On October 6, 2020, I was part of a panel discussion organized by Move to Amend on The Immorality of the Climate Crisis and Corporate Rule. The moderator was Greg Coleridge other panel participants were Shannon Biggs (Movement Rights), Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap (Move to Amend), and Casey Camp Horinek (Ponca Nation of Oklahoma). Here are my remarks:
Thank you, Greg and Move to Amend for the invitation to be part of tonight’s panel. It is good to be with you and to be in conversations on this work. The subject that we are grappling with is huge and hugely urgent. I am going to start by taking for granted that everyone here is opposed to corporate rule, recognizes that the planet and our species are in the midst of an unfolding climate catastrophe, and that global industrial activity, in whatever form it is organized, is the leading engine of this ecological disaster. I also suspect that most of you agree, like me, with Naomi Klein, a “destabilized climate is the cost of deregulated, global capitalism.” We can only address our existential crisis by challenging this economic regime, dismantling corporate rule. What should we do?
By we, I mean members of self-governing religious communities—primarily those of the liberal or humanistic varieties—in the United States. I apologize for the limited appeal. One of the functions of speech is to convince people to engage upon courses of action. As a parish minister and theologian, I suspect that my remarks will be most effective if I direct them towards those of you who might inspired by my words to integrate a challenge to corporate rule into your religious lives. By their very nature, I propose, it should be among the purposes of such self-governing communions to oppose corporate rule. In my time with you, I want us to think about three things: the nature of corporate rule; the origins of congregational self-governance; and the opportunities that congregational self-governance offers us to oppose corporate rule.
Corporate rule, the anthropologist David Graeber made a compelling argument that our society is transitioning to a new kind of feudalism. In his study of how corporate culture functions—a highly entertaining book titled Bullshit Jobs: A Theory—he argued large corporations today are less and less about making things and “more and more political processes of appropriating, distributing, and allocating money and resources.” Pointing to the rise of finance corporations and financialization, he observes that the international economic system has become one of “rent extraction” where companies primarily make money by charging interest on debt. A lot of companies that you might think are in the business of creating goods derive their profits from financing. General Motors makes more money from the interest it collects on car loans than from selling cars.
This dynamic has led to a situation analogous to medieval feudalism, a hierarchical system where those at the top built their wealth and power by grabbing “a pot of loot, either…. from one’s enemies or extracting it from commoners.” In the old feudal order, people at the pinnacle maintained loyalty by redistributing a portion of their gains to underlings who worked to ensure stability by justifying and protecting the arrangement. These underlings included the clergy who owed their positions to whichever lord controlled the congregations they served. There was no separation of church and state. The monarch and nobles effectively controlled both. This is a vastly oversimplified picture. A lot of the stupid European religious wars in the Middle Ages were about whether the Pope or the princes were in charge. But the general point: during this period it was in the interest of the clergy to develop theological doctrines that encouraged the peasants to go along with the whole thing. This is where we get such nonsense as the divine right of kings and Martin Luther proclaiming anyone who rebelled “merited death in body and soul.”
Self-governing religious communities grew in opposition to this order. Some, like the Quakers, rejected the idea that clergy were necessary and dispensed with them. Others, such the congregations that eventually became Unitarian Universalist, appointed their own clergy. Either way these congregations formed around the belief that ordinary people could, and should, take responsibility for own religious lives. Rather than belonging to a religious community because they were told they had to by some noble, they voluntary joined one. Within in each person lay the divine spark, the communal task was to nurture the spark so that it might shine all the more brightly. In the congregations aligned with the feudal order, a relationship with God flowed from top to bottom—the priest was needed to meditate it or only the state sanctioned minister properly understood it. In what became known as the left-wing of the Reformation, a relationship with God were more horizontal—each individual had the inborn ability to cultivate it.
The theologian James Luther Adams named this belief “the dignity of responsibility” and it had profound implications. It transformed congregations into schools and laboratories for democratic practice. To take an active role in a communion was to learn to read, to interpret a text, to make an argument, to manage the collective resources, and to cast a vote, or come to consensus, on what was to be done. This stood in direct conflict with the reigning practices of feudalism. And it is why self-governing congregations were major sites of rebellion—and eventually seedbeds for revolution—against the old feudal order. Once people learned how to exercise democracy in one area of their lives they wanted to extend it others.
Before considering how contemporary self-governing congregations might provide us resources for ending corporate rule, I want to pause to acknowledge that this is an entirely Eurocentric account. As such, it is problematic on at least two levels. First, it elides relationship between self-governing congregations and the United States’ origins in, and ongoing practices of, settler colonialism. As noted by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, the myth that this country originates in a group of “faithful citizens… [that came] together of their own free will and pledge to each other and to god to form and support a goodly society” has its very roots in the religious practices that I have been uplifting. There is a clear line from this foundational myth and the ongoing practices of genocide directed by the federal government and corporations against sovereign indigenous nations. Second, it neglects the history of self-governing African American congregations. They arose in opposition to a different kind of feudalism—the brutal regime of chattel slavery. Outside of direct control by white supremacists they became spaces to develop, in the words of Albert Raboteau, an “agency of social control, a source of economic cooperation, an arena for political activity, a sponsor for education, and a refuge in a hostile white world.” Put differently, there is a reason why members, and the clergy, of these congregations have provided much of the opposition to white supremacy and the leadership for grassroots labor unions and other organizations devoted to social transformation.
An account like mine, therefore, much be adjusted to recognize that the greatest sources of opposition to corporate feudalism have come from the communities from which it extracts the most. White wealth has been principally built off of the unpaid or underpaid labor of people of color and the expropriation of indigenous lands. Within my tradition we claim that revelation is not sealed. Our theology challenges us to wrestle with what we might even name the ongoing structures of evil so that we can have a different future. One of our tasks then becomes to reinvigorate European traditions of self-governance while recognizing the ways we have been complicit with and benefited from the system of corporate rule. Dismantling white supremacy both inside of and outside of our institutions must be part of our work of challenging. Otherwise, we will be perpetuate the very power structures we hope to disrupt.
Religious communities like mine continue to have significant resources that we can use if we decide that we want to oppose the contemporary iteration of feudalism. And we should be if we are committed to honoring the inherent worth and dignity of each person or the inner light within. Corporate rule leads many people to toil in what are essentially meaningless jobs and struggle with despair—in surveys as many as 40 percent of workers self-report that “their jobs have no good reason to exist. ” Meanwhile, one out of ten people in the richest country in human history don’t have enough to eat and Jeff Bezos has grown unimaginably wealthy.
The resources we have are not necessarily material. They exist in the form of our practices of self-governance—which we must be constantly re-examining with a lens of antiracism. Like earlier generations of religious liberals and religious humanists, members of my congregation and other such communities might reimagine the way we organize ourselves as part of our religious practice. Rather than thinking of meetings as means to an ends, we could reconceive of them as a kind of ritual. In a ritual we often attempt to transform one state of our being to another. The ritual of marriage marks the passage by which two people become united into a common household. We could think of our meetings as rituals where we learn how to live democratically, and in doing so, stir the divine within. Thus stirred we might take that divinity outside of our communities and bring more democratic practice into the wider world. Imagine what a threat to corporate rule that would be.
Here, a closing coda: You might observe that I have come all this way without mentioning corporate personhood. I have avoided the subject because it is a creation of the secular theologians we call attorneys and judges. I am not equipped to contest them on their own ground. But I can remember the words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” And I can choose different tools and deconstruct the house that way. It has happened before.