American Christians: Are We Being Formed by Christ or Capitalism?

I used to work with a pastor who liked to remind the staff, “Efficiency isn’t a kingdom value.”

Efficiency—a metric by which the majority of economic arrangements and transactions are evaluated—is a good example of an economic value that has crept into the ways we think of a whole host of activities from how we relate to each other, to how we value ourselves, and how we run ministries.

When I quit a successful corporate career to pursue a graduate degree in theology, I became aware of just how much my life and faith had been influenced by American ideals and culture—one area of which is the economy—rather than the reality of Christ. I had basically treated God like an add-on to help me navigate life goals like comfort and security, and I realized I didn’t feel complete or valuable if I wasn’t living the American Dream. When I quit a successful corporate career to pursue a graduate degree in theology, I became aware of just how much my life and faith had been influenced by American ideals and culture rather than the reality of Christ. Click To Tweet

Unfortunately, our culture is often simply the air we breathe. We don’t notice all the ways it affects us, nor do we consider all the underlying values and assumptions it carries. It often requires us to stop, extract ourselves from for a moment, and examine it to see how it actually fits with our faith.

Without pausing to consider the economics that affect our daily lives, Christians are blindly worshipping the markets and living according to its values without understanding how those values shape our lives or whether they match those of Christ. We must learn to live according to God’s kingdom in the midst of the American capitalist economy. It’s not a straightforward endeavor, but as we become aware of the formative power of this often unexamined aspect of life and simultaneously cling to God in his Word, we can trust that he will transform us, and help us lead others in their spiritual formation.

Captive to Capitalism

Theologian Harvey Cox deftly analyzed how the language of the markets as described in the news and throughout the business world, has taken on god-like characteristics including omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. He writes:

The Market is becoming more like the Yahweh of the Old Testament—not just one superior deity contending with others but the Supreme Deity, the only true God, whose reign must be universally accepted and who allows for no pretenders. The Market As God

In America, the truth and rationality of The Market is natural and self-evident. We talk about what The Market thinks, how it will react, how to act according to its logic, and we depend on it to provide for us and make decisions about our lives. And as James K.A. Smith has popularly articulated, we are formed by our worship, by these secular liturgies—even when we don’t know it.

To think about the economy in this way is to recognize that in addition to understanding how a given system “works” or “doesn’t work,” we must also examine it for what kinds of humans it teaches us to become.

Economics is more than statistics, the stock market, or The Wall Street Journal. It affects how we are motivated, our personal desires, and our relationships with our neighbors both locally and globally. It is forming us into a specific kind of human.

Let me give a concrete example. One of the ads that frequently appears in my social media feed is for a company that sells tools to help increase productivity. Okay, that’s not all bad—some of us can use some structure and guidance to help us get things done. Their mission statement, however, says they are “human performance junkies who translate the success, strategies, and habits of high performance into meaningful yet simple tools that will guide you to become your Best Self.”

Once you notice this type of messaging, you will see it everywhere. Delta Airlines encourages viewers of their commercial to “Keep Climbing,” the promotional material for a university invites potential students to “Be More,” and even the inspirational message on my tea bag says “You Are Unlimited.”

The idea that my “best self” is found in ever higher levels of work and productivity is rooted in the organization of our economy and is epitomized in “the hustle” mindset. Under contemporary capitalism (often referred to as neoliberalism), there is a focus on competitive enterprise and individual responsibility with life oriented around the market. In this scenario, humans become self-entrepreneurs, making their way according to their own means, ability, and resources in a competitive marketplace. The self becomes a constant project of creating and development.

An economy oriented this way (and the marketing it employs) tells us to just keep trying to make ourselves a little better. A little faster, a little richer. It encourages self-creation, self-justification, and transcendence in continual progress—that never delivers.

But here is what this kind of heightened market economy does deliver: As individuals investing in our own capital in a competitive marketplace, we ultimately become focused on our own saleability. We ourselves become commodities.

And in the process, other people become means to an end and commodities we use for our own purposes—to increase our productivity, bank account, network size, or even to meet our ministry goals.

A Different Identity

This is where the gospel of Jesus breaks in on the reign of the Market and sets us free. In Christ, we are justified and fully identified by the promise of God that has already been secured. We are called to bear witness to the reality that our truest freedom and fullness of life are not found in continual upward progress—but in taking the form of Christ. Paul writes in Philippians 2

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant. Philippians 2:5-7

Rather than being in competition, we get to be for God and for our neighbors.

But the logic of capitalism penetrates into all areas of life, so we must be able to identify and call out values and actions driven more by capitalism than by Christ.

This is difficult! As Christians we might not internally assent, let alone verbalize, such market values in a way that feels like it contradicts our faith. The beliefs and practices are often more subtle and latent.

Yet as church leaders and members, we must be committed to Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:2. I like how N.T. Wright translates it:

Don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you can work out what God’s will is, what is good, acceptable, and complete.

The logic of capitalism penetrates into all areas of life, so we must be able to identify and call out values and actions driven more by capitalism than by Christ. Click To Tweet

Cling to the Word

It would be common here to attempt to present three or five action steps to help us deal with this problem of formation. I want to resist that, however, and turn us toward God’s Word—perhaps the only thing able to help us break through our social imagination:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 

Consider Psalm 119 where we find the psalmist meditating on the law of the Lord as the path to life. The intensity with which he seeks God’s commandments suggests he is battling internal and external pressure from other commands.

In Bonhoeffer’s meditation on the Psalm, he interprets it christologically and suggests that the law of God is the way of Christ which leads to life, blessing and true humanity. Further, he suggests that the commandments are the way that humans hear their Creator’s voice through the word, as the means by which God seeks and directs his people along this way. Similarly, Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message uses the metaphor of road signs (commandments) directing us along the course God has marked out for us (the law).

In the Psalms, the idea of commands reflects a lively, continuous action of God to guide us along the way. So rather than an emphasis on humans discerning a static set of ethical imperatives or rules, the Psalms reveal a God who desires to lead his people in the way of Christ, dynamically, and in the fullness of our daily lives.

This suggests, then, that to discern the ways of God, to not be “squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age” of capitalism, and to participate in the leadership and formation of the church, we must maintain a prayerful focus on God’s Word where he promises to meet us and guide us.

Church, let us trust that as we seek God in his Word, he will draw us further into the riches of his life and thus into our truest form in Christ.

For further reading:

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, William Cavanaugh
The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (The Church and Postmodern Culture), Daniel J. Bell
Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies), James K.A. Smith