Posted by: Dan | April 6, 2007

Christianity and Capitalism Part I: A Community of Beggars

Christians think we are creatures that beg. Prayer is the activity that most defines who we are. Through prayer we learn the patience to take the time to beg, to beg to the One alone who is the worthy subject of such prayer. Through prayer Christians learn how to beg from each other. Christians, therefore, can never be at peace with a politics or economic arrangements built on the assumption that we are fundamentally not beggars.
~ Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith, 241.

I came across this passage from Hauerwas about a year ago, and I've been turning it around in my mind since then. I imagine that those of us who are situated comfortably within liberal discourse about “human rights” might find this quotation a little upsetting. Indeed, if the language of “rights” tells us anything it tells us this: we are not beggars — we are entitled to life, freedom, happiness, and so much more. Therefore, one begins to see the way in which the language of “human rights” goes hand in hand with the political and economic structures of capitalism and rugged individualism. Operating from within a paradigm of entitlement, the question becomes “how much can I have?” or, better yet, “how much do I deserve?” And we only ever need a little convincing to conclude that we surely deserve more than we have right now.

However, if Christianity teaches us to understand ourselves as beggars, and teaches us to act accordingly, then Hauerwas is surely correct to suggest such an understanding would radically rework the political and economic arrangements of the Christian community (and it is important to emphasise that we are speaking of the Christian community here. As Christians we are seeking to model an alternative to the social order, not impose a more Christian structure on society — the sooner we realise this, the sooner we may be able to see that capitalism doesn't have to be considered “the best of all the bad options we have”). Furthermore, Hauerwas is also correct to emphasise that prayer teaches us to beg — both from God and from others. I suspect that anyone who has gone through times of material hardship quickly learns how closely connected these two types of begging are. I think of some of friends that panhandle — sure, they ask God to provide their daily bread, but that doesn't stop them asking strangers for change. I also think of when I first committed myself to getting through school without going into debt. Sure, I asked for God to help me, but I also quickly learned to beg from others in times of need. And this is precisely what prayer should teach us — to rely on God and the people of God.

Therefore, if Christians are those who know themselves to be beggars, then the Christian community should become a space where it is okay to beg. It should be a space where beggars are not shamed but welcomed. Of course, once such a safe space is created, we will all be able to admit our own needs — for all of us have such needs in our lives. However, we are usually too ashamed, too driven by pressures that tell us we need to be independent, and too driven by our own pride, to admit this. Creating a space where begging is welcomed, creates an honest space where we all are welcomed as we are — and not just as we try to appear to be. Indeed, this is what it means to be a part of a community that proclaims the forgiveness of sins. By allowing others (and ourselves) the space to beg, we create the room for confession and absolution in all the nitty-gritty parts of our lives.

And this, of course, flows out into the economic aspects of our lives (how can it not?). Allowing the structures of capitalism to dictate the economics of a community of beggars is fatal — because capitalism has no use for beggars. In fact, beggars are marginalised, jailed, or left to die precisely because beggars, by their very existence, challenge the validity of capitalism. Therefore, if Christians are to come to believe that capitalism is the only viable economic option for their communities, then they have already submitted themselves to that which seeks their destruction. Of course, by speaking in this way I am not suggesting that capitalism is out killing Christians (although it should probably be noted that capitalism is doing that too, just not usually in our neighbourhoods), rather what I mean is that surrendering to capitalism in this way is fatal to both our identity as Christians and our ability to act meaningfully as Christians within our contemporary situation.

Therefore, if Christian communities are to exist in a genuinely Christian way — as communities of beggars — then we must demonstrate a political and economic way of living that is different than the structures of capitalism. And, since we are prayer-shaped beggars, this will lead us to develop a communal (i.e. political) economics of radical sharing and equally radical dependence… but more on that later.

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