth commandment in the Large Catechism.

[8] Luther in fact argued that economic activity should be subject to political constraints. “Selling ought not be an act that is entirely within your own power and discretion, without law or limit.” Civil authorities ought to establish “rules and regulations,” including “ceilings” on prices, he insisted. Luther, “Trade and Usury,” 249-50.

[9] Luther, “Trade and Usury,” Luther’s Works 45: 261,  247-51.  See also the entirety of “Trade and Usury,” (LW 45: 244 –308) and Luther’s comments on the first, fifth, sixth, seventh, and ninth/tenth commandments and on the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Large Catechism.

[10] Historically the question has been “Can capitalism as we know it change substantively?” The question no longer pertains, because capitalism as we know it cannot not change. The question has become, “In what direction? And by whose directions? 

[11] U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measuring CO2 at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. 

[12]​ This fourth source has been understood differently in different Christian traditions. It is known in Catholic moral theology as “reason.” It also has been defined as philosophy, the sciences, or descriptive accounts of reality. 

[13] Gloria Albrecht, The Character of Our Communities, 85.

[14] Zachariah, Alternatives Unincorporated, 1.

[15] That we can learn from “nature” does not mean that the processes of nature are necessarily moral. Nature houses countless processes that we would not claim as moral for human behavior.

[16] Film: I Am, directed by Tom Shadyac, Flying Eye Productions, 2011.

[17] This would mean, for example, that when calculating the bottom line, a corporation would account for its ecological and social impact. The impact would be world changing.

[18] Due to the global financial crisis, voices calling for controls over transnational speculative finance now include mainstream economists. See, for example, David Felix, “Why International Capital Mobility Should be Curbed and How it Could Be Done,” in Gerald Epstein, Financialization and the World Economy (United Kingdom: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2005), 384-408. See also Joseph Stiglitz, “Toward a New Global Economic Compact: Principles for Addressing the Current Global Financial Crisis and Beyond,” delivered to Interactive Panel of the United Nations GA on the Global Financial Crisis, 30 October 2008, United Nations. 

[19] A more equitable alternative to “free trade” agreements are regional and sub-regional agreements that strengthen the capacity of impoverished countries to promote and protect their own interests and are not based on liberalization, deregulation, and privatization. 

[20] Proposals include taxes on speculative investment, carbon and other pollution taxes on large companies, progressive income taxes, etc. For multiple proposals, see Collins and Yeskel, Economic apartheid in America. 

[21] Shareholder activism “is a key tools for speaking out against rising CEO pay and harmful corporate practices….In addition to legislation, it is one of the most powerful tools for advancing corporate reforms.” United for a Fair Economy at 

[22] Legislative advocacy is simplified by subscribing to legislative alerts from advocacy organizations. 

[23] Excellent work exists on disavowing white privilege and male privilege. Similar work could be done regarding economic privilege. 

[24] James Poling, Deliver Us from Evil (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 121. 

[25] ​Ibid.

© January 2014
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 14, Issue 1