The teaching of 90-year-old billionaires: Can we be alternative?

What does it mean to love in an era when people have been reduced to “human resources?” I wish it seemed obvious to state that the culture of capitalism dramatically affects how people understand themselves and one another. But I don’t think it is obvious; thus, this blog post.

Is Capitalism the best system?

Not long ago I was watching one of the news channels and tuned in to an interview of a 90-year-old billionaire. He interrupted his young interviewer at one point so he could make sure to say what he wanted to teach. He said, “There is one thing everyone needs to understand. Capitalism is the best system. We tried communism, or at least some did, and it failed. We tried socialism and that does not work.”

The interviewer did not say, “What do you mean by ‘working?’ Are you talking about ‘achieving the most profit with as little expenditure as possible for the shareholders or owners of an enterprise?'” Instead, she just moved on, either swallowing what everyone has been taught or being afraid to contradict it.

I think 90% of the people who enter a Sunday meeting  react about the same way as the interviewer every day. They spend the week moving along with capitalism and the billionaires who run it — and preparing their children to do the same. But are the goals of capitalism and the 1% the goals of Jesus? You can already tell that I am going to say “No.” But do I have a leg to stand on?

The secret philosophy that runs us all

Last April George Monbiot summarized his book for the Guardian. He identified the secret philosophy that drives what most of us do all week and infects what we do on Sunday, too. He says, Today’s capitalism

  • sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations.
  • redefines citizens as “consumers“ whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling.
  • teaches that buying and selling has its own morality that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency.
  • maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

People are fighting about how to apply this philosophy in Congress right now. Will a generous version of today’s capitalism (like Obamacare) rule our healthcare or will a radical version rule (like in Trump/Ryan care)?

Monbiot says today’s capitalism fights any attempts to limit competition and labels any question of limits an assault on freedom. It teaches:

  • Taxes and regulations should be minimized, public services should be privatized.
  • The organization of labor and collective bargaining by trade unions are are market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers.
  • Inequality is virtuous: a reward for being effective and a generating wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone.
  • Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

You may have heard those last four bullet points preached from a pulpit somewhere (other than Circle of Hope). Or maybe you just know the viewpoint is assumed, a moot point, in your evangelical church. I have experienced both the preaching and the assumption. For instance, if a variant viewpoint is raised on the BIC-List (our denomination’s listserve), men will come out of the woodwork to reinforce those bullets, as if they were a 90-year-old billionaire interrupting some foolish youngster. They will even marshal the Bible to help make their point, even though everyone knows neoliberalism was not invented by Christians.

Last summer the pope explained this while on a flight from Krakow to Vatican City. He surprised journalists when he told them Muslim attacks on a priest in France were basically caused by neoliberalism. He said, “Terrorism grows when there is no other option, and as long as the world economy has at its center the god of money and not the person…This is fundamental terrorism, against all humanity.” At the time, Americans were in the middle of an election campaign, so they probably did not hear the Pope over all the hubbub about Trump’s tweets. Evangelical Christians were about to overwhelmingly vote for Donald Trump, the epitome of what neoliberal capitalism created since Ronald Reagan.

Are we actually pawns in the philosophy’s system?

What if we Christians, we who are bound and determined to follow Jesus in his suffering and transform humanity, become the unwitting pawns of capitalist deformation of humanity in the image of neoliberal capitalism? Our lives teach. The content of our dialogue sets the contours of the culture are always building!

Can a Christian merely exist in the pluralistic, postmodern capitalist landscape? Does capitalism offer a home for Christians? No. Without Christians creating an alternative, capitalism subjects everyone to its will. We still fundamentally believe, don’t we, that one cannot serve two masters? We might normally think about not serving Mammon within the framework of capitalism and consider how to allow Jesus to be the Lord of how we do capitalism. But what if capitalism is, in effect, the alternative god?

Capitalism makes desire an end in itself and diverts our desire from communion with God. That sin causes us to stray from God’s will and design for us. God’s design for us is to desire God and our true selves. Unfortunately, the economic modalities around us pervert that desire. We cannot serve both our capitalism-perverted desire and God’s desire. We must go back to God, which means rejecting the capitalist way. The two are incompatible.

We need to talk about this, because everyone who comes to our Sunday meeting is feeling desire. Assuming that their desires, dominated by capitalism, are healthy and not a cause of their general illness is wrong. If a person is constantly making a deal and can’t make a covenant with God’s people, if they are trained for desiring what they don’t yet have, if they protect their autonomy and freedom at the expense of their faith, should they not learn that comes from neoliberalism and not God, not even from themselves?

Image result for homo economicus

Capitalism creates homo economicus in its image. That being, by its nature, is:

  • Not in community, not collective.
  • Free to choose. Amidst millions of consumer options, we are free to choose what to do (of course, within the confines of capitalism)
  • Self-interested
  • Driven by Insatiable Desire.
  • Competitive.
  • Reduced to thinking Justice is only about fair exchange regulated by contracts and laws. In capitalism, social justice doesn’t exist because the market is beyond justice.

I think most people who read this far are probably trying to figure out how to be the alternative to what is killing humanity. When people come to the Sunday meeting they come as people condemned to being homo economicus. Is there a way out? If we force them to perform within that bondage, aren’t we preparing them to be consumed consumers? Couldn’t we condemn our children in the name of helping them?

Somehow, we need to risk acting according to the Lord’s economy that is

  • Spirit formed
  • Communal
  • Self-giving
  • Generous out of eternal abundance

After all this theoretical sounding writing, it may seem difficult to think about how to apply it. So will we just go back to being led around by the invisible hand and letting our faith be invisibilized by living under its shelter? Obviously, I hope not. Let’s keep exposing the powers for who they are in the spirit of today’s image of the atonement: Christus Victor. Jesus is our leader in that, present with us, every day.

About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

3 thoughts on “The teaching of 90-year-old billionaires: Can we be alternative?

  1. Thanks, Rod, for this post. It is a wonderful reminder of that if we want to be the alternative Kingdom that we can’t just redeploy the tools of “statecraft”. Keep writing, I will keep reading.

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