The kingdom of God isn’t what you think. It isn’t at all compatible with the lifestyle that most of us are living. It’s not just about thinking the right thoughts or feeling the right feelings; it involves a total life change – including our economics. The way of Jesus is dangerous, because the kingdom of God and the wealth-driven, capitalist system we live in simply aren’t compatible.
Capitalism, for all its tremendous achievements, is not based in Christian values. Love? Mercy? Release for the captive and oppressed? Sight for the blind? All of these go out the window in the capitalist system, because love and justice are not the primary values for capitalism – capital is. Capitalism operates to benefit those who have capital. Those who don’t have money are basically irrelevant.
That’s not to say that our capitalist society is completely heartless. In the midst of capitalism, there’s a huge amount of philanthropy going on. Rich people (and not-so-rich people) give their resources to benefit the poor all the time. They can even get a tax break for it! But even in these cases, the logic of capitalism remains. The power dynamic is the same: The rich give and are thanked; the poor receive and are grateful.
The kingdom of God could not be more different. In the Book of Acts, it says that the early Christians held all things in common. Folks who were rich sold all their belongings and gave the money to the community. Everyone received whatever they needed on a day-to-day basis. Whether you used to be rich or poor didn’t matter anymore. Everyone was equal in the radical life of God’s community.
To be honest, there’s a part of me that finds this horrifying. I’ve worked really hard and have forgone a lot of luxuries in order to get the measure of economic security that I have today. I’m supposed to just give that away and live an equally precarious existence with a bunch of folks who never saved for a rainy day? That’s not fair!
But it’s a central theme of the New Testament.
John the Baptist made it pretty clear: If you and I want to be the people of God together, there’s going to be some repentance required. Repentance doesn’t just mean feeling sorry for bad things we did or naughty things we said – it’s about righting the wrongs in our society. It’s about feeding the poor, housing the homeless, and looking out for those who’ve been left behind in the capitalist race to the top.
Jesus took this message even further. He told stories about everyone being paid equally, even when they didn’t earn it. He asked his followers to abandon their professions and follow him into an entirely different kind of economy. Whether or not every follower of Jesus is required to sell everything they own and give the money to the poor is a matter of debate, but it is clear that true repentance involves economic redistribution. There’s no doubt that Jesus is calling every one of us into a radical practice of financial reconciliation. In the kingdom of God, those who have more give freely to those who are in need.
This isn’t philanthropy. This isn’t about rich people being charitable to those in need. It’s about each of us treating our brothers and sisters as Jesus commands us to – not gloating, not feeling superior, but giving our all and saying, We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done!
The kingdom of God is a direct challenge to our society’s economic and social order. Jesus takes the side of those who are the least successful in the eyes of the market. The God of the Bible is one who releases captives and restores sight to the blind. The presence of the Holy Spirit disrupts the lives of those who have the most, and lifts up those who have nothing.
This is enormously challenging for me. I want to be part of that egalitarian community of believers, living out the kingdom of God in joy and amazement. Most days, though, I’m nowhere close. I still carry a lot of fear, and the assumptions of the capitalist system we live in. Considering how much of my lifestyle depends on this very system, it’s hard to accept that the kingdom of God and our economic order are mutually incompatible.
What about you? How does your walk with Jesus and the Christian community challenge the economic basis of your lifestyle? Are there ways that your relationship to money might need to change in order to be part of the egalitarian kingdom of God? What would it take for you to embrace the startlingly anti-capitalist way of Jesus?