Religion and Cooperatives: Excerpts from an Interview

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Intended audience: those interested in economics, religion, Christianity, and social justice

My friend and colleague Joerg Rieger—arguably one of the greatest Christian theologians alive—is a chair and professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, the founding Director of the Wendland Cook Program of Religion and Justice, and also a member of the Southeast Center for Cooperative Development. He briefly interviewed me for their “solidarity circles” program. Below is a partial transcript of the interview.

Rieger: You are both an economist and a scholar of theology and religion. In the development of your own perspectives, cooperatives have had a special place. You’ve published some articles about this, and you are currently writing a book on religion and coops. Can you tell us more?

Hübner: Sure. I’ve always been interested in the ways that theology and personal faith intersect with different areas of life and experiences, and when I learned more about the socio-economic context of Jesus and the New Testament, I got really excited. Richard Horsley’s Covenant Economics was very instrumental for my journey. After reading it, I felt like it was the first time that I actually understood the Sermon on the Mount. And it was surprising because it wasn’t about other-worldly things or escapism from this physical world–like I had been taught growing up in fundamentalist evangelicalism. It was focused on people who were physically suffering and oppressed, focused on the material conditions of average working-class people.

Furthermore, I also realized this was the first time I really began to ask why Jesus was killed. I knew all the theological reasons for why he died (e.g., to atone for sin, to fulfill Hebrew prophecies, redeem the world, etc.), but none of this explained why the Romans crucified him. The government back then didn’t nail people to crosses because they atoned for sin or because they were really nice or even because they were theologically deviant. The Roman Empire was a very tolerant, religiously plural society. Crucifixion was punishment for insurrection, for those who challenged the wealthy and the powerful inside and alongside the Empire.

Further still, in listening to voices like yourself and liberation theologians and activists, it became even more clear how the political, economic, and religious are inseparable. They’re deeply connected. And the thing is, they still are, even when we pretend or try to make religion private and sequestered, the connections are still there. Jesus had a huge problem with the ruling class because they exploited people. Through the temple-state apparatus, market transactions, land lording, colonialism, private property laws that favored the ruling class, pretty much all the same ways that people exploit others today.

So now it made sense to me why Jesus said “You can’t serve both God and money.” It made sense to me that his most angry recorded episode was when he was overturning the money tables in Jerusalem. It made sense to me why he was interrogated about taxes by religious authorities, why he focused so much on poverty and hung around them, why he called the regional client king “a fox,” why he talked about debt-forgiveness in “the Lord’s Prayer,” and why his betrayal by Judas was so serious: it was for cash. Personal profit over true friendship.

There’s no way to take Jesus seriously as a capitalist. It’s impossible. And that was a difficult conclusion for me to make because I was deeply entrenched in pro-capitalism. I was highly active in the pro-capitalist Christian Libertarian Institute, a recipient of an economics grant by the Acton Institute, attended the Hillsdale Free Market Forum for years as a faculty member, and spoke at various conferences alongside anarcho-capitalists. Christian neoliberal capitalism (just like the rest of fundamentalist ideologies) has to put a sock in the mouth of Jesus and the early church when it comes to economics and labor.

And that’s where cooperative economics comes in. It gives people direct power, ownership, and control over their own workspaces and their own economic lives. There are many kinds of cooperatives, some more radical and effective than others. But to address economic inequality and exploitation (and make people’s lives more meaningful on a daily basis, which sort of seems important!), some degree of worker ownership in businesses and organizations, is absolutely essential, otherwise, exploitation of some form is virtually guaranteed. Doesn’t matter how much they’re paid or how nice the boss is. Second of all, cooperative economics is a direct manifestation of the kind of solidarity that Jesus embodied. If we’re going to embody the “Spirit of Christ” today—regardless if you’re part of a local church or not, or even care about institutional religion at all—we have to directly address power differentials and ensure that the neediest members of society are being taken care of by those who are most competent to do so.

So I’ve been working on this subject because core concerns to virtually all religious traditions result in a critique of today’s totalitarian capitalist system and also provides support for the cooperative economy. There are good reasons why the United Nations in 2012 declared that year the “Year of Cooperatives”: they work on a global scale and within a variety of religious and cultural contexts.

Rieger: You are working both with cooperatives and faith communities. Where do you see the potential in connecting faith communities and cooperatives. What is it that worker cooperatives might do for faith communities? What might faith communities do for worker cooperatives?

Hübner: I advocate for the cooperative economy, and that involves a number of a different cooperative forms and models, including worker coops. As I said earlier, my concern is that, wherever people find themselves socially and economically, people need to have control over their own bodies and, if they’re working as a group (as opposed to being a contractor or self-employed), have some degree of legal ownership of the firm. 100% worker ownership is great. But 60% worker ownership is also good. and 20% is also better than nothing (which is better than most businesses today!). I’m currently a board member and member-owner of a consumer coop grocery store that’s doing well economically, but not relationally and internally. The relationship between the Board and staff is poor. And that’s partly because employees aren’t allowed to be Board members at all. So I’m advocating to get the Board to not just allow employees to serve on the board, which workers real democratic power, but to require it.

Faith communities should obviously be on the forefront of creating cooperatives of all kinds—worker cooperatives, credit unions, member-owned stores, etc. Cooperatives are becoming very popular right now in silicon valley and the software sector, because engineers are tired of both being extracted to profit someone else and also have no say about what they’re doing, and setting up a worker coop is relatively straightforward for that situation, because there’s also a network of programmers and worker solidarity within a particular industry.

But one of the big things that also comes to mind are all of the business owners in churches who just assume that the best course action for retirement is to either (a) sell the business to another capitalist and cash in, or (b) pass down the business to family members. But it’s not. Business owners have to consider doing what, for example, Bob Moore did with his grain business (Bob’s Redmill), which is giving entirely to his employees. Bob’s Redmill is not technically a worker coop, it’s an ESOP (Equity Stock Ownership Plan). But employees still own 100% of this multi-million dollar firm, which provides tremendous financial stability for their future. And Bob did that specifically because of his Christian convictions. The book on this is People Before Profit, and it should be essential reading in every faith community, along with the Riegers’ United We Are a ForceThis isn’t philanthropy. It’s not charity. It’s not a capitalist being generous, you know, a wealthy person giving some of their extra income to those who need it. No. It’s permanent equity transfer, the direct redistribution of wealth. That’s very different. (Alot of people don’t have a basic understanding of finance and economics, how balance sheets and wealth over here is very different than income and cashflow over there; this annoys me and other economists, even as I’m critical of capitalism, when criticizing billionaires who “don’t pay taxes” and conflating these realties…).

That’s just one example and one option. Conversions to cooperatives is a very effective and practical way of making a difference particularly because they’re more successful than coop startups. But there are countless other ways that faith communities can support the cooperative economy, as I note at the end of some of my articles on this subject that you mentioned, feeding the cooperative economy in every way possible.