Lesson 7: The Totalization of the Economic System

The opulent wealth of DubaiLast week, I claimed that Christians should always be prophetically critiquing the economic systems in which they find themselves, primarily asking if these protect the weak. I also suggested the form of global capitalism presently being practiced in our society is found wanting in this regard. It is not that people have grown more greedy, but that they have removed protections that formerly helped check covetousness.

Biblical theology helps us understand what has happened and offers guidance for healing the situation. The scriptures continually emphasize that loving God involves getting your priorities straight. You hear that, for instance, when the Psalms counsel placing your trust in God above kings and their war chariots, when Jesus promises if you seek the Kingdom first everything else will follow, and when Paul pictures Christ’s salvation putting all authorities in their proper places under him.

When economic values increasingly govern the whole of life, our priorities are obviously out of line. When commercial development trumps all other considerations, any regulation from government, morality, custom, family, or religion is destroyed. When buying and selling is used to understand actions in areas of life where they don’t belong, the way we understand ourselves and our relationships with other people is radically changed. Citizens are treated like consumers who can be bought and sold. Social problems are thought to be solved with monetary incentives and deemed unimportant if people are not willing to spend money on them. Personal relationships are understood as business transactions that can be abandoned when they no longer bring us profit.

How far this kind of thinking has permeated our society is evident when people take for granted that the private sector does things more efficiently than the public and the government should be run by business people rather than politicians. Both claims ignore that we are talking about two areas of life with completely different functions. Working toward the common good demands the two co-operate, not suppress the other.

Both US political parties have participated in this dangerous exaltation of economics. Since the 1960s they have competed on their ability to stimulate business, promoting the idea that the health of the stock market is the main indicator of the good life. This political speak has led to incredibly unrealistic actions. Perhaps the most telling came during the 2008 meltdown when “Alan Greenspan, who as chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve had served as high priest of the market triumphalist faith, admitted to ‘a state of shocked disbelief’ that his confidence in the self-correcting power of free markets turned out to be mistaken.” (I am pretty sure I took this from Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy.) The self-destructive nature of our situation became evident when just about everyone disregarded his warning and resumed doing to this day what led to the crisis.

I think Jesus’ warning that we cannot serve God and mammon falls into this context. He was not badmouthing economic systems, but putting them into their proper places. For instance, there might not be too much harm in claiming the goal of corporations is making a profit. There is, however, great danger and even heresy if you apply this goal to other areas of life, especially if you imply wealth is a sign of God’s favor.

Notice I have not been talking about corruption that has been as omnipresent as greed. Nor am I necessarily condemning capitalism in favor of another economic system. I am, however, pointing to the failure of the self-defeating form of capitalism prevalent in our time and place.

Next week l want to look at other biblical values that offer some guidance for coming out of this situation.

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5 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Mark Summers says:

    It feels like the economic system keeps getting worse. But I think its all of the side issues, such as our crazy modern communications and the role of certain political movements like the revival of populism and Trumpism. Maybe Joel Osteen’s movement doesn’t help, either.

    We need to remember that economics of some kind has always been essential to life on this planet. I’m not sure exactly what it means, but the parable of the talents seems to say that failure to nurture our economic responsibilities is a sin. Life was more simple back in biblical times. Most people were farmers (or farm employees), merchants, soldiers or other govt. employees (such as tax collectors). “Our world” has always been more complicated than that. And its really complicated now. Its great to be half retired. But everybody has a role to play.

    My favorite story is about my assistant scoutmaster who was a lineman at the power company. As he got older his health could no longer deal with such a job. So Eric Summers found him a desk job. That’s how our economic system should work. Cradle to grave welfare should not replace personal responsibility. Well, it won’t any time soon.
    Mark

    • Father Jude Motaka, CSC says:

      “Cradle to grave welfare should not replace personal responsibility” And winning the Vagina Lottery does not bestow the all-seeing wisdom to dictate what should be the “correct” economic outcome, any more than being BORN on third base automatically entitles one to be named the team manager. God forbid, the dogs should be allowed to eat the crumbs that fall from The Master’s table, lest they get too fat and lazy and forget their assigned place as dogs.

  2. Paul Wildman says:

    Good one thx Fritz.

    I would nuance ‘asking if these protect the weak’ to something like ‘asking if these help the weak protect themselves’.

    From reactive to proactive from supplicant to agency.

    What do you think?
    ciao paul

  3. Myron Hoffmann says:

    It seems that our current propensity to evaluate higher eduction in terms of its potential monetary value strongly supports your argument. Popular magazines conduct annual surveys and publish university rankings and evaluations of course majors, ascribing potential earning power, and ranking the schools and courses accordingly. Current distain for the liberal arts is a natural concomitant, as the humanities provide no clear path to great prosperity. Never mind learning to think, evaluate, write, and make sound judgments and decisions. It’s the money that counts. What a pity.

  4. Don Motaka says:

    One thing I’ve been thinking about in regard to the issues you’ve raised here is that there seem to be two angles (in a metaphorical sense) from which to be looking at the same economic phenomena.
     
    Nothing profound:  the one angle is the personal – how do I use MY money, relate to it, spend it, make it.  Here, the New Testament theme is – don’t be watching what those other clowns are doing (“the wicked are always at ease, doing what they want. Their eyes swell out with fatness.” Psalm #whatever).  Do economically what you know to be right – love the neighbor as self.
     
    Where it gets dicey is the other angle: the whole community (or is this case, the whole nation).  Now what I do with my own money is just one more tiny data point.  I still have the Gospel imperative to “do the right thing with the bling” operating on me, but, in a republican democracy, there is also a “global” aspect (not in the sense of the whole world, but in the sense of all across the board in the society).  So now we’re back to politics – what is my Christian responsibility as I participate in the whole societal economy?

    I don’t see how there can be a change as big as fixing “self-defeating” capitalism without getting your hands dirty in politics
     

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