Are We Captive to Capitalism?

Guest Post by Emily Hill

Two years ago I quit a successful corporate career to go back to graduate school and study theology and social justice. The sudden change in my life circumstances—including income level and perceived societal standing—combined with my studies has led me to a painful conclusion: my life and faith were much more influenced by American ideals and culture, than they were by the life of Christ and witness of the church in history.

And I’m not the only one.

In Democracy Matters, philosopher Cornel West wrote, “Power, might, size, status and material possessions — all paraphernalia of the nihilism of the American empire—[have] become major themes of American Christianity.” Similarly, theologian and academic Soong Chan-Rah cites consumerism as one of the areas of captivity for the Western Church, a church that in many ways is indistinguishable from the values and norms of society at-large.

But God calls believers away from allegiance to worldly empires and to allegiance to Christ alone.

Unfortunately, our culture is often simply the air we breathe. We do not notice all the ways it affects us, nor do we consider all the underlying values and assumptions it carries. We need to stop, extract ourselves from our culture for a moment and examine it to see how it actually fits with our faith.

Among many important cultural and systemic issues to examine one important, yet often overlooked system that must be examined is our economic system—capitalism. In modern American culture capitalism is either praised or demonized, yet few of us really understand the system itself, its tendencies, and its underlying values.

It is the engine beneath much of the economic prosperity the nation enjoys and it has come to be heralded by many as the only way to act. Capitalism—driven largely by the idea of free-markets, though there are some other key aspects that differentiate the system from others—has triumphed over socialism around the world, and many view it as a moral victory.

In an article in The Atlantic, theologian Harvey Cox deftly analyzed how the language of the markets as described in the news and throughout the business world, has taken on god-like characteristics including omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence. He notes that Americans do not even realize it has taken this place in their lives and therein lies the danger—they do not know they have chosen a different god than the one they may profess with their mouths.

Though many argue it can be a force for good, pulling the poor out of poverty and generating positive social innovation, it also has a history of slavery, exploitation, and coercion.

Neither blind, uninformed support of the system or blanket accusations are helpful. Rather if we’re concerned for living justly as Christians, we must examine the economy that supports our daily lives. No doubt theologians would make poor economists and vice versa. Yet, if we were to submit economics to theology first, how would that change the way we live? If our allegiance is to Christ it must be considered.

Without critical reflection and theological engagement our participation in the economy will be driven by culture rather than Christ. For example, in America, this culture is a culture of individuality that pursues “free” choice at all costs. Choice and this perceived freedom become our gods, as does upward mobility. We have become slaves to this empty desire that never satisfies and detaches us from others with many consequences.

Economics is more than statistics, the stock market, or The Wall Street Journal. It affects how we are motivated, our personal desires, how we value others, and relationships with our neighbors both locally and globally.

Without pausing to consider the economics that affect our daily lives, Christians are blindly worshipping the markets and living according to its values without understanding how those values match those of Christ. Not only could we be living according to values that are different than God’s values, they could be dead set against them.

Christians must learn to live according to God’s kingdom—including God’s economy—in the midst of the American capitalist economy.

We need a theology that shakes us from American nationalistic tendencies and provides guidance for how to operate within the economy, and ultimately, we need communities that embody that theology.

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Categories: Church & Theology,Justice & Culture

Theology and Culture