I like doing more than having. Anti-consumerism just seems right to me. To be a lover of God and humanity more than a lover of things, to be a Christ follower who chooses abstracts like love and peace over crass commercial objects--this world view feels, to me, like a soft blanket I just discovered in my closet. On most days Henry David Thoreau feels legit.
But my house is full of those same crass objects I claim to dislike. I bought a new messenger bag the other day when I already have two, and I was certain that the made-in-China wooden bird I bought for my kitchen table would make my house feel, you know, more bohemian. The capitalists who have custom-built their jacked-up mansions along the bluffs outside my city have also bankrolled dozens of charities and helped pay my salary as a public school teacher. In short, the paradoxes of capitalism are keeping me up at night, especially in an election year. To make things worse, most of the Christians I know don't see the paradoxes at all.
I am no economist, but it seems one can't avoid the cause and effect between greed and capitalism. What would happen if all the corporate moneygrubbers fell to their knees in repentance this year and became philanthropists? Truth is, most of the things that I enjoy in my home were made by companies whose founders, at some point, were hungry for a profit. What man finds meaning and pleasure in manufacturing toilet paper or aluminum siding, for example, just for the joy of it? So, if God wants all of us to share, conserve, reduce, and give away, what would become of America? Someone else’s greed has enabled folks to live like Thoreau or Trump, and all the places in between.
Now this leads me other things that give me a headache. What if every family in America was sincerely convicted to withhold its money from the Big Box retail conglomerates and give it away to noble foreign causes? No doubt, the Targets and Best Buys and Wal-Marts would collapse, leaving many manufacturers to fire their employees. Ah, but there’s the catch, for if man’s heart were pure around the world, then noble capitalists wouldn’t need to patch up war-torn refugees or rescue victims in the first place. Nor would I give away my old clothes to the homeless, for under God’s principles, the complex conditions leading to homelessness wouldn’t exist.
And what if all the abortion clinics suddenly adopted God’s view of the sanctity of life? If we would reverse every abortion in American this year, imagine the economic impact all those children (many of them in situations of poverty and dysfunction) would have on our culture? But there we go again, for if we were really doing things God’s way, then many of those desperate children wouldn’t have been desperate in the first place (nor even conceived in an unhallowed place, for that matter) . . . and so goes our endless rewind. Every charitable act is predicated on the sin that required it. If that doesn’t blow your mind, read that sentence again.
I don't like discovering that sin seems to be intimately associated with the American Dream, the dream that I was taught to believe in. I’m a product of this centuries-old year national experiment, finding value and comfort in a world with good roads and clean water and entertainment and a sturdy paycheck and light bulbs that go on and off on command. Profit and innovation and greed and curiosity and convenience and narcissism and sin get so mixed up together that I can’t figure out how to get to the beginning of the string. So when I say a sweet prayer with my kids at night that goes something like “Thank you, God, for blessing us with a warm house and food to eat,” it’s starting to feel positively weird. Should I not pray instead, “Thank you, God, that American self-absorption and corporate greed paved the way to our comfort”?
The more I unravel this ball of yarn, the more confused I become. The what-ifs are keeping me awake, and I keep going back and back and back to the beginning of the problem, trying to figure out God’s purposes. And you know where I end up? The Garden of Eden.
That’s the only place where all the bohemian dreams and political hopes can hope to thrive, and I’m afraid we already missed that train. I understand a little better why hippies wanted to shut out all the capitalist noise, and why human beings dream up utopian societies. We’re all trying to get back to the Garden of Eden, if you ask me.
Perhaps capitalism is the best we’ve got in a fallen world. You may argue that nothing on the ideological menu looks very good to you, including democracy and its free enterprise system, but the alternatives--such as dictatatorship, poverty, injustice, and civil war--will give us food poisoning. The same economic system that allows us to squash the little guy and over-consume also allows us to generously love our fellow man, here and around the world. Sin might be part of the human equation, but with Jesus’ help, I’m doing my darndest to make it not so.
It’s complicated and I’m sure somebody’s got a 400-page book they can recommend. But I’m an essayist, trying to frame a complex idea in a tightly constructed space. Right now I see only way to frame this national economic puzzle: original sin always gets us into trouble and God’s grace always gets us out.
I doubt that Romney's or Obama's advisors will put that into a stump speech. Like the political bumper sticker, easy answers fade as quickly as that Romney sign on the back of that pick-up come February. No political candidate can manipulate the American economic system into making us good, decent, generous, or wise. Obama's policies will not make every rich man generous; Romney's policies will not make every poor man responsible. In a world that feels out of control, we like to imagine an election means more than it is.
My most important political move might not be in November, although I take seriously my civic duty. But it seems even wiser for everyone who claims allegiance to Christ to re-examine his own economic policies at home and in his heart. Will we find Jesus there?