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Discipleship in America, Part 4: The Challenge of Capitalism

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : February 1, 2006

Let me begin by stating that I am not an economist. I haven’t studied economics much at all, and am therefore coming at this from a philosophical, theological angle.

It is also important to note that I am not a Marxist. I’m not a fan of socialism. I’m not concerned with larger economic theories and markets. I’m more interested with the way in which the Church identifies itself, and works within, larger economic systems. In other words, these critiques should largely be limited to the context of the Christian community; they aren’t intended to be a critique of free-market economies in general.

Having said that, I want to suggest that in addition to the “power” of consumerism, discipleship in America is hindered by the “power” of capitalism.

Part of the way in which capitalism undermines our discipleship is the contradictory motives behind Christianity (the worship-motive and the charity-motive) and capitalism (the profit-motive). Let me give a specific, concrete, example of when these motives come into conflict.

Throughout urban America, gentrification is on the rise. As young, upwardly mobile folk move into the city, they rise up property values–this makes it more difficult for the poor to afford rent and property taxes. After a few years, the upwardly mobile couple is able to sell their houses at a huge profit. They move on to a larger house, happy that they’ve made a profit. This scenario is played out all across America. And while it isn’t bad to make a profit, one must ask: would it be more Christlike of me NOT to make a profit? What of the poor who used to live in this area? Why do I assume that it is not only right, but good, for me to make a profit? The profit-motive undermines the charity-impulse. While the two aren’t mutually exclusive, they often come into conflict. I confess that this is a situation I have to seriously ponder, since my wife and I are that upwardly moblie couple. In the end, I believe that I shouldn’t treat the equity as though it were mine to do with as I please. My appreciating home value is directly tied to the increased rent and taxes of others.

Captalism also fosters self-interest. We believe that if everyone persues their own self interests in the free market, then the common good is served. Unfortunately, folks always fall through the cracks. And we develop a bad habit of seeking our own best interests, assuming that the needs and desires of others will be taken care of by the market. We make choices that serve us the best, often without knowing–or caring–about how those choices affect others.

Capitalism also shapes our interactions and choices. Capitalism exists on the idea of exchange (my dear friend Chris, who is worth reading regularly) has blogged about this here and here). When we give something, we expect something in exchange (and we often try to secure more than we give–profit). Exchange is at the heart of a capitalist system.

Unfortunately, this way of think filters into our way of relating. We do a cost-benefit analysis in our relationships with folks and our relationships with God. Often, we don’t give, even to charity, unless there is something that we receive in exchange.

This challenges the disciple, since we are called to take up our cross, to serve Christ, and to lay down our lives for our friends. We are to be motivated by love, not by profit. We are to serve the interests of others in our decision-making, not just our own. We are to give, not exchange.

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Comments

6 Responses to “Discipleship in America, Part 4: The Challenge of Capitalism”

  1. Joseph Dworak on February 1st, 2006 10:40 am

    Mark - Would appreciate your thoughts on my post today - http://www.josephdworak.voxtropolis.com Thanks

    JVD

  2. PurplePastor.com on February 1st, 2006 8:23 pm

    Discipleship in America, Part 4

    According to Mark Van Steenwyk, discipleship in America is hindered by the power of capitalism. Despite the admission that hes not an economist, Mark argues that capitalism fosters self-interest. Hes right. Am…

  3. James on February 2nd, 2006 1:42 pm

    Interesting thoughts. I am beginning to here similar things from lots of different Christians from professors, to ministers, to students.

    One important thing to remember though: even those Americans who are considered to be the most poor in this country are still among the richest people in the world.

  4. Jeff on February 2nd, 2006 7:16 pm

    Completely correct there, Mark. I can’t tell you how many churches I have attended (or been a part of) that have preached the “Blessings” doctrine. I’m still not quite convinced that the acqusition of wealth is inherently evil, but the attitude in which that wealth is acquired is the factor by which the wealth is judged.

    By the way, thanks for coming to The Crossing on Sunday. It was nice meeting you. Feel free to drop me a line.

  5. blorge on February 3rd, 2006 6:13 pm

    Mark,
    When is accumulation of property ok? You said you’re not a Marxist, but you seemed to say that the accumulation of property is contrary to being a good social person.

  6. Van S on February 6th, 2006 5:44 pm

    I don’t believe I said that possessing propety is bad. I don’t think there is a clear line between good and bad on this one. It is something that must be discerned.
    One the one hand, we should avoid gluttony, which to me isn’t just eating too much food, but could be applied, I believe, to excess consumption of anything. If we have more than we need, we should share it. I think it is probably ok to have some luxuries, but I don’t think I am the best judge, as a thoroughly Americanized person, to know when it is ok to indulge in luxuries. The fact is, MOST of many Americans’ budgets go towards luxury items. Many other Americans only spend a portion of their income on luxury.
    On the other hand, we don’t want to be overly critical of people who are struggling with how to handle their posessions. It is simply hard to reach clarity on this issue.
    I think the best way forwards is for disciples to start opening their checkbooks and budgets together for group discernment and critique. I know this in a horribly vulnerable thing to do, and I know that it opens things up to abuse, but I can think of nothing more needed these days. We, as Americans, have got to stop treating personal spending as though it were something personal. How we spend affects everything.

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