At this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, I joined a panel discussion called “Re-thinking Values in the Post-Crisis World.” Because of the economic crisis, values had become a central conversation. In the audience were several CEOs, and all seemed to agree that underneath the economic crisis is also a crisis of values.
The Great Recession that has gripped the world, defined the moment and captured all of our attention has revealed a profound values crisis. Just beneath the surface of the economics debate, a deep national reflection is begging to take place and, indeed, has already begun in people’s heads, hearts and conversations. It raises questions about our personal, family and national priorities; our habits of the heart; our measures of success; the values of our families and our children; our spiritual well-being; and the ultimate goals and purposes of life—including our economic life. That’s why this could be a transformational moment—one of those times that comes around only occasionally. We don’t want to miss the opportunity to rediscover our values.
I have written a new book that asks some of those questions—one I didn’t expect or plan to write, but one that emerged out of the crisis. What we heard was that we have been asking the wrong question: “When will this crisis end?” Here’s the right question to begin asking: “How will this crisis change us?” We need a moral recovery to accompany the economic recovery, and we must not go back to business as usual; rather, we need a new normal. We need to ask the values questions that are at the heart of how we got into this crisis and are critical to getting us out of it. We must set aside the maxims that overtook us—Greed Is Good, It’s All About Me, and I Want It Now—values that wreck economies, cultures, families, and even our souls. We must return instead to new/old virtues like Enough Is Enough, We’re in It Together, and evaluating our decisions by their impact on future generations.
We need a conversion of our habits of the heart: to a clean energy economy, a family values culture, and a new meaning for both work and service. Many of our religious teachings, from our many traditions, offer useful correctives to the practices that brought us to this sad place. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount instructs us not to be anxious about material things, a notion that runs directly counter to the frenzied pressure of modern consumer culture. Judaism teaches us to leave the edges of the fields for the poor to “glean” and welcome those in need to our tables. And Islam prohibits the practice of usury.
Change begins when people make different choices, and it grows when people make them together. And when the critical mass of those who are making different choices gets large enough, change becomes a social movement that can change a status quo that makes us feel angry or helpless. Choices do make change.
Could there be some good news in, through, and even because of this recession? Maybe so, if it becomes the opportunity to rediscover some important things that we somehow lost, but now might find again.
Jim Wallis is president and CEO of Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization, and the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street.
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