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Capitalism informs how we share, but it isn't the only option
I want to start with this quotation from a book that influenced me quite a bit: The Economy of Desire by Daniel Bell.
“… the habits we learn as consumers in the market economy tend to carry over to other dimensions of life. Thus we are conditioned to approach religion as a commodity, as just another consumer good alongside toothpaste and vacation homes. Think, for instance, of the commonplace practice of ‘church shopping.’ This is to say, capitalism encouraged a shallow, decontextualized engagement with religious beliefs… These objections do not require anything of me; they entail no particular commitment or engagement. They do not bind me to any particular people or community. Rather, they function only to serve the end(s) or purpose(s) I choose, which, in the case of religious choices, might include shoring up my self-image as ‘spiritual,’ or provide meaning amid the stresses of my middle-class life or the right values of my children.” (p. 21)
In his book, The Economy of Desire, Daniel Bell critiques capitalism using the theories of anticapitalistic philosophers (in this case, Deleuze and Foucault). Rather than merely siding with their Marxist philosophies, he presents a radical alternative to capitalism: the divine economy. Using the tools at his disposal, he manages to deconstruct capitalism and not just form another philosophical alternative. In fact, those alternatives (like socialism, anarchism, communism), Bell argues, are often still absorbed by the capitalist system, and subsequently repackaged and marketed for profit—consider the revolutionary work of Che Guevara, who is known more as an image plastered on T-shirts than as a revolutionary.
Can a Christian exist in the pluralistic, postmodern capitalist landscape? Does capitalism offer a home for Christians? Bell’s answer is decidedly no. Without Christians creating an alternative, capitalism subjects everyone to its will. Truly, we cannot serve two masters. Whether that means we become church shoppers or we simply look for what we are getting out of worship, making sure it meets our needs (needs that perhaps aren’t actually ours, but are what the advertisers have told us are ours) remains to be seen.
Christians are not to merely exist in a system, or be tucked away in our own intentional commune letting the authorities oppress, injure, and dominate us. Our divine response, though not integrated into the capitalist system nor directly combating it, is so radical that it changes the environment and even the very desires that the machine propagates.
Consider your daily life. How much has capitalism influenced you? It’s important to start our process knowing that capitalism is generally sinister in its goals, as well as secretive and covert in how it accomplishes them. One who has declared to follow Jesus, may need to resist the temptation to become a cog in the capitalist machine — that’s not so easy.
We could make our own consideration of capitalism another product of the rat race—this time, rather than not being wealthy enough, we could not be pious enough, still caught in “not enough.” Grace, forgiveness, and understanding — especially of oneself, subverts the capitalist notion that what we have is not good enough.
Resist that temptation, but still take inventory of your life and wonder about how you can move out of the capitalist economy and into the divine economy. Your analysis doesn’t have to be exhaustive. But try to find at least one thing you can change—a script that the capitalists have sold you that you can undo. When you discover that script, rewrite it in a way that honors God and his endless love. For instance: “I am what I own” moves to “I belong to God.” Or, “I deserve what I work for” moves to “Grace is the free gift of God.”
I think the main script I want to undo here is about how we participate in the church. I think, like Bell notes, the church has been commoditized just like everything else in the capitalist system. It’s packaged, sold, and distributed. I’m not sure that people need something else to consume. We are so overly consumed. We have endless appetites, stretched out proverbial stomachs, that can take a lot of material and content! Even as I am writing this: I have Facebook open, a Twitter application open, listening to sports talk radio, and meanwhile I have a phone with dozens of apps distracting and pulling me in all sorts of directions. I have so many TV shows to watch sometimes I get stressed out when I am behind on them! For the “church service” to just be another show is a little banal. It lacks the competitive edge.
So, for me, I don’t have a commitment to making sure I’m more entertaining than Mad Men, because I want to offer something that’s more than merely consumable. I want to offer an opportunity to connect to something bigger than who we are as individuals. You are not what you own. But I think you are the church.
This “theology” is crucial, so I am going to be as redundant as possible. This isn’t a product you buy, it isn’t a company you work for, it’s a community, filled with the Spirit, that you are part of. That you are. You own the church. And not just a part of it, like a stockholder hoping for a great return on investment. You own all of it. And I think we are responsible for it.
So, the entire paradigm is shifted and that brings us to the heart of our discussion. Church is not something that you consume, community isn’t something that you sample, it’s something that you participate in.
So with that in mind, the fundamental “economic” principle that frames our community is one of the first lines of our Cell Plan: there is enough love to go around. This is, in fact, a subversive statement for two reasons: 1) Our economy is based on scarcity. Things derive their value from how rare they are. 2) There was actually a period of time where people believed that God’s love was only distributed to the people he selected.
We’re going in a whole different direction. There is enough to go around. That’s why we can grow cells without losing something. We don’t have to hold on to the little bit that we have and not share it.
So I think fundamental to being a community, being in a community, and forming community is sharing love, sharing yourself. I think this is hard to do for the reasons we’ve already been talking about. We have many things vying for our attention and, honestly, the church is probably the easiest thing to let go by the wayside. Circle of Hope, in particular, is a safe place and that safety permits you to not give it your all. A lot of times we are so conflict avoidant that even if you are mailing it in, no one will confront it.
For me, the three big things that we need to learn to share in common are our time, our money, and our heart.
Our time is valuable. It is demanded all of the time. There are books committed to making us use our time most effectively. And for many people, our time is limited. Certainly our time on earth is limited and so I think it is crucial to learn how to use it effectively and manage it well. Just like any finite resource, you can squander your time on a variety of things, and I think the worse we manage it the more stress we conjure up, and the more likely we are to be “stingy” with it. Sometimes our two-year-old takes it from us.
So, I think in order to share our time, we need to learn how to manage it. But before that, we may need to believe that there is enough to go around, especially if we are disciplined about it. You may want to consider how much you want to rest so that you can maximize the time you have when you are “on.” The church and our commitments can quickly feel like burdensome obligations if we are tired because we were over-worked that week, we stayed up too late, if our spouse was unsupportive, if our roommates didn’t do their share of the labor.
So use your time wisely and begin to invest in things that you feel passionate about. And when the passion fades, try to discern why that is, and maybe you’ll be compelled to “fake it, until you make it.” Other times, you may need to let something go and see what else God has in store for you.
Sharing our money can feel similar to time. We never feel like we have enough, it is easy to squander, sometimes we owe money, so our debt and interest rates oppress us. Money is complicated. And yet, it is something of a necessary evil. Sometimes we frame contributing to our common fund as a way of doing our part in keeping the lights on, or something.
But I think sharing our money does something to us, too. It loosens money’s grip on us. It makes us not so accountable to it. It changes our perception. I think our generosity changes us. And in fact, giving to the common fund helps you learn where your priorities are. How much are you investing in relieving the debt anxiety by making double- and triple-payments? How much do you go out to eat? How much money are you putting into your house? What matters to you? Jesus tells us where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Making a budget is a good way to consider that.
The issue with “tithing” is that it gives us the false impression that once we give what we owe to God to God, we can use the rest of our money however we want. But I want us to consider the idea that everything is God’s and once we give it all to God, there won’t be any left for Caesar or for us. Jesus talks about money quite a bit, so it’s clear that it has always had a seductive quality to it. So the struggle with how we use it, manage it, and give it away is real. I think sharing it in common is a great way to allow it to control you less.
Finally, though, is our heart. This is a little less tangible, but still as important. Where does your passion go? What consumes our emotion? Anxiety? Depression? What gets your attention? For me, I am passionate about almost everything that I like. In fact, I won’t really get into something if I don’t love it. I can love lots of things, so this isn’t a very good limiting criteria.
But we do have a limited amount of passion, and I think we need to allow God to inform what we are passionate about. I think Jesus is jealous for our passion. Investing in what we’re passionate about in the Body of Christ is a great way to get passionate about the Body of Christ.
We’re looking for partners in what we are doing. That’s a high demand. I want you to consider that partnership as you connect, knowing, honestly, however you are able to connect is OK. You may not be there yet, and you may never get there. That’s OK. I’m willing to meet you where you are. So is God.