by Phillip Owen
Love so radical that it shows up in the most unlikely places. Love so strong that its strength is measured in how it treats the most vulnerable among us. Love so urgent that it is needed in the most desperate of times. I feel the presence of God, and therefore love, in my neighbors, family, and friends as we really get to know each other in deeper ways in the last couple of weeks. That so many people in our communities suffered during the recent winter storm in Texas saddens me. How they suffered horrifies me. Why they suffered angers me. Hundreds of thousands without power, millions without water having to collect snow to flush toilets, people buried under layers of blankets in their bedrooms through indoor temperatures in the 30s for days, using a gas stove as a heater to stay warm risking carbon monoxide poisoning, burning charcoal inside to stay warm risking releasing toxic fumes, burning old furniture to stay warm risking burning down the house, burning anything to stay warm. And then the individual stories: An 11 year-old boy dies of hypothermia, an elderly man dies retrieving his oxygen tank from his car, several die in a house fire that lost electricity, and the people experiencing homelessness experiencing even more unspeakable hardship.
A friend commented as it was unfolding, “this feels like something out of the Civil War!” “Yes, it does,” I replied, feeling extremely lucky to only have lost water in the last few days of it all. I’d even say go back a little further in history to when Texas was a Republic. A ten-year period from 1836 – 1846 that is often heralded with state pride for our fierce independence and exceptionalism, glossing over the bare fact that it was a time rife with poverty, squalor, and real need of basic amenities for most of its people. Today, when convenient, that period of time calls up for some a real sense of “freedom.” But for many of those living through that time it was a dream come true to be admitted into the Union after ten short (but what may have felt like long) years. This spirit of freedom, independence, and go-it-aloneness is still with us today in so much of the way our state is run, which for the most part is on a business model based on free-market forces. It’s the “free” part of the words freedom and free-market that starts to feel anything but in the light of people suffering through avoidable breakdowns of our systems during a natural disaster.
We put successful business people in all kinds of leadership positions. The thinking goes, since they are successful at running a business, then they or their business model should be adopted to manage our other institutions like a university, a hospital, a church, the government, or public utilities. The equivocation of these institutions into margins, leverage, and customers usually follows. Many articles and speeches are currently being written about the breakdown of this idea: that public shared utilities on a business model will eventually be exposed for incentivizing corner-cutting in the name of profitability; that investment in safety, equity, and reliability is not financially wise in this business model; and that decisions that are made in the service of private ownership will often miss the mark when it commodifies a basic survival need, like staying warm during freezing temperatures. But I’d like also to take a look at what living life solely in a business model looks like when viewed up close, and what an alternative model could be. The business model often adopts an ethos of “I’ll take care of me and mine, and you take care of you and your’n”, which assumes we all have equal access to the same things. We do not. It will applaud shrewd business acumen and look righteous, if not heroic, when explaining to the public why the power grid failed using words like “rolling outage” and “load shed” to equate the suffering of people into a math problem. And it reduces the well-being, the literal survival of the people living in the community, to a profit margin. I do not have a problem with any business model in principle. I think it’s great if you have a business, plan to start one, or work for one like so many do. It’s inspiring to consider the innovation, perseverance, and growth that businesses provide our communities. It’s respectable to see how a competitive spirit can spur on excellence where there was mediocrity. But do we have to apply that to everything? Must success in business mean it is successful everywhere? Can it not coexist with other models for living, especially when these business models fail the institutions they are claiming to serve? Can we overcome a lack of imagination that seems to reinforce such all-or-nothing thinking and living? Can we value our lives and each other’s lives in better ways? What are those ways?
As Christians, we look to Jesus Christ for better ways. He would speak up today, unafraid to speak politics but with a deeper swift theological current. He would turn over tables in the marketplace. He would create a change in perspective about how we value the people in the community. He would challenge the business model and be suspicious of profitability over people. What would our community look like, feel like, if we took care of lives and souls like we take care of our money and markets? Is there such thing as a “life-based model”? Has it perhaps always been there? Where do we find it and what does it look like? Sometimes it does things that might seem financially foolish like giving away free lunches or groceries, chancing some risk in giving a person a lift who needs to get to a loved one, making sure your generator or 4×4 gets used by others nearby or far away as well as yourself, or giving your time or money to help a neighbor you don’t know yet get food or water (or snow), or weatherizing pipes and buying insurance you might never use. And sometimes it means demanding elected leaders be held accountable for making business-model decisions in an institution that is not a business, but rather an institution that serves its people. Its bottom line is the quality of its people’s lives and not the quantity of its profit.
When Jesus feeds the five thousand, he is faced with a shortage problem, a math problem—only so much supply to meet an overwhelming demand. Does he use terms like “load shed” or “peak demand”? Does he explain his business model to the hungry mass? Are he and his disciples not also strapped in that moment? Or does he imagine a different way to see it? Is there compassion in his heart, in his action? Is there a way that he can overcome the shortage? Is there a way that he and those around him can meet everyone’s basic needs and have an abundance left over? Was he also seeking to show people a way to find power living under an imperial and oppressive government?
As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has written, love is the way. Love will meet everyone’s needs. Love is the new model. Love is the old model. Love provides power to the powerless. Love takes action when the business model stops. Love sees hope when profitability is blind. Love shows up when people are told “you’re on your own”. Love wants to know how you are doing, and please tell me the details. Love brings change when the time is right for it. Love is always greater than a math problem.
Beautifully written, Phillip. You ask many thought provoking questions that add clarity to my journey. “Loan shedding” jumps right out at me–so inadequate to describe the suffering last week, which will continue in the weeks to come. Love rings out in your blog. Thank you!
Yes. To all you’ve written. Thank you for being so eloquent and clear. I will find ways to meaningfully share this. And to act meaningfully on it.
Phillip, thank you for your courage and eloquence. I look forward to reading your essay again and again–in fact, I need to write it again and again so that I don’t forget–and especially the last three paragraphs. You have a prophetic voice, and I hope you continue to use it for the good of the Body of Christ.