In his recent address at the Pontifical Gregorian University (12 December 2011), the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, produced an impressive summary of the present cultural and economic crisis and argued that the answer to it must be the recovery of the Judaeo-Christian "soul" of our civilization - not least to civilize and limit consumerism and the market economy. Here are some extracts:
The market economy and modern capitalism emerged in Judeo-Christian Europe and not in other cultures like China that were more advanced in other ways. The religious ethic was one of the driving forces of this once new form of wealth creation.
Equally however, this same ethic taught the limits of capitalism. It might be the best means we know of for generating wealth, but it is not a perfect system for distributing wealth. Some gain far more than others, and with wealth comes power over others. Unequal distribution means that some are condemned to poverty. And poverty is not just a physical disaster for those without the means to sustain themselves. It is a psychological disaster. Poverty humiliates. It can also force the poor into a cycle of dependence. They may be forced to borrow. They might in biblical times be forced to sell themselves into slavery.
The Hebrew Bible refuses to see as an inexorable law of nature, a Darwinian struggle in which, in Thucydides’ words, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” That is the ethics of ancient Greece not the ethics of ancient Israel.
And so we find in the bible an entire structure of welfare legislation: the corner of the field, the forgotten sheaves, and other parts of the harvest, left for the poor, together with the tithe on certain years; the sabbatical year in which all produce is available for everyone, debts cancelled and slaves set free; and the jubilee year in which ancestral land returned to its original owners.
This is a highly sophisticated system, aimed at two things: first that the poor should have means of a livelihood, and second that there should be, every seven and fifty years, periodic redistributions to correct the inequalities of the market and establish a level playing field. And what was done in biblical times in a largely agricultural economy was done in post-biblical times through a vast extension of thetzedakah, the word we usually translate as charity, though it also means justice.
Every Jewish community in the Middle Ages had an elaborate system of tzedakah that amounted to nothing less than a mini-welfare state. There was a chevra, a fellowship, gathering and distributing funds for every conceivable purpose: for poor brides, for the sick, for education, for burial, so that no one was deprived of the means of a dignified existence. What made this structure remarkable, indeed unique, was not only that it was the first of its kind, the precursor of the modern welfare state, but also that it was entirely voluntary, the collective decision of a community with no governmental power and often no legal rights.
So the Sabbath, the family, the educational system, the concept of ownership as trusteeship, and the discipline of religious law, were not constructed on the basis of economic calculation. To the contrary, they were ways in which Judaism in effect said to the market: thus far and no further. There are realms in which you may not intrude.
The concept of the holy is precisely the domain in which the worth of things is not judged by their market price or economic value. This fundamental insight of Judaism and Christianity is all the more striking given their respect for the market. Their strength is that they resisted the temptation to believe that the market governs the totality of our lives, when it fact it governs only a limited part of it, that which concerns goods subject to production and exchange. There are things fundamental to being human that we do not produce; instead we receive from those who came before us and from God Himself. And there are things which we may not exchange, however high the price.
The market’s “invisible hand” turned the pursuit of self interest into the wealth of nations, and intellectual property fuelled the fires of invention. Capitalism has enhanced human dignity, leaving us with more choices and a longer-life expectancy than any generation of those who came before us.
But there is no such thing as a stable equilibrium in human affairs. There is a natural tendency for institutions in the ascendancy to invade territories not rightly or fully their own, with disastrous consequences. In religious ages, the culprit was usually religion. At times it sought political power and became an enemy of liberty. At other times it sought to control the dissemination of ideas and thus became an enemy of the unfettered collaborative pursuit of truth.
Today, in a Europe more secular than it has been since the last days of pre-Christian Rome, the culprits are an aggressive scientific atheism tone deaf to the music of faith; a reductive materialism blind to the power of the human spirit; global corporations uncontrollable by and sometimes more powerful than national governments; forms of finance so complex as to surpass the understanding of bodies charged with their regulation; a consumer-driven economy that is shrivelling the imaginative horizons of our children; and a fraying of all the social bonds, from family to community, that once brought comfort and a redemption of solitude, to be replaced by virtual networks mediated by smartphone, whose result is to leave us “alone together.”
Stabilising the Euro is one thing, healing the culture that surrounds it is another. A world in which material values are everything and spiritual values nothing is neither a stable state nor a good society. The time has come for us to recover the Judeo-Christian ethic of human dignity in the image of God. When Europe recovers its soul, it will recover its wealth-creating energies. But first it must remember: humanity was not created to serve markets. Markets were created to serve humankind.