The modern enemies of capitalism, those in the last 150 years, have been primarily atheist. Said Vladimir Lenin,
“Religion is the opium of the people: this saying of Marx is the cornerstone of the entire ideology of Marxism about religion. All modern religions and churches, all and of every kind of religious organizations are always considered by Marxism as the organs of bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class.“
In reaction, modern Christendom has become ever more enmeshed with the capitalist worldview. But are the teachings of our Master compatible with the system of money, property, and wealth? Can a capitalist even be a Christian? I would say, not without severe cognitive dissonance.
First, a story:
While Yeshua was preaching to thousands of unlanded peasants, living in poverty under imperial oppression, they became hungry.
For this hunger, the disciples suggested a solution rooted in the economics of the marketplace: that the crowd should go to the town and buy food.
But the Master rejected the economy of the marketplace. Surely he understood that not everyone gathered could even afford to buy food in the market. Instead, he asked for all those who had food to give it up, to share all they had with their community.
Imagine being one of the few in this crowd who had some bread, or maybe the only one who thought to bring a couple of fish. And you, despite being as poor as the next guy, are asked to share what meager portion you have with everyone! Might some of these people have exclaimed, “Why should I have my food taken from me for my good planning? Why should those who didn’t think ahead be rewarded with my food!?” Perhaps they did protest this way, but when the Master asks, it seems that people will listen. Everyone gave up their food. And, by the grace of God, sharing made their shortage into bounty!
The economy of Christ rejects hoarding. It rejects self-service. It refuses to give people only as much as they “deserve”. It rejects the marketplace and instead asks that we share in blind faith that God will multiply our resources. Even those whose foresight, wit, or hard work has afforded them a little more than their neighbors must hand over all they have to the community. In the economy of Christ, the marketplace is irrelevant; and the capitalistic urge to hoard is a false security which keeps us from the bounty of the creator.
25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your lifee ?
28“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
This passage is offhandedly quoted as a mere recommendation not to stress out over the day-to-day pressures of life. It can become difficult to really look at content so familiar, but reread that passage. Yeshua recommends that we not sow, reap or store away resources. He recommends that we do not bother with any material investment in the future! This goes beyond the socialist, or communist, into the realm of anarcho-primitivism! A society which followed these guidelines could only be hunter-gatherers, living day to day. It is the absolute, extreme opposite of a society whose foundation is the investment of capital for the accumulation of profit.
Perhaps, this is not exactly advice for a whole society. But, rather, for the followers of Christ alone, envisioned as a small subset of the populace. Yeshua and his disciples lived on the outskirts of society, surviving on handouts, unplugged from the bustle of production and commerce. Perhaps, this is impractical advice for a world where “Christendom” makes up such a huge chunk of society?
When asked about whether the general populace should pay taxes, Yeshua famously retorted “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” This was, of course, a clever dodge. It does nothing to answer the essence of the question. With Roman guards to the right of him and Jewish revolutionaries to the left, any straightforward answer was likely to put him and his followers into immediate danger. His non-answer left it up to the listener to interpret it however they wished. A Roman statist might be satisfied that Caesar will be granted his due. The Zealots might nod in agreement that none of their property belongs to Caesar, and therefore none will be given up. It is very ironic that I have heard modern Christians employ this exchange when either supporting or denouncing taxation.
Artist’s rendering of the above-referenced people.
Before Christ even began his mission, John the Baptist commanded,
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
And in Luke 6, the Master said,
34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.
These commands conflict with the very heart of the capitalist pursuit. How can one run a bank if he must lend without expecting anything back? How can one keep a business if they are morally compelled to simply give their excess stock to the needy?
The early Christians, just after the Ascension even lived in communes! In the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 4, it says,
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
Maybe the dancing hippies from JC Superstar were more historically accurate than I had previously thought…
Yet somehow, Christianity has become thoroughly entwined with Capitalism. Any time spent with American Protestants in particular will reveal a deep sense that “work ethic” and “prosperity” are vital Christian concepts.
Max Weber associated the development of modern capitalism with Calvinist theology. In his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he said,
For, in conformity with the Old Testament and in analogy to the ethical valuation of good works, asceticism looked upon the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself as highly reprehensible; but the attainment of it as a fruit of labour in a calling was a sign of God’s blessing. And even more important: the religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means to asceticism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith, must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of that attitude toward life which we have here called the spirit of capitalism.
Thus, Weber suggested that the Calvinist impetus to work for work’s own sake, to be frugal, simple and routine, created a populace eager to be exploited by capitalists. If their lives under these masters were miserable, they suffered to the glory of God! At the same time, the Calvinist belief in predestination offers an open door to a “Just World” hypothesis which suggests that those who are rewarded on earth have been rewarded by God. This, of course, is in total conflict with the teachings of Christ, that it is the poor who are “blessed” and his warning of “woe” to the rich. Herein lies the the central cognitive dissonance.
The Psalms of David are frequently quoted by the modern peddlers of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel“. The poet-king often pleaded for God to ruin his enemies and reward he and his friends. He proclaimed God’s omniscience and omnipotence. There is a sense that all which happens is part of a single, grand design by God. Therefore those with power are granted that power by God, and those who are destroyed are destroyed by God.
I’m not going to disparage the great Hebrew book of poetry. There is great wisdom in the Psalms; but when there is a conflict between something in the scriptures with something which Yeshua said directly, I think a “Christian” would have to err on the side of Christ.
But, here we begin to uncover the whole, twisted knot of contradicting ideas which define modern Protestantism: The Bible is perfect, therefore it HAS no contradictions, so we mustn’t think about how we prioritize the statements within. They are all equally inerrant. Don’t question any of this, because salvation and eternal damnation are at stake! The “world” is evil and the devil is everywhere, but at the same time God controls every minute detail of our lives and we must serve Him to be rewarded. Those who are rewarded are good. Those who suffer must deserve it. Feed the poor, but don’t let anyone FORCE you to do it.
In previous essays, I have discussed Biblical inerrancy, fatalism, and eternal damnation. I have discussed how a sort of “darwinism” selects certain ideas within our religion for mass acceptance. We must look critically at who, exactly, benefits from these beliefs. It isn’t most of us.
A servant of Christ is dangerous to all terrestrial rulers. “A man cannot serve two masters.” They know it as well as we do. And so, our religion has been chained up and placed in the service of human masters. It was made into a tool of Rome, a tool of European royalty, of imperialism, of bankers and merchants, and finally of the capitalists.
It would seem that Marx, Lenin, Weber, and their ilk were not altogether incorrect in identifying the church as an instrument of bourgeois oppression. Perhaps, it is up to Christians to show our solidarity with the oppressed and exploited. Perhaps, the onus is on us to loudly and publicly denounce the evils of capitalism, and to reject the economy of the marketplace, just as Christ did. We must not allow the teachings of our Master to be perverted any longer.
There’s a reason Yeshua threw the money-lenders out of the Temple.
Grace to you all.