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The twelve steps of economic recovery

What if we were to employ the language of the 'Twelve Step Programme of Alcoholics Anonymous' to reframe our economic recovery?
12 steps
Posted March 1, 2010

The Priority of 2010

The Government has clearly stated what is going to be the focus of its next 12 months in Parliament. Bill English, Minister of Finance, commented online to the NZ Herald:

'I'm pleased New Zealand has come through a once-in-a-generation world crisis in better shape than most other countries. However, the crisis has left a hole in the Government's books that will take several years to rectify. In addition, it has left many New Zealanders out of work, which has a profound impact on them and their families. The challenge now is to get the economy growing again at a stronger rate that meets our jobs and income aspirations' (Monday 4 January, 2010,

The economy, or to be exact, economic growth, is the priority. No mysteries there.

The global economy has come through its nose dive and with emerging signs of a fragile 'growth', the despairing jabber of crisis management has ceased to get air time and the talk has shifted to that of 'recovery'. Prime Minister, John Key opened Parliament with a speech full of 'recovery' talk:

'2009 was not an easy year for many people. Some people lost their jobs, some their savings, and others their confidence. Yet things are undoubtedly looking up. The economy is picking up and new jobs will appear as businesses have the confidence to invest and expand. What makes New Zealand such a great country to live in still remains. The policies we intend to introduce this year will be a big part of the country's improvement this year, next year and into the future.' (Hon. John Key, Prime Minister, Statement of Position, 9 February 2010, cited at

The promise is economic improvement and recovery. Now, there is a mystifying thought.

Economic Recovery

Recovery … from what do we want to recover? And, more importantly, toward what and for who is this recovery? Are we trying to recover real jobs for the 160,000+ people without employment, or is this simply a recovery of consumption levels, credit ratings and investment confidence? Will this be a recovery that returns our country to where we were before the financial crises, or will it reset our nation toward something new? Brian McLaren, a leading figure in the emerging church movement, captures the double-edged dilemma and possibility of this 'recovery' talk:

'For many people, economic recovery means "getting back to where we were a few months or years ago". That means recovering our consumptive, greedy, unrestrained, undisciplined, irresponsible, and ecologically and socially unsustainable way of life. I'd like to suggest another kind of recovery ... drawing from the world of addiction. When an addict gets into recovery, he doesn’t want to go back and recover the "high" he had before, or even to recover the conditions he had before he began using drugs and alcohol. He realises that his addiction to drugs was a symptom of other deeper issues and diseases in his life ... So ... maybe we can sabotage our addictive tendencies (toward carbon, weapons, fear, stuff , profit and easy answers) by letting the word "recovery" have a meaning that wakes us up rather than drugs us into the comfortable, dreamy, half-awareness in which we have lived for too long.' (Brian McLaren, cited online at

I'm intrigued … what if we were to employ the language and practices of the 'Twelve Step Programme of Alcoholics Anonymous' to reframe our economic recovery?

The Twelve Steps1

Before we start, I'm going to ask you to slow down. Don't rush these steps; this is not a journey that can be negotiated with ease or hurry. Speed, flippancy and simple answers will only entrench the failings of the current economic imagination and inhibit our hopes of a moral and economic recovery.

1. We admit we’re powerless—that our lives have become unmanageable.

Does the 'free market' hold too much power? Is it time to debate publicly how we might limit the freedoms of the market? Should we legislatively limit the credit-debt financing industry, including the predatory practices of fringe moneylenders? Is the financial market now too privatised, too totalising, even god-like? Should the market be allowed to determine the value of everyone and everything?

Should there be a commodification of and price tag on education, health, faith, public goods and relationships? Should we give up on the irresponsible politicking and wishful thinking of tax-cuts in the top personal income bracket and trickledown economics? Does the market only exist to serve the wishes of the fittest, smartest and wealthiest, or is it possible to regulate and redirect the market toward serving the common good? Is it possible to make the market serve the great ideas of equality, social justice, neighbourliness and reciprocity? Shouldn't the market be our shared servant? Is it time to publicly condemn the current direction of the market as unsustainable and the root of our own unmanageability? What is the alternative?

2. Come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.

The 'free market' is not god; only God is God and what we learn from our faith in God is critical to the hope of our recovery. Jim Wallis says it like this: 'Our moral system, our beliefs about what is right and good, must always come before our economic system. Our moral system must provide the foundation for and encompass our economic system …' (Jim Wallis, 2010, Rediscovery of Values).

Is the Church too complicit and compromised with or too distant from the economy to offer any real alternative? Is it possible to couple our efforts at economic recovery with a recovery of what is good and right, with a reprioritisation of shared morals and values? What would our communities (and personal lives) look like if we were to reprioritise and switch from excess to enough? What if we were to fund a new moral economy and a new sense of material sanity and spiritual wellbeing from within these values?

3. Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him.

I’m praying. Will you pray with me?

4. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

I have to drill this down and make it personal. Am I in danger of losing sight of what is enough? Has a fear of not having enough and a desire for having more than enough driven my own anxious and debt-fueled overconsumption? Am I image-focused and status-driven? Do I listen more to how the market determines the value of people and things than the views of my faith tradition? Do I suffer from haste and hurry? What is the connection between my everyday consumption and global poverty? How much do I waste?

Has our country lost sight of what is enough? Is it still possible to distinguish between need and want?

5. Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

I’m truly sorry; forgive me for living anxiously; forgive me for demanding and inflating my own sense of entitlement.

6. Be entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

I am. Are you?

7. Humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings.

I have. Will you?

8. Make a list of all persons we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.

I have to confess I had to pause at this step. If my everyday involvement in a divided economy entrenches 'harm' and injustice, how should I start to make amends? Should I try and 'give back' what I think my complicity has unjustly earned me?

The dilemma is echoed by Tom Sine: 'Those who follow Christ are called by Scripture to unequivocally follow the doctrine of active distribution; that is, we are called to actively redistribute all of our time, talents, and resources to seek first His kingdom in our (neighbourhoods) ... The question is not whether, it's how: how can we most fully invest all of our lives and resources to manifest God’s new age of justice in a world of growing need and tragic inequity?' (Tom Sine, 1981, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy, emphasis mine). What does it mean to fully invest all of our lives in the making of social justice? Is that how we embody our faith? Is that how we make the invisible God seeable, touchable? Does it mean that everyone simply does what they can for and with others, that we individually and collectively embrace responsibility? How can we address the poverty of our relationships?

9. Make direct amends wherever possible, except when to do so would injure others.

I’m still trying to think through what it means to make amends in a global and local community divided by inequalities. Ronald J. Snider makes this scandalous claim: 'Contemporary Christians have an enormous opportunity to use politics to shape a better world. A few basic facts underline this truth. More than a third of the world's people claim to be Christians. That one-third of the global population controls two-thirds of the world’s wealth. If even a quarter of the world's Christians truly followed biblical norms in their politics, we would fundamentally change history' (Ronald J. Snider, 2008, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics). What could this mean? Should we flex something of our political muscle? How can we influence the financial advisors and policy makers of the government to reset our economy to be more favourable to the poor? What kind of world do I vote for with my spending? Should we add to our language of personal sin, a vocabulary of social and structural sin? Should we stop imagining tax as some kind of dreaded penalty and start seeing the tax we pay as a practice of our neighbourliness? What is the honest intent of the proposed increase to GST? Who will it impact on the most? What if we committed ourselves to improving our biblical literacy? What difference would that make to how we see ourselves, our needs, our money, others and the world? Would we see a God who is biased to the poor? The question lingers: how can we right our own neglect of the vulnerable?

10. Continue to take personal inventory and when we're wrong promptly admit it.

The economic and moral recovery of these steps is counter to everything we think we know. There is no fast fix or simple answers. There is only the hard slog of community development and the slow and step-by-step establishment of the Kingdom of God.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

I will. Will you help me?

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we try to leave these messages (and questions) for other generations, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The sea change of recovery that our country needs will only come from defiant, hopeful communities who deliberately decide to interact differently with the current economic expectations that govern the look and feel of our neighbourhoods. The economic direction of our future will only change when people like you and me intentionally play by a different set of economic rules. What legacy will we leave for future generations?

Working our Recovery

Working these Steps 'can be a tool to relieve suffering, fill our emptiness and help extend God's presence in our communities. The Steps release energy, love and a new imagination of what is possible. It is a programme we follow at our own pace. We walk this journey of recovery one step at a time, with God's help and with the support of others in the programme. All we need is to stay open and teachable. Much of the work is done by God's Spirit working through us. If we work these Steps faithfully, we notice improvements in ourselves: our awareness, our sensitivity, our ability to love and be free. Our spiritual, emotional and economic recovery will surprise us' (paraphrased from The Twelve Steps—A Spiritual Journey, 1991, RPI Publishing).

  • By Malcolm Irwin

1 Adapted from The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The questions have come from my engagement with Brian McLaren at; Jim Wallis, 2010, Rediscovering Values—A Moral Compass for the New Economy; Robert G. Simmons, 1995, Competing Gospels—Public Theology and Economic Theory; Tom Sine, 1981, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy; and Walter Brueggemann, 2007, Mandate to Difference—An Invitation to the Contemporary Church.