Posted by: Dan | April 21, 2007

Christianity and Capitalism Part III: Journeying Toward a Christian Political Economics

[B]oth Jesus and Paul are not so much trapped in a negation of global imperialism as engaged in establishing its positive alternative here below upon this earth.
~ John Dominic Crossan, In Search of Paul: How Jesus's Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom, 409.

In Part I of this series, I explored the idea of defining the Christian community as a “community of beggars.” I concluded that such a community cannot be sustained within the structures of capitalism and that Christians should, therefore, develop a political economics of “radical sharing and equally radical dependence.” Then, in Part II of this series, I continued to stress the need for Christians to move beyond capitalism. However, if we are to make that move, I suggested that we need to recover our genuinely Christian imagination, which is rooted in the hope that is inspired by the biblical narrative (and not rooted in the “realism” or “necessity” inspired by the narrative of capitalism). However, I also suggested that we have lost the ability to imagine a true alternative to capitalism because we have lost the will to live outside of the comforts that capitalism provides for us. Therefore, I concluded that we will only be able to imagine a genuine alternative to capitalism when we begin to embody the alternative that we are pursuing.

I would like to continue this series by exploring what an embodied alternative to capitalism might look like. What might a community of beggars look like in day-to-day life? How do “radical sharing” and “radical dependence” play out on street level?

However, before I do that, I would like to begin by suggesting that many of the answers to these questions are actually discovered “along the way.” By this I mean that we often spend too much time trying to find the most exact or ideal alternative to capitalism instead of beginning, step by step, to embody an alternative. Indeed, our pursuit of the ideal alternative often leaves us overwhelmed and hopelessly bogged down in the details, instead of leading us to action. However, this assertion needs to be prefaced in at least two ways.

First of all, recognising the ways in which our pursuit of ideals can lead to hopelessness or inaction should not lead us to the conclusion that serious reflection in inadvisable. Far from it. We need to think through things like Christianity and capitalism quite intently. The problem arises when we look to solve all the problems involved before we act. Contemplation can lead to great insight in one area and not in another area. In that case, we need to act upon the insight we gain, with the hope that that action will then open the door for insight into other (as of yet) puzzling areas. Thus, we are always to be “contemplatives in action.”

Secondly, recognising that we will not be able to implement the ideal result from the get-go, should not lead us to the sort of resignation that is satisfied with doing “just a bit more” than we were doing before. This, I fear, is part of the problem with the approach that people like Bono and Oprah take to charity. Bono and Oprah live lives that are marked by massive amounts of luxury, but they also regularly advocate for, or donate to, some sort of charitable cause. The implicit message in this is that I can have my cake and eat it too — i.e. I don't have to feel guilty about living opulently so long as I give just a little more to charity. That we cannot yet attain the ideal should not lead us to settle for less. Rather, we should be involved in an ongoing pursuit of that which is more ideal than what we have now. As with the rest of life, this means employing the metaphor of “journey.” Donating a little more to charity may be a good step on the way, but it is only one step along the way (and probably a small and introductory one), it is not the end-point. Thus, we need to learn to affirm each step, while also challenging ourselves and others to continue on the way.

Given this opening proviso, I would now like to suggest what I believe to be are a few good steps in the development of a Christian alternative to capitalism. Moving beyond mere criticisms, I would like to propose a Christian political economics of sharing (nonsensical charity) and dependence (nonsensical vulnerability).

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