It is with the utmost trepidation that I even begin an essay about Christianity and capitalism. I have only been studying Christianity for the last six years, but I have been studying capitalism in various ways every since I was sent to Guatemala and El Salvador in the early-mid eighties. More on that in a moment.
My disinclination to take it on as a topic for any kind of public discussion is a result of that long period of study, which proved to me that the category is slippery, widely misunderstood, hotly contested, changeable, and wrapped in hundreds of years of ideological mystification.
I already know the liberal conservative take, because I was born into a liberal conservative family, and was for a while a liberal conservative; and I already know the leftist take, because I was once a leftist; and I already know the anarchist take, because I have been around plenty of anarchists and read their literature with great interest; and likewise I am familiar with feminist arguments – liberal, radical, and post-modern.
Long story short, every argument I am likely to encounter about capitalism – pro, con, or simply critical – I have encountered at one point or another, including the standard set of conditioned reflexes we learn in school, home, and following the popular media.
I know a long list of standard responses - including the schools of thought that gave rise to them, and also including the philosophers of liberalism (which is capitalist philosophy) - Rawls and Nozick most recently, but the older ones too (Locke, Mill, Smith, the whole anglophone pantheon, and let's not exclude Mr Kant or Mr. Rousseau). I have already seen so many of the logical fallacies that are likely to be deployed, as well as the cogent arguments that run up against one another simply because they do not share any philosophical premises.
I really believe we need to have this conversation, especially in the United States, where Christians are loathe to discuss it except when they are apologizing for it enough not to scare anyone. I want to have the scary discussion, the one that suggests all may not be well, and many of the “alternatives” to various aspects of capitalism may not be much to write home about either.
I will not advocate for the “overthrow” of capitalism (it is doing a god job of that itself), nor will I advocate some to-scale, replacement-model system for it. Nonetheless, I am extremely critical of capitalism for some very Christian reasons, and I’d like other Christians to hear these arguments and engage the discussion in good faith.
"The Grand Vision for Everyone" is a seductive notion, including for anti-capitalists, but it usually leaves a trail of tears. We Christians ought to be able to say something informed about both – about what is problematic in the actually-existing social order, whatever you want to call it, and to also acknowledge that these Grand Visions are pregnant – by their sheer scale now – with all sorts of unpredictability, some of it evil – like the parts of it that claim we have to kill others to make things turn out right.
Christians ought to be thinking about what Christians in community (a) should do, and (b) can do, that we can be pretty sure it will relieve suffering and make peace, without resort to the domination of others. Sometimes it feels like many of us are trying to evade just that, and we can get right lawyerly about it – kind of a Scribes and Pharisees approach; and sometimes it seems like the mystification of reality is so thoroughgoing that it takes work to wade through it enough to get a handle on how things actually work. Both, I believe, are true, and together they constitute a kind of unseen-dominance within the culture.
Central America in the Reagan Eighties
About Guatemala and El Salvador, briefly, I was in the army back then, in the 80s.
I was in a very secretive unit in the army; and I spent time working out of the US Embassy in each of these places, where - at the time - my own employer, the United States government, was actively and secretly cooperating with some very, very bad people. These people routinely murdered other people who they felt threatened their wealth, and to retain political power, with the full knowledge and assistance of our government, including, I admit, myself, since I was there on behalf of my government.
One Salvadoran paramilitary unit, after murdering a whole family in their home, decapitated the entire family, including the children, placed the heads on plates arranged around the dinner table, and sat the headless corpses around the table. This was something the paramilitaries found humorous; and this was the mindset of many people on whom our taxes were squandered in support. My government facilitated this savage cruelty. That is not an opinion; it is a fact.
What I did not understand as clearly as I do now, prior to working at a US Embassy, is how US Embassies work, and what their priorities were. I had assumed that all the background violence was part of something that was primarily political (defeating communism maybe?), perhaps beyond my ken, and I was a mere instrument like other soldiers, and even like other soldiers who worked for very secretive units.
We were told that these people were bad during intelligence briefings, but we were also assured that without the help of these bad people, even worse people would come to power. You were probably told that, too, if you were around then.
I had resisted the idea that it was all about profit, because that just sounded like a polemic to me, and I had been to Vietnam, where I saw nothing profitable going on (though it turned out a few things were). We were bad people ourselves in Vietnam, as I found out. Vandalism, murder, and arson were part of our tactical repertoire... but maybe we were that bad because the other guys were so much worse. We didn't convince most of the Vietnamese of that, because we were so incredibly hard on them.
While working out of embassies in Guatemala and El Salvador, I had to follow the Ambassador's itinerary - for reasons I can't say without falling afoul of the law. And I noticed that the most frequent and important meetings for the "Old Man" were with the "host nation's" Chambers of Commerce.
Slow as I had been in the past, I had this epiphany.
These governments were waging war against poor people. My government was helping them. The war in Vietnam was against poor people - on the ground it certainly was. My government's top representative was really close to the Chambers of Commerce, who supported the wars on poor people. Maybe, just maybe, after all, this was about money, about making money, about profit! Something “capitalist” was going on here.
So by 1985, I had begun looking into this thing - capitalism; and I have been looking into it ever since.
Links to the whole series: