MARCH 15, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Where are the protesting and dissenting voices of the church? We often hear that question asked, sometimes tauntingly, sometimes plaintively. Decades ago, Catholic, Jewish, Mainline, and sometimes Evangelical religious leaders were up front in demonstrations. Civil rights, welfare programs, anti-Vietnam War issues presented rather clearly defined themes that were met with clearly defined counter-themes. What has happened?
One happening, according to many observers, is the developing complexity of moral issues today, warped and woofed as they are into the larger fabric of a market society. How does one deal with texts warning against attempts to serve God and Mammon when Mammon offers both the good life and compromising seductions? Why turn away from free market ideologies when capitalisms have been officially friendlier to religion than socialisms? Yet how does one avoid the realization that capitalism and the free market have also been major secularizing influences, upstaging those with religious and ethical concerns? Where do we start to make a way through complexity toward judgment?
One new front that we have located in our sightings in the past couple of years has to do with religious questioning of firms like Wal-Mart. Our files at home -- I am writing this from a file-less Florida base this week -- bulge with critiques in Catholic journals, counter-cultural evangelical magazines, and veteran mainline Protestant sources. These appeared tardily, atop the standard and long-term secular community critiques of the merchandising behemoth.
Social-justice minded critics point out that four or five of the nation's top ten billionaires are from the single family of Waltons, as in Wal-Mart. Could these profit-makers have paid more of their employees a living wage? Church leaders are editorializing about the fact that medical insurance plans come so late, and with too little resourcing, to keep most Wal-Mart employees from having to rely on charity-emergency hospitals; this comes at a huge expense to the tax-payers, who think they are getting a bargain because prices are lower at the discount retailer. Is that just? Should the church be silent, lulled by assurances from Wal-Mart that it does return some yield to charities?
The New York Times story by Andrew Jacobs (March 6) pointed to another front: Wal-Mart intends to build on one of the oldest African-American settlements in the nation, Sandfly, Georgia, which is further complicated by the existence of a Methodist and a Baptist congregation on the proposed property. The protests, however, do not deal simply with the usual N.I.M.F.Y ("Not in My Front Yard") issues, but with the theme of cultural displacement. Let Wal-Mart preempt the spiritual space and something irretrievable is gone forever.
We wish the Sandfly locals well. Fairness demands, however, that we note that non-African-American churches by the hundreds destroy and build in such ways that little heritage remains, and they live in a "now" which will soon pass. Wal-Mart is not the only force of destruction, honest church people have to note. And, noting it, they compromise their witness, inevitably, in our culture.
Martin Marty's life-in-retirement has grown sufficiently complex that, with the help of Micah Marty and Ann Rehfeldt, he has tried to turn more efficient by resorting to a web-site. Hosts for his lectures, planners of programs, consultants, and researchers, can find answers to frequently asked questions answered there. It is www.illuminos.com. The first name to come up will be "Martin E. Marty." Click on it and the door opens to many links. The Micah Marty and Ann Rehfeldt lines on the home page will soon be detailed.