Brian McLaren identifies four laws of theocapitalism in Chapter 23 of Everything Must Change. We reviewed these in an earlier post. In chapters 25 and 26, he offers what he believes is Jesus’ challenge to each of theocapitalism’s four laws. We will take these one at time.
Theocapitalism Law #1: The Law of Progress Through Rapid Growth: “I believe in one god: Progress, maker of all that is, through rapid growth.”
Jesus’ Law #1: The Law of Good Deeds for the Common Good.
McLaren reminds us that Jesus did not consider the economy to be a bad thing. Jesus uses business images to describe the Kingdom of God. Money isn’t inherently dirty. Love of money is the problem.
Jesus envisions a truly new economy that is guided by a different framing story and that is, therefore, sustainable and not suicidal. The economy is “bound” to justice and not “free” of duties to neighbor and community. It is patient like a farmer who waits for his crops to mature and not in a rush for quick ill-gotten gain. In his economic system, the goal is fruitfulness, not consumption. (206-207)
Certainly the entire biblical narrative contains within it the pervasive idea that God is the ultimate owner of all there is and there are communal duties we owe to one another. However, I’m at a loss to know how one gets the idea of slow economic growth as a biblical principle. How does slowly discovering more efficient use of resources, slowly making improvements in worker productivity, and slowly expanding trade with others qualify as a more biblical model? This “slow model” is precisely what we’ve had for millennia with the overwhelming majority of people living at bare subsistence and enduring life expectancies at birth of 20-30 years. Why would we not try to expand the global economy as fast as possible, now that we have discovered how the cycle of prosperity works? I’m scratching my head here. My best guess is that McLaren equates economic growth with material resource consumption and he is trying to slow down the rate of material consumption. Certainly there will be greater resource consumption but economic growth is not a synonym for consumption.
McLaren spends some ink on the parable of “the rich fool” in Luke 12:13-21. His takeaway point is that we are to be rich toward God and, as illustrated in other passages, we do that by doing good deeds for others. We need to store up treasures for ourselves in heaven.
I believe McLaren overlooks a key point here. The problem is not that the man has amassed great wealth (in grain) but that he is using his wealth for no productive purpose. He can not possibly eat all he has stored, but neither is trading with others who might make use of it. He’d rather let others starve than trade or act charitably, because he has put his trust in his wealth. McLaren writes:
So, for Jesus, the goal is not amassing capital; the goal is amassing a portfolio of good deeds, good deeds particularly identified with care for the poor. For Jesus, exclusive concern for one’s self-interest qualifies one as a “fool.” (208)
In the case after case, Jesus calls people to repent and defect from the goal of growing their personal wealth portfolios, and instead calls them to grow their good deeds portfolios for the common good, especially the good of the poor and marginalized. The result will be qualitative improvement in the lives of everyone. (208)
But unlike the rich fool, most people who amass wealth in capitalist systems are not parking their wealth in a barn where it has no impact on others. Their wealth is invested with enterprises that create jobs and make opportunities for others to experience wealth formation. Their invested wealth creates a system where others can be employed and meet their own needs with dignity.
Who has the opportunity to do more deeds for the poor? The one who carefully invests resources, amasses wealth, and thereby has a steady stream of income to make available to the poor, or the person who does a one shot liquidation of assets and takes a vow of poverty to help the poor? Which one creates jobs and opportunities versus creating dependency? I don’t believe that Jesus calls us to repent of building wealth portfolios but rather he calls us to build them within the context of community and of seeking the welfare of others. One of the most important economic deeds someone can do is create a job for another. Amassing wealth and doing good deeds for others are not mutually exclusive.
Now in the quote above, McLaren uses the phrase “common good,” a favorite of his throughout the later part of the book. He writes:
The way of the kingdom of God calls people to a higher concern than self- or national interest: namely, concern for the common good. And for Jesus, achieving the bottom line of profit and financial success without concern for the common good qualifies one uniquely – not for the heaven of the Fortune 500 – but for hell. (208)
I think I understand what McLaren is trying to get at here but I have a problem with the idea of doing what is in the “common good.” Asking others to do what is in the common good is like my financial advisor telling me to only invest in stocks that will significantly appreciate in value. It is thoroughly accurate and virtually useless advice. How do I know which stocks are the ones that will appreciate in value? Similarly, how do I know which actions are in the common good? Is simply intending to help the common good sufficient?
I don’t find Jesus or the Bible asking us to contribute to the common good. In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul attempts to shame the Corinthians into giving to an offering he is taking for the church in Jerusalem by pointing out how the poor Macedonians have given generously. Were there not poor people in Corinth, or Macedonia for that matter? Why is Paul not telling them to give to poor, or the common good, in their own cities?
What we generally observe in the New Testament is that assistance primarily goes to the poor who are part of, or in some relationship to, the faith community. The good deeds are not done to some abstraction or statistical grouping called “the poor.” The deeds are to people known to the community of believers. It is the treatment of the poor in their midst that draws others to the community.
While there may be sound reasons for some wealth redistribution at the societal and international level (and I think there clearly are), I think it is erroneous to confuse this activity with the teaching about doing good deeds. We are not capable of knowing well what is in the common good but we can have a sense of what others need who are in relationship to us. If you multiply the number of communities behaving virtuously toward each other, then you develop multiple cells of good deed doers, each attuned to their own unique contexts. That is what restores a health of society. This causes me to return to a concern I highlighted in an earlier post:
When laws, taxes, the press, and courts fail to address human suffering and inequity, impromptu organizations spring up to supplement the equity system – nongovermental organizations, charities, and the like – organized to alleviate suffering through a range of interventions and projects. (56)
McLaren sees the prosperity system as a top-down macro operation where intermediate institutions spring up on in case of failure. Thus, when I read his passages about being willing to help the common good I’m unclear about what he means. Does being willing to do what is in the common good mean the relational help to the poor I’ve described? Or does it mean willingly supporting high taxation and significant government wealth redistribution so that the highest level of government can do their job as primary caretakers of the poor?
We are confronted here with the issue of subsidiarity, an idea in Christian ethics which holds that problems should be dealt with at the most localized levels of society with broader institutions supporting more localized institutions under them, intervening either to restore health when there is dysfunction or to address those issues that more localized bodies are not capable of addressing themselves. I’m concerned what we have here is the reverse of subsidiarity where the government defines what is the common good and all other institutions are ancillary entities that exist to support governments role. Our “doing good deeds” primarily becomes the payment of taxes or the appropriation of other’s wealth through taxation. It becomes about voting for the right social policy we believe to be in the “common good.”
McLaren also writes:
Herman Daly defines sustainable development in exactly these terms: “development without growth beyond environmental carrying capacity, where development means qualitative improvements and growth means quantitative increase.” He says, “The path of future progress is development, not growth.” He calls this new path, not merely an economic system, but “an art of living” and “and ethic.” (208-209)
This bifurcation between “development” and “growth” strikes me as a false dichotomy. When we purchase a service we are rarely purchasing a quantitative increase. We are purchasing a qualitative change to our lives where someone more qualified than we are performs a task for us or we are free our time for other pursuits by having others do work for us. Robert William Fogel points out that the rising expenditures in healthcare as percentage of a family’s budget is not necessarily a sign of a problem. It means that people are now economically elevated to the point that they are turning their resources toward purchase of these qualitative goods. Purchase of these goods is driving innovation and the expansion of these qualitative goods. One might expect similar investments in qualitative services like counseling or life coaching. Increase in services is economic growth every bit as much as is the sale of material goods.
McLaren closes out this section talking about some international business leaders.
They are defecting from the undercover religion of theocapitalism and embracing a creed of economic sustainability (rather than maximum short-term profit), ecological sustainability, and social sustainability (which takes into account the preservation of families, communities, cultures, and other non-economic dimensions of life). (209)
I’ll have more to say about this “triple bottom line” concept later.