by Matthew Milliner
If there be any indicator of the level of my generation’s geo-political and economic awareness, it would have to be the Seattle riots of November 1999. Throwing a brick through the window of the Nike-Town store and then successfully fleeing law enforcement thanks to the Nike shoes you purchased there, became my picture of what it meant to be economically informed. If there was any general consensus among the protesters that year, it was that the World Trade Organization served the interests of business over the interest of the poor; and because this impulse for justice was clearly commendable, how could I do anything but agree? I felt I had no choice but to disdain Starbucks and McDonalds. This is what I learned from Seattle, and it became what I can now call a Seattle I mentality. How fitting then that several of us should learn of the actual realities of economics and globalization at the Acton Institute conference five Novembers later in that same city, leading us to the perspective I’ll call Seattle II.
Perhaps it was due to my negligence in study rather than instruction, but the following remains nevertheless true: Having been educated at an evangelical college and now at a mainline Protestant Seminary, I have found that sustained engagement with economic issues has not been easy to find. One evening in a conversation amongst a group of my classmates, a successful television producer who had chosen to step down from his position to go to Seminary expressed to us his frustration. That day a Seminary professor had boldly exclaimed in class, “Capitalism makes lousy people!”
Having spent years in the free market, he was frustrated that someone having spent no years in that market would feel so emboldened to condemn it. He was angry that a room full of two hundred M.Div. students who had for the most part not spent time in the market, would now be influenced by this professor’s suggestion. Furthermore he was frustrated that in an environment where sub-field trespassing - such as a Theology professor commenting on Church History - was so discouraged, that entire field trespassing – a Theology professor commenting on Economics – would be permissible. I sympathized with my friend’s remarks, but I had nothing to offer in reply. Mine, after all, were still Seattle I economics.
Another incident came when a retired professor of the Seminary was giving a series of lectures at my local Church. They were on thinking theologically about commerce and technology. This professor spoke passionately about Bonaventure, who in his De Reductione Artium ad Theologiam, made labor and trade an integral part of his systematic theology. The professor spoke of Hugh of St. Victor’s twelfth century Didascalicon, where he argued convincingly of the role of technology and commerce as an integral part of the Christians life. The congregation was clearly finding this information helpful and sustaining. But the talks ended with a lament. “In thirty years at the Seminary I have never heard anyone seriously engage these issues, previously so integral to the Christian tradition.” At this point I had some theological resources at my disposal to graduate beyond a Seattle I mentality, but with no peers or active professors with which to engage this information, it would have likely died on the vine.
The Towards a Free and Virtuous Society Conference changed this. It was a fortifying supplement of sustained economic thinking to a mal-nourished education. My fears that this would be a one-viewpoint kind of place were soon assuaged. There was as much constructive critique of American policies as there was praise for my country’s most successful strategies. The speakers included Catholic, Evangelical and Reformed Christians, each distilling economic and political wisdom through their own traditions. The two Catholic speakers referred to the principle of subsidiarity taught by Pope John Paul II, the Reformed speaker to “sphere sovereignty” as taught by Abraham Kuyper, and the Evangelical speaker to the economic common sense he had learned in a lifetime of travel. Regarding the latter, finally I was speaking with someone whose engagement with the sweat shop issue went very well beyond the sarcastic T-shirts of the Seattle I mentality. This man had met actual villagers affected by such factories in many different countries, and was able to give me a sustained and informed critique rather than a brick to throw at Nike-Town.
But by far the most helpful point of the weekend was the peers with whom I could discuss these issues. The bright array of leaders, as diverse denominationally as the panel of speakers, made for a near transcendent arrangement of conversations and debate throughout the two days.
As I flip through Adbusters magazine at the checkout line of my grocery store, I realize much of my generation still lingers in Seattle I. But thanks to this conference I have graduated from this perspective, and most importantly have done so without abandoning the essential Christian convictions that sustain this economic wisdom with charity, in the King James sense of the term.