19 December 2013

Notes from December Teleconference with Keri Day, "Is Moral Economy Possible?"

Notes on WATER Teleconference with Dr. Keri Day
"Is Moral Economy Possible?" Wednesday, December 18, 2013

            WATER is grateful to Dr. Keri Day for her time and talent in discussion questions of economics and religion. Her book, Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012), is a good starting point for understanding her powerful perspective. The following notes are meant to augment the audio version. They are not a verbatim transcript.

            Dr. Day began by outlining the background and debates transpiring in Christian ethics and economics. The question is whether economics and Christian ethics can talk, that is, do they have meaningful overlap in vocabulary and goals? Many economists see economic theory as neutral with a self-regulating market and no ethical control. Irrational, non-economic variables are not seen as affecting economic exchange. Economists act as if cash is enough to motivate people.

Theologians/ethicists say people are always dealing with norms and values. Catholic social teaching and Protestant social ethics deal with values. From that perspective, work is not reduced to economic exchange but seen as vocation, related to God. So religious studies challenge economic understandings on what it means to be human.

            The question “Is Moral Economy Possible? is not so much a theological but an  economic/anthropological question. For example, food prices are a moral issue. In her new work, Dr. Day is looking at four social movements of women of color, two Protestant and two Catholic.

1. Sister Song in Atlanta, Georgia focused on reproductive justice for women of color

2.  The Circle for Concerned African Women founded by Mercy Oduyoye in Ghana to develop liberative African feminist literature for greater gender justice

3. Madres y Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina to oppose the 1976 dictatorship and find the children/grandchildren kidnapped by the military

4. The Greenbelt Movement in Kenya that works on reforesting as part of the process of development

These women and organizations enable us to “dream dangerously” that a moral economy is possible. Poor women of color confront market values with new visions and commitments. They respond to distorted values with new, inclusive, justice-seeking ones. They offer clues about how to think about the beloved community, and how to think about participatory economics vs. the free market.

Discussion followed.
1. One questioner asked if Dr. Day had had a chance to raise her concerns at a recent White House consultation to which she had been invited.  

Keri replied that she did not. It was mostly a listening session on economics and religious freedom abroad. She would have wanted to have more time spent on the kinds of questions she is raising. Women of color are too often rendered invisible and inaudible. No spaces exist to have this kind of conversation. Both in the current administration and in the Black Church she notes the same dynamic: needs related to basic survival go unaddressed. There is rhetoric in support of the safety and well being of Black women, but when it comes to practice or spaces where women can be heard there is very little. Dr. Day left the White House meeting with a new understanding of the seriousness of her own work. There is also a need to do it in community as mujerista theological scholars like the late Ada Maria Isasi Diaz proved.

2. Another participant asked about theological identity and message of the groups that Dr. Day is researching. Where does God show up in social movements when looking for a preferable future through social activism?

Dr. Day talked about her new project, tentatively entitled Cooperative Virtues: Global Feminist Approaches to Moral Economy. All four movements have cooperative virtues. This is not cooperation in the sociological sense of a means to an end. Rather, cooperation is seen as a vocation, something that was part of earliest church communities. Cooperation is a moral end in itself; it is participation in the life of God.

3.  The moderator inquired about cooperatives. Are they important for women of color in their organizing?
Dr. Day affirmed them with the proviso that there is still much thinking on a structural level that needs to happen. She emphasized that cooperatives might not address larger structural questions on how wealth is unequally created and distributed.  These larger structural questions need to be pursued alongside cooperative enterprises. She cited Michael Albert’s work as useful. Albert, Michael, and Robin Hahnel. The Political Economy of Participatory Economics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.) PARECON, participatory economics, is a movement that is making inroads.

4. One more participant asked what religious groups could do with regard to the economic questions.
Keri said that many churches have been hindered by neo-liberal models. Success is determined by how an individual achieves success. But that dynamic does not take into account that all are born with initial endowments. These endowments can be social helps or obstacles to reaching goals. She mentioned the work of William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, as a resource for thinking about these questions. She said that some churches feel no responsibility for people who are poor. The merger of free market thinking and a certain reading of the Gospel leaves aside many people. Prosperity Gospel theology claims that God’s favor is upon those who prosper materially while those who are poor do not enjoy God’s favor. But Dr. Day is hopeful based on her reading of the Gospel from the underside. Churches have to listen to the needs of the poor.

5. The moderator inquired about the current budget wrangling and whether there is hope in any of the current legislative work for more economic justice.
Dr. Day cited the passage of the Affordable Care Act and certain programs for women and children who are poor as examples of forward movement. Citizens need to be vigilant in keeping the government honest in this arena. But with 80% of the country’s wealth in the hands of a few people, there are simply many who are still poor. We need conversation on structural matters and policy recommendations based on an asset-building approach to make real change.

WATER thanks Dr. Keri day and looks forward to her new book.

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