Speaking of Religion: Seeking a moral economy

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A couple dozen people gathered in Webster Hall at Second Congregational Church one Tuesday noon in November to hear Debbie Ingram, of Vermont Interfaith Action, and Paul Cillo, of Public Assets Institute, talk about efforts to Build a Moral Economy in Vermont. Those gathered were members of the Greater Bennington Interfaith Council and their communities, members of the Peace and Justice Center, at least one member of the Bennington Select Board, and interested members of the community.

The word "economy" comes from the same root as the words ecumenical and ecology. It refers to the "rules of the household." How shall we live together as members of a community, as faith traditions, as members of a biological habitat? By what rules shall we live so that all members of that community thrive and so that the community "works"?

In a document generated by the Clergy Caucus of Vermont Interfaith Action, a moral economy honors the dignity of all people by 1.providing full opportunity for all to express their gifts and abilities through work and play; 2. ensuring that all work is justly valued; 3. ensuring that all who are unable to work because of societal or personal limitations are respected; 4. ensuring that the most vulnerable among us are respected; and 5. acting as good stewards of the earth and its resources, and preserving life for future generations.

Vermont Interfaith Action and Public Assets Institute are focusing their attention on how the economy of Vermont might better serve the citizens of Vermont, many of whom are not thriving and who are being left further and further behind as the income gap between the top 1% and the bottom 60% continues to widen. They are calling on the governor and his administration to publish a current services budget, which is "a projection of the real cost of the public services that elected officials have committed the state to provide," so that public discussion may take place around the state's other budget proposals. Another way of putting this is, let's talk about the people of Vermont first before simply crunching the numbers. What ways might we come up with together to provide for a level of dignity and basic needs for all Vermonters?

All the major faith traditions include wisdom and guidelines for caring for the poor and sojourners in our midst–Torah regulations on limiting liabilities for the poor, providing offerings and gleanings for the hungry; the Muslim Ramadan fast in solidarity with the poor and hungry; Christian admonitions to care for the poor and the hungry, Jesus' own birth into a peasant family ["a Middle Eastern refugee family," as Facebook posts remind us]. Too often, however, our faith traditions have been twisted into judgmental scorn of those who are poor, who don't have the financial or social resources to provide for themselves. "The poor" become the Problem. "What are we going to do about The Poor?"

But what about those who have the resources they need–and more? What about the moral obligation to share what we have, to contribute to the common good, to "live simply so that others may simply live"? It's not just "the poor" who are the Problem.

Members of the Bennington Interfaith Council have had several deep, honest conversations around our table about the overwhelming need, the lack of resources, the despair, the woundedness, and hopelessness of so many in our community. It would appear that the rules of our "household," our economy, have left a huge number of our neighbors behind. Like the current services budget advocated for at the state level, we as a community must have some serious, open, even painful conversations about how we want to live together, what we need to do so that all members of our community can thrive, what "rules" need to be changed, and what new paradigms we might adopt to more fully reflect the vision of the kind of community we can all live in. Many people of good hearts and minds already offer extraordinary efforts and give generously of their time, energy, and treasure to empower, to teach, to celebrate, to heal, to assist. We need the gifts, ideas, and energy of every one of our citizens to create a community where all can live with dignity, "in peace and unafraid." The conversations must continue and move into action. All members of the Interfaith Council welcome your ideas and input.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark is pastor of Second Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Bennington.


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