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The Church and Capitalism: Part I.2

I.2 – The Clash of Christianity and Paganism
However, the analysis of neoclassicism employed above does not yet touch upon the core of the confrontation of Christianity and neoclassicism. Ultimately, the clash of Christianity with neoclassicism is a clash between Christianity and paganism.
Neoclassicism must be understood as a religion.[30] In particular, neoclassicism is best understood as the religion imposed by the Powers and Principalities mentioned by Paul.[31] The clue to this interpretation of neoclassicism is the ongoing mention of the market’s ‘invisible hand’, and the belief that the market runs on ‘automatic pilot’ because it is a ‘natural force’ akin to other forces in nature.[32] Note N. T. Wright’s argument:
when a human being or a group of human beings, are totally in the grip of a force other than themselves, then it seems appropriate to talk of ‘demons’… idolatry has the power to call up, perhaps even to call into being, forces that are then beyond the control of the idolaters.[33]
Similarly, Jurgen Moltmann argues that capitalism, in its evolution into neoclassicism, has become precisely this sort of “quasi-objective compulsive force.”[34] Therefore, as Richard Horsley notes, “[t]he very secularism that supposedly protected cultural and religious pluralism now serves also as a veil for the religious function of consumer capitalism.”[35] Thus, life lived within neoclassicism, is lived under the Powers (particularly the power of Mammon).[36]
This further explains the partisanship and violence found within neoclassicism. According to the biblical witness, idols always demand (human) sacrifices and produce victims. Consequently, the idolatry of neoclassicism is verified by the victims it produces.[37] Indeed, even apart from the overt violence of neoclassicism, its very efficiency transforms the majority of the world’s population into disposable excess.[38]
To further illustrate the religious confrontation between Christianity and neoclassicism, it is worth highlighting the fundamental differences in their core theological doctrines. To begin with, Christianity is a religion that is premised upon grace, whereas capitalism is premised upon merit and credit. For Christians, everything is grace: creation, the ongoing sustenance of daily life, redemption, and the kingdom of God, all these come as gifts from God.[39] Indeed, the language of grace is the language of ‘gift’ and it presents us with a God who is, fundamentally, a giver so that we, in turn, can becomes givers and not simply “self-absorbed receivers.”[40] However, capitalism in general, and neoclassicism in particular, has no room for the gift.[41] Hence, Thomas Malthus argues that gifts only encourage idleness and vice, and indiscriminate spending is comparable to promiscuous sex![42] The result of this is a culture “stripped of grace,” wherein one only receives according to one’s abilities, and not according to one’s needs.[43] In this culture, credit becomes the parody of grace.
This foundational difference between Christianity and capitalism leads to different conceptions of the world. Whereas Christianity affirms a world defined by abundance, capitalism affirms a world defined by lack. Because Christianity is premised upon grace and the gift, it affirms a world that is full of abundance as a sign of God’s “extravagant generosity.”[44] Although the abundance of the world was marred by the fall, the restoration of creation that comes through Jesus renews the fruitfulness of creation and restores abundance.[45] Thus, Jesus comes so that we might have “abundant life” and that abundance is amply demonstrated in both his ministry and in the testimony of the Church in Acts.[46] Capitalism, however, is based upon the assumption of scarcity. It assumes a world where there is not enough for everybody. Consequently, rather than manifesting abundance, what capitalism produces is a profusion of commodities that functions as a parody of abundance.[47]
These different foundations, and different perspectives on the world, then lead Christianity and capitalism to develop antagonistic doctrines of freedom. For Christianity, freedom is understood as liberation for service, whereas for capitalism, freedom is understood as choice in relation to consumption. For Christianity, freedom is liberation from the power of Sin-and-Death, and the host of other spiritual and material Powers that are in the service of Sin-and-Death. However, freedom from Sin-and-Death, is inextricably linked to freedom for loving service to one’s God and one’s neighbours and, in this way, Christian freedom is revealed in obedience (i.e. obedience to the Lord who liberated them, and obedience that manifests their liberated state). This, then, is why the martyrs – as those who have entirely been deprived of choice – end up becoming the greatest witnesses to Christian freedom; it is also why Christianity is called to move into solidarity with other movements that understand freedom as liberation from oppressive powers.[48] Capitalism, however, understands freedom in an altogether different manner. In a world of scarcity, freedom becomes the ability to choose to consume whatever one desires, regardless of the desires of others. Hence, Milton Friedman defines freedom in this way: “Each man can vote, as it were, for the color of tie he wants and get it; he does not have to see what color the majority wants and then, if he is in the minority, submit.”[49] Therefore, ‘liberation’ from the neoclassical perspective, is understood as being freed from any sort of government that would impose restraints upon my consumption options.[50] However, such an understanding of freedom-as-choice does not lead to any sort of genuine freedom or liberation. Jean Baudrillard explains:
[W]hat our industrial society always offers us ‘a priori’, as a kind of collective grace and as the mark of a formal freedom is choice… Indeed, we no longer even have the option of not choosing… Our freedom of choice causes us to participate in a cultural system willy-nilly. It follows that the choice in question is a specious one: to experience it as freedom is simply to be less sensible to the fact that it is imposed upon us as such, and that through it society as a whole is likewise imposed upon us… the important thing about the fact of choosing is that it assigns you a place in the overall economic order.[51]
What is the result of this? A society where “unparalleled freedom of choice” is coupled with “a profound sense of resignation,” and where one lives out a “dominated existence” under the “Domination System” during the “Domination Epoch.”[52]
These contradicting understandings of freedom also reveal that Christianity and capitalism proclaim two different gospels as elements of two opposed soteriologies. The gospel of Christianity proclaims the triumph and Lordship of Jesus, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit which enables believers to proleptically participate in, and contribute to, the new creation of all things.[53] The gospel of capitalism proclaims the triumph and Lordship of neoclassicism, and promises happiness to all people. That capitalism comes as a form of gospel is already evident in Smith, who argues that capitalism that which will meet all our needs.[54] However, the true gospel of capitalism, does not come to fruition until neoclassicism, when the triumph of capitalism itself becomes the good news.[55] The triumph of capitalism in neoclassicism is, therefore, supposed to make us all happy – “Happiness,” writes Baudrillard, “is the strict equivalent of salvation.”[56] There are, however, at least two significant problems with this utilitarian soteriology. The first, as Alasdair MacIntyre notes, is that the notion of “greatest happiness” lacks clear content; it is, in fact, “a pseudo-concept available for a variety of ideological uses.”[57] The second problem is that people within neoclassicism generally are not happy. However, having been confronted with the proclamation that the good news has come, they are ordered to be happy – you are free, so you must be happy![58]
These different gospels also reveal that Christianity and capitalism are operating with fundamentally different eschatologies. Christianity operates with an inaugurated but not yet consummated eschatology, whereas capitalism operates with a now fully consummated eschatology. The starting-point for Christian living, is the recognition that the ‘new age’ began in the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the (eschatological) Spirit at Pentecost.[59] However, what was born then, still awaits its consummation on the day when Christ will return, defeat the final enemies, and hand the kingdom over to his Father, who will make all things new. Therefore, Christians live in a time of tension where they anticipate the new in the midst of the old. For capitalism, however, things are rather different. In the triumph of neoclassicism, history (understood in the Hegelian sense of society in pursuit of its telos) has come to an end.[60] Hence, the “trump card” of neoclassicism is that there is said to no longer be any alternative to it.[61] Therefore, as William Cavanaugh notes, this signals the demise of Christian eschatology – “There can be no rupture with the status quo, no inbreaking Kingdom of God, but only endless superficial novelty.”[62] However, it is precisely this eschatology that Christians must reject. There is an alternative, the Kingdom of God that is confessed, and received as a gift, by Christians.[63] For this reason (and the others listed above), Christians must reject the notion that they must work within capitalism as the only viable, albeit “second best,” option.
Finally, the result of these different theological doctrines, is two contradictory anthropologies. Of course, as the biblical witness reminds us, it is no surprise that this result should occur as anthropology is a subcategory of theology and fundamentally related to worship (i.e. one will become the sort of being that reflects the nature of that which one worships).[64] Here is the contrast: Christianity presents people as beings created in and for relationship, whereas capitalism presents people as individual units of capital. The Christian God, as a Triune God, exists in and for relationship. Consequently, people, who collectively bear this image, also exist in and for relationship.[65] Furthermore, because God exists as Giver, to be in the image of God is also to be a giver of gifts.[66] Consequently, the way in which Christians relate to the other undergoes a fundamental shift. As Moltmann argues: “I become truly free when I open my life for other people and share with them, and when other people open their lives for me and share with me. Then the other person is no longer the limitation of my freedom; he is an expansion of it.”[67] Capitalism, however, by presenting people as individual units of capital, offers a very different anthropology, one that treats people as things.[68] Perhaps the most striking example of the results of capitalism’s anthropology is the way in which globalization has operated as a massive catalyst for human trafficking, wherein the notion of the person-as-commodity comes most fully into its own.[69] However, capitalism does not only dehumanize people by treating them as things, it also dehumanizes people by making them into solitary individuals. Once the individual is divorced from the community, and is understood to exist apart from relationships with others, then dehumanization is already well established. The result of this is endless competition and the view of the other as both limit and threat.
Having completed this overview of the theological differences between Christianity and capitalism-as-paganism, it should be clear why a reformed version of capitalism is not desirable. Paganism cannot be reformed. It can only be abandoned for the worship of the one true God. Consequently, if Christians are to confront capitalism as it appears today in neoclassicism, they must be rooted in that true worship. In light of these things, it is worth recalling these words from Gregory of Nyssa: “Concepts create idols. Only wonder understands.”[70]
[30] This is a point made by both David Loy and Dwight N. Hopkins. Loy, arguing from a functional perspective, asserts that the Market, by teaching us about the world and our role therein, has replaced the function of religion (“The Religion of the Market,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65:2 [1997]: 275-90), and Hopkins arguing from a structural and doctrinal angle explores the god, institutions, theological anthropology, values, theology, and means of revelation found within globalization (“The Religion of Globalization,” The Other Journal 5 [April 2005]. Accessed 3 November 2007. Online: While agreeing with the basic insights of Loy and Hopkins, this paper chooses to examine capitalism-as-religion from another angle.
[31] Cf. 1 Cor 10.20; 15.26; 2 Cor 4.4; Gal 4.8-9; Eph 6.12; Col 1.13; 2.15, 20. For an excellent exploration of the role this language plays in Paul’s theology cf. Walter Wink, The Powers, Vol. 1, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984). Such Powers were never intended to be understood as spiritual rather than physical, but were always understood as both spiritual and physical (cf. Walter Wink, The Powers, Vol. 2, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986], 5).
[32] For a direct correlation of the ‘principalities and powers’ with ‘the invisible hand of the market’ cf. N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 14-16.
[33] New Tasks for a Renewed Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992), 31.
[34] The Spirit of Life, 138-39. Moltmann argues that neoclassicism, as a world-wide economic order, has become sin in a supra-national form and, although created by our choice and perpetuated by our habits, it now operates through compulsion.
[35] Religion and Empire: People, Power, and the Life of the Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 133. Walter Brueggemann refers to this as the religion of “technological, therapeutic, military consumerism” (Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church [Louisville: WJKP, 2007], 63.
[36] On Mammon as the god of contemporary culture cf. N. T. Wright, New Tasks for a Renewed Church, 36; Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 100.
[37] Cf. Sobrino, xxx, 132; N. T. Wright, New Tasks for a Renewed Church, 32, 130.
[38] Cf. Daniel M. Bell Jr., Liberation Theology After the End of History: the refusal to cease suffering (London: Routledge, 2001), 11.
[39] Cf. Mortimer Arias, Announcing the Reign of God: Evangelization and the Subversive Memory of Jesus (Lima, OH.: Academic Renewal Press, 2001), 69-82; Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, trans. by Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1984), 107-13; Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 85-93; Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 28-37.
[40] Volf, 28. Indeed, as David A. DeSilva notes, the word ‘grace’, within the first-century context, was a secular word that spoke of a relationship of ongoing reciprocity where favour always gave birth to favour, and giving to further giving (Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000], 104-106, 117).
[41] Indeed, as Jacques Derrida demonstrates, it cannot even imagine the possibility of the gift (cf. Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. by Peggy Kamuf [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992]).
[42] Cf. The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus, Vol. 3, ed. by E. A. Wrigley and David Sonden (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1986), 363-64. Malthus goes on to write the following: “A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get his subsistence from his parents on whom he had a just demand, and if society does not want his labour, has no claim of right to get the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is” (438).
[43] Volf, 14; cf. Walter Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 31.
[44] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 203; cf. 482-83; 529, 559, 562.
[45] Ibid., 547
[46] Brueggemann, Mandate to Difference, 5; cf. Jn 10.10; Mt 14.13-21/Mk 6.30-44/Lk 9.10-17/Jn 6.1-13; Mt 15.29-39/Mk 8.1-13; Acts 4.34. Probably the most humourous example of this abundance is one Jesus is scolded for not paying the Temple tax and so he sends one of his disciples to catch a fish that will contain, in its mouth, the money necessary for the tax (Mt 17.27)! Here, then, one is able to meet the first objection raised by A. M. C. Waterman in his article, “Economists on the Relation Between Political Economy and Christian Theology: A Preliminary Survey” in International Journal of Social Economics, 14.6 (1987): 46-68. As a Christian one meets the objections raised by the “dominance of scarcity” by, a priori, rejecting that dominance and affirming abundance.
[47] Cf. Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, trans. by Chris Turner, Theory Culture, and Society, ed. Mike Featherstone (London: SAGE, Publications, Ltd., 1998), 26.
[48] Cf. Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God:The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 318.
[49] Friedman, 15; et passim; it is telling that Hayek opens The Road to Serfdom with the following quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville: “I should have loved freedom, I believe, at all times, but in the time in which we live I am ready to worship it” (vi, emphasis added).
[50] Cf. Friedman, passim; Hayek, passim.
[51] The System of Objects, trans. by James Benedict, Radical Thinkers Set 1 (London: Verso, 1996), 151-52. Baudrillard has made this point in various ways on a number of occasions (The Consumer Society, 72; Fragments: Cool Memories III: 1990-1995, trans. Emily Agar, Radical Thinkers Set 2 [London: Verso, 1997], 122) as have several other thinks; cf. Barber, 72, 98, 237, 243; Naomi Klein, Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2002), 46; Slavoj Zizek, Lacan, How to Read (London: Granta Books, 2006), 12; Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 105.
[52] On choice and resignation, cf. Cavanaugh, “The Unfreedom of the Free Market”. Domination of this sort is Walter Wink’s description of Paul’s view of pagan life under the Powers (cf. The Powers, Vol. 3, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992], 52-62).
[53] Precisely because this new creation is related to all things, it must be noted that the Christian notion of salvation is applied to all areas of life, including economics (cf. Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, trans. Margaret Kohl [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993], 173.
[54] “We trust with perfect security that the freedom of trade… will always supply us with [whatever] we have occasion for” (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, IV.i.11).
[55] Of course, the “neo-evangelist” of neoclassicism is Francis Fukuyama (cf. The End of History and the Last Man [New York: Avon Books, Inc., 1993]). On Fukuyama as a gospel-bearing “neo-evangelist” cf. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, 70-85; and, implicitly, Sobrino, 32.
[56] The Consumer Society, 49. After all, as John Stuart Mill asserts, surely God’s greatest desire is “the happiness of his creatures” (Utilitarianism [Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1979], 21.
[57] After Virtue: a study in moral theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 62.
[58] This observation has been made by several philosophers. Baudrillard argues that we now have “no right not to be happy” (The Consumer Society, 80), and Zizek argues that “permitted enjoyment” has turned into “ordained enjoyment” where enjoyment now functions as an ethical duty (i.e. people now feel guilty, not for violating moral inhibitions, but for not being able to enjoy themselves) (cf. The Fragile Absolute, 133; Lacan, 104).
[59] Cf. N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 221-22, 237.
[60] This is the point that Fukuyama makes time and time again.
[61] Cf. Robert W. McChesney’s introduction in Chomsky, Profit Over People, 8; Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 219; Galbraith, 396; Marcos, 31.
[62] “Consumption, the Market, and the Eucharist,” in The Other Journal 5 (April 2005). Accessed 3 November 2007. Online:
[63] Cf. Daniel M. Bell, Jr., “What is Wrong with Capitalism? The Problem with the Problem of Capitalism,” in The Other Journal 5 (April 2005). Accessed 3 November 2007. Online:
[64] On worship as that which defines that state of one’s humanity cf. N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Saul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 136-40. With all the talk about the loss of the imago dei found within Christian criticisms of capitalism, it is surprising that most (all?) of the critics never then go on to ask the following question: if capitalism does violence to the imago dei within us, and prevents us from embodying that image, into whose image does capitalism form us? The point is that people are never imageless – they are always being formed into the image of someone or something. Indeed, when we receive our image from our possessions, from brand-identities, and so forth, the appropriate name for this is idolatry.
[65] That the image of God is found in humanity as a collective is made clear in Gen 1.27.
[66] Volf, 49, 59-67.
[67] Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, trans. by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 215-16, emphasis added; cf. The Spirit of Life, 118.
[68] For this reason, Bell Jr. argues that discussions about how well capitalism works miss the point because, at its core, capitalism deforms human desire and distorts human relationships (“What is Wrong with Capitalism?”). Such a dehumanized understanding of people is especially evident in the writings of Gary S. Becker when he discusses issues like drug addiction (cf. Gary S. Becker, Kevin M. Murphy, and Michael Grossman, “The Economic Theory of Illegal Goods: The Case of Drugs,” Working Paper 10976. Accessed 3 November 2007. Online:, the family and charity (cf. “A Theory of Social Interactions,” Working Paper 42. Accessed 3 November 2007. Online:; The Economic Approach to Human Behavior [Chicago: Chicago The University of Chicago Press, 1976]).
[69] Human Trafficking now makes more than twelve billion dollars annually by moving more than two million people both within countries and across borders into other countries. It is the fastest growing form of organized crime and the third most profitable (next only to the sale of illegal weapons and drugs); cf. Victor Malarek, The Natashas: Inside the Global Sex Trade (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2003); Louisa Waugh, Selling Olga: Stories of Human Trafficking and Resistance (London: Phoenix, 2006).
[70] Quoted by Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 73.

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