Monday, July 28, 2008

From Chris Messina to Andrius Kulikauskas to Christian economic thought

I subscribe to ::HorsePigCow:: via my Google Reader feeds, and I ran across this post, which led me to this article in San Francisco Magazine.

Now, some people will read Tara Hunt's post and Bernice Young's article and muse on the pitfalls of a relationship (Tara's former relationship with Chris Messina) conducted in the public eye.

Others will read the material for the technology/social media perspective.

I ended up drifting into ruminations on the intersection between religion and economic theory.

The San Francisco Magazine article told about the backgrounds of Hunt and Messina, and the things that influenced them as they grew up. Hunt was influenced by the Cluetrain Manifesto, something that I've obviously heard about but haven't really researched. Messina, however, was influenced (see page 4 of the online article) by a more obscure work:

One of Messina’s early influences was an obscure Lithuanian philosopher named Andrius Kulikauskas whose manifesto, “An Economy for Giving Everything Away,” argues that the best way to find the answer to a problem is to look at what other people are doing, then share your data so that others can benefit. “The value,” Messina says, “is no longer in having monopolistic control over the entire conversation.”

I figured that I could find the Cluetrain Manifesto at any time, but I'd better search for Kulikauskas' paper before I forgot the author's name. I found An Economy for Giving Everything Away, dated October 17, 2002, at the Minciu Sodas website. The paper, co-authored by Kulikauskas and David Ellison-Bey, opens with this abstract:

How might an independent thinker work on personal projects they share with others for free, while building relationships towards work for pay? We explore what the the command to “give everything away” can mean for an individual, a business, and an economy. We draw conclusions from six markets for open source software. We further illustrate the idea that wealth is relationships with anecdotal evidence from the Minciu Sodas laboratory. We conclude with a proposal for how a corporation might invest in business ecosystems to harness this wealth of relationships in high uncertainty.

I have not absorbed, or even read, the entire paper yet, but I did concentrate on a small part of it for my own purposes. By way of background, I should note that my undergraduate degree was in economics, and if you visit the Reed College library, you can probably locate my thesis on the efficiency and equity of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965. I am certainly not a professional economist, and don't even pursue the topic regularly any more, so it's interesting to see modern views on the subject.

The part of interest to me tonight was the portion which reflected on various Biblical examples of "giving everything away," considered through the light of business. We know that Christianity is irrational and foolish (1 Corinthians 1:18-31), but perhaps the promptings of the Holy Spirit respond to some deep-seated human need.

Excerpts from the "Earning a Living" portion of the Kulikauskas and Ellison-Bey paper:

If you are to give your whole life, then you are responsible to find your own path. What are your options?

One consideration is to save and then live from your saving. But this is mostly ruled out. For what giver can claim that the best use of money is to keep it for their own undeveloped purpose, while relief agencies are efficiently and urgently addressing the most basic needs?...

An example to consider is Jesus of Nazareth. He may be thought of as a mooch (someone who lives off the generosity of others). He was supported by money given by women, and kept by Judas in a purse. When Peter stated that Jesus paid the tax, then Jesus made this true by having him pull out of the river a fish, and take a gold coin from that fish. Jesus took heartily, and was accused of being a drinker and eater. But he also gave graciously, especially as a healer and defender, and as a teacher. It is plausible that we all would be provided for if we lived in such a spirit. Indeed, his apostles started off by sharing everything. However, one couple held back, but claimed to give everything, and then were stricken by death....So we ask humbly, perhaps with Mohammed, how is this to work for an imperfect person with obligations in the monetary economy?...

Part-time work is a possibility, keeping the two separate, earning a living and pursuing a mission. St. Paul practiced this, supporting himself as a tentmaker, not taking money for preaching....This is possible in a wealthy country for those with skills that can draw a high wage.

But what to do in a poorer economy? Consider Lithuania, where prices for food, fuel, manufactured goods are on par with the United States and Western Europe, but people earn $100 to $200 per month. There is no way to support oneself from part-time work.

Of the New Testament examples cited above, the one that is most fascinating, primarily because it is referred to so many times in the modern age, is the example of the church in Acts 4:32-35.

Acts 4:32-35 (New International Version)
New International Version (NIV)
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society

32All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.

Now one can quibble about how Acts 4 should be lived out in the present age. Some say that private organizations (using that euphemism "faith-based organizations" even for religious groups that prefer works over faith) should be allowed to provide such relief in an unfettered way. Others says that the government, as servant of the people, should provide such relief.

Here's Ronald J. Sider's view:

Central to any Christian strategy on world hunger must be a radical call for the church to be the church....[O]ne of the most glaring weaknesses of church social action in the past few decades has been its too exclusive focus on political solutions. In effect, church leaders tried to persuade government to legislate what they could not persuade their church members to live. And politicians quickly sensed that the daring resolutions and the frequent Washington delegations represented generals without troops. Only if the body of Christ is already beginning to live a radically new model of economic sharing will our demand for political change have integrity and impact.

We must confess the tragic sinfulness of present economic relationships in the worldwide body of Christ. While our brothers and sisters in the Third World ache for lack of minimal health care, minimal education, even just enough food to escape starvation, Christians in the northern hemisphere grow richer each year -- like the Corinthian Christians who feasted without sharing their food with the poor members of the church (I Cor. 11:20-29). Like them we fail today to discern the reality of Christ’s body. U.S. Christians spent $5.7 billion on new church construction alone in the six years from 1967 to 1972. Would we go on building lavish church plants if members of our own congregations were starving? Do we not flatly contradict Paul’s instructions to the early churches if we live as though African or Latin American members of his body are less a part of us than the members of our home congregations?

Similarly, when looking at capitalism vs. communism, Pastor John Wright agrees with neither view:

Verses 34-37 speak about the practical means of distribution of the individual goods for the common good. What is the role of the believers? When and how do they distribute their goods? What is the role of the apostles? Why distribute through them? What is the result?...

I've appended onto this some extensive reflections about how we continue to live this common good as the church -- all churches that I know of do so in some way, even if we don't recognize it. I am especially concerned to develop a more Christian way to talk about this outside the presuppositions of the world around us. You'll sense my Christian anarchy here, and my understanding of the church as an economic group in its own right, providing an alternative to the contemporary political economic right and left. You'll have to decide if it's conservative or liberal!...

The differences between a right wing and a left wing politics is found in how and to whom the state redistributes the property income based on its sovereignty. In a capitalist society, the State exercises its power by distributing the goods to wealthy, private individuals to build its power by increasing its tax base -- evident as a recent Supreme Court decision gave a city's right to transfer property from one private owner to another to increase their tax base. It maintains the myth of 'private property' but requires rents (taxation) at all times....

On the left, the state takes direct control over property to oversee its direction distribution on account of 'the people'. It hopes to generate loyalty of "the masses" by its beneficial distribution to all, thus legitimating its sovereignty.

Acts 4:32-37 seems to call for a very different understanding of economic goods. It presupposes sovereignty over creation to be in God, as seen in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can see, then, not to get caught up in contemporary contests between a left-wing politics and a right-wing politics in the world because both sides represent an economics that is based in a system of sovereignty that is alien to believers. The politics and economics of the church is very different. Property is seen as a good, but a good that must be subordinated to the good of others, especially the poor. Private property is not renounced, but profoundly subordinated to the distribution to the church so that the solidarity of heart and soul is also a solidarity of bodies within the one body, that is the Body of Christ.

If this is so, we need to develop the skills of learning to exist in this alien world, but not getting caught up in its divisions (i.e., sustaining the many in the one heart and soul), that can divide the body of Christ. The issue for the church, and individual believers, is how to order our goods for the common good that is the kingdom of God revealed in Jesus by the Spirit.

That's one man's view. But a committee can have a view also. These are excerpts from An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Lifestyle, as written by the 1980 International Consultation on Simple Lifestyle, sponsored by the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization s Lausanne Theology and Education Group and the World Evangelical Fellowship's Theological Commission's Unit on Ethics and Society.

We rejoice that the church is the new community of the new age, whose members enjoy a new life and a new lifestyle. The earliest Christian church, constituted in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, was characterized by a quality of fellowship unknown before. Those Spirit-filled believers loved one another to such an extent that they sold and shared their possessions. Although their selling and giving were voluntary, and some private property was retained (Acts 5:4), it was made subservient to the needs of the community. "None of them said that anything he had was his own" (Acts 4:32). That is, they were free from the selfish assertion of proprietary rights. And as a result of their transformed economic relationships, "there was not a needy person among them" (Acts 4:34).
This principle of generous and sacrificial sharing, expressed in holding ourselves and our goods available for people in need, is an indispensable characteristic of every Spirit-filled church. So those of us who are affluent in any part of the world, are determined to do more to relieve the needs of less privileged believers. Otherwise, we shall be like those rich Christians in Corinth who ate and drank too much while their poor brothers and sisters were left hungry, and we shall deserve the stinging rebuke Paul gave them for despising God's church and desecrating Christ's body (I Corinthians 11:20-24). Instead, we determine to resemble them at a later stage when Paul urged thein out of their abundance to give to the impoverished Christians of Judea "that there may be equality" (II Corinthians 8:10-15). It was a beautiful demonstration of caring love and of Gentile-Jewish solidarity in Christ.

In this same spirit, we must seek ways to transact the church's corporate business together with minimum expenditure on travel, food and accommodation. We call on churches and parachurch agencies in their planning to be acutely aware of the need for integrity in corporate lifestyle and witness.

Christ calls us to be the world's salt and light, in order to hinder its social decay and illumine its darkness. But our light must shine and our salt must retain its saltness. It is when the new community is most obviously distinct from the world-in its values, standards and lifestyle-that it presents the world with a radically attractive alternative and so exercises its greatest influence for Christ. We commit ourselves to pray and work for the renewal of our churches.

Perhaps it's timely to interject something from the Archbishop of Canterbury website. The material below is excerpted from "Reciprocity and the Ethic of Acts" by Brian Capper:

The reader of Acts 2-6 might be left with the impression that for Luke the thoroughgoing abrogation of private property and the social distinctions which it caused was the ideal, and the goal of the widespread theme of possessions, the poor and the rich in his Gospel. The theme of community of property is emphatically introduced early in Acts by its repetition in the first two 'summaries' (cf. Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32, 34) and treated with obvious enthusiasm....

However, after this powerfully expressed beginning, community of property as a theme receives no further mention after Acts 6:1-6. In what sense can it be Luke's intended ideal for the church of his day, and the appropriate realisation of Jesus' teaching on the dangers of wealth and the imperative demand to care for the poor? Community of property appears to be replaced by the theme of almsgiving which we have noted in 9:36, 10:2, 4, 31, 11:27-30, 20:35 and 24:17. Moreover, Luke may even appear to imply in the individual stories which make up his account of earliest Christian community of property that he considered this a failed or impractical project. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11) can be read as a kind of fall of the first community from innocence (thereafter irretrievable), and the dispute over the supply of the Hellenist widows (6:1-6) might mean that Luke knew that as the community began to expand (6:1) a shared purse had to give way to organised poor-care. Possibly the solution to the problem of care of the Hellenist widows is meant to be taken as a kind of transition from community of property in Acts 2-5 to the almsgiving of the later church.

Well, I've gone well beyond the San Francisco Magazine article, but I guess this gives us something to think about.

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