John and Peter were joined in their conversation on March 8, 2018 by Walter Brueggemann, co-author of their recently released new book An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture. Also joining them were special guests and friends Peter Pula and Michelle Strutzenberger of Axiom News, who moderated the discussion, and Chris Witt, who managed the exchange.
This transcript of the hour-long conversation has been edited for length and clarity; you can listen to the recorded conversation here or download it at TalkShoe.com.
Peter Pula: Welcome to you all. I have been tracking John, unbeknownst to him, maybe for over twenty years and have more recently gotten to know Peter and Walter. I am very glad to have the opportunity to provoke a little bit of conversation and see where things go. Just a note about my style, I am a very big fan of silence and sometimes waiting for the question that wants to be asked so if there is silence during the call, I ask you to not panic, just be with it and see what comes up. So with that I’d like to just start with hearing a little bit from Peter and Walter and John. I understand you finished writing this new book over six months ago…. I’m curious to know what was alive for you that brought the three of you together to shape this book when you did?
Peter Block: You know, I think what was alive for us was our friendship. Walter discovered John and me and wrote an article about it. When we found out he wrote an article we were so thrilled; I remember John and I were listening to a large band play in Cincinnati at the Bluewood and all the sudden on my phone came Walter’s article. John and I ignored the music and read the article; then it turns out that Walter lives in Cincinnati so we just had a friendship and been traveling together a little bit, talking about the ideas, and I said “You guys interested in writing a book?” which is what I do, as well as Walter. They said yes so we talked it into existence. We met at my place, talked about twelve hours, recorded it, created a transcript, and then decided to see whether what we were then talking about was worthy of a book. It took a while to figure that out.
Walter: It was the best way in my experience to do a book because we really were in dialogue, really triggering each other to think in ways I think each of us had not talked before. I think that proved to be very generative for all of us.
John: Peter is magical in his ability to take and blend together the contributions and ideas that each of us were presenting and give them kind of coherence that I don’t think anyone listening to the tapes they would’ve thought they had.
Peter Pula: When you put the book to bed, so to speak, what meaning had been made for each of you having gone through the work together?
Walter: Well, for me, since I spend my time reading texts, my own thinking and my own understanding were much more drawn to concrete neighborhood practice. I was not unaware of that, of course, but it made it much more lively and much more real and much more practical for me because of where Peter and John tend to work and think.
John: I think as our discussions proceeded, for me, I began to think more specifically about the idea of culture. We say in the title of the book it’s about departing the consumer culture. It’s a fuzzy word, a lot of people’s minds have a different kind of reference. As we talked together I could see that for me, the over-arching idea was that we are surrounded almost unknowingly by a set of environments that make up a culture that guides how we behave and think, and that it’s one of the hardest things of all to understand. It’s like a fish doesn’t understand water because it’s the pervasive surroundings. It became clearer and clearer to me that what we were trying to do was to make visible this invisible water called consumption as the hallmark of a society. It was a real adventure in that sense.
Peter Pula: Now I have a picture of three fish in a bowl having a generative conversation that produced a book about the water, and it’s not lost on me that this is a triad either. Walter, you’ve published extensively, can you tell me what was it about writing a book this way? What were the elements, the things that were between you and happened between you that made this a more generative way to write a book and if so, how?
Walter: Well, it was so easy because Peter did all the heavy lifting and it left me quite free not to have to worry about the technical aspects of production or getting words on a page or forming paragraphs or anything. That left me with more energy to listen to what Peter and John were saying and to take a new thought in response to them. I’m very much a loner. I work without talking to anybody. I just do my stuff at my desk. This was a very different kind of experience and we had great fun doing it. We had some good lunches over it and lots of laughs and very serious probes. It was just a marvelous, unusual experience for me to work that way.
Peter Pula: Peter, I’m curious about what has changed for you, I guess for all three of you, now that the book’s out there and you’re hearing from readers. What has changed for you in the space between when it was published and what you’re hearing now?
Peter Block: Let me preface that by saying something about that earlier question about content. Walter opened a world for me, as John did a while ago. The world Walter opened was the world of scripture, the world of the Old Testament. Our book has an element of allowing the sacred to be valued and has quotes from Scripture. It’s only been out two months and a book needs to be out a year before you know whether there’s anything useful in it. The early audience is people in the faith community. There was one reviewer who is a friend of Walter’s who said this is a much more radical book than they would have imagined and so thought that was interesting. I think that it’s good to recognize the faith community as being essential to any social change. I am not talking about the church. I think this book is a strong invitation to people of faith to act outside the boundaries of their particular religion or particular denomination and see there is a wilderness out there that from a distance looks empty but then you decide to get closer. This book is an invitation to the wilderness. That’s all new language and thinking for me.
Peter Pula: Walter and John, any reflections on what’s changing? What’s happened since?
Walter: I think that the book is sharply illuminated by current political discourse in the presidential campaign. It’s clear that most of our politicians are simply pandering exactly to the assumptions of the consumer ideology and I think it sharpens the focus of what we have been thinking and trying to say. The word “other” in the title of the book really is an invitation to other thinking and other perceiving and other hoping and other understanding that is radically differentiated from what’s going on publicly.
John: I think it’s interesting, Walter, you raised this question about the current political debate. One of the things that I think is pretty clear is that from left to right, I mean from far left to far right, if you listen to the debates, if you listen to the President, what you can see is that as a commercial term, the bottom line is the gross domestic product (GDP) and it’s is about major money in consumption. I think from Donald Trump to President Obama to all the other candidates they agree on one thing: the real issue for our society is an increase in the GDP, the measurement of well-being by a mode of consumption. In a way, I think our book is radical because it steps outside the basic measure of a consumer society and tries to wrestle with the nature of a society where counting how much junk you bought this week is not the indication of well-being.
Walter: Well said, that’s exactly right.
Peter Block: No amount of wealth, economic wealth, is the measure of well-being.
Peter Pula: When Peter and I were talking ahead of this call on the weekend, Peter said some things like even the most radicalized pastors are advocating for an increase in the minimum wage, which is essentially an old economy argument for increasing spending power. He also shared with me the notion that community development people often don’t talk about the economy or money or a relationship to it; they talk about wealth distribution, which of course is a distribution of wealth born of this current system. You all use the word “radical.” Can you put some really sharp points on it? I think we need to be poked pretty badly with some radical edges to understand how do we get out of this water that we’re swimming in so that we can see things remarkably differently?
John: You know you say, “How do we get out?” I’m not sure that the book addresses that very tactically. I think it tends to imagine how would you know when you’re out? What is the nature of a culture that is not a consumer culture? On re-reading, the theme of the book is about two-thirds about an effort to make visible the marks of a consumer society; the conclusion of the book is, in my mind, how would you know if you weren’t in the consumer society? What are the marks of a society not driven by materialism and spending? In there is the interesting part, in a way, of the discussion about how would you know when you are there in a culture that isn’t? The last chapter suggests some of the key sign posts that would let you know, at least from our view, what it is that would be manifest that would let you know you must be someplace else. That’s the radical shift to know that other place.
Peter Block: I think raising the minimum wage, reducing the inequality, the redistribution of money, within our culture is a positive thing but it doesn’t take us really anywhere. The solution to poverty is not to give people more spending power; it’s that the idea of poverty not useful or the way we call somebody poor. I would say, let’s think about a subsistence economy where people do what they do but the marketplace is on the edge of town and it’s a place of exchange. I think that’s in a way where we’re headed even though we discredit the notion of subsistence and renamed it “undeveloped.”
Any economies that are based where people have time, where people accept mystery, where they realize that there are questions they can’t answer we have considered undeveloped or poor economies, and we take it upon ourselves to “develop” them. So part of this alternative water is a world not organized around development; as John said, this water’s organized around miracles, gifts, capacities –– and that’s how we would know. A simple measure, I would say, is do you have enough time to do what you want to do? If the answer’s yes, welcome to the wilderness.
John: If you’re not surrounded by the noise that the consumer culture demands in order to persuade you to buy, then you can begin to feel the wonder of silence.
Peter Pula: As Michelle and I were talking, one of the questions Michelle had is, can this other kingdom be formed or discovered through anything other than adversity? Where does the call to the wilderness come from?
Peter Block: That’s Walter’s question; I hope Walter has an answer to that one.
Walter: It may often be triggered by adversity but I don’t think it has to be. I think it can be grounded in hope that there are promises that life more abundant is well beyond the rat race in which we are present participants. So it could be not required by failure and absence but by just an awareness that if we were to trust ourselves promises we would have an enormous amount of freedom beyond the coercions of consumerism. I think there’s a positive dimension to it as well as adversity.
Michelle: I was very intrigued too by your comment about the need for a God conversation in departing the consumer culture and would love to hear more from you about this. What possibilities does a God conversation open up?
Peter Block: What struck you about that, Michelle?
Michelle: I felt it was an alternative to adversity being the generative factor in moving into this space, that God could be kind of the pull into it as well.
Walter: I think that’s right. I think that consumer ideology is a closed system and it cannot entertain the thought that there’s anything outside the system. What the notion of a mystery or the transcendence of God means to signify is that the system does not contain all possibilities, that there are possibilities beyond this system that are grounded in mystery or in holiness or in something like that. I think all the way back to the ancient prophets of Israel, they are protesting against the closure of an ideological system and consistently making the point in words which are one of the vehicles we have in speech that there is otherwise beyond this that is grounded in something that is not in our control. I think the narrative of God or the discourse of God is an attempt to express that that lies outside of every closed system.
I also wanted to say earlier about how do you know when you’re outside of it or how do you step outside of it? I think historically the great liturgies of the church and the synagogue have been exactly practices of stepping outside of it. If you just think about what happens in those liturgies at their best, it is like a foreign language to the consumerism that we talk about; it signifies things that simply are not accommodated in consumerism.
Peter Block: Give an example, Walter.
Walter: Well, forgiveness, to start with. There’s no forgiveness in a tight system of consumerism or generosity or hospitality or praise or confession, you just named all of those things. That’s stuff you just don’t do in a closed system of consumerism and when we gather to participate in such a liturgy it is as though there is a tacit agreement among us that we are about to perform something otherwise. I think it’s so familiar to us that we don’t notice how otherwise it is. Doxology is an alternate to self-sufficiency. Confession is an alternative to servitude and you’re going to line it all up that the different components of fairly conventional liturgy almost at every point contradict the claims and the substance of consumerism.
John: Walter, you used the word “control” and I wonder if you would say a few words about this. It seems to me that our society is organized around institutions, all of them designed to ensure control, outputs, repetition, and lots of it. Then you say the God language moves you beyond the place where you’re in control.
Walter: That’s right. I think the opposite of control in this context is the ability to receive gifts and the world of abundance about which Peter and John have written is a world of inexplicable gifts. It’s like being flooded with things that we cannot explain. Now, John, when you talk about institutions there’s no doubt that the institutional church too often has been an institution that tries to control and monopolize but then that betrays its intentionality. Good liturgy, good sacramental life, always are invitations to abandon our control and to fall back on a gift giving mystery that we cannot master and we cannot explain. We almost do not have categories to bear witness to that alternative but that what liturgy intends to perform.
Peter Pula: There’s a big difference between receiving gifts and customer satisfaction.
Walter: That’s right. That’s exactly right.
John: You know another thing about this idea of gifts and their abundance is that sometimes when you go into supermarkets you really do become impressed by the unending idea of how many kinds of strawberry jam they make. On the other hand, one of the things that our work has revealed constantly is that if you get ten people in a room and begin to get them to talk about their gifts –– the gifts they know about the other people in the room, the kinds of array of gifts from skills to passions to what they could teach –– what begins to come forward is just a huge cornucopia of the gifts that people have. Yet I think our society is not actually organized to say, “This is a culture where what we have done is made it possible for your gifts to be manifest.”
I remember one time interviewing a fair number of workers on the assembly line in an automobile factory. One of the things I asked them was whether or not they thought that their gifts were being used in this work. Not one person said yes. You can imagine that somebody’s putting the bolts on the tires, somebody else is painting a strip in a particular place on the car. That’s one of the consequences, I think, of this way of living a consumer life in order to get the stuff. But what we sacrifice every day in the systems that produce stuff is the gifts of millions of people. How many people are each day going to get money by never expressing all that they have to offer? I think the culture we’re talking about in our book is one which is not built on denying your gifts in exchange for doing what I want you to do for money, but it is a culture which says we’re building this culture by invitation to give your gifts. That’s the other kingdom in my mind.
Peter Block: Guest Seventy-Five asked the question on the chat “What personal entity is currently helping shape this other kingdom?” You know you have to look on the margins to see the future. You say, well, this is trying to give voice to an alternative future. Many would say the future always exists somewhere in the present. You see a whole world of activities with “co” in front of them. The whole cooperative movement that’s growing. There’s a whole co-housing movement. Anytime banking is a sharing economy that’s not monetized somebody says, Well, it’s easy when you’re rich to treat money as if it’s not important. We’re not treating money as if it’s not important; we’re treating money as it’s not the point. If you look at the idea of co-production, the cooperative movement, co-housing, all these places in the margin exist now and, to me, what’s driving them is to create a business as a way of living. So you have more restaurants that are cooperative ventures with their customers. Grocery stores where money’s not the point but working relationships and interdependence are the point. Trust, silence, ableness are the point and they get daily institutional expression. It is all around us.
Peter Pula: Peter, Guest Seventy-One was asking about your perspective on a sharing economy as in Uber, Airbnb, ZipCar, so on and so forth: how are those things the same or different from what you were just talking about?
Peter Block: They’re different. They’re just more convenient ways of consuming. Sharing is used to market Uber, Airbnb, ZipCar, Listed, etc but it’s the same economy. It’s just tripling its convenience. Take Timebanking instead; that’s a sharing economy. That’s an economy in which I do something for you and create an account for it; there’s reciprocity. There’s no reciprocity in Uber, it’s Uber’s making. The sharing economy language’s is no longer useful because it’s been co-opted by people who have the notion that there’s excess capacity –– there’s cars that are sitting idle, bedrooms that aren’t used –– and how do we utilize that capacity? That is how it’s traditionally done. That’s my rant anyway.
Peter Pula: Can you either all or the three of you share some story or some peaks that where you’ve seen this other kingdom already existing and what it’s like there?
Walter: Well, not quite that, but in the paper this morning there was a story about a group of Muslims working on an assembly line who wanted to stop to pray. When they got fired for that a whole bunch of other people walked off the job. I don’t know a lot about Muslim prayer, but I think that in some way that’s a clash of the two kind of kingdoms we’re talking about: one of the people that walked off the job said, “If they will let me pray I will do anything they want me to do, but I’m not going to be denied that.” I think that’s almost a paradigm of the clash of wanting to engage in practices that fall outside the commodification system and the inability of the commodification system to make room for that. I’m sure that practically that’s very complex and difficult question, but paradigmatically you can see clearly what the shape of the issue is like.
John: Another way that I see this: I remember reading when Saddam Hussein’s two sons were finally found, they were staying in somebody’s house and they were killed in that house. The husband and wife in the house were then asked, “Were you in the conspiracy with these two sons?” The husband said, “No, I was just sitting in the market and they came to me and they said they had no place to sleep and so I brought then home.” Then the wife was asked, “Why did you take them in?” And she said, “Oh, because they were strangers and they had nothing.” Now that hospitality and the welcoming of strangers is one clear mark that we’re not in the consumer culture.
In my life, when I have seen people who’ve been labeled all kinds of things –– from welfare mother to developmentally disabled –– are invited into a community out of hospitality as a motive but there also is the expectation they have gifts to share, that is over and over again a way to see manifest what I think we’re talking about.
Peter Pula: Beautiful. Thank you. What I’d like to propose is we hear what insights are coming to people as they’re hearing this. Not so much what you already know but what you’re coming to know as a result of being part of this conversation.
Michelle: While we’re waiting, I have a very quick story of growing up in a community, a tiny village in Central America, that was forged in adversity and did have those bonds and room for God conversations. Our family were relative newcomers to the village. I remember a story my dad often told, he was a farmer and pastor there, and he was suspected of being a drug trafficker by the British Army after he refused to give them names. So some of the officers voiced their suspicions to one of the village leaders, the son of one of the founding fathers; the officer said, “We think this Henry Tygrew is trafficking drugs with his airplane.” The village leader came back with, “Well, if he’s in it, we’re all in it.” So to me that’s a manifestation of the neighborly covenant that you talk about in the book.
Peter Block: In finding forms, part of the seeing the water, finding an alternative because you’re not going to live without the water, is just paying attention. In my neighborhood Brian runs the ACE Hardware store and it’s a co-op. Brian does hospitality, so when the neighborhood grocery store shut down he invited the local farmers to come: “Bring your fruit to my hardware store and sell it out here.” Another guy makes bread so we buy bread there too. I just discovered that if UPS comes to my house now and I’m not here, they drop the package off at the hardware store. I went in there and said “Brian, what the hell you doing with my UPS package?” And he said, “Well, we just thought, you know, if you’re not home why should you worry about it? We know who you are so next time UPS or anybody drops off a package at your house, if you just tell them they can leave it here.” This is who he is, this is the kind of place he’s created and it shows you can have both: a place of great hospitality and also a business; he makes money, it’s commerce and it’s cooperative. To me, this is the life. I’m watching, I’m interested in what he says and what he does. So there are signs.
Then we have to watch where our money goes. In our work we’re doing with the Jubilee Project in Cincinnati that Walter helped start, you can say “watch where your money goes”: your money has an impact if you want to support the other kingdom. Be very careful where you’re spending money and put it in places like Brian’s hardware store.
John: One of the things I was thinking about is, Peter, you’re trying to come to grips with how an economy works, how this manifests another kingdom. Ivan Illich was a good friend of mine and a lot of other people. He was a great social critic and historian and lived in Mexico. He pointed out to me one time that there were villages where every Saturday morning they had an indigenous market. People who had grown the things or made things themselves came to the market to sell to each other. But, he said, in their culture, you could only have a market on Saturday morning, so that the important things beyond buying and selling, the exchange, in one sense could be cooperative, is something limited in our life. What he thought made these communities, mostly Indian people, have such a vivid culture was that they contained the market to a Saturday morning. He also pointed out that the average village had eighty-five holidays a year because they had time to celebrate and to enjoy. So that’s why, I think, for the conclusion of the book we focused heavily on the issue of time. If you don’t have any time, that’s a clear indicator that you are in the consumer culture.
Peter Block: That’s great. We’re all going to be in it, like the fish are not going to live outside of water, but they can change the relationship. I think that time is a great thing to consider. It’s basically why I’m so busy is trying to purchase conveniences. If I look at half the things I go shopping for, it’s kind of a crazy belief system but they’re to make life more convenient. Uber is just so convenient that people pay a premium. If you get in an Uber car in New York City, you can watch the cost of getting an Uber ride go up and down minute to minute to minute to minute to minute and see the cost of premium pricing. So some of what we are talking about is changing our relationship with time and convenience. I think the wilderness is an inconvenient place.
Peter Pula: I’m just watching a bit of an exchange between Guest Twenty-One and Bstrand49: they’re playing with the idea of hospicing an old and collapsing system as a new system emerges. I’d be interested in your reflection on that. Is that actually what is happening? I guess there’s the global view of a system change but I imagine that you may have to each individually hospice our old ways as a new way emerges. Can you guys reflect on that?
Walter: I would think the question is, can you get hospice care as long as you’re in denial about needing it?
Peter Pula: Holy mackerel.
Walter: I think our dominant culture is surely in denial about its failure and its coming to an end; it’s hard to give hospice care to people, to systems, that have not faced up to the reality that hospice care in now required.
John: You know another way of thinking about how you would discover another kingdom was taught to me by a wonderful Canadian woman who is a leader of the movement to include everybody from the margins in the mainline of society; she was a person who thought about how it is that we end up with a situation where everybody is included. She said, “What we need is always to have a welcome at the edge of our community.” It strikes me that the welcoming, the invitation, the recognition that we need you –– all that is another way of thinking about the entrance to the other kingdom.
Caller: This is Will and my question is that this is a wilderness and it is a long way out. How do you suggest and recommend building the bridge to get back and forth, because it’s like a lonely outpost and the majority of people are in this enclave? Intentional communities have been and are doing some of this, but how do you envision building the paths so more and more people as they come up this can make a decision and say, “Okay. How do I continue to go about and move in this direction?”
Peter Block: I can tell you read YES! magazine. The loneliness is what struck me about your comment, Will. It’s extremely lonely. John has always told me that to be a pioneer in anything the loneliness is the hardest part; so we have just made up a network of friends.
Will: Yeah, that’s clear in your work, Peter, the sense of connection and belonging. I feel that’s part of what I’m trying to create here is more community, a way for people to reach that sense of connection and belonging. The question is how to go about doing that.
Peter Block: Do realize that you’re not crazy even if it seems that way.
* * *
Peter Pula: We are near the end of our time. By way of closing, Peter, why don’t we just each share a gift that we’ve received in this conversation and then we can round it out? I can begin by saying that having been in in the margins and feeling the isolation of being nuts, I can’t remember which of you said the opposite of control is the ability to receive gifts.
Peter Block: Walter.
Peter Pula: Walter. That is something that is going to be at the top of my desk for a very long time now so thank you.
Walter: I was helped by Peter’s use of the word “co” about many things. He set me to thinking what’s the opposite of co? I think the opposite of “co” in this context is “mono” and “monolithic,” “monopoly.” I think that consumer society is very mono and I want to play more with “co” and “mono.”
Chris Witt: All there seems to be one more question. Do we have time?
Peter Block: How could we say no?
Caller: Yes, Peter Koestenbaum here. Very quickly. I have been talking for years about the importance of taking control of your world view and self-concept and I was very deeply pleased and touched by Brueggemann’s talking about the prayer and church and things of that kind actually opening a language which brings in a different world. I had not made that connection and it’s a profound one. I want to acknowledge that.
Walter: I want to respond to that one. Another caller asked about the bridges to building, and I think the main vehicle we have are stories to tell. It’s very interesting that most of the meat of what we’ve had today have been very specific stories. When we hear a story like the woman who welcomed Hussein’s two sons, then the question is how do we perform that story? How do we act out that story given the circumstances of our life? There’s no blueprint, there’s no 1-2-3, but it really is narrative imagination
Peter Block: John, you want to say any final reaction to conversation or thought about it?
John: I want to say that Walter’s summation is the opposite of control is the ability to receive gifts is one of the great gifts of listening to what’s going on here today.
Peter Pula: How about you, Michelle?
Michelle: I’m just thinking of one of the final comments in your book actually that left me with the greatest sense of hope, which is that we are always living in the early moments of movement and what we are talking about here is exactly that. Something is going to happen because of the growing sense of isolation and longing for community.
John: In a funny way, if you don’t believe that there are hidden movements, look at our electoral process with Trump and Sanders. There, beneath the surface, lies a movement that the mainline of our society didn’t even know was there and we’re trying to come to grips with it.
Peter Block: As a final thing, I want everybody to know Peter and Michelle are part of Axiom news (axiomnews.com). They are pioneers in the landscape of another kingdom in the world of journalism. I think that’s so important that we meet people who know how to have a megaphone, journalists to give voice to what we’re doing. So look them up and meanwhile we’re just thanking them for this moment together.