April 15, 2012
On February 11, 2010, the United Nations passed Resolution 64/136, which proclaimed the year 2012 to be the International Year of Cooperatives. Cooperatives are, simply put, businesses that are owned by the people who use them. Food cooperatives are food stores that are owned by the patrons of those stores. Producer cooperatives are aggregates of member producers who band together to obtain better prices on agricultural or industrial inputs. Credit unions are banks that are owned by their member depositors. Cooperative housing is owned by the people who live in it. While the kinds and configurations of cooperatives are myriad, they are bound together by a set of principles put down by a group of blacklisted weavers in Rochdale, Englaand in 1844 who formed the first industrial-age, Western cooperative: The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. The Rochdale Principles (as they became adopted by the International Cooperative Alliance in 1937, and updated in 1995) are:
1. Voluntary and Open Membership
2. Democratic Member Control
3. Member Economic Participation
4. Autonomy and Independence
5. Education, Training and Information for Members
6. Cooperation Among Cooperatives
7. Concern for Community (ICA Statement on Cooperative Identity)
While cooperatives conjure up dusty memories of quaint, little 60s-era food cooperatives for most people, these business entities are actually a widespread and powerful economic force in the US and across the world. In the US, as of 2005, there were nearly 30,000 U.S. cooperatives operating at 73,000 places of business. These cooperatives own more than $3 trillion in assets, and generate over $500 billion in revenue and $25 billion in wages for over two million jobs (University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, “Research on the Economic Impact of Cooperatives,” 2005).
So what, you may ask, does this all have to do with God?
In place of the Torah Portion this week, we have an excerpt from the Acts of the Apostles (by the same author as the Gospel of Luke). The Scripture details the lives of the earliest Disciples of Christ after His Resurrection:
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32-35).
Modern Christians often dismiss this account as being an ideal that – while possibly feasible in the 1st Century, CE – is not remotely realistic today. However, the account brings to the forefront that economic democracy and empowerment – as well as eradication of poverty – were at the center of the Disciples’ agenda, right alongside bearing witness to Christ’s resurrection. While their economic model is more of a pure commune that a cooperative, it still brings home the point that the practice of the Kingdom of Heaven (with regard to worldly goods) was just as important to the Disciples as their belief in it.
This is not to say that cooperative businesses are mandated by God or Jesus Christ. Like any form of business, cooperatives are only as good as the people who comprise them. Co-ops are not immune to failure. However, the cooperative model is certainly closer to the Disciples’ original practice than, say, predatory pay-day lending outlets, hedge funds that only enrich the already-wealthy or absentee-owned slum housing.
The Beatitudes and several of the Parables bring attention to the poor, blessing them and calling attention to their plight. In Jesus’ inaugural sermon, framing the intent of His future ministry, Jesus quotes the Prophet Isaiah, saying “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because [God] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:16). In the United Nations Resolution calling for the International Year of Cooperatives, the UN specifically calls attention to cooperatives as a key strategy in eliminating poverty: “Cooperatives, in their various forms, promote the fullest possible participation in the economic and social development of all people, including women, youth, older persons, persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples, are becoming a major factor of economic and social development and contribute to the eradication of poverty” (Res. 64/136). Cooperatives provide over 100 million jobs around the world and reliable access to critical goods and services. In the United States, for example, rural electricity co-operatives operate more than half of the electrical lines, providing power to more than 25 million people in 46 states (“Cooperating Out of Poverty“, ICA/ILO). The International Labor Office states that the three key factors in poverty eradication are opportunity, empowerment and security – and cooperatives directly address all three.
So this doesn’t mean that we all have to go out, sell all we have and dedicate our lives to cooperatives (although those words do sound kind of familiar … (Matt 19:21)). What we can do is make little changes in our lives that not only help build a cooperative economy, but save our households money as well. We can move our money from a bank with exorbitant fees to a credit union. We can buy goods from producer cooperative brands that are already well-known, like Ocean Spray, Land-o-Lakes or Ace Hardware. Or we could even start our own co-ops, such as a day-care or food-buying cooperative (see Starting a Child Care Cooperative or How to Start a Cooperative Food Buying Club). It’s little actions like this, spread out over thousands of people over the long-haul, that make a difference and will hopefully help to build a poverty-free Kingdom of God.