food and housing

I was talking to Jennifer this morning about finding a spiritual director. We both agreed that it was better to find someone through a friend or a church or a pastor instead of resorting to “the market”–e.g., a business or organization that offers spiritual direction for a fee.

We’re quite happy getting jeans and BlackBerries and red wine from “the market.” Why not spiritual direction?

I suppose there are some things which one might consider “sacred,” beyond commodification by the modern industrial economy. Spiritual direction, a good sermon, the Lord’s body and blood–these are good examples. We financially support our ministers and the altar guild which organizes the bread and wine for communion; but, as everyone would agree, this is not the same as going to the grocery store to get the benefits which proceed from attending a church service.

What would it mean to say that there are other such “sacred” things in our lives?

I suggested to Jen that perhaps basic food and housing are precisely these sorts of things. How vastly different would our world look if everyone were ensured basic food and housing for their lifetimes?

In New Zealand, I met a wonderful guy named Jeremy who believed this strongly. Not only did Jeremy believe food and housing need be taken out of “the market” as commodities, but that they need not be offered by the government as “social services” either.

Jeremy is English, so this is a rather bold viewpoint for him, a citizen of such a “progressive” welfare state as the United Kingdom. But his reasoning is sound. He envisions a commune-like situation, where folks are working to provide these things for themselves–but also where there isn’t much desire for goods that must be bought and sold through the market.

The hidden assumption in this discussion is that there is some kind of perverting factor at work in the market. But I think that’s true: when one subjects a thing–be it an idea, a product, or a service (one need only to think of hospitality, which was once a virtue but is now a service to be bought from “the hospitality industry”)–to the market, it is no longer the same. We’ve allowed one of the catchiest and most prevalent proverbs of our culture to become the motto of a major credit card’s ad campaign: “the best things in life are priceless.”

There’s more.

If sacred things need be removed not only from the market but from the government, does that prohibit us from being Democrats?

This is something I’ve wrestled with a lot lately, but I think we need to approach it head-on. I’ve quoted Wendell Berry on this topic before, but it’s apt to do so again:

I believe that the experience of all honest men stands, like these books, against the political myth that deep human problems can be satisfactorily solved by legislation. On the contrary, it seems likely that the best and least oppressive laws come as a result or the reflection of honest solutions that men have already made in their own lives… The American people may solve their problems themselves, and so save the world a catastrophe, not by insisting that the government do their work for them.

(Berry, The Hidden Wound, p. 140)

I’m not sure if this way of thinking prohibits us from being Democrats, but it ought to give us pause in the face of a Democratic tendency to assign everything to the government. In the Democratic vision, folks may have their basic food and housing provided for, but it’s not really their food or their housing because they didn’t work to grow or build it. The reason Jeremy’s commune idea looks attractive to me is that the connection between these basic needs and our bodies’ (and our land’s) ability to provide for them is the foundation of human flourishing.

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2 responses to “food and housing

  1. Endnote: I’m actual less interested in crafting government policies around these thoughts as I am to see how they motivate personal action. In other words, what bearing in one’s life does the belief that food and housing are legitimate objects for neither the market (in the form of “commodities”) nor the government (in the form of “social services”) have?

    Whereas the relegation of these sacred things to either realm removes the onus for action in the individual’s realm, I hope that the belief that neither realm is suitable can produce the virtues of generosity (when did you last feed someone?) and hospitality (when did you last invite a stranger into your home?).

  2. i love that you can put this into words.
    the polarization of our country tricks me into believing i must choose sides. one or the other. one seems to be telling me that if government legislates it, then at least that bandaid will help, possibly even heal. another seems to say if you dont work for it, then no justice is given to you. you dont deserve it. yes, this is quite a dramatic and narrow interpretation but it seems to be fairly accurate with a lot of situations. the news can just talk about it for hours. pointing fingers.
    there are just too many factors that come into play with food and housing being a commodity. one of those being the job market. i think democracy has a lot to do with it. i dont have the knowledge however to explain. (so maybe i shouldnt say anything about it?!)

    but our mindset motivates our work.
    im at work. i cant finish what i was thinking because i lost track of my mind. gotta go.

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