Should Preaching Confront Capitalism?
Should preaching confront capitalism? With the recent popularity of topic based preaching we have heard sermons on financial stewardship, earthly versus heavenly treasure and of course, the importance of tithing. What would happen if preachers moved beyond this and challenged the very system that underpins our economic existence? Could, and more importantly, should we?
Before beginning it is important to define terms. Though there is no single definition of capitalism, it is widely understood to be an economic system based on the private ownership of services or products used for the creation of profit, thus, by its very nature, is a “hyper-abstract impersonal structure.” Its domination of the western world is near absolute for, as White, a leading secular economist, stated, the defining battle is no longer between capitalism and socialism but simply between different versions of capitalism; entrenched into England by Thatcher’s belief that, “there is no alternative!” So why should capitalist systems concern preachers?
Preachers Putting Capitalism on the Couch: The Motivation for my Hypothesis
Capitalism has permeated nearly every aspect of western society, most obviously through its “system of equivalence” whereby everything is seen in monetary value, whether it is sites of natural beauty or the church’s contribution to society. The capitalist ideology is so pervasive it has become the air we breathe and the glasses through which we view the world, leading Deleuze and Guattari to describe it as the “unnameable thing.”
Capitalism is rightly credited with many technology advances and the enormous increase in economic productivity; for many not posing a problem for the contemporary Christian. In fact, a recent American poll found forty-six percent of Americans with household incomes of $100,000 per annum or more believe that capitalism is consistent with Christian values. What is interesting to note is the same poll found only twenty-three percent of those with household incomes of $30,000 per annum or less found this to be the case; a profound difference. A large proportion of the working class, and around half the wealthier class, in western society, all be it measured using American statistics, are concerned that the dominant economic system may not be compatible with their Christian faith.
Thankfully we have heard preachers confront inequalities of gender, race and sexuality, because of a perceived biblical mandate, but when did you last hear a sermon about capitalism and class? Yes, on occasion, on marginalisation, though that is often to do with first generation immigrants, or on social exclusion, but what about class exploitation? Possibly we have on turning the other cheek to the boss at work, the person who exploits you by expecting long hours for little pay, but what if the blame was not on pathological managers exploiting their workers, rather that the system itself, capitalism, was pathological and explicatory? This happens on both a global and local scale, both of which should concern the preacher.
The Effects of Capitalism: Global and Local
2008 saw the greatest financial crisis of living memory. Within a year, capitalist countries of Europe, North America and Asia had spent outright or exposed themselves to significant financial risk, totalling well over $10 trillion, in order to save the system. Now compare that to the $195 billion the United Nations estimate it would cost to eradicated all forms of poverty, malaria and AIDS from the third world. As a society, of which Christians and the church are a part, we have allowed policy makers to decide capitalism is significantly worth more to save from itself than releasing tens of millions of people from daily suffering and premature death.
The local level of capitalism is equally disturbing. Marx, famously, observed the alienation caused by capitalism in creating estranged relationships to people and objects; that of producing something they did not own, causing them to be permanently unhappy. A persuasive critique, especially for preachers who proclaim the gospel of the death and resurrection, that has made a right relationship for us with God, creation and each other but one this article does not have space to develop.
However, as preachers with pastoral concern for our congregations, we regularly meet with families buckling under the pressure of both parents having to work; we see those leaving our education system without a rounded approach to life or understanding of religion because schools are so orientated towards producing the next generation of workforce and, very sadly, we see the hedonic depressed, especially in young people. This, James convincingly proposes, is a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism.
If we could conduct a survey of our congregation’s thoughts as they entered the church building on a Sunday morning, what would be their concerns? From experience, I would suggest the threat of losing their jobs, being unable to afford their mortgage, being too tired from work to engage with church, concerns about not seeing their children enough or competition in their workplace for the next promotion. Dare I suggest that within church they see each other as competitors for position and power, even viewing other churches as rivals as they deliver the same “product”? Atheist Karl Marx himself described capitalism as having “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour…”
Admittedly very few members of our congregations may bemoan capitalism for these negative effects, but could that be because it is so transcendent that we do not notice? As preachers, we explain the Bible to our hearers, encourage their prayer lives and commend them to volunteer for more programmes but I suggest we must take this further. We must become therapists, with our capitalist patients on the couch; allowing space to hear their concerns, while preparing our sermons to address them; teasing out fears and anxieties that may be supressed inside the patient, those of capitalism, the “unnameable thing,” thus giving language to what the congregation is facing.
The Role of the Preacher: Soothing the Pain?
After observing some of the pain caused by the capitalist system, the question still remains; should preaching confront capitalism? We have partially answered this in saying ‘yes’, because its effects are of concern to our congregations, but do preachers have something more to offer than just pastoral care from the pulpit?
The word God is powerful, one which disturbs the present arrangements (Gen 1), liberates the people of God, in some cases liberating them from the social oppression caused by Pharaoh, who refuses to let the people go because he would lose cheap labour (Ex 5:1).
However Zizek, a critical materialist, has seen little evidence of this from preachers, leading him to accuse the Christian faith of only being interested in the details. The kind of God we proclaim is interested “in the overall drabness and indifference of the universe…[a God who gives] a kind smile here, an unexpected helpful gesture there…” We may have become “chaplains of the establishment” whereby God fits neatly within the worldview we protect.
Media and Preachers: Establishing and Subverting Reality
A communist understands the primary concern of the media to “normalise the unthinkable,” in their eyes making the alienation and oppression of the working class appear normal and un-changeable. Television is an incredible medium with which to communicate ideology but, as Postman warned, it quickly becomes the primary source of describing reality. Media outlets, which are nearly all owned by the wealthy, are able to overwhelm our congregations with the belief that everything is ok and the struggles we face are just part of life’s journey.
Amos, in the eight century BC, faced a similar problem. He lived in the prosperous reigns of Uzziah, in Judah, and Jeroboam II, in Israel, with economic growth and apparent prosperity not dissimilar to today’s western world. Amos’ words appear in stark contrast to the apparent reality around him when he attacks the social order and commends them to weep over the ruin of Joseph (Amos 6:4-6).Widely understood to refer to Israel, Joseph’s ruin was not yet visible to most.
Amos called into question the mistaken notion that we are “dutifully children of the empire, so that our proper destiny is to conform politically, submit economically, obey morally whatever power is in charge.” Thus not only should preachers be soothing the pain caused by the empire and its systems but also offering a prophetic critique of the reality it puts forth. Should a preacher not be telling his congregation that their worth is not found in their productivity or monetary value but in being made in the image of God (Gen 1:27)?
Therapist, Pastor, Critic and Community Creator: The Preacher’s New Paradigm
This new paradigm lies within the Old Testament’s prophetic tradition and Brueggemann’s use of the metaphor of exile to describe the current Christian reality. It understands the preacher as the one who encourages the congregation in fresh engagement with both the Bible and the world around them. Preaching must involve a “missional imagination” whereby they see taken-for-granted situations anew and critique the present reality.
We have had enough preaching filled with condemnation and anger, instead the critic is not simply denouncing what we do not believe but is showing that the other gods make false claims to authority and power. The preacher is a therapist who teases out the hearer’s concerns, sooths their wounds with the word of God, critics the way things are and then finally proposes a new reality. This does not demand rummaging through the landfill site of failed utopias but fits into a wider understanding of church as an alternative community; one where preaching is understood as the primary method which God uses for the formation of his people. As Brueggemann so eloquently puts it, “The revolution to which the biblical community is summoned is to enact in the world of social affairs a new practise of social relationship marked by justice, mercy, and peace, which touches all of life.”
MacIntyre describes humans as essentially story telling animals, for to be human is to indwell a narrative. It is narrative that has the required ability of criticism and energising for the biblical community. The preacher is uniquely positioned in his ability to tell a new narrative to the one faced by his congregation because he has the unique narrative of the Bible in his hands. He is able to paint brush strokes of a God of mercy, one who cares for the widow and alien, who understands worth apart from monetary value and, in light of Jesus, understands what it is like to be oppressed by an unjust regime.
Conclusion: Moving to the Imperative
The original question posed was “Should preaching confront capitalism?”, to which I conclude preachers must confront capitalism. This is not a call for “social action” but to realise that prophetic challenge on global issues is required if we want to see real change to the local issues with daily face as shepherds. Of course there are limits to this discussion and many questions remain. Should this confrontation involve calling for better living and working conditions within the capitalist system or to destroy the entire system all together?
This discussion may also lead to the question, why specifically preachers? The church does not have a monopoly on truth telling. When writing about the Eastern Block, Alves believed the totalitarian regimes were most frightened of the artist because his subversive activity refuses to be content with the present understanding of things. The preacher has an unique ability to leave the congregation and the politician twitching in their seats with his poetry and prose, even atheist Zizek admitting nothing can replace religion in its ability to capture the imagination of the masses. The Old Testament, Jewish exile provoked some of the most daring theological articulation and challenging literature and so it must be with preachers today as we undertake “the playful entertaining of another scripting of reality that may subvert the old given text.” As Chesterton said of orthodoxy, people had a foolish habit of thinking it was “heavy, humdrum and safe.” Instead I propose it should be clown-like in its foolishness, imaginatively challenging the “unnameable thing.” This is not to say that preachers should turn away from the Bible or Christian theology to politics, rather that preachers should work with these in order to look out into the world our hearers inhabit. It is to show compassion towards our people, faithfulness towards our prophetic texts and to echo the groan of humanity that there must be more than this.