Monday, September 7, 2015

The Christian and Capitalism

Note to reader: If you decide to begin reading this post, I ask you read to the end. At times my discussion might seem to be leading to some less than savory conclusion (This will be true for people on both sides of this discussion), but if you give it time, you will find points of sharp contrast. I at first attempt to be an equal opportunity offender, but in the end, try to give ideas the serious Christian can meditate upon, even if my suggestions do not finally solve all of our issues at hand.

            Preliminary considerations on current discourse:

The topic I endeavor to wrestle with today is one that people feel very passionately about. It is a polarizing issue, with hardnosed, traditionally-conservative Americans holding to one side, heralding this American institution as the unquestionable capstone of success for our once great moral society, while the self-styled, edgy progressive Americans hold to much the other side, questioning the very soul of this institution and vehemently proclaiming their verdict that it is responsible for all sorts of global evils (of not essentially all) and is in need of complete renovation.  

I am speaking of capitalism, and the closely related consumerism upon which it thrives (and I choose to speak about capitalistic consumerism, not to simply address capitalistic consumerism. Instead, think of this one example as perhaps the quintessential example of the difficulties we face today in any and every public sphere. While I will not mention this again, until the end of this essay, keep this at the forefront of your mind as you read).

As for the dichotomy of opinions, I do not think the Christian community has to feel beholden to either extreme. I want to explore how Christians may choose to live in the turmoil, but first, let’s explore the existing tensions before offering a step in the right direction.

On the one hand, capitalistic consumerism has proven itself as the best job-creating economic engine ever devised, and creating jobs is certainly something of which we as Americans must be proud. On the other hand, the critique that many of the jobs created are minimum-wage labor jobs that keep many families close to the poverty line, while their employers thrive well beyond normal extravagance, is not without warrant.

Even so, calmly looking at the institution on a more long-range timeline, instead of just focusing in on the ills we can note today, we can see that since the birth of this modern economy, the world as a whole has become a much, much less impoverished place. The poverty of the minimum wage worker is, relatively speaking, a much more bearable poverty than the poverty of the past, where minimum wage was an unimaginable blessing. (Note to my friends who struggle with the real issues of living under or near the poverty line in the endnotes[1])

Is the situation perfect? No. Should we throw the baby out with the bath water? That would be foolish. Should we reevaluate the norms in hopes of improving the system? Yes, of course. If the system has not yet produced the outcome we want, but has shown promise, we must be mature enough not to be reactionary, as the current progressives are being. And those traditional thinkers who have been touting the merits of capitalism for a very long time, maturity also demands the humility to refuse to equate good with good enough. We should allow the question: Can we do even better?

Both sides need to realize that, on the one hand, it is not as if this system has had failure to launch, but, on the other, it might be time for some maintenance and upgrades. However, my point in this post is not to merely say, let’s have dialogue. This first bit is just trying to define the issues and implore all of us to admit the need for dialogue, while not overreacting. Now, we move on to a much more ominous issue:

In the end, the fact of the matter is the system will never be everything we all want it to be, even if we agreed to work more hand-in-hand. While we might be able to preserve the free market, while simultaneously closing the income inequality gap, bringing even more people around the world into a comfortable place amongst the middle class (as capitalism has done time and again, although that line my be trending downward today), a problem still remains, a problem that many people on both sides tend to overlook:

The ethics of consumption…[2]

Who decides?

As we move to a more global society, we inevitably move towards a more postmodern pluralistic society. In smaller groups it is easier to decide what set of truths to which the society is willing to commit. But, as technology continues to expose us to an ever-larger society, as we can now run to the Internet for the market place of ideas (i.e. Reddit, Facebook, YouTube), an agreed upon epistemology for even the smallest community grows difficult. An agreed upon societal ethic, which was, according to many of an older generation, much clearer in the past, even if imperfect, is growing more and more out of reach everyday, and it is hard for this writer to imagine a reversal, unless we somehow pushed back against globalism, a very powerful force on the world stage today. So, who chooses to set parameters for negotiating societal ethics in a global society?

No one.

However we might feel about the structures of the market place, one thing most people from both the right and the left can agree upon is that we do not want someone else dictating how we (more precisely, I) behave in the market place. We may all feel, “I don’t mind if I, or someone who thinks just as I do, was put in charge to dictate what can and cannot happen. I have my head on straight, but I do not want anyone else to have that job.” The right (stereotypically) wants the government and its regulations to go kick rocks and stay out of the private sector, while the left (stereotypically) wants the religious community to go jump off a cliff before they tell them what they can and cannot consume. Global pluralism simply adds to the number of disagreements.

Which brings me to the issue I really wish to address…

While we can debate the merits of capitalistic consumerism until we are all blue in the face, as long as we as a majority want the freedom to consume as we will, (or at very least, do not want anyone to have control except for the group we want) then no set of laws can provide the ethical boarders of all our consumerist behaviors. The market remains remarkably silent about what I should buy, in regards to a moral right or wrong, but is extremely outspoken on what I should buy, in regards to what will make me “happy,” because it is not the market that dictates what it supplies, but the consumers’ demands that tell the market what to provide:

The market does not concern itself with whether my choice is rational, whether it is identical or consistent with choices I made yesterday or may make tomorrow, nor does it concern itself with any purposes I may have in making my choice or any consequences of my choice insofar as these do not themselves involve market decisions. In deed, as far as the market is concerned, I exist only in the moment of making a single commercial choice.[3]

Is this a flaw in the market? Not necessarily, unless we want the market to also provide us with our moral compass,[4] which most of us do not, because that would mean that someone or some group would be in charge of making those decisions, and I may or may not hold their same convictions (Think about how much we already complain about the EPA and FDA).

 Many of us want the market place to provide goods that are developed or grown with some sort of ethic in mind, if we are so inclined to be ethical in our shopping, but we do not want the church or state (or any institution for that matter) to tell me what that ethic should look like. I should be able to choose to go to this market or that, depending on what sort of guidelines to which they hold themselves accountable, because, then it is more likely I will find one that I can agree with that it would be if one were imposed across the board.

And, yet, as we leave all possibilities open, even while we might hope that all the various market places would follow some sort of ethical conduct, being realistic we know that as long as people want less than wholesome products someone will provide them for consumption, and even morally inclined people have to face the temptations of these products (online pornography is a leading example).

Before we discuss how then Christians should perhaps pursue ethical choices in the market place, we need to ask, because some may wonder, is there really a deep need to be ethically engaged as we shop? Can consumerism really go all that wrong?

Consumption gone wrong

For those who are morally inclined, unregulated consumption can go wrong in so many ways. The sex industry probably exists as the best proof positive of this reality, but certainly is not the only example. Consumption can become a god, not to which we simply pay our tribute, but to which we become enslaved.

No man who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating and drinking, who smokes whenever he feels the urge to light a cigarette, who gratifies his curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can consider himself a free person[5]

Yet, the free market makes this enslavement to desire, not only possible, but also alluring. Many people are not free from the addiction of consumption. Addiction ranges from drugs and alcohol to compulsory buying from QVC.

As an extreme example, consider the following excerpts from my previous blog, “On The Consumption And Abuse of Women:”[6]

Just because we live in a nation that has made it easy to consume what we may, does that mean we should? We live in a world in which the highest value is placed on that which can be consumed. Consumerism is heralded as right and good, because it somehow represents “freedom,” but thoughtless access to wants is not freedom, but just another form of slavery, a slavery whitewashed to appear to be a sign of our blessedness.

The things that people can use are the things our society values most. While consumption is a natural part of life—food must be harvested for sustenance, and water must be gathered for hydration—blind consumerism is the perversion of this reality. It is a reality in which we cannot come to appreciate that which should not be consumed or used. If it cannot be used, it is looked over: 

There are some men for whom a tree has no reality until they think of cutting it down, for whom an animal has no value until it enters a slaughterhouse, men who never look at anything until they decide to abuse it and who never even notice what they do not want to destroy.[7]

While the stars remind us of our limitedness as we can only see their beauty, but cannot touch it, our world is filled with men who obsess over leaving this celestial ball for the consumption of another. We can no longer see our dependency on this earth as our reality, because we can think of nothing more than to consume it; so, we will have to find more and more to consume. Likewise, beauty is no longer a reminder of the goodness of a God beyond us, but a mark for consumption. 

It is only a small step then to abusing the beauty of humans, especially, but not limited to, women and children. After years and years of considering the value in things only by how well they can be used, it is no wonder we begin to forget that some beauty is simply meant to be appreciated, not consumed. If this is true, then this also speaks to our sense of self-worth, how we value our own existence. We no longer appreciate the gift of “being,” but only see our worth in what we “do.” 

So, women (and even our precious children) also get caught up in investing in the evil that leads to their own destruction. If men (and women) only value what they consume, women (and men), to find worth, give others more to consume of themselves, because they wish to have worth. Dress becomes more and more revealing, giving men more to consume, and posing for pornography becomes a means to feel loved and valued, because, as we all know, many, many men will consume you if you put beauty out in such a way that it can be used, used, in this sense, for base gratification.

Eventually, lusting for visions of shorter and shorter skirts no longer feeds the spirit of consumerism. We must see it all. Soon enough, “tasteful” nude shots no longer gratify this spirit, only the obscene. Then, there are men who reach the end of this pleasure, and they seek to touch and to physically consume this beauty, and sex trafficking has then been given more reason to exist. 

We are all guilty and in need of repentance, even if we do not consume what others may. We may only consume, without regret, food to excess, television to excess, or drink to excess, but it is all the same spirit. We are teaching each other that blind consumption is acceptable.

Of course there is an almost infinite gulf between short skirts and sex trafficking, and we should not in any way shift blame of sexual abuse from immoral men to women who choose to dress in whatever way they desire, but that is in some ways my point. We all know that the sex industry is evil, but where does it begin. Where do we begin to say “no”? We cannot really think we are ever going to be able to legislate a perfect balance, can we?

Who decides the line?

No one.

My point is that consumerist choices do have consequences on those who consume, and the consequences are heart-shaping consequences that law (in any form) falls short of controlling.[8]. Too much McDonalds will ruin good health, and a lifestyle of gluttony can lead to horrible death. The consumption of legitimate mood altering products might lead to the desire to consume stronger products that are not legal. Compulsory buying can lead to bankrupting a family.

All these things break down into ethical failures of the heart, but we cannot tell people they cannot eat at McDonalds, if they are over a certain weight. We cannot tell people they cannot consume prescribed medications, because their wills are weak. We cannot tell people they cannot place orders with Amazon, because they are addicts to shopping (I say we cannot, but perhaps should not would be better, because the government has at times done just these sorts of things). The government cannot cross this line, and the market place has no way to regulate our abuse. It is hard to see how we could ever put the onus on either to do so. Yet, that does not mean we can dismiss the problem. So, how can we (at least Christians) respond?

            Choosing a Christian response…

There are some students of Scripture who are quick to point out, when they finally see it for the first time, that the laws of the Torah have a very socialistic form in which the people of God are commanded to give to the marginalized, and there are no shortage of examples to choose from in the Old Testament of God telling the people to obey these laws or face the consequences. In their excitement, however, these biblical students miss a couple of crucial, socio-political and theological points.

They miss the purpose of the law, as emphasized in the New Testament. It was to be a tutor. The law was not an end unto itself. It was not the solution. In fact, it was and is God’s mission, His trajectory of history, to remove the written law from His people and to place the law in their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). In other words, regulations were never meant to be the final and best option for a stable society in which everyone has opportunity for justice. It was meant to be a model of culture, not the culture itself, for a people who had never seen anything like what God was asking of them. The law was that picture, but it was never meant to remain simply a picture, but a lens through which the people of God saw the world. We are supposed to act, not according to a formula, but according to a real sense of morality.

I fear the Christian community in many of its expressions has set these lenses aside.

Christ is quite clear in the Sermon on the Mount about this. He keeps pointing a finger to the law, showing it was only effective to a certain extent, and then pointing a finger to the hearts of His people, saying this is where the real change happens. Therefore, Socialism, for the Christian, is really a step backwards, not forwards. Regardless of what much of progressive Christianity believes, for our story, rooted in Scripture, socialism is not progressive. Its as old as the Torah.

With this in mind, Socialism might not be the worst idea for a morally illiterate people, and people of both the right and left complain about the hearts of Americans. So, maybe we need a step backwards.


These biblical students also miss that the very reason the law had any positive effect when it was in play. It worked (when it worked), because the Lawmaker was welcome to oversee the people as they lived their lives. In discussing a time of promised peace in Israel predicated upon Israel’s willingness to focus upon justice for those in need, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat note the following:

On two occasions, Ezekiel speaks of a “covenant of peace” that is characterized by a renewed fruitfulness in the land…the people of Israel experience political security because they are at peace with their neighbors, socioeconomic oppression is replaced by liberation, and the hungry are fed (Ezek 34:25-31). But such shalom, wholeness and well-being in all of our social, ecological, political, agricultural, and economic relationships is rooted in a restored relationship with God. There can be a covenant of peace, says Ezekiel, only because God promises, “My dwelling shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (37:27).[9]

America is decidedly not a theocracy, and I do not suppose the vox populi would ever call for such. So, Christians cannot call for biblical Socialism as the new norm for America and use the OT as proof positive of its merit. Even if we were to unanimously elect God as our leader, He already has a Kingdom, and we can already be members. He does not want one nation, when He can have a people out of every nation. So, while America might be blessed by a new awakening, a new revival, God is still not going to accept the bid for president. He is going to command us, as He always has, to be a part of the preexisting Kingdom people.[10]

He does not want us to make any one nation our permanent home. We are the aliens in the land of our own dispersion. We might do well to seek America’s welfare (see Jeremiah 29:7 and Romans 13:1-7). In fact, we should. But, in the end, we cannot force this nation to be the community that provides our primary sense of belonging. That community already exists, and Christ is already her head. This is the Church’s vocation.

Just to drive this point home:

If recreating Israel’s situation (in which social laws were successful because of the oversight of an ultimately wise Lawmaker) as described by Ezekiel is not an option, what lawmaker might we imagine could bring about the socialistic utopia we seek? As we established at the beginning of this blog, we as a country will not agree to allow any one group to decide—church or state being the main two options—so, we are stuck with one of two options:

1)   We see one group force their agenda in a hostile takeover, or
2)    We opt for keeping the system we have and for learning to hold ourselves culpable for our own decisions, as we work together the best we can.

Option two seems much more reasonable, if what I have said so far is true. However, the issue of holding ourselves culpable is a current possibility that many, even Christians, fail to engage properly. Just look at the level of incarceration we have today based on this option. Christians need to address this as well. We cannot just say, this is your problem, because God is concerned for the other, we too must be. So, how can we offer a hand, while remaining realistic that, in the end, individual culpability is our most viable option?

Acknowledging issues of capitalism:

Before we address our own culpability for what we consume, we must address another issue. While Socialism might fail to thrive in our Western world, because, in many ways, it goes against the highly celebrated freedom for the individual that our Capitalism provides, we cannot then ignore the critique those who champion Socialism provide, namely that we have fundamental gaps for fairly caring for the marginalized in our nation. It is simply true that having is easier than not having, and, if we not only want to be moral in our own choices, but also want to be moral in our love for neighbor, we are going to have to face inequality:

…there is an aggregate judgment that one can make about free markets, namely, that those who enter the market with least are likely to leave it with least, and that for those at the margins of society the trickle-down effect without social intervention will not alter this.[11]

Any suggestion that the poor are poor for any other reason than their own irresponsibility often angers many conservatives, but it is clear nonetheless that whatever makes the poor the poor, they are not going to be able to always pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and if we serve a God who demands that those with means provide for those who do not, and He most certainly does, we are going to have to realize that unchecked Capitalism will not do. We might not resort to the effortless (or mindless) care that Socialism envisions, but we are just as culpable to care for others (even those who have made bad decisions) as we are culpable for our own moral interactions in the market place.

We may keep our current system. In fact, it may be the wisest thing we can do to keep it, but if we are going to demand Capitalism be left to perform as it will, we are going to have to note where it has gaps and fill them by some other means, because, I cannot overemphasize that Capitalism, while providing opportunity for many, does not have the means to keep all who participate in its process from hurting their neighbor, and, as Christians, this is a huge concern. In fact, this may be a bigger concern today than it ever has been:
…when the mentality of instrument reasoning and individual consumer choice encroaches on every sphere of social life, it erodes the moral basis of society that markets presuppose for their proper functioning. The more a predatory, transnational capitalism absorbs cultures everywhere into the general process of commodity production, so that cultures are reduced to lifestyle choices and all human relationships become commercial and contractual, the legitimacy of capitalism itself is destroyed.[12]

We now live in a world in which individual choice is seen as the highest achievement of human progress. It does not take long for ultimate choice in the market place to become ultimate choice in every aspect of life.

Pluralism is the new religion, and as such, no moral center exists for the public to draw a sense of ethical right or wrong. In such a world, we can no longer presuppose our society will follow a path towards treating each other fairly in the market place. Neither consumer nor supplier has any deep-seated conscious to protect the other.

So, what?

Capitalism only works, without causing much pain, when free people choose to do right, no mater the fact that consumerism in no way demands they do. People need a sense of moral right and wrong and pluralism denies any such resource.

The rub then is that it does not appear that either pluralism, with its anemic morality, or capitalism, an amoral system which depends on a robust outside moralism (once provided by select religious institutions, even if imperfectly so) to keep society in balance, are going anywhere any time soon, and, even if, heaven forbid, we move more and more to socialistic styles of public life, this still won’t fix the heart problem. Instead, it will be a volatile imposition, forcing at least one group of people to accept a socially engineered ethic that they will not in their hearts want to accept.

It seems to be a hopeless situation then. So, what can we do?

Individual responsibility with a social support

For the Christian (and even the non-Christian who has to face the same facts, perhaps, however, having to come up with a different soulution), I ask we consider the following: Although this might not be the conclusion that many want to hear, if the premises I have outlined above are true, then there is really very little hope to ensure the market place will ever be the moral arena we wish it were. We often participate in our culture’s habits of consumptions without ever asking the question, “Is this beneficial?” With this in mind, Christian consumers must take responsibility in vetting their supplier and their own intentions when they consume in order to remain morally upright. We can do our best to vote our conscious, but when we lose our vote, we are not then free to dismiss our own responsibility to behave as we are called to behave.

We have to behave properly, and we need help behaving properly.

If the vox populi has spoken and has forbidden to this point the market from having a system of moral checks and balances so that we can consume worry free, then we must hold ourselves culpable. Yet, making such decisions can become overwhelming, and, left to our devices, the Bible (and history) tends to suggest we will continue to make bad choices. So, what do we do?

We create an outside system that keeps us mindful as we participate in the market place (and going back to my comment at the first of this essay, we create an outside system that keeps us mindful as we participate in all public arenas.)

For the non-Christian, this alternative might indeed demand to be created from scratch, and I wish you well as you try. But, for the Christian, perhaps we do not really have to create at all, but be what we are called to be, an alternative community that cares for its own (refer to my last post, “Charity Starts (and Often Ends) At Home”[13]).

First, we might ask, do I ask the Spirit to be a part of all the decisions I make, even the most mundane. Do I really mean “Give me this day my daily bread,” or do I gather my own sustenance without much consideration for the Divine. We all know that the formative power of prayer often takes time. So, what do we do to ensure we are listening to God and that we are hearing correctly?

I am culpable. I am weak. I do not always hear correctly.

Therefore, I could use some help in navigating my interactions with the culture around me. To all of this, the Church can serve as the social conscious for any individual who freely submits to her authority. The church can provide direction and correction for how we both consume and provide justice for the poor, as we work in community, valuing all parts of the body, not just those parts we find the most noble. Now, I am not suggesting that we then enter a voluntary Church-based Socialism in which we create abstract rules for navigating public life. We need something much more dynamic, with the Living Word and the Holy Spirit, helping us to always “only do what [we] see the Father doing,” as our Lord modeled for us so well (John 5:19,20).

Let me stress what I just said. The individual must submit to the church community (not an institution). The church cannot force its agenda. And, the church must resist setting up an institutionalized elite who make decisions, but must operate as a community always in deference to one another, to Scripture, and to the Holy Spirit. Yet, once one seriously commits to being a part of such a social community in which decisions are made in community, freely, they must understand the seriousness of such allegiance. Once we say, “Jesus is King,” we place ourselves under His authority.

In summary, as we have discussed in our past two posts, the community moves and breathes together when it is in unity and people act in humility. They act in public according to the will and love of God, and society is changed, at least for those willing to leave the way of the world for the way of God:

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[k] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:43-47)

This might seem, at first, to be a very socialistic, even communistic way of living, and it is social and communal for sure, but we can look to a particular example of this early church life that, while at first glance might seem to support such claims, actually emphasizes the freedom to belong to the group, but the importance of being true to the group once becoming apart:

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him. (Acts 5:1-6)

Ananias was not guilty of refusing to be a part of the church’s communist commitments. In fact, Peter suggests there were no such commitments. While we might find it hard to believe that the people described in Acts 2 freely sold all they had when they noticed the plight of the poor, Peter makes it clear to Ananias that he was free to do with the money what he wished. The issue was that Ananias had lied to the community in order to impress the community and gain status. He wanted to pretend as if His heart was as those around Him, but the Spirit called Him to task. He said he gave all his proceeds when he did not. Such a lie is not that serious of an infraction in most communities, but it is in the church, because, according to Peter, participation in the church (along with promises made therein) is participation in following God, and breaking a promise to God for self-promotion is the sin we have been committing from the beginning.  

So, here we have a tension between truths. In God’s Kingdom, we are free to participate in His mission to help those in need. We are free to live as a Kingdom people, but if we are serious about our place in the church, we must be serious about our commitments, because our mission is precisely to live according to our convictions so that, while there might not be a perfectly moral society for those who are tired of injustice to join, the church lives as a viable alternative that, at least for those who are willing to join, will see real change, real justice, and real purpose in a world of confusion.

Christ is Lord of His church. We are free to submit to His will, but once we do, we are not our own, but His. As we live together, we learn to follow His lordship. This might not solve the issue of unchecked capitalism’s lack of moral direction, but it does help all those in the church, as we serve one another in our need and in our decision-making. So, while after our first set of conclusions showed an almost hopeless situation in which people are left adrift and alone in their moral interactions with their neighbors, the solution might simply be an allegiance to an alternative culture that helps hold each member accountable as they interact in the wider world.

The church is the Christian solution. For the non-Christian, again, I wish you well in figuring out your alternative, but consider the fact that you do not have to reinvent the wheel. The church is already the alternative community. The only exclusion from being a part of a community that acts morally, in a capitalistic market (or any other public arena) is the unwillingness to submit to Christ. Yet, that means Christians have to take seriously their place as members of the church. If we are going to say to the world, there is a community of hope, we have to be that community.

We might not be able to create a utopia in which everyone is morally inclined to do right. However, we can belong to a community that helps all who are in that community to spur one another on in making good choices, and everyone who wishes to be a part of such community can be a part if they are willing to repent and submit to Christ.

Communities are the way God intervenes to offer, within every [larger] culture, a different and better horizon. To be Christian is to stake our lives on this belief: the only cultural goods that ultimately matter are those that love creates.[14]

In other words, local church bodies representing the Kingdom of God can help individuals in the community to go beyond seeking to do right by means of following a set of laws and can help, with the participation of all individuals, cultivate ways of behaving that are consistent to the character of the Leader, Christ. We can see changed hearts.

This means that by participating in a community that participates in Kingdom culture, individuals may allow the Spirit to use the iron of our neighbor to sharpen our own hearts so that we no longer depend on outside regulations, but on the very Image of God that is being etched on the hears of the believers as we move forward together.

[1] I am not, in any way, attempting to minimize your situation. I am speaking about the relative reality of poverty in regards to a comprehensive, historical vantage point. This in no way means I wish to dismiss poverty, because it is a “better” poverty. My point is that, in at least some ways, consumerism has improved overall poverty, but, I readily admit, not to a satisfactory state. My question is, do we start over, or realize that there is merit in the effectiveness of the system and work to make it better?
[2] Here I am speaking about more than the issue of income inequality. Consumption itself has consequences. What we choose to provide for consumers and what we chose to consume have an impact, not just on the physical world, but on the individual conscious as well.
[3] Nicholas Boyle, Who Are We Now? Christian Humanism and the Global Market from Hegel to Heaney (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), p. 153
[4] Again, here I do not speak of regulations on how products are produced. Instead, I am claiming, even if all our concerns were addressed in regards to “how” something is produced, we would still have to deal with the morality of consumption, what can and cannot be consumed.
[5] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Publishing Co., 1961), p.84
[7] Thomas P. McDonnell ed., A Thomas Merton Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. 1961). pp. 458,459
[8] This is not to deny that there should be laws protecting against real abuse. There certainly should be. I am not even suggesting we cannot vote our conscious, but, when it comes to voting, we cannot expect to always have our way. So, solutions have to come elsewhere.
[9] Brain Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press Academic, 2004), p.42
[10] I do not deny that America might be blessed if people turn to God’s ways, but I am arguing that Christendom is not what He wants. Instead, He wants for all of us to join His body. If the majority of Americans lived the Kingdom call of the community of faith, America herself might well prosper, but she would still be a nation and not the church herself.
[11] Raymond Plant, Politics, Theology and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 216-217
[12] Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press Academic. 2008) p. 164
[14] Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.2008). p.  248

Friday, August 28, 2015

Charity Starts (And Often Ends) At Home

I have not been reading Galatians in my current studies, and to be quite honest I have not read Galatians in some time. But, I have had one particular verse in Galatians ringing in my mind lately. I thought at first that my involuntary mental recitation of this verse was something akin to not being able to shake a catchy tune that repeats over and over in the halls of the mind like a broken record, nothing more than a mental glitch.

Yet, it persisted beyond the normal mere annoyance should:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

It was really the last bit that was the loudest: “especially those of the family of faith.”

After about three days of waking up with this verse on my mind, I finally asked God if He was trying to teach me something. Yes, I am stubborn that way. It took me three days. As soon as I asked that question, I was struck with another question: “What do you think about this verse?”

I paused, what do I think?

To be honest, once I thought about it, I realized the verse did not sit well for me. I was a little perplexed. Perhaps this is why I could not let it go.

According to Jesus, His gospel is “good news to the poor.” His gospel is “release to the captives.” His gospel is “sight to the blind.” His gospel is “freedom to the oppressed.” Full stop (see Luke 4:18-19).

If Christ’s target audience is the poor, the captive, the spiritually blind, and the oppressed, and it is His injunctive to us to spread His good news, it seems to me that the ripest harvest would not be in the church were everyone is already, as we in the church would put it, saved.  Sure, we should, when we have time, check in on each other, but shouldn’t we especially, to use Paul’s word, focus on the lost, the needy, and the dying. The saints already have eternal life don’t they?

Paul has it all backwards. He says help all, but especially those “in the household of faith.” I fretted over the question for a few more days, and prayed about for even more, and I finally began to feel a sense of clarity. I thought about my hypothesis a bit more, and grew more and more encouraged by what I found to be a prayerful, biblically consistent conclusion.

As my thoughts were beginning to set in my mind, I wanted to make sure I was not chasing a white rabbit; so, I ran to five of my favorite commentaries to see if those theologians I so admire had come to the same conclusion I had. If so, I would know I was in good company.

To my frustration, it seems that there has been some small debate upon what Paul means by “the family of faith.” Some notable Christians, namely a few of the Magisterial Reformers like Luther and Calvin, claim that Paul is referring back to an earlier comment he made about support for the ministers of the church (see 6:6). Others suggest that this phrase might have been an early church expression for one particular church, the church in Jerusalem. So, Paul is somehow talking about smaller churches paying apportionments to their leaders or their home base in Jerusalem.

Both of these arguments are unsatisfying. It is much more plausible to think that “the family of faith” means the whole family, all the believers, the universal church. While there are some theologians who think otherwise, it seems that the majority of theologians lean in on this more universal interpretation. So, the straightforward interpretation I have been working with seems to also be, according to majority consensus, the right interpretation. But, this direct interpretation does not answer the deeper question, “Why?”

If Paul had, in fact, a more particular group in mind, we could more easily extrapolate the why. For example, if he was speaking of ministers, we might say, he says take care of all, but especially your minister, because Paul believes the minister’s job is of utmost importance to the mission of God. Paul could be making a subtle argument here, one that a lot of ministers might like if it were true, that ministers are the linchpins for success in a church’s mission.

Likewise, if Paul would have been speaking of the Jerusalem church, we could have assumed that Paul had a more centralized and institutionalized view of the church than we might have assumed, and he would be explicitly arguing their import. While we might have a satisfactory answer to the why, if Paul were here being more specific, it seems he was not.

However, if he were being universal, as I am presently arguing he was, why would he tell us to care for all people, but especially the already saved? Again, shouldn’t our largest efforts go to “saving souls”? That seems to be the suggestion of the evangelical church today, but my question here exposes my prejudiced notions that I am importing into the text, prejudices I have developed as a product of the evangelical movement (a movement, mind you, of which I am proud to be a part, and that is why I offer critique).

I had been assuming a dichotomy between the primacy of taking care of the family of faith and evangelism to the lost. But, is that a necessary assumption? Are they really two separate things, having little to do with one another? Paul does not say, “When God gives you the opportunity to help whoever needs help, do so, but before all else, help those who are saved.” Instead, he says, “Help all, and especially tend to the needs within your own community. The conjunction shows that Paul does not see these two in conflict, but in direct relation.

What might that relation be? Let’s explore:

In my last blog, I went into detail about the cultural nature of the church; so, I won’t go into as great a detail here. Suffice it to say that I find in Christ’s vision for the church a culture making community. According to Jesus vision in Matthew 5: 14-16 and elsewhere, Jesus sees the church as a community who lives together in such a way that people leave the culture of the world for the culture of the Kingdom (see this practically expressed by the early church in Acts 2:42-47). Blessing comes to the many who are lost when they see a new alternative embodied by the church and they repent from their worldly ways in order to become a part of the family of faith, an alternative community.

Although this is Christ’s model for effective evangelism, I grew up learning and witnessing a somewhat different paradigm, one that made a clear distinction between the gathering together of the saints (going to church) and the proclaiming of the good news to the lost, (evangelism), perhaps, for example, telling a coworker about God. Our mission to save souls was something we were merely preparing for and learning about in church. Real change happened when individuals found themselves applying what they learned out in the “real” world.

The modern church that I grew up in had, at least to a large degree, lost it cultural calling, and moved to a new model of church, one in which congregants attended programs to learn how to evangelize. However, for Jesus, it is precisely by being the church that people come to know the Father. In the modern model, the church’s job is merely to critique the world, to tell them where they are going wrong, but in Jesus model, not only is the world challenged to face their own sin by the church, they are then provided a cultural alternative to leave the world and join a new movement, the church.

(I must brag that my home church, where I first saw this as a real issue, is now becoming the church Christ envisioned. They have a robust understanding of outreach, which invites people to the community to hear the good news, while taking care of their physical needs, which is not in addition to, but is the physical manifestation of the good news.)

As it stands now, the churches in America are often not a culture themselves, an opportunity for others to leave the world for a completely new way of living. Instead, the church is just one cultural product of many within the larger American culture. We do not see ourselves as set apart. If we only tell people where they are going wrong, but leave them to figure out how to change in their current context, never giving them a chance to join a whole new community that is going in the right direction together, we leave them in their guilt with little knowledge of where they might find hope. The world sure won’t help them out. They will try to live holy all on their own if church is nothing more than a set of programs. So, what is the church supposed to look like? I think it is to look something like China Town.

The Bible tells us that Christians are to be a community in, but not of, the world. We are told that we are citizens of a Kingdom in which we are not yet fully living as we find ourselves in this present world. In the meantime, we are to represent our Kingdom to the nations we find ourselves in. Like China Town, the church cannot but help finding herself in a larger context, a larger community, that in some ways, she must live and cooperate with. China Town is physically a part of New York City, but it is very much not culturally synonymous with the American town.

The residents of China town have a deep sense of belonging to a place that they no longer find themselves in, a homeland. They have a deep longing to provide for themselves and represent for any visitors the culture of home. The “city upon the hill,” the “holy nation,” known as the church likewise finds itself longing, driven even, to provide a sense of home, a sense of the place of our citizenry, the Kingdom of God.

Through providing our unique culture, we challenge the ways of the culture around us, the ways of the world, and our critique is not in what we say, but simply in how we live our lives. We are a people called to provide new hope, Kingdom hope, to the most marginalized of the world. If this is so, we must embody such a reality within our boarders, so to speak, as to provide real tangible hope.

James asks what good is it if we tell people that they can have peace, but we do not then provide that peace. How many times have people been promised a better life if they would simply accept the invitation to come to church. They walk in the door and are greeted with countless smiles, handshakes, and hugs, but no real practical day-to-day help. Sure, people ask about their eternal security, and when the person says they are willing to follow Jesus, we make sure they receive baptism, and we pat ourselves on the back with a job well done. Mission complete.  They go home to face the same miseries they had before coming to church. The promise of hope largely echoes empty in their mind.

This should not be so. If we are going to call people out of the world and promise them a better life, a life where your neighbor will look out for you, we must be in line with James. We cannot say, “Now have it.” We have to provide it.

Could this be why Paul implores us to take care of everyone as the opportunity arises, but especially those within our own community? Could it, instead of preferential treatment, which is what was disturbing me when I first explored this verse, be about practicing what we preach? If we were demonstrating that within our own culture, those in need find true, practical help, both physically and spiritually, could it be that more of the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed would believe us when we say we care, that God cares, and come running to the body of Christ to find themselves wrapped in the arms of Christ?

(Note: I do not want to prolong this blog any more than I already have, but I do anticipate a complaint I want to address. If you are thinking, “Your model of the church seems to deny the need to “go and tell” the good news, I want to speak to this, if not, skip this parenthetical. When I analogize the church to China Town, I might mislead one to think I see the church as stationary, a place people pass through or by to see the truth embodied. The analogy does fail me there. When I say the church is itself the central testimony of Christ, what betrays us here is the modern model of the “come and see” church, instead of the “go and tell” church. As it stands, for people to see the church as a cultural community, they often have to walk into a building. But, the directive from Christ is “go and tell.” This is not for individuals alone, as if they are to receive training in the walls of “church” to evangelize, and then they are to leave the “church” in order to do so. This was a directive to the group of disciples. The church is not stationary. It is the community itself, wherever the community finds itself. We have a means to collect together in very public ways, and we are not confined always to our building. If we switch from a “come and see” model to a “go and tell” model, living as a community very much in the public sphere, this rebuttal becomes irrelevant.)

The charity we express at home often gives people on the outside a reason to finally come home too. We are to help all we can. Inviting them to taste and see the Lord is good, inviting them to be a part of our family, but we must be sure we are actually practicing being a family so that they can see value in accepting our invitation.

Hope is a wonderfully amazing thing, and it can change lives.