Posted by: Dan | May 11, 2007

Christianity and Capitalism Part VIII: Missional Sharing (Priorities and Life-Trajectories)

Aware of the war waged, in our time and for our sake, against the poor, we must yield to [the] appeal for solidarity with the oppressed. We must answer [the] call for resistance to the sacred routines legitimating the course of empire.
~ Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle, 230.

Up until this point, I have concentrated on exploring some expressions of sharing that I believe should define those who are “in Christ.” In this regard, I have been thinking especially (but not exclusively) of the Johannine literature which reminds us that Christians should have a striking public (i.e. political) presence, precisely because of the ways in which they love one another. Of course, what we tend to do is romanticise or spiritualise John's talk of “love” instead of beginning to truly explore how we can move concretely into ever deeper levels of intimacy with God and one another. Therefore, having explored some of the ways in which intra-Christian sharing should be praticed, I would like to spend some time in this post exploring the question of how we can engage in extra-Christian sharing — and, once again, I would like to advocate for a form of charity that capitalism would label as “nonsensical.”

At this point, it is important to recall that the Church exists in the world, in order to participate in God's mission to and for the world. Christians are transformed by God so that they can move into the groaning-places of the world, as agents of God's new creation (as Tom Wright has reminded us time after time). Therefore, by beginning to envision a form of Christianity that can offer a genuine alternative to capitalism, I am not only exploring some of the ways in which the Church can be “holy” (i.e. set apart and uncompromised by corrupting influences, like capitalism) in a sectarian way. Rather, Christians are to be holy so that they can be effective witnesses within the world. Indeed, it is only when the Church is holy, and true to her identity, that transformation can occur within the world (as Hauerwas reminds us). Consequently, it is worth exploring some of the ways in which sharing with those who are not yet explicitly “in Christ” is a part of the mission of God and of the people of God.

It is worth emphasising that God's mission, and the mission to which God calls God's people, is one that is especially attentive to the plight of the poor, the vulnerable, the sick, the oppressed, and the forsaken. An honest study of the bible (from the Torah, to the prophets, to the Gospels, to the epistles) can only lead us to conclude that the liberation theologians are correct to argue that God demonstrates a “preferential option” for the poor. Indeed, God's especial attention to the poor is so strong that, when the Word of God becomes incarnate in the world, the Word takes on the form of one who is poor, homeless, and vulnerable. In fact, Jesus, the incarnate Word, becomes so vulnerable that he dies, helpless and abandoned, upon a cross. Therefore, the Church must both (a) demonstrate an equal “preferential option” for the poor; and (b) emulate the life-trajectory established by Jesus (a model that Paul develops in Phil 2). Thus, we see that the Church as a “community of beggars” may end up looking a lot more like actual beggars than we first imagined.

Yet both of these aspects — the priorities and the life-trajectory — of the Christian mission are at odds with the priorities and the life-trajectory that capitalism seeks to impose upon us. Thus, on the first point, capitalism teaches us to value the wealthy more than the poor, and those who “contribute” to the economy (through consumption, investment, and “responsible” debt-accumulation) more than those who do not — like the poor and homeless, who are often described as “parasites” “leeching” off of the system. Further, on the second point, capitalism teaches us a life-trajectory of “upward mobility.” It urges us to (continually) move on to a higher paying job, a more expensive house, a cleaner more respectable neighbourhood, a flashier car (or just another car), and so on and so forth.

Consequently, we can begin to see why sharing in a way that prioritises the poor while concomitantly emulating the life-trajectory of “downward mobility” established by Jesus appears to be so utterly nonsensical within the structures of capitalism. Within capitalism, sharing with the poor is, by and large, a wasted investment — but it can still be glorified as a “noble,” “humanistic,” “altruistic,” “romantic,” or “heroic” endeavour (note how the language used by capitalism to praise charity also simultaneously relieves most of us from the demands of charity — after all, we're just ordinary people, not noble or romantic heroes!). And this is precisely why the way in which Christians are called to share with the poor is attached to a life-trajectory; we are never to just share our resources with the poor — we are called to share our lives together with the poor. In my next post I will explore some of the concrete ways in which the Christian community can engage in this form of sharing.

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