Capitalism: Get Out While You’re Still Saved?

At it’s very foundation, Capitalism works because of people’s selfishness. Adam Smith the Father of the modern capitalist economy said,

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

I’ll begin, for the sake of Virgil, by saying that in practice in our society, I have not seen or know of a better system then capitalism. I’ve thought that there is a chance a different governmental or economic system would better serve society, but I’m not sure, nor do I know enough to argue, that it would. That being said, Capitalism still has it’s downsides.

We often make choices and contribute to systems that we believe in and agree with. There are personal and moral reasons people boycott stores, flee countries, choose not to vote, refuse to pay taxes, or live off the grid. It’s a much more daunting task, but I wonder if we should not at least consider the same possibility as it relates to our economy.

If our economy by it’s very structure encourages us to act in our own self interest, it goes quite counter to the life that Christ calls us to. And if our economy by in it’s flaws creates a structure of economy that oppresses people, then it goes against our calling to love our neighbors. Is there a way to remain a part of that system, to contribute to it, play a role in it, and benefit from it, yet in a way that still allows us to fully follow Christ?

We don’t know much about a large portion of Jesus’ life but it seems likely that he was a carpenter for most of his adult life. It’s possible he paid taxes and was involved as much as the next person in the economies of that day. Yet, during his ministry we see challenges to the structures in place. He makes satirical play of a question about taxes. Jesus when the tax is required conjures it up out of the mouth of a fish. He dines at people’s homes, relying on the hospitality of others rather then his own wages to provide food and shelter. When he dines at a Tax Collector’s home though, isn’t he benefiting from the corrupt system?

It just seems that economy is another area that Christians don’t think about at all. We just take for granted the system that is in place and don’t consider whether it’s appropriate to be involved or if there is another way. When Mindy and I went to Papa Festival they tried to use an alternative currency during the event. It was similar to the Ithaca Hours, which a whole city adopted. It seems like a creative way to step out of the current economic system (though it seems like it’s just replacing it with a similar one, although more local and maybe less corrupt).
Maybe we are supposed to be moving off the current economy and joining the Amish. Or maybe there is a way to involve our selves in the economy of the world in such a way that it is still honoring to God and not involving ourselves in a corrupt structure.

5 thoughts on “Capitalism: Get Out While You’re Still Saved?”

  1. Ariah, I love you heart and the way you write đŸ™‚ Let me answer a few of your points.

    “That being said, Capitalism still has it’s downsides.”

    Very true…I would be the first to agree, but the self-centered nature of Capitalism is what would make our Christ-centered actions stand out and be infinitely more visible. I know you are not proposing Communism (at least I hope you are not) but under a Communistic system people become even more selfish than under Capitalism? How so, you may ask? I believe it ultimately due to the the law of diminishing returns. People love to share with each other until the returns are diminishing on a curve, and until they become part of the ordinary. Whatever the economic system is, and whatever the output is (bread, milk, happiness, health care) the same static input will invariably lead to a smaller-size output. It’s like a child getting a new shiny bike: he loves it for a few days, maybe even try to sleep with it, then the returns on the bike diminish until he leaves the bike laying in the middle of the street.

    It is true that Jesus used miracles to pay his taxes and feed the poor, however we fall short of divine powers. About a year ago I wrote a column titled “A Kind Reminder: Socialism Kills where I wrote:

    A secondary issue to be considered, is the fact that many of the Christian groups advocating social programs to fight poverty are justifying their actions by the fact that Christ Himself appeared to have fought poverty when He was incarnate. That certainly seems to be the case, but Jesus never advocated taking wealth from one individual by force in order to give to the poor. In fact, Jesus used miracles to create food out of nothing (or out of a limited amount) in order to feet great multitudes. Creating something our of nothing is impossible in the marketplace, so if anything, Christ’s own actions teach us that free markets, creativity and ultimately capitalism and manufacturing is what truly helps the poor. Simply put, socialism would split a loaf of bread among a group of people while capitalism would sell the bread to the highest bidder in order to create more bread in order to satisfy the demand, which will eventually lead to the entire group having enough bread at all times.

    As you righly said, Capitalism has shortcomings, and yes…in instances (see Enron and Worldcom) the consequences are terrifying and despicable. Inequities exist, people suffer, so what I am asking myself is this: “Is Capitalism stopping me from living like Christ or from practicing a compassionate giving and living?”

    Believe it or not, my biggest “struggle” (if I can call it that) with emerging Christianity is not theology at all, rather its economic tendencies, which for me get dangerously close to Socialism or even Communism. Having experienced both of those economic systems personally for most of my life, you can probably see the source of my reluctance. There is no question that those concerns you are raising come from a compassionate heart, but everything we do has consequences, including economic policies.

    Also, the genuine concern for the welfare of the poor can lead us to forget about the spiritual realities of the Kingdom of God. When Pilate asked Jesus if he was a King, Jesus answered: “You say correctly that I am a king For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” What did Jesus mean when he said “my Kingdom is not of this world?” How do we reconcile the nature of the Kingdom with the physical needs of those around us?

  2. Brother –

    When I eat a sandwich, or avoid being hit by a car, or take my medicine, I am looking after my own interest in the most basic sense. Looking out for my own interest in those cases causes harm to no one. So, looking out for your own self interest does not necessarily mean screwing someone else over. Put another way: helping myself does not mean hurting some other person. Even more relevant to your thoughts here, this sort of self-interest protection is not counter to anything that Christ teaches. And so, I have to disagree with you when you say “If our economy by it’s very structure encourages us to act in our own self interest, it goes quite counter to the life that Christ calls us to.”

    The kind of selfishness that Adam Smith talks about that makes capitalism run is not insidious or anti-Christian. If I am a butcher or brewer or baker, and I want to do well for myself(i.e. look out for my own self-interest), then I should produce a good product at a price that is attractive to my customers, and I should treat my employees well. If I fail in doing those good things for my customers and employees, then I will fail in protecting my self-interest, because I will go out of business. Thus, that sort of “selfishness” produces benefits for all.

    Now, that being said, this does not mean that your second comment is incorrect: that ” . . . if our economy by in it’s flaws creates a structure of economy that oppresses people, then it goes against our calling to love our neighbors.” It is certainly true that I can pursue my self interest in a way that does harm others, and that would be wrong. For example, if I steal the sandwich I eat or the medicine I take from some one else, or if I toss someone in front of myself to avoid being hit by that car, then my selfishness has crossed over from helpful or innocuous to harmful and wrong. Same is true if I keep slaves to make by bread or brew in my business.

    So, I think we don’t have to move off the grid or live in a commune or avoid “the English” in order to live Godly lives in an economic sense. We just need to live honorably in conducting our businesses, and reward those others who conduct their businesses honorably with our patronage. Boycotting, etc. is perfectly in line with this sort of reasoning and is perfectly capitalistic – it is just refusing to patronize a dishonorable on a larger scale.

    Think of an analogy, to sports as an example. Just because some people cheat, or try to hurt others, etc. in basketball, that does not mean we should not play basketball as Christians. We certainly should not play that way ourselves, and we should try to stop others from playing that way.

    My point is that capitalism is not in itself wrong, just like basketball is not wrong just because it can be played wrongly – it is how people play the game that is right or wrong, Christlike or corrupt.

  3. PK and Virgil,

    I love the comments, and I appreciate your insight. I am NOT advocating for a different form of government or economic system enforced by the government, so that side of the debate/conversation need go no further.
    Virgil, I really like this point your brought up:

    the self-centered nature of Capitalism is what would make our Christ-centered actions stand out and be infinitely more visible.
    I think I completely agree. I guess my post was not to suggest a governmental take over and change in the system, but a thought that maybe there is a way to step out and live differently even while and amidst the current system. Maybe like Josh mentioned at the Burning Man festival.

    PK, good point on capitalism being used selfishly etc. but not therefore wrong. I think Jesus’ lack of critique of the current system is an indication that huge systematic changes is not our goal, but living differently amidst it might be.

    What about bartering? Is that a way to avoid involvement in the system?

  4. Ariah,
    a wonderful truth about the Christian life is that it can be lived exactly the way Christ commanded under any government or economic system. Look at the wonderful Christians who joyfully serve Christ in China, and elsewhere. So in that regard, you are exactly correct – the question is “what can we/ should we do, as Christians to see to it that the poor are ministered to?”

    Another important thing to consider in all this is “how did the apostles live?” Peter and John said to the lame beggar, “gold and silver we don’t possess, but what we do possess we give to you freely.” They then healed him and he was, presumably, able to care for himself from that day forward.

    Capitalism, when not tempered with a solid foundation of Christian love and charity, can be an extremely cold and merciless economic system. That’s to some extent is what we see today in our society. But, within the context of what you share here, we are best able to help the poor and needy when our own needs are met abundantly more than we can think or ask.

    So, in Jesus’ parables, he uses the illustration of rich men, landowners, sharing their bounty willingly, happily, with the poor and needy. When confronted by someone with whom the landowner had shared his wealth, about the inequity in the landowner’s sharing, the landowner (presumably Jesus) said, “I paid you what we agreed upon. I have not cheated you. But if I CHOOSE to be more generous to another, is it not my money to do with as I please?”

    We can see in this example how the rich can be Christ-like in their business and labor practices. Agreeing on a wage, and then, if able, to be more generous at times.

    The freedom that the Free Market engenders is one of charity, IF the rich man is charitable. Government policies cannot make anyone charitable – but the spirit of Christ can.

    Let us all pray for generous Christians to prosper so that they (WE) can all bless those around us. Let us be Christ’s hands and feet to our world, that they might see the Face of God in our faces and know that their Father in Heaven loves them.


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