by Rebecca Raney
Attending the Acton Institute’s Towards a Free and Virtuous Society seminar in Paradise Texas, confirmed all my childhood pipe dreams and stereotypes of what my inaugural visit to the state of Texas would and should be like. We lodged in remote log cabins situated on a real working cattle ranch, we consumed large portions of barbequed meat and had dessert at every meal, and there was even a stuffed deer that sang country music at the bar! There was one element however, that I wasn’t prepared for encountering while I was on my first trip to Texas and that was a complete shattering of my entire worldview and a dismantling of so many essential truths that I had used to understand the common human experience.
Having graduated from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) with a degree in International Community Development in 2003, I was a person fully intoxicated with the myth of a neo-Marxist social activism that subconsciously believed that we the educated activists had the world’s problems all figured out, if only we could somehow eliminate the evil corporate empire, protect indigenous societies from an encroaching modernity, while at the same time prescribing a planned economy that would eventually allow human beings to flourish, thereby progressively eradicating poverty and systemic inequality from the face of the earth. I believed that there was no way possible for America to have acquired so much wealth, without the exploitation of hundreds of vulnerable workers worldwide. The rich were simply getting richer because the poor were getting poorer and if it weren’t for those greedy free market capitalists our globe would be a much more hospitable place to live; or so I thought.
It was at about this point in my time at SOAS that I miraculously became a Christian, and chose to reroute my thesis to focus on the faith and development partnership, writing a thesis that argued against a purely materialist notion of man, proposing that the only true and humane attempts at global compassion and development would have to treat human beings as holistic physical, emotional, and spiritual beings, particularly focusing on the Christian understanding of these elements. Interestingly enough, I was such a new believer that I really had no clue what I was talking about, but somehow I graduated, returned to the States and launched my search to try to find out what true, effective Christian social engagement really looked like. Was there really such a radical combination of two words such as “Christian Anthropology?” Were Christian groups truly helping the poor, or were they creating a dependency similar to many secular groups? Why were so many churches not even engaged in this discussion, much less, serving the poor in their local communities?
I was a passionate Christian for many of these issues, but I was still enveloped in a partial understanding of the true, nature of man, and I had successfully avoided any economics class during my academic career, despite one course at SOAS that blamed the demise of the third world on capitalist free markets. So, I came to Acton with a very skewed understanding of social justice, and a strong bent towards socialist type people movements coupled with a Christian type of collectivism that would eventually usher in a more just and virtuous society.
While attending Acton I was presented with expositions on Natural Law, the creational understanding of man and his capabilities and cultural mandates, the difference between a free market and a market culture, and a presentation of what sound economics within a Christian perspective looks like, pointing out the economic fallacies that color much of our cultures understanding of the global economy. We learned about the notion of subsidiary where the people closest to the given situation were best equipped to intervene and brainstorm about problem solving. We defined specific spheres of engagement in our human society composed of the economic, the mocal cultural and the political, and we laid out the specific roles that each was best suited to carry out. We challenged the popular belief that it is in legislating morality where the moral culture of a given society is transformed and we looked at the churchs’ disengagement from society as one of the effects of this type of pursuit.
The most challenging piece of the entire weekend though, would have to have been the economic lectures that grounded man’s God given nature to pursue a freedom of exchange in the book of Genesis, and the social teachings that could be summarized in the statement, “Piety can not be an excuse for poor technique.” Through these particular presentations I was able to see the faultiness in many of our church’s interventions by not looking closer at the outcomes of many of our well meaning ministries compounded by our lack of teaching on basic economic principles and the cultural mandate that God gave man to freely create, build, and pursue free exchanges with his goods and labor. These ideas revolutionized my understanding of poverty, international development, justice, social activism, and the church’s role in making the whole gospel known in the world. I was left with many more questions than answers, but it has been in facing the utter complexity of our world, that I have realized my complete lack of omnipotence and cultural relativity to decifer all of these factors while now discovering innate human distinctives and invisible free human processes to help better guide my own interventions and those of the church, business, corporations, and other intermediate institutions to help shape virtous and free societies all over the world.