"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.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Property for People, Not for Profit

The starting point of a Christian political system originates from the Fathers of the Church such as St. John Chrysostom: "There is something terrible about greed, any guilty of it shall be be expelled from the Church." The central principle of Christian communism can be described as follows: "Enjoying goods alone means losing them, harming both the social whole and oneself. The crucial idea here is that of benefit. Since everything belongs to God we are only beneficiaries of existing goods, and there can be no private property in the strict legal sense of exclusive rights, this right being limited, if not repealed, by the normative obligation to be useful: 'Everything belongs to God...do you not know that we will be called to account if we make poor use of it?" - Clement of Alexandria.

This principle means that a political system in which property rights trump all other values is anti-Christian at its root. Traditional Christianity has always argued that property rights are relative values and should be subordinated to spiritual values. In other words, an economic system based on the profit motive cannot be made to conform to Christian principles because it is based on greed from the root. Current economic theory further assumes that the sum of personal greed-based activity will result in the greater good of the whole, which is blatantly contradicted by the facts of our world, not to mention being the mirror opposite of Christian morality.

From the perspective of traditional ethics, "...when the usefulness of the goods produced and consumed no longer drives economic activities, but exchange value and limitless accumulation through money mechanisms, the property-owning individual falls prey to the illusion of boundless life - and the community is destroyed." Hinkelammert, "Another World is Possible". Therefore the economic and political system I would advocate would involve a rational and collective planning process for production that would focus on human need. It would regard the excessive accumulation of property by individuals or small groups as a crime against the good of the whole. It would be a world in which useful goods were distributed to all according to their need and to which each would contribute according to their talents. Such an economic practice would promote the values of sharing over competition, in accordance with Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.

According to Christian teaching, human beings have the potential for both deep moral degradation and high spiritual attainment. Therefore a Christian economics is not one that regards all behaviors which might lead to growing profit margins as equally desirable. Some behaviors, such as compassion, sharing, care for the poor, diligence, concern for quality, craftsmanship, and so on should be encouraged, while others such as uncontrolled lust, greed, foolish self-indulgence, wastefulness, shoddy workmanship, escapism, desire for power over others, destructiveness and others, are to be discouraged by the economic system, as well as every other social mechanism. In an economic system which makes profit the supreme value, Christian values must necessarily be ignored and degraded.

So how can we envision an economic system that promotes the teachings of Jesus? The purpose of economics, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is to provide a field within which we can strive for greater and greater heights of moral virtue. That perfection cannot be served by endless arrays of wasteful and spiritually harmful commodities which encourage foolish self-indulgence and lack of compassion for our brothers and sister who have less. More radically, a production system that doesn't consider the ecological impact of the goods that it produces and fails to meet human needs is corrupt in its root and must be abolished for the sake of human and natural life. That is the true "pro-life" position that Jesus calls us to.

Economics must promote the deepening of our humanity, not the proliferation of useless and destructive "needs." The economic picture which currently reigns is the mirror opposite of one that would promote the proliferation of higher needs, the need to love, the need for truth, the need for honor, and all that these needs imply about the true direction of human evolution. The proliferation of unnecessary material goods, especially considering the wars and theft that they necessarily entail, is a mark of shame on the human race, one that we will be long cleansing ourselves of.

Has the human race deteriorated to the point that it is no longer capable of imagining a world in which the products of spiritual achievement can be measured by other standards than their profit potential? What tyrant constrains us so fiercely that we can't think outside of the box of the commodity? The lure of endless quantity leads us to the destruction of ourselves and our planet.

In the words of John Bellamy Foster: "The goal must be the creation of sustainable communities geared to the development of human needs and powers, removed from the all-consuming drive to accumulate wealth." - John Bellamy Foster, "The Ecological Revolution", 2009

If Christianity doesn't mean this, then it has become one of the idolatrous powers which is destroying human life on this planet and has lost whatever tether it may once have had to the teachings of Jesus Christ.


Anonymous said...

It is refreshing to see that there are still people who believe what Jesus actually said, rather than using his name as a way to justify things that Jesus himself never would have tolerated. Our current economic system is fundamentally incompatible with true Christian values, and nothing can change that. We need to fundamentally change our economic system from one based on exploitation of human beings and nature, both of which will lead to our ultimate demise, to one based on the vision of Karl Marx, and others, in which nature and people are not regarded as mere property or commodities, but as something much more. This is the only way to end the problems of alienation, war, environmental degradation, and human inequality and misery in general.
Thank you for promoting this important vision.

Boyd Collins said...

Dear Anonymous,

It made me very happy to receive your comment. The Nonviolent Jesus is dedicated to the proposition that the current economic system is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. Though this attitude has spawned an entire theological movement known as "Liberation Theology", it seems that this commitment is virtually unknown among First World bloggers. I would be glad to dialog with you further about this. Have you read any of the liberation theologians such as Guttierez?