"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Advancing in Concert

"Since trade ignores national boundaries, and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process." - Woodrow Wilson, 1907

A recent heated controversy on the CrossLeft progressive Christian blog concerned whether capitalism is a neutral economic system that has been perverted by "buccaneer laisez-faire types" or is the institutionalization of the sin of greed. What most Christians believe was succinctly summarized by this poster: "I personally think capitalism is a neutral system, with its benefits and flaws. Adam Smith wrote that individuals who pursue their self interests in a competitive system often inadvertently create widespread social gains. In the 19th Century, the Industrial Revolution created a middle class of over 100 million people in the U.S. Free market reforms in the 1970s have given China a middle class of over 200 million people today. India has now a middle class of 200 million people due to its free markets."

What was striking to me about this description of capitalism by a Christian blogger was that the moral effects of the current economic system went unmentioned. The viewpoint which lies behind this conventional history is that Christianity has no direct relationship with the economic system in which its members live. One system may have its benefits and flaws, but economic systems are peripheral to the real business of Christianity, which is personal sin and salvation. The idea that economic systems could have an impact on a person's moral well-being was completely alien to his viewpoint.

From a Christian viewpoint, nothing in this world is morally neutral, particularly not the system by which we obtain the goods of life. The starting point of this view is this passage from Colossians 1: "For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven." (Col 1:17-20)

"Whether things on earth or things in heaven" - this includes economies, so how do we reconcile economics with the spirit of Christ? My response is as follows: "Without getting into semantic battles over concepts such as 'capitalism' and 'socialism', I'd simply like to look at the global economic system which has dominated over the last 20 years. My question is 'What kinds of human behavior does this system encourage?' Advertisements play a central role in this system and what is the message constantly blared from virtually all advertisements? It is this: 'You the consumer are grossly inadequate because you lack this never-before-seen incredible product. Once you get it you will be completely fulfilled.' The attitude which is constantly instilled is that only through the purchase of material goods or services can you obtain happiness. The corollary is that you must do whatever is necessary to gain the means to purchase these goods or else you will remain miserable. This does not seem to me to be a 'flaw' of this system, but part of its essential drive. The media, which is controlled by advertisers, amplifies this message through both its news programs and entertainment shows. The attitude instilled is that we must compete with each other to obtain the goods that make for happiness. Each of us is a buyer and a seller in the global marketplace and therefore each of us must strive to maximize our advantage vis-a-vis our competitors. We may form temporary alliances to compete with other alliances, but ultimately we must focus on maximizing our sales price and minimizing our buy price. Clearly, this attitude militates against any solidarity on the economic plane whether with fellow Christians or anyone else. Thus the influence of the economic system is toward anti-social behavior and this appears to be an inherent part of what makes the economy 'successful', not an abuse.

As heirs of the Acts of the Apostles, is is not possible to imagine an alternative economic system that would cause me to seek benefits in ways that benefit others too, rather than opposing my interest to their interest?"

The question endures. Are economic systems neutral from a Christian viewpoint? Or can there be economic systems that promote the Christian values of solidarity, compassion, and (real) care for the poor? So what should a Christian economy promote?

First and foremost, the virtue of solidarity, such that my striving for economic benefits brings benefits to others. Economics must promote shared, not competing interests. Production, allocation, and consumption must enhance our human bonds, not lead to isolation and hatred. Like the golden rule, for me to do well, I must be concerned that others do equally well. The reigning idea that my striving for selfish benefit without concern for others will magically bring benefits to everyone is nothing more than the self-justification of institutionalized greed.

When some own the means of production and others must sell their labor, this creates a situation in which the interests of the two classes are inherently opposed. Owners benefit when they pay workers less, provide fewer benefits, and when those workers have less leverage. Those owners whose conscience causes them to care for their workers by paying them well and providing more benefits cannot compete with those who do not, even when their workers respond to the care by working harder and with more enthusiasm. Owners who go too far in practicing Christian virtues toward their workers are exterminated by the marketplace.

The current economy systematically destroys the virtue of Christian solidarity in the interests of profits. This is only one of many Christian virtues it systematically undermines. Chastity, for instance, serves no profit-making purpose, while its opposite is one of primary generators of uncontrollable desires and therefore profits. Uncontrolled desire is the ideal toward which capitalism strives. The undisciplined sexuality of modern times has its origin not in free love radicals, but in profit making opportunities.

Christians, as reflected in the recent CrossLeft controversy (go to Greed as the basis of all evil to see the debate), have begun to feel these issues more deeply than before due to the current economic crisis. We Christians need not submit to an economic system that enslaves us to material desires, but must strive for release, to become free human beings, advancing in concert to a world where the benefit of each is truly the benefit of all.

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