Culture / Witness

Examining How the Economy Disciples Us (Captive to Capitalism series, Part 1)

Missio Alliance is revisiting a piece from Emily Hill initially published in 2018 to provide the opening framework for a larger series on 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, including how we value ourselves and how we run ministries.

We don’t often notice the ways culture affects us, nor do we consider all the underlying values and assumptions it carries. It’s simply the air we breathe. 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 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.

I 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. Click To Tweet

Without considering how economics affects our daily lives, Christians are liable to fall into blind worship of the markets without understanding how those values are shaping them. 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 the economy, we have the opportunity to let the Spirit do a new thing in our lives and help us lead others in their formation amidst continuing uncertainty and instability.

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.[1]

We talk about what “The Market” thinks, how it will react, and how to act according to its logic. We depend on it to provide for us, while making decisions about our lives. The Market is not simply the stock market but a description of how all of life is organized by capitalistic, market-based rules and principles.

Christians are liable to fall into blind worship of the markets without understanding how those values are shaping them. We must learn to live according to God’s kingdom in the midst of the American capitalist economy. Click To Tweet

As Christians, there are important things to examine about how the system works and doesn’t work and who it works for. We need to talk about debt, inequality, wealth, and how the system is inextricably related to racism in our country and exploitation around the world. For example, as moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has written, “Riches are, from a biblical point of view, an affliction, an almost insuperable obstacle to entering the kingdom of heaven. Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them, something that many preachers and theologians have failed to recognize.”[2]

In addition to those considerations, however, as James K.A. Smith has popularly articulated, we are formed by our worship even when we don’t know it.[3] Therefore, as we effectively worship The Market, it is teaching us to be certain kinds of human beings. It shapes how our lives are organized—both our work and family lives—and thus affects how we are motivated, our personal desires, and our relationships with our neighbors both locally and globally.

The Market is not simply the stock market but a description of how all of life is organized by capitalistic, market-based rules and principles. Click To Tweet

Let me give a concrete example. An ad that frequently appeared in my social media feed was for a company that sells tools to help increase productivity. That’s not all bad—some of us can use some structure and guidance to help us get things done. But their mission statement once described themselves as “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.”

The idea that my “best self” is found in ever higher levels of achievement and productivity is rooted in the organization of our economy. Under contemporary capitalism (often referred to as neoliberalism), there is a focus on competition and individual responsibility. Humans must invest in themselves, making their way according to their own means, ability, and resources in a competitive marketplace. The self becomes a constant project of creating and developing.

Once you notice this type of messaging, you will see it everywhere. The promotional material for a Christian school invites students and parents to “Choose More,” and the inspirational message on my tea bag says, “You Are Unlimited.”

An economy oriented toward productivity (and the marketing it employs) tells us to just keep trying to make ourselves a little better. A little faster, a little richer. It promises the freedom to create our own identities. But the tools, images, and ideas it offers constantly change so we must become the next thing. Whatever security it promises, it never delivers.

An economy oriented toward productivity tells us to just keep trying to make ourselves a little better. But the tools, images, and ideas it offers constantly change. Whatever security it promises, it never delivers. Click To Tweet

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

As anxiety has grown amidst continuing church decline, the church’s worship and communication has been shaped by practices from capitalism to secure itself and compete in the “marketplace” of churches.[4] While there are things we can learn from business, these practices are not neutral and affect how we understand what the church is and how we relate to each other.

For example, many church growth strategies and related marketing techniques focus on generating an identity for a church to help it compete by providing a community that shapes our “best self” according to their preferences in a consumer economy.

A Different Identity

But the gospel of Jesus breaks in on the reign of The Market and sets us free.

The gospel of Jesus breaks in on the reign of The Market and sets us free. Click To Tweet

In Christ, we are justified and fully identified by the promise of God that has already been secured. We do not have to compete and secure ourselves. Instead, we find ourselves and the church secured in Christ who creates and sustains everything by his Word. We are called to bear witness to the reality that our truest freedom and fullness of life are not found in continual upward progress and productivity—but in taking the form of Christ who gave himself up for us, becoming a servant (Phil 2:5-7).

This identity isn’t based on our own desires and preferences or by management techniques or optimization. Rather, as we become united with Christ who is for us and provides everything we need, we are freed to be for God and for others. Our desires are remade, and we are reborn as we interact with others in the body Christ and encounter the Spirit through the unique gifts of those who are different than us.

We are called to bear witness to the reality that our truest freedom and fullness of life are not found in continual upward progress and productivity—but in taking the form of Christ who gave himself up for us, becoming a servant. Click To Tweet

Remembering and Ready for Something New

Amidst the continued instability caused by COVID-19 and political division, it’s tempting to strive even more to secure ourselves—as individuals and the church—through competition and productivity. When things are uncertain, we cling to control.

In Scripture, whenever the people of God entered a wilderness, they typically cried out to God to go back to the way things were. But it was in those times that God met them to transform them by speaking a new word and doing a new thing. Therefore, rather than clinging to our identities and practices shaped by capitalism, we can see this as an opportunity to release control, cling more tightly to Christ, and be open to the new thing the Spirit is doing.

It’s tempting to strive even more to secure ourselves—as individuals and the church—through competition and productivity. When things are uncertain, we cling to control. Click To Tweet

The well-known verses in Isaiah 43 encourage God’s people when they were the wilderness of exile:

I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:15-19, NRSV)

Remembering who our God is and what God has done in history and in our own lives and communities provides an anchor in the waves and tells us who we are as we look out for the new thing God is doing.

Church, let us trust that as we cling to God’s word, remembering God’s action on our behalf, God will draw us further into the riches of God’s life and thus into our truest form in Christ in our current context.

 


Editorial Note: “Captive to Capitalism” is Part 1 of a larger four-part series of the same name, critically examining our addiction to capitalism, the counter-kingdom nature of our American economy, and how churches brand themselves. Emily Hill will serve as our writer and guide into this under-discussed, critical topic in our spiritual formation. This series will run each month through November 2022.


[1] Harvey Cox, The Market as God, Harvard University Press, pp. 9-10
[2]Alasdair MacIntyre as quoted by Matthew Boudway, “Alasdair MacIntyre on capitalism,” Commonweal, July 2009.
[3] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, vol. 1, Cultural Liturgies, Baker Academic
[4] Kevin Hargaden, “Planting Churches or Selling Them? New Competitors for the Metaphors We Use,” Christian Scholar’s Review, 51:2 (Winter 2022), pp. 171-188