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Smashing Economic Idols

2009 October 7
by Julie Clawson

So I’ve been having a few interesting conversations about my book Everyday Justice recently. I was being interviewed for a very conservative Christian talk radio show and when I mentioned that a simple way to define biblical justice was “the practical outworking of loving God and loving others” I was told that I need to be careful about encouraging people to love their neighbor because that could lead to socialism. In the soundbite world of talk radio, there wasn’t a chance to challenge that assertion, so I changed tactics and tried to talk about the need for Christians to embrace the spiritual discipline of simplicity and not be overcome by consumerism. Once again I was contradicted by the host who told me that I shouldn’t suggest that people stop or lower their consumption because it is our duty to support the economy by buying stuff. At that point I realized that we were on totally different planets, civilly made my way through the rest of the interview trying to speak a language he might understand, and choose not to then listen for the next hour as he proceeded to tear apart everything I said.

I’m fine with people disagreeing with me or not liking the book. I get that. But his mindset reminded me of the economic idolatry that has crept into our faith. More and more I find Christians who instead of letting their faith influence their economics, they interpret their faith through their preferred economic system. I’ve had to listen to sermons where the pastor went off on how capitalism was the only biblical economic system. I’ve read the books where the guys say stuff like “because the Bible doesn’t talk much about economics we need to bring economics to the Bible.” I’ve encountered those who play the “socialism” card at the first sign of any critique of capitalism. And I’ve heard those claiming that economics are absolute, we can’t change the market so we shouldn’t bother trying even for good biblical reasons.

I get that’s it’s complicated. I get that we like to have our pet philosophies. I get that socialism can be evil too. But none of that excuses making economics into an idol. When our economic theory leads us to make excuses for the oppression of workers, we have a problem. When modern day slavery is justified as being “just the way the market works,” we have a problem. When making a profit becomes more important that the dignity of human beings, we have a problem. When the words of Jesus Christ are dismissed because they might support an alternate economic system, we have a problem. It is as simple as that. When our allegiance to an economic system has us making excuses for injustices then that economic system has become an idol. And idols need to be torn down.

I’m a capitalist. I’m not anti-globalisation. I don’t have any problem with people making money or looking out for their own interests. I don’t think communism or forced socialism are better systems. But there comes a point where we have to say to a system that oppresses – this is wrong and must be changed. This is difficult if not impossible if we have allowed economic theory to become an idol and usurp our faith. We need to be able to “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” (Col 2:8) Loving God and loving others has to come before Wall Street or Adam Smith – there’s no way around it.

So as inspiration to smash the idols that need smashing, I want to include the following verse. Brian Walsh, co-author of Colossians Remixed, recently posted a targum of Romans 1:16-32 over at the Empire Remixed blog, A targum is a means of interpreting scripture by rewriting it for a particular cultural setting. Traditionally a Hebrew practice, some use the practice today to apply the Bible to contemporary life. This Romans 1 targum addresses this affinity to make idols of economic systems. I highly recommend reading the entire piece, but I wanted to highlight this short section –

So here’s the sad truth, my friends:
this empire of greed,
this narrative of economic growth,
this whole house of cards is based on lies and deception.
This whole culture of consumption,
this whole empire of money,
is based on self-willed ignorance.

Creation proclaims a better way
because creation bears witness to a God of grace.
But we have suppressed this truth,
engaged in denial and cover-up.

Refusing to live a life of gratitude,
refusing to live a life of thanks to the God
who called forth such a rich creation,
refusing to honour this Creator God,
and embracing a culture of entitlement and ingratitude,
we abandoned the God of light and embraced the dark.

And in all of our complex theories
in all of our sophisticated and incomprehensible economic talk,
we became futile in our thinking
we ended up with lots of talk but no sense,
theories that are empty,
vanity of vanities.

And we thought that we were so wise,
we thought that we had it all figured out,
but the joke has been on us,
and it is now clear that we have been fools.

You see, that’s what happens when you get in bed with idols.
That’s what happens when you don’t image God in faithful justice,
but embrace graven images,
cheap imitations,
that look so good,
look so powerful,
but will always fail you,
will always come up short
because they are impotent.

Empty idols, empty minds.
Dumb idols, lives of foolishness.
Betrayal and disappointment.
Fear and terror.

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26 Responses leave one →
  1. bill holston permalink
    October 7, 2009

    I haven’t checked your site in a while, glad I did. I think the concept of Simplicity is a wonderful one. I just did a commentary for our local public radio station, inspired by a sermon on Simplicity. I think you’d enjoy it.
    http://tinyurl.com/y958s5o

    Yeah, simplicity is socialism. Duty to consume? I wonder if these guys actually read the words of Yeshua?

    keep up the good word and work.

    bill

  2. October 7, 2009

    Well, there’s actually a group out there who is trying to “conservatise” the bible now, going through and removing passages that may be deemed “too liberal” so this really does now surprise me. http://conservapedia.com/Conservative_Bible_Project

    But ever since its inception people have been picking and chosing which aspects of the book they want to apply and attempting to rationalize away the rest. I suppose this is just a continuation of that great tradition.

  3. October 7, 2009

    I really appreciated this entry. I have been feeling this way lately myself. I made a comment the other day to someone about how awful torture is in light of Christ. They responded that it is not our place (our being Christians) to question the government.

    While not the same issue the central tenet is similar – why do we believe our life circumstances and culture equal following Christ? Why can’t we question and wonder? Shouldn’t we be living differently…

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  4. October 7, 2009

    um yeah, so Capitalism has this component in its system called Ethics. And in that, it is supposed to consider those less fortunate as it makes its profit. It’s a thing.

    But it’s not so much a thing anymore.

    And we’re willing to react against anything that threatens our self-interest.

    Which is what sin is based in. Self-interest/ the promotion of self. And Jesus calls us to turn outward from the self to care for others. A direct assault on sin and the damage sin has done. Which Capitalism, if it were true capitalism, would better do—return to its ethics of caring for others in its abundance. Well, they use different words, but the concept is there. And if conservative talk radio hosts don’t get that, well, they might need to brush up on their research skills. From capitalism to discipleship.

    Ever heard of the “triple bottom line?” It’s super cool. The most biblical, Jesus-honoring fleshing out of capitalism I know.

  5. Don permalink
    October 7, 2009

    A friend of mine, who is an American Baptist Convention pastor, sent me this quote today. It’s as relevant today as it was when written 101 years ago. (I responded to my friend with a link to your post here, Julie. You’re both speaking the same language.)

    “In the same way we shall have to see through the fictions of capitalism. We are assured that the poor are poor through their own fault; that rent and profits are the just dues of foresight and ability; that the immigrants are the cause of corruption in our daily politics; that we cannot compete with foreign countries unless our working class will descend to the wages abroad. These are all very plausible assertions but they are lies dressed up in truth. There is a great deal of conscious lying. Industrialism as a whole sends out deceptive prospectuses just like the single corporations within it. But in the main these misleading theories are the complacent self-deception of those who profit by present conditions and are loath to believe that their life is working harm.”

    – Christianity and the Social Crisis-1908

  6. October 7, 2009

    Your radio talk reminds of Moore being berrated by Hannity last night on Fox. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5YOIUpLpLI

    haha.

  7. October 7, 2009

    Can I just say that I think it was incredibly brave to go on the conservative talk radio show in the first place? Thanks for that.

  8. October 7, 2009

    Interesting post … good food for thought. Thanks!

  9. October 7, 2009

    Sometimes I read or hear of experiences like yours, and it makes me sad, even hopeless. But, I have to remind myself that perverse worldviews have been created and recycled as long as man has existed and, despite ourselves something larger is at work amongst us. We are not prisoner to our own perversions if we refuse to give in. If we are willing to listen to the prophets among us (that includes you) then we will be unable to forget who we are striving to become.

    shalom

  10. John Munzer permalink
    October 7, 2009

    I guess you’re a better person than I am, Julie. I wouldn’t have been able to resist asking him whether he felt that Christians ought to do as the Bible says, then following up by pointing out the passage in Acts that talks about the first Christians creating a commune (sharing all things in common). After all, trying to model yourself after the very first church is as conservative as you can get, right? Back to the fundamentals, back to doing things like Christ and the apostles taught us to…
    Then, to rub it in more, I might have pointed out that Christ was homeless and poor throughout His entire ministry, and the one time He ever got physically violent was when He saw people using the Temple to sell their free-market goods and services. Apparently, He’s not a fan of people using religion to push their economic agenda. Even if they’re capitalists.
    Probably best that you didn’t go there. Still, it might have been entertaining to watch him start frothing at the mouth…

  11. shanna caughey permalink
    October 7, 2009

    well said!

  12. October 7, 2009

    Julie,

    Thanks so much for your witness, and your willingness to try to connect in a way the host might “get.” I’m sure a lot of listeners out there heard the truth of your words and picked up your Christ-like approach.

    AND, thanks for posting Brian’s targum. Folks really, really, should read Colossians Remixed, one of the most amazing Bible studies I’ve ever encountered. He and his wife and co-author Sylvia Keesmaat are slowly working on a similar sort of approach to Romans…thanks for passing that on.

  13. October 8, 2009

    While I sympathize with your general intentions in this post, I’m afraid your statements “I’m a capitalist. I’m not anti-globalisation. [sic]” create an irreconcilable textual contradiction to the contents of the targum of Romans. The first rule of capitalism is that it must expand or die, and it is precisely this imperialistic “narrative of growth” that the latter critiques. So the host of the radio show on which you were interviewed expresses concern with your ideas believed to express “that people [should] stop or lower their consumption.” This is understandable, since it is precisely within the transfer of commodities that capital, resources, and sign-values are redistributed within capitalist society, a fact obscured by the process of commodity fetishism and its tendency to obscure the nature of relations between producers and consumers. If your mircrocosmic actions of eschewing consumerism are applied on the macrocosmic scale, either by way of the categorical imperative, or by the apt maxim “the personal is political”, then you have already implicitly posited another means of wealth redistibution for which you must account. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    I understand you are a feminist theologian, which is a very good thing to be. On that note, I am reminded Simone de Beauvoir’s brilliant arguments in The Second Sex, in which she ultimately traces the dialectical oppression of woman as the Other to the “imperialism of human consciousness”, itself rooted in the human quest for transcendence. Naturally, this tendency toward patriarchal oppression of women in the name of imperial transcendence comes at a stiff price (pun intended), insofar as it constitutes an enforced misrelation of the sexes that obscures their true nature. Within this framework, it is man’s dialectical act of propping himself up as the Subject and woman as the Other within personal and social relations that constitutes this misrelation. Now, if we trace Beauvoir’s reasoning back to Soren Kierkegaard’s “The Sickness unto Death” by way of Sartre, we realize that this oppression of the Other is a state of despair (and hence sin) insofar as “despair is the misrelation in the relation of a synthesis that relates itself to itself.” Applying Kierkegaard to give a whole new dimension to Beauvoir’s line of reasoning, it is shown that man’s quest for empire-building as the Subject of history ultimately leads to false transcendence and despair, insofar as he has tried to upstage God as the true Subject of history, the One who can grant ultimate transcendence. The Christian, then, should challenge any imperialistic framework by which people are denigrated as the Other as a form of idolatry, because Jesus recognizes no one as the Other, but as one of God’s children. Whence then, this failure to criticize the institution of globalized capitalism when its naked apparatus of corporate degradation and exploitation of Southern peoples as the Other in the name of imperial transcendence stands right before your face? Shall we neglect our brothers and sisters in the global South, the current epicenters of Christianity, in the name of Northern propriety? I urge you, therefore, to put long hard thought into the macrocosmic implications of your political and theological ideas.

  14. October 8, 2009

    Well Julie … I’m much harsher than you when it comes to capitalism and Christians. I have no further to look than Jesus’ words when he said we cannot serve two masters, for we will hate one and love the other. Capitalism/mammon creates as much a master for Christians as does any other religious system. People have enslaved themselves to it. They may go to church on Sundays, they may pray, they may sing … but in being devoted to capitalism they are serving the wrong god. It’s that simple.

  15. bill holston permalink
    October 8, 2009

    I don’t really think the Bible condemns capitalism any more that it does socialism. I don’t think the Bible is intended to be an economics textbook. It does state the way a person of faith should live in whatever economic system that person lives in. The principles about debt, about jubilee, about concern for the immigrant, poor, widow and orphan should inform our economic choices. There are lots of entrepreneurs in scripture, men/women who manufactured goods and sold those goods. They were encouraged to be good stewards of the proceeds, bearing in mind, as sonja says, that we shouldn’t be ruled by economics. We shouldn’t serve riches or wealth.

  16. October 8, 2009

    It’s conversations like this that make me thankful that the end of Christendom is upon us — too bad the church for the most part hasn’t figured that out. Jesus never intended the church to be chaplain to the culture, supporting its structures and upholding its ideologies with Bible verses and theological arguments. Jesus’ declaration of the Kingdom is meant to be our defining narrative, and any other interest or affection must be judged in light of the Kingdom’s priorities. It just doesn’t work the other way around.

  17. James Camp permalink
    October 8, 2009

    The comparative religion class at my (mainline protestant) seminary has been studying Islam these past two weeks, and I have to say I am truly impressed by the beautiful way that this religion has placed its core emphasis on *doing what God wants* rather than on fulfilling personal needs (to “be saved,” for example).

    The Muslim has, at heart, two obligations: to place God at the center of his-or-her life, and to submit their own will to the will of God for social justice within a universal “brotherhood” (and sisterhood?) that transcends all artificial, human-defined boundaries. The true Muslim strives for a single, global society in which the world God has created for us is honored and treated with the care appropriate to a gift from God, in which the basic needs of all people for food and shelter and health and well-being are provided for, and in which not race nor ethnicity nor age nor socioeconomic class nor even nationality divides one believer from another or makes one person feel “entitled” to a better life than another.

    Kind of reminds me of some words from my own tradition: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength…[and] love your neighbor as yourself” and “in Christ there is not Greek or Jew, there is not slave or free” and “what does the Lord ask of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” are three (of many) that spring to mind.

    I am humbled by the way that this thread of love-respect-and-submission to God *and* love-respect-and-care for neighbor has retained central prominence throughout Islamic history in a way that it just has not in the history of Christianity and Christendom. I’m not saying that no Muslim ruler or merchant has ever been selfish, or that 100% of Muslims subscribe to my formulation of the Islamic ideal, but I *am* saying that their religious community has failed to succumb to the economic and political temptations of wealth and power that Constantinian, Roman, and yes even Protestant Christian leaders have at times pursued with rabid fervor.

    According to our textbook, the Islamic revival going on in a large part of the world right now is about realizing that Western-style domination-based economic systems (both capitalist *and* socialist) have failed to bring about their promises of prosperity for all (if, indeed, they have brought prosperity for *any* in the Muslim world)…and returning to a uniquely Islamic economic system. Imagine that: a *religiously* defined economic system! Where care for God and neighbor takes precedence over profit margins and tax exemptions and personal preferences about private versus public health care.

    I wonder, if we set about defining a “uniquely Christian economic system” that upheld all of the teachings of Christ and the Jewish prophets and took seriously our stewardship of God’s creation…what would *that* look like? WWJD?

  18. Mick permalink
    October 8, 2009

    Julie well stated , but wish you expanded . The Book of Acts looks like the Early Christians embraced a socialist state , even communistic in many ways . But the concept and understanding of those early Christians would rebuke the idols of bigger government that goes along with your view of what we have embraced in our culture to replace God and His desire for us . The receiver and giver have spiritual partnership with the Kingdom of God that secular government will never able to replace , at least with Rachel Meadows, Michael Moore leading the way . Capitalism, Socialism, Communism are just forms of governmental processes , all have faults , all have good points . All become distorted and become idols.

    Thoughtfully essay . Thank you

  19. Joel B permalink
    October 8, 2009

    I, too, appreciate some Islamic financial & economic principles. I find them to be similar, in spirit, to principles outlined in the Torah. If our country abided by these principles, we certainly would not have had our recent economic crisis. Unfortunately, it is probable that we also wouldn’t have had a good chunk of the economic growth of the past hundred years.

    I am not a free market fanboy & I am saddened by the radio hosts comments. But it is clear that capitalism is exceptionally good at one thing: generating (most of the time) wealth. In my mind, capitalism is a tool, not an ideology or religion. Wealth can lead to greed or wealth can enable us to better love our neighbor. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in capitalism to determine how wealth is actually used.

    But let’s be pragmatic. Thanks to capitalism (which is not perfect), drug companies are able to sell drugs at a high price here to recoup their huge research costs but at dirt cheap prices in the third world. We are able to donate tens of billions of dollars to other countries (yes we could be doing more) because we have those billions in the first place. We can try to rid the entire continent of Africa of malaria. We can bring our best practices to the developing world and raise them up. With another economic system, we have to be honest about the fact that this very well might not be the case.

    So, I don’t know what economic system Jesus would create, but I personally believe I should be the best capitalist that I can for His sake. Out of love for God and my neighbor.

  20. Mick permalink
    October 9, 2009

    Joel that makes perfect sense . Our economy now is in the tank . To make it better we are now receiving more money in our paychecks because of the Administration’s idea that a larger rebate like Bush did would work better if it was given in smaller chunks . But again the help is for people to BUY things . The cash for clunkers is for people to BUY things ,

    I am not sure which talk radio show host she was talking to , would have liked to hear the audio.
    There has been no greater systems of misery and death to such large numbers of people then under the governments of communism and socialism the past 150 years . Capitalism as Julia says has its faults , people abort babies in this culture to make money . But still better then say in countries where governments tell you to .

  21. October 9, 2009

    okay there are some great questions and thoughts here, and I want to respond when I get a few free minutes. I’m at Christianity 21 right now and we are crazy scheduled, so it might be a day or two… but thanks for the great discussion!!!!

  22. James Camp permalink
    October 9, 2009

    No, it absolutely does *not* make sense to prop up a failed economy because it is “better than” another failed economy. The remedy to the failures and abuses of capitalism *cannot* be knee-jerk stimulation of more capitalism!

    I know people from socialist and communist countries and they all agree that, however clunky the centrally-directed economies there may have been, there was far *more* “misery and death” once the Soviet-bloc countries tried to implement western-style capitalism: the abrupt disappearance of the social safety nets the poor and out-of-work had come to depend on, the sudden absence of free health care and subsidized housing for example, cause much pain and suffering and in many cases much death.

    Let’s get one thing straight: Capitalism doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t care about me. It only recognizes us as “producers” and “consumers”–who are only important as cogs in a machine of “economic growth” that *requires* a pattern of increasing consumption of everything to keep that growth-engine going. It targets our children and our youth with messages that promote unhealthy, violent, sexualized lifestyles *so that they can sell more products* because they know we adults have *some* restraint, or perhaps because we adults have become jaded from decades of advertising, or perhaps because we are just tapped out and too busy “making money” doing our “work” to stop and pay attention to their advertisements. Am I getting cynical? Sorry. :-/

    What I advocate instead is something new that is, at heart, something very old: a re-inventing of the old tribal/community economy in which each person used their God-given talents to do *real* work that enriched the community, and in return could expect the community to at least meet their basic needs, and often to take care of them in much deeper ways as well. “Real work” includes a lot of different things: raising food from the earth, fashioning goods for everyday life, trading with neighboring communities, and providing the life- and community- supporting services of health care, soul/spirit care, care and education of children, arbitration of disputes, and even the story-keeping and conscience-speaking services we might call “community care”. But note what it does *not* include: selling insurance (your investment of your time and work in the community *is* your insurance), running big-box retail stores (which basically exist to turn everything into a commodity), marketing and advertising (ditto), finding legal loopholes and/or selectively enforcing laws for personal or professional gain, raping the earth and its resources.

    This is *not* communism or even socialism. It does not rely on a central Big Brother figure to redistribute wealth. In fact, it does not “redistribute” wealth at all. It leaves wealth where it belongs: among those who did the hard work of cultivating it in the first place. This is also not capitalism. It does not equate the ability to own and manipulate capital with “success” in the economy, and certainly not with the ability to provide a decent life for oneself and one’s family.

    So call it post-capitalism, post-socialism, post-western-civilization even. Or call it a new tribalism. I like to call it “communalism.” Whatever you call it, might it not be worth a try?

  23. October 10, 2009

    Great comments here–and a perplexing situation for you, Julie. Why do people invite you in to talk about your book when they don’t agree with anything you have to say. Christian hospitality (if not Southern etiquette, which I grew up with) requires that you allow people to be who they are, even if you are not in agreement with that. Oy.

  24. Mick permalink
    October 10, 2009

    Greg I agree with you but wish that part of the story was minimized in regards to the conservative aspect . Being an Evangelical I do not see too many conversations once Evangelcal or Catholic is used on our modern media . After that a host of stereotypes come into play .

    The meat of the essay was the idolizing of capitalism . We can do that with communsiom if that as our role of government here , I think James misses the point , idols are things we put before God . Capitalism is not the evil , or communism its how our hearts “Love” of Money or the things government can provide for us , anything we put before God . , It was not money that was evil . it was the Love of money.

    I just signed up for Compassion , with money I help that child and family . Now I think that is what Julie is speaking to , live simply , so we can help others . Not to work less hard , but to make sure our priorities do not get out of wak .
    I think that was what the conservative talk show host was wrapped up about , she stereotyped Julie into a person who she thought dis regarded the fact of working hard and being able to reap what you sowed economically . Julie is going deeper In my opinion , to work hard , reap what you sow , but make sure you are working on the spirtual things also , reaping what is sowed there also . The desire to help those who need help. Thats the greatest gift God can put into our hearts . Some like me can use some more help getting that desire enlarged , but at least knowing it gets me aimed that way .

  25. John Munzer permalink
    October 11, 2009

    Mick – The nice thing about Christianity is that it takes into account one of the most basic rules of human psychology: behavior shapes emotion. Keep doing the right thing, and your desire to do the right thing will increase. Take it from me, I’m a Behavior Specialist. :)

    James – I love the idea, but how to do it in the society we have? You’d have to have groups of people who knew each other and had some measure of trust in each other, as well as a sense of obligation to each other. They’d also have to have the skills and the means to create actual commodities like food. I don’t see that kind of community ever happening in, for example, Manhattan.
    I COULD see each local church becoming the hub of that kind of community, IF all of us Christians were willing to seriously ramp up our commitment to our churches (instead of going to the one that suits us best at the moment, like a restaurant). But, seems to me it would have to happen on that microcosmic level – the collapse of Communism tells me it falls apart when people try to do it on a national level. It’s only really a community when all the members are on a first-name basis.

  26. October 15, 2009

    It’s long been so. Jesus said you cannot worship God and Mammon, but people still like to pretend that they can. Well, the communists didn’t: they believed that man was and ought to be subject to economic forces, and therefore proclaimed that God did not exist. But the ones who want to have their cake and eat it are the bigger problem.

    Capitalism and communism are two denominations of the same religion. Both believe in the subjection of man to the economic powers. For one the name of the deity is “the dialectical forces of history” and for the other it is “the free rein of the market mechanism”, but both are equally idolatrous. Like the Sabbath, economics was made for man, not man for economics.

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