God and Mammon in the Big Easy

I leaned against the windowpane, the road rushing past below me. Never had I been within 1,000 miles of New Orleans. Yet here I was, riding in a shuttle to a conference in the French Quarter. It was a breezy March morning – the thick haze of summer heat still months away. As the shuttle hastened toward the hotel, I noticed a plethora of advertisements for everything from sports to gambling to, well, whatever. Plenty to buy, plenty to see I was told.

Upon arriving I left my bags at the hotel and began to walk around the city. The Big Easy is old; and French. These statements are truer as matters of custom and architecture than anything else. With its age and feel comes much beauty. Apartments and shops in the centuries-old French style line the streets. There is a symmetry and diversity in these structures, at once avoiding the conformity of corporate chains and still maintaining a pleasant unity. The shops include numerous places where music and art can be viewed and, if you have the cash, purchased. A relaxed feel also permeates the place; no one seems in too much of a hurry. People seem to know New Orleans is beautiful take the time to enjoy it.

The next morning I attended the conference’s first panel. The panel’s discussion concerned the future of the free market in the 21st Century. Most of the arguments were fairly standard defenses of capitalism-with plenty of shots taken at bail-outs and stimulus packages. One professor, however, argued differently. He called for a review of how those assessing economic systems evaluate their usefulness.

Humans first must be understood, for systems were made for man, not man for economic systems. He continued that men were made in the image of God. This truth showcased the individual and social nature of a humanity made in the image of the Trinity. Men were individuals, yes. However, their individuality was inseparable from their sociality – as members of families, communities, and nations. Further, men are sinful, prone in a definitive way to selfishness. Once these ideas were grasped, then an economic system could be evaluated for how it contributed to the advancement of man and his community as a whole-mind, body, and soul. His conclusion: if Capitalism does not truly further the common good, including the moral and spiritual, then we must do away with Capitalism.

This last claim caused a stir that refused to settle. Discussions throughout the day either supported or decried the statement. Regardless of how one came down on the issue, the panel remained a topic of passionate debate.

That evening I went with a few other students and professors to have dinner. After several courses of delicious Cajun food and a few hours of lively discussion, we made our way back toward the hotel. Yet in those few hours the city had changed. The art, the culture, the beauty-it had for the most part rescinded, the darkness covering it like a curtain. Unveiled was a much different place: bars with multitudes of staggering patrons; men shouting from balconies to scantily-clad women below. On one street alone, I counted at least three establishments owned by Larry Flynt. In the midst of this mess, one professor turned to me, saying “This is certainly a different view of human nature.”

It was then that I realized. I was not looking at two different cities, one of beauty and culture, the other of hedonistic decadence. While the two stood largely divided, one ruling the day and the other governing the night, both stemmed from a free market system that allows humans to sell and purchase mostly whatever they desire. In doing so very disparate desires found themselves fulfilled. The free market’s liberation of humanity from most moral or economic constraints led to great beauty and great filth. Sculptures of martyrs and the Cross as well as strip clubs.

This conclusion led me to a greater appreciation for the argument I had heard earlier in the day. We must know humans before we know economics. When we do, we realize economic systems can never be perfect. Their imperfection rests most definitively in the fact that they involve human beings. Capitalism is no different in this regard. It possesses an amazing capacity for creating wealth that transcends ethnic, social, or economic class. It further regulates the efficiency of an economy in the most efficient way that retains the freedom of buyer and seller. This freedom can often be used to support wonderful works of beauty and amazing acts of charity.

However, recent troubles and late night trips to the Big Easy show us that such a system can breed greed and decadence. Freedom can give way to license, ordered liberty to hedonism.

What, then, is the Christian to do with economic systems like the free market? Christians should seek the most God-honoring and just economic system, understanding that any system plays to certain strengths and weaknesses in human nature. At the same time, the Believer should pursue justice in whatever economy they find themselves. In ours, it means tempering our natural tendency to selfish greed with the charity and self-giving love modeled by Christ. In doing so, we will be heeding the advice I heard about the relationship between man and money. Yet even more, we will be heeding the demands that stream from the Gospel: a loved people seeking to mimic that love in the world.

About Adam Carrington
  • Alan Noble

    Adam,

    I’m sorry it took me so many days to read this. Fantastic post. Thank you so much for exploring the the human side to capitalism.

    What was the professor’s name who put forth the question about the ability of economic systems to lead to human flourishing?

    After reading some Marxist and post-modernist criticisms of “late-capitalism,” I’ve become increasingly convinced that capitalism has lead to some profoundly serious problems in our society and particularly in the Church. While I don’t agree with most of the assumptions or solutions of Marxism, I do think that it would benefit believers to honestly consider some of their criticisms of modern society. It’s far too easy to say, “Communism is bad, therefore Capitalism is good.” And I think you’ve given us one concrete way to question how Christians can live within a capitalist society without accepting those aspects of the system which dishonor God. Well done.


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