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Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity?

Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity

When Jesus called the first disciples, he totally disrupted their economic lives. Simon and Andrew, James and John were working for their family business as they were raised to do. Their fathers were fisherman, just like their fathers’ fathers, stretching back beyond memory. Fishing was a way to make money, but it was also much more than that. The family business provided a sense of place, of meaning. It was a social order that allowed each member of the family to know exactly where they fit.

Only when we understand this can we begin to grasp the radical nature of Jesus’ invitation to his first followers and friends: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. Jesus offered an entirely different economic and social order. His was an invitation without safety nets, justifications, or guarantees. The first disciples immediately abandoned their nets, their livelihood, the whole social order that gave them a place to stand. They left everything, even their own worldview, to follow Jesus.

Today, Jesus’ challenge is no less serious. He is inviting us into a life so radically different from our everyday assumptions that we have a hard time wrapping our heads around it. The path of discipleship to Jesus will not allow us to merely incorporate his teachings into our pre-existing social order. The good news of the reign of God – our mission, should we choose to accept it – yanks us out of our comfort zone no less than it did for the first followers of Jesus all those years ago by the Sea of Galilee.

Of course, most of us don’t fish for a living. And if we do, it’s probably not for the family business, passed down as a trade from generation to generation. We don’t live in the pre-modern economies of peasant farmers and blacksmiths, priests and imperial governors. Thank God.

But we do live within a vast, largely unquestioned economic order that defines our lives no less than the family trades and economic ties that were so critical for the early Christians. We live within a new world order, one so pervasive and powerful that most of the time we don’t even notice it. It’s just reality.

Today, we lead our lives embedded in the economic and social order of global capitalism. Just as the power of Rome and its imperial economy was a virtually unquestionable reality in the ancient world, the modern dominance of the neo-liberal global economy is reality for virtually every living person on earth today. Love it or hate it, it’s just how life is.

Or is it? What if there is a power greater than Wall Street, consumer capitalism, and the violent apparatus required to sustain it?

Christians can argue until the cows come home about how to define capitalism, and whether it is a boon or a menace. That’s a conversation worth having, but it doesn’t strike to the heart of the matter. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t focused on forming a debating society. He built a movement, a family.

He’s still inviting us into this new social order today. The family of God is in our midst, and it challenges all of our assumptions about what is valuable, who should be honored, and how we must live. Jesus continues to stand on the seashore, calling us to drop our nets and follow him.

What does this calling look like for us, in concrete terms? Are we being called out of jobs? Social ties? Our entire conception of who and what has value? What does it look like to repent (that is, to change our entire way of living in the world) in the context of a global capitalism that threatens to make our precious planet rapidly uninhabitable? What tangled nets are we being called to drop, and what is the way, the community, the family that will replace them?

The time has passed for a merely religious approach to these questions. It’s not enough to change in our hearts, when our lives remain so thoroughly entrenched in the assumptions and economy of global empire. What is needed now is a hard-minded call to re-examine everything, to change our whole lives in pursuit of the truly abundant existence that Jesus promises.

But first things first: Let’s leave our nets and follow him.

Related Posts:

The Gods of the Market

Why Jesus is Anti-Capitalist

  • broschultz

    Too many people leave their nets to follow a movement, a church, a charismatic leader. Not everyone is called by Jesus to follow Him. There were only twelve disciples. I am sure there were some, like the demoniac from whom “legion” was cast out that wanted to follow him but were told to stay where they were and tell people what Jesus had done for them. Whom Jesus calls, God empowers to leave all they have and come follow Him. But when we are fortunate to be called we must count up the cost so we are not surprised by the losses we sustain along the way. Capitalism isn’t the problem, greed is. That’s why there is so much graft and bribery in government and government programs have a reputation for inefficiency. Our sinful nature corrupts everything we touch whether it’s private enterprise or government programs.

  • Following Jesus is the first step. Too many “Christians” aren’t even doing that.

    • Amen to that. Part of my point here is that “following Jesus” may demand a whole lot more than we think it does.

  • Steven Davison

    I think capitalism is perfectly compatible with Christianity—depending, of course, on how you define “Christianity”. But if we focus more on following Jesus, then the answer is a clear no, I think. At least if you equate “following Jesus” with adhering to the teachings and practice of the Jesus of the gospels—the Synoptic gospels; I’m not so sure about John.

    In the one place in the Synoptics in which Jesus clearly declares himself the Christ and defines what he means by that (Luke 4:16-30), he defines the Christ as the one who brings good news to the poor and who declares a Jubilee—the cancellation of all debts, the release of all debt slaves, and the return of all families that have lost their family farms to bankruptcy to their inheritance (Isaiah 61:1 and Leviticus 25).

    Jesus, like his father, favors the poor. Capitalism favors the rich, or at least those with capital—by definition.

    Capitalism is at least as hegemonic in our time as the imperial-client temple-state and the empire behind it was in Jesus’ time. Jesus’ answer was to build an alternative economy within the church based on household churches and mutual aid. We can see its dynamics at work in Acts 2 and 4.

    Would a new covenant similar to the one we can see in Acts work for Quaker meetings today? Or for any church? I think the Church of the Savior in Washington DC is working along these lines, and so is First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey—both predominantly black churches ministering to the poor through mutual aid.

    But do we Friends know who among us might be suffering from a crushing burden of debt? And if we did, what would we do about it? Would “we sell everything and follow Jesus”?

    • I really like your last question. Great challenge!