Ambassador Andrew Young: a time for public purpose capitalism

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

“Let me brag a minute,” Ambassador Andrew Young quipped in a room full of Yale Divinity School Black Seminarians “because I couldn’t get in here.” The longtime civil rights leader and former ambassador to the U.N., Georgia Congressman, mayor of Atlanta, and colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. made a point of noting that his application to YDS had been rejected decades ago—then went on to chronicle some of the proudest accomplishments that he and other activists achieved during the Civil Rights era.

YoungIronically, half a century after denying him admittance—he ended up at Hartford Seminary—YDS invited Young to give the distinguished Parks-King Lecture this year.  Since 1983 this lecture series has brought the contributions of African American scholars, social theorists, pastors, and social activists to YDS and the greater New Haven community. His Feb. 3 luncheon session with the Yale Black Seminarians preceded the 5:30 pm lecture in Niebuhr Hall.

Invoking King’s last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Young’s lecture was entitled, Where Do We Go From Here? And Where Is Here?

He began his address with the assertion that where King thought ‘here’ was then is not where ‘here’ is now. Social democracy was taken for granted by King and other civil rights leaders, according to Young.  But to believe now that America is “a majority humanitarian social democracy” would be a mistake.

Instead, Young bases his analysis of where we are now on the rubric of redemption proposed by King, a rubric that seeks to, in Young’s words, “redeem the soul of America from the evils of racism, war and poverty.” Substantial progress has been made in eradicating many evils, Young acknowledged.  But considering that the income gap between rich and poor is higher than ever, that the number of people living in poverty is larger than ever, and that the Congress and the Supreme Court have not treated ‘the least of these’ justly, Young insisted that “we’ve actually slipped back” in many ways.

Through April 22, the Yale Institute of Sacred Music is hosting the exhibition Incarnations: Black Spiritualities in American Art from the Steele Collection.  The exhibition engages the diverse expression of Christian devotion in the quotidian experience of a selection of African American artists and their imagined or recollected subjects. The featured works expand, challenge, and critique notions of a sacred/profane divide and exemplify the multiple ways artists have interpreted the culturally constructed systemics of ethnicity, religion, and community.  The exhibition, free and open to the public, can be viewed weekdays, 9 am-4 pm, at the Institute, 409 Prospect St., New Haven.

Young explicitly linked the lack of progress in fighting poverty to the growth of corporatism in global politics and economics. “There seems to be a corporatist governing of the world that does not need government, that takes advantages of government when it’s weak,” said Young. Such corporatism, where “God becomes profit” and where political and economic decisions are blinded by such idolatry, ignores the law, ignores governments, and ignores public needs and interests, in Young’s view.  In short, corporatism is not concerned with caring for the sick, feeding the poor, and loving “the least of these.” The mood to let the corporate state take over is, Young maintained, the prevalent mood in our time.

Expanding on the “Where is here?” motif, Young said, “Here is in the midst of a new decision as to how to run the global economy.” As we face the dual proliferation of corporatism and poverty, Young insisted to an audience of scholars, students, and pastors that “somehow a theology of salvation, and redemption, and resurrection has got to include a new economic theory.”

Students at talkThe focus on such a theory no doubt resonated with at least some in the audience, as one of this semester’s courses at YDS is entitled “Theologies of Money.”  Moreover, Kathryn Tanner, the recently appointed Frederick Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology, is the author of an acclaimed book on theology and economics, Economy of Grace.   She is a Luce Fellow for the current academic year, conducting research on financial capitalism and Christian belief and practices.

Moving from identifying the “here” in his question, Young next tackled, “Where do we go from here?”

He readily acknowledged not being certain of which direction to take next. At 79 years of age he is passing the torch to younger generations of professionals, scholars and seminarians to think of ways to conceive of a global economy that can resist the idolatry of God as profit and can feed the hungry and cure the sick. In this passing, however, Young did suggest that until a new, anti-poverty economic praxis is developed we ought to practice “public purpose capitalism,” which recognizes that public funds are limited and aims to ethically accrue private capital for the public good. Young said he was certain, though, that without an accountable economy, without a strong government, without strong leaders, and without a strong church, the fight against poverty is bound to fail.

After the lecture and reception that followed, Young had dinner with Dean Harold Attridge and other representatives of Yale Divinity School.

In recent years, much of Young’s time and energy has been devoted to the Andrew Young Foundation, an Atlanta-based philanthropic organization that, among other things, has been instrumental in the “Atlanta Way” project to create an important political, cultural and economic model for cities around the U.S. and the world.

The Foundation is also heavily involved in chronicling important milestones in the history of the civil rights movement.  Documentary films have been at the center of that effort, and on Feb. 25 Young is scheduled to receive an Emmy award for lifetime achievement for his work in documentary film.

The Emmy Award notification letter to Young says, “Today, as producer and host of ‘Andrew Young Presents,’ an acclaimed, award-winning series of quarterly specials produced in Atlanta and seen across the country in national syndication, you are continuing to use television in a way to reach across America with information that is vital to our daily lives.  It is this work, past and present, that we honor.”

Posted: 02/07/2011