The religion blog forum Patheos is hosting a Public Square conversation called “Has Capitalism Failed?” largely in response to Pope Francis’ scathing critique of capitalism in his Evangelii Gaudium. One blogger made the point that the answer to the question depends on what we call “capitalism.” There’s a difference between the free market system itself and what might be called the worship of the market. It’s possible to navigate the free market system without worshiping the market. The problem is that passive participants in the capitalist market do end up making it their god insofar as they allow the market to determine the value of the created objects in our world in place of God. So here are six examples of how market forces can corrupt the church’s agenda when we are not actively resisting their dominion.
1) Capitalism fails the church when discipleship becomes an industrial complex
Discipleship is supposed to be the bread and butter of Christian community. What it’s supposed to mean is each Christian’s journey of spiritual growth under the mentorship of more seasoned Christians. This is supposed to happen in local communities in ways that are developed organically in their unique contexts. But in recent years, a monster Christian publishing industry has emerged which desperately needs to sell its books and videos in order to grow, thus constituting what I would call a “discipleship industrial complex.” In order to keep growing, the discipleship industrial complex manipulates pastors and church leaders into thinking that their own intuitions and guidance from the Holy Spirit in their local contexts aren’t good enough. They need to use trusted resources like Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life if they want to get results. Pretty soon, these trusted resources are depended upon for everything from children’s Christmas pageants to stewardship campaigns. It’s kind of similar to farmers who buy the security of Monsanto’s patented, genetically modified seeds. The FDA has officially declared that there’s nothing wrong with genetically modified corn. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with genetically modified discipleship either. There’s just nothing personal about it.
2) Capitalism fails the church when consumerism becomes a moralistic obligation
It really hit me recently how the greatest competitor, at least among middle-class people, to the kind of kingdom living that church is supposed to instill is not greed or gluttony or laziness, but moralistic consumerism. The reason that so few Christians tithe is not because they’re spending their money on booze and bon-bons. It’s because they’ve been indoctrinated with the sense that “responsible” people save all that they can for retirement and their children’s college education. It feels like a reckless indulgence to throw a bunch of money at God when there are so many things that could happen to you that would leave your family destitute. The same principle applies to the Sunday travel soccer leagues. Middle-class churchgoers who only make church once a month because of travel soccer or Boy Scout campouts or other children’s obligations are not playing hookey as an act of liberating mischief; they’re doing what they feel obligated to do as “responsible” parents, and church simply doesn’t feel as obligatory as their children’s other activities. All of this is part of a middle-class existence that is defined by a guilt-ridden moralistic consumerism. We are guilt-tripped into “doing our homework” for all our purchasing decisions, such as buying bread that doesn’t have high fructose corn syrup or switching over to almond milk because of the latest research on the impact of dairy milk on children’s development. Nothing is wrong with any particular purchasing decision, but they all add up and create a monstrous system of worship that competes with our ability to rest in Christ.
3) Capitalism fails the church when churches with bling build their membership on transfer growth from churches without bling
I don’t deny the fact that there are churches which grow explosively because the Holy Spirit is creating genuine synergy in their midst. There are also churches that have managed to image success with their bling (such as state of the art audiovisual equipment), and in that way poach their members from churches that have dated furniture in their foyers. It’s similar to the way that Walmart put all the mom and pop general stores out of business in the eighties and nineties. This one hits close to home for me because we’ve lost several members to the local “community” church. One of our ex-members said that at her new megachurch, they don’t really have to volunteer for anything since the staff does everything for them. Yup.
4) Capitalism fails the church when people who don’t tithe say the church should take care of the poor
If you don’t think that your hard-earned tax dollars should be used to help poor people get access to health care, then don’t say that you think “the church should take care of it” unless money that you put in your church’s offering plate has contributed to adding a health clinic to your church basement with an MRI machine and an operating table, plus an MD and a couple of RN’s added to your permanent church staff. If you don’t think that unemployed people who are actively seeking work should receive any money from the federal government, then I presume your church has its own private Civilian Conservation Corps by which you hire unemployed people to work at a living wage to make improvements in your city. Instead of using “the church” as a talking point to argue that the government shouldn’t provide for the poor, why not first try to figure out how your church could take some of the load off of the government’s hands?
5) Capitalism fails the church when “helping” becomes a consumer product
One of the most prominent industries within the American church today is the “child sponsorship” industry where you pay a nominal amount of money per month to help make sure a brown skinny child from Africa, Asia, or Latin America has food and an education. A lot of good work is done through these child sponsorship organizations even if the motives of the sponsors are not always in the right place. I particularly feel good about the approach of World Vision that seeks to empower and take direction from the communities it serves instead of going in as the great white heroes. What was really sad to see was the way that ten thousand child sponsorships were dropped in two days to protest World Vision’s temporary and quickly reversed willingness to hire gay people on staff. As my friend Matthew Paul Turner wrote, “A child sponsorship is not a product that can be returned and exchanged for a different brand. There’s nothing ‘moral’ about using a kid as a bargaining chip to punish a Christian organization for making a decision that you don’t agree with.”
6) Capitalism fails the church when God is defined as a banker instead of a shepherd
The deepest encroachment of market-oriented thinking has occurred in American Christianity’s understanding of God’s nature. In popularized evangelicalism in particular, God has come to be defined first and foremost as a banker. The one underlying principle of the popular evangelical moral universe is that God cannot allow default on the debt of sin. So Jesus dies on the cross to pay back his banker Dad for the sins of the world. And those who don’t “believe” in Jesus pay God back by suffering forever in hell after they die. This “banker” account of God’s relationship to sin is very different than the “shepherd” account that we actually find in scripture. As a shepherd, God seeks to establish a kingdom of peace where swords can be bent into ploughshares among the community of repentant people who recognize their sins to be atoned by Christ’s sacrifice. Anyone who is excluded from this kingdom of peace would not be excluded on the basis of some kind of impersonal mathematical “debt,” but because God the shepherd is protecting his peaceful people from those who would sabotage their peace.