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One of the more formative experiences of my life came when as a college student I was able to visit socialist East Germany some years before the Berlin Wall fell. A key relationship that resulted from my time in East Germany was with the then-current pastor of Martin Luther’s former church in Wittenberg. I got to know Pfarrar Helmut Hasse pretty well such that when he was able to visit the Calvin College campus in the mid-1980s, I had the opportunity to interview him for the campus newspaper.
We talked about a number of things, including social structures and economics. I remember being surprised at one point when he told me, “You know, in principle I am a socialist.” He then went on to say, and I am paraphrasing here, “It seems clear from the New Testament that our goal as followers of Christ is not the personal acquisition of as much wealth as possible. Rather, we should want to pool assets and resources and share them with all.” He went on to say, however, that socialists always did what most people do: they did not factor in the influence of original sin. Historically it has always turned out that those who collect money and resources ostensibly on behalf of others end up being rather disinclined after all to share. Instead of an equitable sharing of wealth in its various forms, things very quickly degenerate into a selfish hoarding of resources by the few at the expense of the many. This was why East German society was in such crumbling disarray—a disarray that contributed in coming years to the downfall of Soviet influence there.
Although it is still early, it is becoming clear that the specter of “socialism” may loom large over the 2020 presidential election in the United States. President Trump, that master of fear mongering, will hold up socialism in its various forms as the ultimate boogeyman that will spell the doom of America’s future. I personally am not too worried about that happening but Pfarrar Hasse’s noting the influence of sin on socialism can remind us that we do well as Christians to remember that our current capitalist ethos is likewise neither perfect nor immune to being corrupted by sin. Beyond that semi-obvious fact, though, I think we as Christians do well to ponder the influence of capitalism on the church and on our very faith.
In 1996 I published my first book titled The Riddle of Grace: Applying Grace to the Christian Life. In this book I tried to tease out some of the implications that God’s Grace should have on multiple areas of our lives. One of the more blood-warming chapters—for some people anyway—was titled “Grace and Capitalism. ” One of the concerns that drove me to ponder grace and capitalism is that economic capitalism is in many ways so much more than just the structure of how money is made and goods are distributed.
On an economic level, as Pope John Paul II once noted, capitalism and a free market are “the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs” that the world has ever known. That may be so. My interest in this topic, however, was and is due to the wider influence that free market capitalism has on also the ethos of the church and on how Christians frame up their attitudes toward life in general. Because overall the spirit of free market capitalism is the air we breathe in America. We adore the classic rags-to-riches story, the Horatio Alger tale of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, the self-made individual, the rugged individualist. As the old ads starring John Houseman used to say about a certain bank, “We make money the old-fashioned way: we EARN it.”
This is the cultural air we breathe at least six days a week and so it should be no surprise this might influence a believer’s attitudes toward other things. The free market capitalist ethos might just be so dominant in our thinking that we inadvertently downplay even God’s Grace eventually. Here is a fascinating observation by the theologian William Dyrness: “The central irony [of the American experience] is that despite the massive influence of Christianity on American middle-class culture, no primary metaphor [in American parlance] exists that captures the central dynamic of Christianity. Indeed, there is almost no instance in our culture in which we are aware of absolute limits that require some kind of sacrificial intervention. We may plunge in, lend a hand, we may try our best to scratch out the dirtiness but in the end everyone must ‘do their own time.’”
This in turn reminds me of a line from Jimmy Carter’s memoir Keeping Faith in which he observed at one point that one of the things that started to unravel his presidency was when—in terms of energy policy and the like—President Carter started to talk about the reality of limits in life. Even in his Inauguration speech Carter said “We have learned that more is not necessarily better, that even our great nation has its recognized limits and that we can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems but we must simply do our best.” That turned off millions because if there is one thing Americans cannot stand, it is the idea that there is a limit to what we can achieve. This was something Ronald Reagan knew well when he ran against Carter in 1980 with his “Morning in America” slogan. In Reagan’s view of America as a great shining city on a hill, there are no limits only obstacles to overcome (and we can always overcome them).
Of course, in terms of theology and the church, sometimes people are even more overt in suggesting that capitalism exerts a subtle (and at times not-so-subtle) pull on us across the spectrum of our lives. Back in the early 1990s Richard John Neuhaus claimed “Capitalism is the economic corollary of the Christian understanding of human nature and destiny.” Michael Novak made similar claims. “Democratic capitalism is not just a system but a way of life. Its ethos includes . . . a new and distinctive conception of community, the individual, and the family.”
Again, those are sweeping claims and, if true, may well be at odds with the idea that it should really be the free Grace of God that exerts primary influence on a Christian person’s conception of things like family and community as well as each individual who is part of community. Near the end of his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Novakstated his belief that what we really need in life—and even in the church—are people who see life in terms of a big contest with winners and losers. “Judaism and Christianity envisage human life as a contest. The stakes are real; there are winners and losers.” Novak said it was flat out wrong to think that the spirit of competition is foreign to the gospels.
I am pretty certain that is wrong. But Novak was right to see that the capitalist ethos is a way of life. And so this inevitably creates tensions—or it should create tensions—within the church and inside a theologically informed context. But in fact this is all too often merely baptized and assumed to be consistent with broader Christian ideals and doctrines.
But were we to invoke the language of pop culture to describe salvation, we could say with some justification that we do get salvation handed to us on the proverbial silver platter. We do not earn it. It is a free lunch. It is a free ride. We do not all make our own way. We do ride someone else’s coattails. All the things most Americans want to make clear are NOT true of them (lest they look like less than self-made individual achievers) are the same things believers claim for themselves when it comes to the most important reality of all: salvation. If we are to let Christ be Christ and allow the cross to be God’s singular means of saving a people who could not contribute one iota to their own salvation, then spiritually speaking we have to embrace the very language that lots of Americans would find embarrassing in terms of summing up their lives. I am not an independent rugged individualist—I am an utterly dependent being. I depend on grace alone. Or to quote the Heidelberg Catechism: “I am not my own.”
As we enter into and witness all kinds of socio-political debates these days and in the run-up to the next big election in the United States, we as Christians might do well to pass such things through also the filter of our faith and of the core convictions we have as believers. Even when we do, we may well remain committed to capitalism as an effective economic system. But let’s be careful how readily we baptize this ethos into how we frame life just generally.