Josh Sweeden - Faithful Living in the World

I recently sat down with Josh Sweeden, Assistant Professor and Richard B. Parker co-chair of Wesleyan Theology at Portland Seminary, about a field experience he took his Culture and Systems Change class on to Bob’s Red Mill in Milwaukie, Oregon.

Adam: How did you first hear about Bob’s Red Mill and connect the class with him?

Josh Sweeden

Josh: I first heard  about Bob on the grocery store shelf. I’ve been a fan of Bob's Red Mill products for a long time, but I didn't know Bob's connection to George Fox, or even some of the unique things about the way he structured his business, and the way that he thinks about the tie between his own faith and the marketplace until I read about him in the George Fox Journal. And then I had friends who had gone on a tour of Bob’s Red Mill and just were very excited about it - they loved this story about Bob. To the point where I realized that this would be an excellent opportunity for the Culture and Systems Change class. It helped influence the discussions about economics that we've been having. I called and they were quite willing give our students some time with Bob, and I think largely because we were George Fox Evangelical Seminary -- which, of course, he's an alum of ours.

Adam: Right. He studied at George Fox for a year back when it was Western Evangelical Seminary, right?

Josh: Yes, and that’s part of the beauty of his story. How liberating is that? Here’s a man who was basically retired, who took a year to study the Bible. And then after a year, he decides, ‘Eh... nah. I love milling, I saw an old mill for sale and I think I’m going to go get back into that.’

Adam: It’s pretty incredible that the old mill that he decided to buy became Bob’s Red Mill.

Josh: Exactly, and those are the stories of faithfulness that we have to tell alongside of the stories of faithfulness that go along the lines of "I went and did my MDiv and went into a pastorate." You know. I do think he was answering a calling in a way.

Adam: With all that's going on at Bob’s Red Mill, would you say that Bob is definitely a capitalist?

Josh: I think we're all capitalists.

Adam: That's what Bell [author of The Economy of Desire] would say.

Josh: And I think Bell's right on. And I think everyone in the class knew that from our readings. We all admit that. We're all capitalists. The question is, how do we live faithfully in the midst of a world that wants to make us more capitalistic than maybe we even want to be? So how do we resist when we can resist? How, in other ways, do we acknowledge some of the good things of capitalism? That's where I think Wendell Berry's essays been very helpful for my class. For Berry, there are some very good things about competition, but we have to be careful with them. So there is some beauty in competition, like you see in sports, but when you set up a system of winners and losers it can easily become dangerous -- and I think an unfettered market does that very quickly.

Adam: It sounds like there needs to be a way to push back against that system.

Josh: Right, and there are ways. Picketing is one, but you can also create an alternative. It is resistance it in a certain way. I think co-ops do that for us. I think small micro-economies do that for us. There are just small ways of saying "We aren't owned by you. We are going to resist the temptation that you place upon us to make this set of assumptions. The set of assumptions that say "profit over people," right? Instead we're going to live into "people over profit."  I mean, Bob’s still a capitalist, but he's making real progress there, I think.

Adam: So resisting capitalism doesn't have to be resisting capitalism altogether.

Josh: If that's even possible, to reject capitalism -- I don't even know if you can. Bob was intended to be an example, not to aspire to, but of how somebody has done this. So we get his story, and it's helpful for us to see "this is how you've worked out your faith convictions in light of the market and in light of your vocation." I think that creates avenues for us to see how we might do the same in our places and contexts.

Adam: Is that what you would hope that your class walked away with seeing that this is one way that you could resist?

Bob's Red Mill

Josh: Yeah. There's nothing in my classes that's intended to say "This is the way." Ever. No. That's dangerous, I think.

Adam: Why do you think that's dangerous?

Josh: It disregards context, largely, and every context is different. And I think Christianity is at its best when it speaks to a particular context -- a set of needs and possibilities within a particular place. And we have to allow it to do that -- which means we have to allow diversity of how we live into practices, economic practices for example. That's one way. The other danger is it doesn't really testify to the multiplicity of gifts that we have, either. We talked in class a little about how John Wesley admonished the Methodists to ‘earn all you can’, and those who have great business acumen are expected to employ their gifts. Here is Bob Moore: someone who is very entrepreneurial, and should have, I would hope, some freedom to pursue those interests, but, as John Wesley would say, not in a way that hurts neighbor, right. Not in a way that is sinful gain. Not in a way that disregards others. I think we all have to have space to do the same. I mean, not all of us are entrepreneurs like Bob. Not all of us love mills and making flours and that sort of thing, but there has to be space for each person, in their giftedness, to pursue ways to contribute to the rest of society. Which Bob is doing by creating employment and healthier food.