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Grief over Dead Gods: No More Magic Market
The three gods of Republican politics are failing them; the grief will be extensive; here is some pastoral counseling.
By Ed Knudson
I wrote this last September. The recent antics of Republicans who have decided for political reasons to totally oppose everything Obama does is exposing them as a political party that does not really care for the quality of the future of the nation. The current debate over the role of Rush Limbaugh, an entertainer and talk show host motivated by the desire for a big audience and lots of dollars, as the primary Republican spokesperson is a sign of the degradation of that party, a party of dead ideas, a party which hopes a president fails.
As a pastor one of my main jobs over the years has been to help people face grief during times of death. Death has a finality to it that shocks people. Modern folks spend so much time avoiding even the thought of death that it comes as a terrible shock. It is difficult to face the emptiness of life without that other person who was so important to us. A great anger emerges within the heart of those left behind after death. The structure and order of one's life is fundamentally changed when somebody of importance dies. It can never be the same. The loss is real. Grief over such loss is one of the least understood emotional experiences in the internal life of people today. People often blame God in these times, life was not supposed to have been this difficult.
Politics might be understood as expressions of such grief among great groups of people. For what is dying for many today is not just another person, but what people have believed is their "god," the one who was to provide order and stability in life. That is the fundamental notion of "god" in western culture, God is creator and redeemer, the one who provides for continuity and stability, the force in which one places faith that everything will be made right in the end. Those who say they don't believe that God exists have no option but to create other gods by which they believe life is ordered or structured or made right. It is these other gods which are going away now, the three big gods which have been at the center of political debates for the past few decades.
There will be tremendous collective grief over these dying gods. I think of all those who placed their faith in the god of the market, that by some magical process all was supposed to work out well for those who believed in this god. Now the economy is in a colossal crisis as a result of widespread belief in this god. The god of the market has failed to maintain order. The institutions based on this god are in ruins. Their god has forsaken them. This will be a very hard time, a time of tremendous grief and anger.
One of the hardest things for a pastor at the time of death is to help people see that they have been placing their faith in the wrong god. The idea of the modern free market emerged to replace the notion of the providence of God in medieval times. As people gave up their belief that God guided history they still needed some idea about how the world worked. Adam Smith in 1776 came up with this notion of the market, that as each person engaged in economic activity to maximize his self-interest, the end result would be what is best for the community as a whole, the interests of all. Smith limited his notion to economic activity, but moderns have claimed that this idea explains all of human behavior, in families and neighborhoods and communities and society as a whole. At this level the market idea becomes magic, a sort of supposedly divine ordering process. The market idea became a "god" in which people believed with great energy and commitment. It actually has become a justification for all manner of self-interested behavior such a greed. The more I get for myself the better it is for everyone else. That works as long as one closes one's eyes to the actual suffering of others due to one's own behavior. The function of a god is to justify behavior, and that is what the market concept now does, it serves to justify the behavior of economic actors.
When such a god dies there must be great trembling and uncertainty. That is what has happened now. Since 1980 when President Ronald Reagan announced that "government is the problem" and it was necessary to "get government off our backs" the role of government in setting basic rules for the functioning of the market has been reduced. The results are now in. The market on its own leads to devastation of the economy itself. The market on its own cannot sustain "faith" and "confidence" and "trust" in itself to justify entering into relations with others.
These words in quotes, "faith" and "confidence," are based on something else, not an economic but a social reality. These words are based on a sense of solidarity with others. There must be some basic sense of solidarity with one's fellows in society in order to trust them, have confidence that they will keep their word, some basic respect and feeling for other people. The market concept, especially the cowboy market concept of the wild west which has been the idea for the past couple decades, works exactly against such solidarity. Social Darwinism is a philosophy often heard in business circles, where it is believed that only the fit survive so life is a battle for survival and the weak are destined to die, that's just the way the world is. Republican leaders have themselves sought to divide Americans from one another and base politics not on the idea of mutual respect within a democracy, a true source of solidarity, but on suspicion and hatred of others, carried most directly by the hostile politics of the religious right, itself a commercialized form of religious practices. (These folks believe in a "religious market.") Scientists and "secular humanists" and liberals are the enemy to be defeated within the country. Republican political philosophy these past years has been not based on democratic solidarity but on dividing Americans from one another, to the end that the wealthy are able to rule based on the god of the market.
Barack Obama has tried to base his candidancy on the idea of a "new politics" of solidarity which would bring red states and blue states together in a new democratic effort to solve problems of society and economy together, calling for what is best in the human character. The corporate media, based as it is on the market concept itself, is not allowing that idea of social solidarity to be articulated clearly. It is focused on conflict and division and the election as a horserace. It loves to report on how the candidates attack one another; it's all a big fight which gets the adrenilin flowing in viewers so their eyeballs stay on the television set bringing money to the advertisers. It is a rather sick society when the dominant media refuse to allow a sense of solidarity to develop among the people. The market god may not fully be dead until the media in this country is completely restructured to allow for a more sane public communicative process among the people.
To the degree that the heritage of this country is Protestantism it can help to understand what that religious orientation has taught about God. God in both of the Protestant reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, was a rather distant, majestic, and unknown God, not one which can be associated with anything human or anything within this world, certainly not with something as mundane as an economic concept of market. So the market idea is a false god, not worthy of belief, not actually efficacious in the ordering of life in the world. Exactly how God functions in the world and history is unknown in any specific way. So it is unwise to place one's faith in false gods, they cannot deliver what they promise.
There are two other concepts of God which many people believe in which also are unworthy of such belief, the god of the machine and the god of war. The machine god is related to a 19th century notion of science that the natural world is fixed through regular law-like forces, the world is like a big clock and it is possible to rely on the laws of nature. The market god is related to this notion as well. But 20th century science has exploded this notion of how the world works. Science has become much more modest in its claims to understand the world and predict the future. The new scientific views of relativity, for example, are exactly what the religious right opposes most fiercely; these folks live in a 19th century view of the world and how god relates to the world through mechanical nature. We now know that the machines human begins have made, and the energy required to run them, are contributing to the destruction of the environment itself, so that human life cannot be sustained by further faith in the machines of the past. The god of the machine is dead. Human beings must now realize that they are ones who make machines, and the machines must be made in such a way as to preserve human life in the future. Otherwise human life is fundamentally threatened. God, the true God as understood in historic Protestantism, has made the world in such a way as to make human beings responsible for what they do, how they live, how they decide to live together. It is possible for a person to destroy himself, to destroy others, and to destroy the world. Not to realize that and claim that God will always be there to save ourselves from ourselves is to fail to realize the fact that this God is revealed on a Cross, in the midst of death itself.
The third god which has died is the god of war. This is a traditional notion of god in human history, the nation becomes a kind of god itself and people are called to lay down their lives for their nation in war. The Republican Party has become expert in utilizing this kind of language in politics, playing on the fears of the American people and encouraging them to see themselves in a gigantic battle with the forces of evil across the globe.
But the Iraq war has shown all thinking people that military solutions don't work to solve political or economic problems. This country cannot afford to do such wars across the globe. The Iraq war is actually a sign of the limitations of the United States as a great power. It was promoted by neoconservatives who believe in the glory of war, that a people comes to know itself as a great people only in the midst of military victory. Iraq was necessary, they believed, to show the world that the United States was a big and powerful country. But all it has done is demonstrate that this country is trying to act like a big bully on the playground. The god of war is dead, it cannot justify the misuse of power on the scale that this country has enacted in Iraq. Only John McCain and his advisors are left to claim that war in Iraq can be victorious. The vast majority of thinking people in this country all realize that the Iraq war demonstrates that the country must change its course for how it is going to relate with the rest of the countries on the earth.
The three gods of Republican politics have died. None of them are worthy of belief in the first place. They are all false gods. The god of the market, the god of the machine, and the god of war, must all be given up now, and human beings have to realize they themselves are responsible for the future of the country, and for the earth.
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