24 Feb 2012

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.

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3 Responses to Suffering & Discipleship
  1. Excellent! I have had much the same discussion with many of my friends over the last few years. Pesonally, my wife and I have decided that one thing it means is to shop locally and avoid the big box/chain stores & restaurants as much as possible. Given the state of retail today that alone is about as counter-cultural as you can get! We try to be more responsible with food purchases (wild caught vs farm faised fish for example). Lastly, we try to be educated and remember that the “lowest price” does not equal the “lowest cost” to society.

  2. I believe that John Wesley provides some excellent guidance here. We should earn all we can, by diligently developing the gifts that God has given us and by serving those for whom we work with good will as to the Lord and not man. (Ephesians 6:7) We should work in profession that helps and serves others for the common good. We should not take advantage of our employers or subordinates but endeavor to do what is best for them in all cases, even when it appears to injure us. We should recognize that, in this world, earnings often bear little relationship to the true value of what we do. So we should neither envy those who earn more nor be pride ridden because we earn more than others. We should save all we can, by following Wesley’s example and capping our lifestyle and spending at a comfortable level so we can save the remainder of our earnings. We should avoid debt like the plague, especially recurrent debt like carrying a credit card balance. We should be simple and frugal in our purchases, avoiding goods that are overpriced because of their status or faddish nature (e.g., many “green” goods). We should enjoy the blessings that the Lord has given us, but recognize that we are blessed to be a blessing. Finally, we should give all we can. The Biblical standard of the tithe should be a floor to our giving not a ceiling. Our gifts should be focused first on our church then to other organizations doing Kingdom work, rather than social work. We should give not only of funds; but also of our talents and service. We should be in ministry to God’s children in the church and the poor and needy outside it. In all this we should be guided by prayer and scripture (e.g., the book of Proverbs) rather than our “common sense” which is warped by our sinful nature. Our giving should be sufficiently generous that it stretches and grows our faith as we depend upon our Lord for provision. This guidance is not easy to live by; but John Wesley did it with the Lord’s help and so can we, with His help.

    • John — Thanks for those very helpful comments. Wesley’s own attitude toward stewardship was much more serious than most of ours today. His phrase “gain all you can, etc.”) get repeated from time to time, but the full import of his thinking on stewardship rarely gets taken very seriously. Your own reflections are doing just that. I appreciate the response.

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