I admit that I am often torn between what I believe to be the requirements of a life of authentic Christian discipleship and the reality of life in a free market capitalist society. This is the subject of my current column in the United Methodist Reporter.
Of the benefits of the latter there can be no doubt: the vast creation of wealth, the alleviation of poverty, the increase in personal freedom, and the list could go on and on. For most people in free market societies in the present, life is better in many ways than it has ever been.
No economic system is perfect, and in truth, capitalism can be quite brutal. It fosters competition as a way of life, which can be great for the winner but very difficult for the loser. And of course, sometimes the ‘loser’ isn’t even the individual or company whose business doesn’t flourish; at times, the ‘loser’ is a person, family, or community whose life gets caught up in economic competition and who suffers when jobs are lost or industry moves away.
That doesn’t even begin to touch what many see as the worst effects of global capitalism, which is the destruction of local forms of culture and community. Because capitalism is ruthlessly efficient, it can punish small operators – the “Mom-n-Pop” stores that cannot hope to compete with big box chains like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Staples, or (increasingly) Internet companies like Amazon. If you’ve lived in a small town where local businesses are constantly feeling the squeeze – and I’ve lived in several – then you know the kind of anxiety that is felt by people who frankly like the fact that they live in a community with individual, local character and who don’t want to see that character turned into a monoculture by the corporate giants of the world who can deliver low prices but little else.
Let me stop there, because this isn’t a diatribe against free market society or capitalism in general. On the contrary, I wouldn’t want to live under any other economic system. Do I want a capitalism with sensible regulation as opposed to a purely laissez-faire system? Of course. But I’d suggest that anyone pining away for any of the major economic alternatives hasn’t thought hard enough about the shortcomings in those systems. And none of them, from feudalism forward, has shown the ability to provide the kind of benefits that capitalism has for vast numbers of people. Moving goods around efficiently, creating enormous wealth, alleviating poverty, fostering political stablity, etc. — these don’t add up to the greatest of all human goods, but they are goods of great consequence. And they are also goods necessary for the pursuit of the still higher goods of an intellectual, social, and cultural variety.
Now my dilemma: How does a Christian disciple live in the midst of such an economic system? It is a part of the capitalist creed that suffering is bad, poverty is bad, and the competitive accumulation of wealth is good. Contrast that with the Christian belief in the deep significance of the virtue of humility. Contrast it with the Christian belief that, to gain the world, one must give away everything that one has. Contrast it with the belief in a Savior who did regard equality with the Father as something to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and being obedient even unto death.
I wrestle with the contradictions of a Christian life in a capitalist culture everyday. I want bodily goods for myself, and I particularly want them for my wife and daughter. I want to feel safe. And the one thing I do not want to do is what I think many in the contemporary church do — namely, divide the body from the soul, ignoring the call of discipleship when it touches social life and focusing on the good of the soul apart from the rest of daily life. I find this position untenable. And so I want to strive to find how one can even be faithful in our culture, which is the same question Christians have always faced even while they’ve always faced them in diffierent contexts.
Your own thoughts and suggestions would be most welcome.