Economy, Difference, Empire

Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 528
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  • Book Info
    Economy, Difference, Empire
    Book Description:

    Sourcing the major traditions of progressive Christian social ethics-social gospel liberalism, Niebuhrian realism, and liberation theology-Gary Dorrien argues for the social-ethical necessity of social justice politics. In carefully reasoned essays, he focuses on three subjects: the ethics and politics of economic justice, racial and gender justice, and antimilitarism, making a constructive case for economic democracy, along with a liberationist understanding of racial and gender justice and an anti-imperial form of liberal internationalism.

    In Dorrien's view, the three major discourse traditions of progressive Christian social ethics share a fundamental commitment to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice. His reflections on these topics feature innovative analyses of major figures, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, James Burnham, Norman Thomas, and Michael Harrington, and an extensive engagement with contemporary intellectuals, such as Rosemary R. Ruether, Katie Cannon, Gregory Baum, and Cornel West. Dorrien also weaves his personal experiences into his narrative, especially his involvement in social justice movements. He includes a special chapter on the 2008 presidential campaign and the historic candidacy of Barack Obama.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52629-6
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xxii)

    This book is a four-pronged collection of lectures and essays on social justice and progressive Christian social ethics. As the title suggests, it has three main subjects—economic democracy, racial and gender justice, and U.S. American empire—plus a fourth subject, the tradition of social ethical discourse out of which I approach the other subjects.

    The ethical injunctions to lift the yoke of oppression and build a just order are stated emphatically in the Bible, although much of historic Christianity managed not to notice. Modern social ethics has done better at taking seriously the injunctions, but not without disagreeing about...

    (pp. xxiii-xxvi)
  5. PART I: The Social Gospel and Niebuhrian Realism
    • Chapter 1 Society as the Subject of Redemption: WASHINGTON GLADDEN, WALTER RAUSCHENBUSCH, AND THE SOCIAL GOSPEL
      (pp. 3-28)

      The idea that Christianity has a regenerative social mission is rooted in the biblical message of letting justice flow like a river, pouring yourself out for the poor and vulnerable, and attending to what Jesus called the “weightier matters of the law,” justice and mercy. But the idea that Christianity has a social mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice is distinctly modern.

      Early Christianity had a regenerative social ethic, but the early church was a marginalized eschatological community. The medieval church had a social ethic of the common good, but it was an...

    • Chapter 2 Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, and the Crises of War and Capitalism
      (pp. 29-45)

      Reinhold Niebuhr, the greatest American theologian of the twentieth century, had the same intellectual trajectory as the other giant theologians of his generation—Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich. He was trained in liberal theology, turned against it with mighty polemical force, was tagged as neo-orthodox, and retained crucial aspects of liberalism despite the polemics. In Europe, where the antiliberal revolt was first called “crisis theology,” the leading figure was Barth. In the U.S., where the crisis occurred a decade later, Niebuhr had the Barth role.

      European crisis theology was a reaction against the slaughter and destruction...

      (pp. 46-65)

      Reinhold Niebuhr is usually remembered as the last theologian and Protestant leader to make an important impact on American society and the church. This convention somehow forgets that Martin Luther King Jr. was a theologian and Protestant leader. Elizabeth Sifton, in her wonderfully vivid account of her father’s career, registers another objection, that the usual rendering of Niebuhr’s great influence is mostly fiction.

      “I am regularly amazed when I read in this or that magazine that my father was a ‘major leader’ of postwar American Protestantism,” Sifton remarks. Niebuhr spoke constantly in college chapels, but only a handful of churches...

      (pp. 66-84)

      The image of Billy Graham that prevails in theology is the one Reinhold Niebuhr painted: a throwback to pietistic fundamentalism who oversimplified “every issue of life.” In 1956, while Graham’s fame soared to heights Niebuhr found incredible, not to mention embarrassing for American Christianity, Niebuhr panned that apparently there was still an ample market in American religion for simplistic preaching that reduced complex problems to pious slogans.¹

      Theologically, Niebuhr argued, Graham simply recycled the catch phrases of an outmoded Protestant individualism and literalism. His spectacular success at attracting an audience brought to mind the nearly forgotten reasons why liberal theology...

  6. PART II: Economic Democracy in Question
    • Chapter 5 Norman Thomas and the Dilemma of American Socialism
      (pp. 87-110)

      Norman Thomas is usually remembered as an idealistic failure, an assessment he shared. He was idealistic, and he certainly failed to build a vital democratic socialist party in the United States. But “failure” is a harsh epitaph for a figure who fought valiantly for more good causes than any American of his time, and who sometimes pushed for winning causes, though never to his satisfaction.¹

      From the early 1920s to the late 1960s, Norman Thomas was America’s foremost democratic socialist. From the beginning it was a dying cause; Thomas became a Socialist Party leader shortly after the party shattered over...

    • Chapter 6 Michael Harrington and the “Left Wing of the Possible”
      (pp. 111-132)

      Nearly a hundred times per year for more than thirty years Michael Harrington heard himself introduced before he launched into an earnest, learned, humorous, sometimes scintillating speech on some aspect of his democratic socialist politics. Gifted with charm and a quick wit, he was adept at handling hecklers; the low point of these events, from his perspective, usually came during the introduction. Nearly always he was described as “the author of The Other America, the book that sparked the War on Poverty,” while his other books got short shrift. Harrington cringed, hating to correct a welcoming host, but these introductions...

    • Chapter 7 Christian Socialism as Tradition and Problem
      (pp. 133-142)

      For more than a century, Christian theologians have dreamed of a transformed economic order based on democratic empowerment and the common good. A century ago the social gospel movement reverberated with calls for economic democracy. In the 1930s, after global capitalism crashed spectacularly, theologians stressed the necessity of finding an alternative to capitalist boom and bust. In the 1970s the rise of liberation theology resurrected the dream of a transformed economic order.

      But the dream failed, and today capitalism prevails in more global and predatory forms than ever. Today the idea of a fundamental alternative seems quaint at best, even...

      (pp. 143-167)

      What would a just society look like? What kind of country should the U.S. want to be? For more than two centuries U.S. American politics has featured two fundamentally different answers to these questions. The first is the vision of a society that provides unrestricted liberty to acquire wealth. The second is the vision of a realized democracy in which democratic rights over society’s major institutions are established. In the first vision, the right to property is lifted above the right to self-government, and the just society minimizes the equalizing role of government. In the second view, the right to...

    • Chapter 9 Rethinking and Renewing Economic Democracy
      (pp. 168-184)

      Economic democracy, in my conception, is not a nicer-sounding stand-in for state socialism, though the phrase was sometimes used as such by twentieth-century Socialists. Neither is it compatible with blueprint dogmatism, though some theorists of economic democracy are devoted to their blueprints. In my conception it is communitarian, radically democratic, pluralistic, environmentalist, as decentralized as possible, and a compound of realism and idealism. The roots of economic democracy theory go back to the cooperative and guild socialist movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, notably the French section of the First Socialist International, which stressed cooperative networks of production...

  7. PART III: Neoconservatism and American Empire
    • Chapter 10 The Neoconservative Phenomenon: AMERICAN POWER AND THE WAR OF IDEOLOGY
      (pp. 187-213)

      In the early 1970s American socialist Michael Harrington and his friends at Dissent magazine hung the label “neoconservative” on an assortment of former liberals and leftists that had recently moved to the political right. Many of these new conservatives were bitterly attacking longtime friends who remained in the Left. Former freedom riders were condemning affirmative action and Black Power for “destroying” the Civil Rights movement. Former Socialists and Liberals were denouncing Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program for creating a “New Class” of parasitic bureaucrats and social workers. Commentary magazine was running furious assaults on antiwar, feminist, and environmental causes...

    • Chapter 11 Imperial Designs: NEOCONSERVATISM AND THE IRAQ WAR
      (pp. 214-239)

      In the waning months of the cold war, shortly before an expiring Soviet Union finally dissolved, a group of American neoconservatives urged that the time had come to create an American-dominated world order. Some of them called it the “unipolarist imperative.” Instead of reducing military spending, they contended, the United States needed to expand its military reach to every region of the world, using its tremendous military and economic power to consolidate America’s global supremacy. At the very moment that neoconservatism was widely claimed to be finished in American politics, a sizable group of neocons devised a new rationale for...

    • Chapter 12 Militaristic Illusions: THE IRAQ DEBACLE AND THE CRISIS OF AMERICAN EMPIRE
      (pp. 240-258)

      Our subject is the crisis of American empire, especially in Iraq. One of the central problems of U.S. foreign policy today is to modulate the natural tendency of an unrivaled power to regard the entire world as its geopolitical neighborhood. This would have been a defining challenge for the Bush administration even if terrorists had not struck the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The U.S. at the turn of the twenty-first century was overdue for a moral and political reckoning with the compulsive expansionism of unrivaled power. But the problem of world empire increased by several orders of magnitude with...

      (pp. 259-286)

      Belatedly, confronted with an imperial debacle in Iraq and an expensive global military, Americans have begun to debate whether their country is some kind of empire, an idea foreign to the nation’s historic idea of itself as a benevolent republic. Most of the world has no doubt that the U.S. is an empire, but today it holds plenty of uncertainty and concern about the kind of empire the U.S. wants to be. For U.S. Americans, emerging from denial that we are an empire is a crucial first step toward becoming something better.

      Setting aside its Native American reservations, the United...

  8. PART IV: Social Ethics and the Politics of Difference
      (pp. 289-303)

      My first encounter with Rosemary Radford Ruether occurred in 1974, during my first semester of divinity school, when she spoke at Boston College. To me she was already a theological star: prolific, brilliant, radical yet perfectly sane, obviously the best of the feminist theologians. Her books had exciting titles that exuded revolutionary anticipation—The Radical Kingdom, Liberation Theology, Religion and Sexism—and at Boston College she polled the audience on provocative titles for her next collection, which became New Woman, New Earth. Feminist theology, Ruether declared, was the “next great revolution” in theology and religion; I remember thinking that “next”...

    • Chapter 15 Pragmatic Postmodern Prophecy: CORNEL WEST AS SOCIAL CRITIC AND PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL
      (pp. 304-335)

      Cornel West, our greatest religious public intellectual since Reinhold Niebuhr, is difficult to categorize, partly because so many categories apply to him. He is a philosopher but does not write for or in the manner of the philosophical guild. He is not a theologian, yet liberation theology is at the heart of his work and vision. He is a pragmatist, a Socialist, a postmodern historicist, and a black Christian liberationist, but he is all of these things in his own inimitable way. His favorite self-description, aptly, is “Jesus-centered intellectual bluesman.” West has become America’s greatest religious public intellectual by practicing...

    • Chapter 16 As Purple to Lavender: KATIE CANNON AND WOMANIST ETHICS
      (pp. 336-348)

      The necessity of a black feminist Christian social ethic was obvious long before anyone knew what it would be like. When I was a seminarian in the mid- and late 1970s all the black theologians we studied were male and all the female theologians were white. This anomaly did not go unnoticed; many times, when my classes discussed black and feminist theology, the point was made that one group would be in a position to meld these perspectives together, if only there were any black women in the field to do so.

      At the time there were a few black...

    • Chapter 17 Religious Pluralism as a Justice Issue: CATHOLICISM, PROTESTANTISM, JUDAISM, AND ECUMENISM
      (pp. 349-366)

      My assignment is to talk about the problems of religious pluralism, prosyletism, and ecumenism from a liberal Protestant perspective, which I am happy to do, notwithstanding that this convention is filled with people who know more about Jewish-Christian dialogue than I do. When I think about the matrix of issues addressed by this convention I think about Gregory Baum, Charles Clayton Morrison, John Courtney Murray, and a long line of liberal theologians beginning with Friedrich Schleiermacher.

      “Proselytism” is an alien concept to me and to most liberal theologians. For me, the idea of a gospel imperative to proselytize Jews, Muslims,...

    • Chapter 18 The Obama Phenomenon and Presidency
      (pp. 367-391)

      The Obama phenomenon is hurtling past the best analogies that we have for it. Three years ago Obama shot into the national political scene with a sensational speech at the Democratic Party Convention. Two years ago he joined the U.S. Senate as its only African American member. A year ago he was still admonishing admirers to give him time to accomplish something before talking up an Obama presidency. Today he is running for president because he has generated too much excitement to wait for another political season.

      In some respects, the echoes of Robert Kennedy in 1968 are strong. No...

    • Chapter 19 Social Ethics in the Making: HISTORY, METHOD, AND WHITE SUPREMACISM
      (pp. 392-410)

      An inaugural celebration, I am told, is supposed to highlight something about the speaker. But I couldn’t think of anything about myself that I wanted to feature, except that I love Union Theological Seminary and am amazed to have been called to it. So this lecture will be almost as Union-centric as the rest of the service.

      I have a lot of friends here and if I start naming them I’ll have to go row by row. So I will limit myself to four friends from my Kalamazoo years. Dr. Romeo E. Phillips and Dr. James F. Jones Jr. are...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 411-474)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 475-500)