What Would It Mean to Work for the Divine Commonwealth?
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Capitalism. Read other perspectives here.
While many people still retain faith in capitalism, Christians are called to a different allegiance. Whether you think it has failed depends greatly on how you measure its success. If the standard is wealth creation, there is no system on earth that is more effective.
However, current priorities and practices of maximizing profits have consistently failed both the vast majority of people and the planet. For its defenders, these are necessary sacrifices.
Among the varieties of capitalisms that have existed over the centuries, from an industrial Fordist model to our current "plantation capitalism" (as described by James Lawson), there exists a consistent core. There must always be winners and losers, and there is no alternative. When a factory is closed down in a town and relocated to a lower-cost community, this is simply the market seeking the efficiency of competitive advantage. When healthy food is not available in poor communities that cannot afford to eat well, that is because there is insufficient "demand" as calculated by the willingness and ability to pay. When planet-warming carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere and acidifies the oceans, these are irrelevant "externalities." These losses are proclaimed as worthwhile because of their salvific power in the pursuit of wealth.
This faith in the redemptive power of economic violence is fundamentally incompatible with the Christian good news. Any system that says the weak must be sacrificed for the sake of supposed progress and wealth creation is demonic. To make the gospel and the profit-motive consistent has been a great trick of demonic powers in which the anti-Christ becomes Christ. To twist Jesus' teachings, we find interpretations of parables once meant to subvert oppressive economic and social practices flipped into affirmations of savvy business planning.
In contrast, we have the teachings of Jesus, who describes the divine commonwealth as one where a shepherd looks for one lost sheep; where seed is joyfully and even recklessly scattered; where building new granaries for future profit leads to total loss; and where the unclean and wretched of the earth are blessed by God.
Capitalism has failed to offer an equitable, sustainable model of economics or "household management." More importantly, Christianity itself has failed to be faithful to Jesus' way to the extent that his self-declared followers make capitalism their true lord and savior. The Hebrews in the wilderness were not alone in worshipping a golden calf. We too have all-too-often worshiped the bull market of Wall Street.
What would a system look like that was more in keeping with the divine commonwealth that was and is Jesus' passion? Followers of Jesus' way have and will continue to disagree, whether they are of socialist, anarchist, communitarian, ecological, or other stripes. Yet at a minimum, it would mean that GDP becomes a less relevant measure for planetary wellbeing; that having enough, improving people's quality of life, and asking who gets to decide how resources are distributed and managed are all more important than perpetual growth. It means that capital is invested for the betterment of society rather than for a narrow profit motive, and that all have enough and none have so much that others go without. It respects our place on the planet and the finite limits of our sacred home that we have been entrusted to care for.
Part of the good news is that resurrection can come out of domination; the unexpected can show up in surprising places; and that there is an alternative—no matter how bleak things may seem, hope endures when we live it. When the first become last and the last become first, then whatever we happen to call our future economic system will more fully reflect the priorities of Jesus. Whether that happens in my lifetime or not is not important. The highest calling of Christians means following Jesus, especially when the values of dominant voices preach an anti-gospel. Capitalism may have failed our world, but living in his way of compassion can save it, for ourselves and for future generations.
Rev. Dr. Timothy Murphy is the Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles, CA. A native of Kentucky, he completed his Ph.D. at Claremont School of Theology, having focused on a radical process ecclesiology. His passions include transforming church into an alternative way of life, participating in small group ministries, and encouraging spiritual practices that inform social activism—he also likes reading and watching movies.