Progressive people of faith share the concerns of progressives everywhere about the devastating impact of the current economic crisis. At a recent interfaith event hosted by Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois, 80 people from Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions gathered to focus on the ethical and moral dimensions of our economy. An economist and a leader from each of the three Abrahamic faiths served as presenters. 

Professor James Halteman, an economist, described how “dog-eat-dog” individualism has taken precedence over the common good, resulting in the powerful few who control and manipulate information for their own benefit, with resultant abuse and fraud. He challenged people of faith to address three questions: How is suffering to be shared in our time? Does the present lay claim on the future? Can public and private interests be brought into balance?   

Remarks by Rabbi Karyn Kedar, Professor Ghulam Haider-Aasi and Rev. Stephen Bouman surfaced several commonalities among the three faith traditions that relate to how we address the economy:

  • God is a god of love and justice. Rabbi Kedar noted that “in Hebrew the word for charity and for justice is the same-sedakah.
  • We can’t love God without loving our neighbor.
  • Life, by nature, involves struggle.  Muslims call this jihad; the meaning of “Israel” is one who struggles with God; and Christians “wrestle against principalities and powers.”
  • Institutions of society are corrupt, and striving for money and power is corrupting. Pastor Bouman called it an “Enron public theology” in which the powerful who are in control make off with the money to which they feel entitled and aren’t answerable to moral principles.
  • People are bound together in community-the children of Israel; the Ummah in Islam; the body of Christ for Christians. We are concerned for the well being of the entire community as opposed to the individualism that operates in our society.

We must share our resources with the vulnerable. Jews are required to tithe (10 percent); Christians are encouraged to do so; and the Q’uran says that no one should be extremely rich. Professor Aasi noted that generosity and charity is one of the seven pillars of Islam. With these basic principles in mind, the presenters offered several suggestions for addressing economic inequality:

  • In an economy that operates with a “top-down” approach, we will strive for a “bottom up”mentality, working in our own communities to effect justice and change in all sectors of society.
  • We can give the economy a human face. The word economy in Greek (oikonomia) comes from the word household (oikos). The concern should be primarily for people and not for profits.
  • Instead of viewing the world from the mentality of scarcity, we can operate with the perspective of abundance, rebalancing our priorities to see that our well-being is not contingent on abundant wealth, but on an abundant lifestyle of love in which our priority is the well-being of everyone.

This forum was an example of what can happen when progressives – both secular and people of faith – dialogue with each other and stand united in common cause to bring about change in the corrupt institutions in our society. Familiarity with and seeing the humanity of people of other traditions can overcome anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the realization that progressive Christians do not fit the stereotypes promoted by the religious right.