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The irreconcilability of capitalism & the gospel

Jonathan Cornford

Christianity versus Capitalism (Part 4)


In the previous four articles in this series, we have been gradually trying to unpack an understanding of the capitalist economic system, its history and its effects in the world. All the way through, I have been suggesting there is a fundamental tension between capitalism and Christianity, but I have not yet actually laid out that case. Today, we get to the nub of the matter. It is time to lay out in as bold a statement as possible the essence of the two systems, stripped of all the complexities that obscure our comprehension.

R.H. Tawney, the great English economic historian and Christian thinker, famously stated that, ‘Compromise is as impossible between the Church of Christ and the idolatry of wealth, which is the practical religion of capitalist societies, as it was between the Church and the State idolatry of the Roman Empire’. Tawney was a man who worked at the coalface of the economic problems of his time, engaging workers' movements, industry, government, academia and the general populace. He was a pragmatist who knew that trying to address social and economic problems involved uncertainties and complexities and invariably required compromises, and all his life he was involved in the messy, hands-on work of trying to improve the lot of Britain’s downtrodden. And yet, despite this strong strand of pragmatism, he never wavered from the view that capitalism and Christianity were incompatible.

In the years since Tawney (he died in 1962), there have been few public figures in the English-speaking world who have been able to maintain both his gritty, worldly understanding of economic and political realities, alongside of a prophetic vision of the Christian task in relation to capitalism. In the Christian world today, the questions posed by capitalism have become decidedly more muddy and most Christians are ambivalent as to what the Christian attitude should be.

In my most recent article (Dec 2017), I argued that, contrary to the dominant claim that capitalism is lifting the world out of poverty, the actual human and ecological cost of capitalism has in fact been unconscionable. But that is a debate dependent on sifting and interpreting vast masses of data and it can be argued back and forth endlessly. In this article, we turn to the deeper and more substantive matter of capitalism as a mode of being. Jesus described himself as ‘the Way’: following Christ is not a programme of action, but rather a way of being in the world. Capitalism, too, can be described as a way of being in the world and I will argue here that these two ‘ways’ are not only incompatible, they are antithetical. As Tawney once stated, and as we shall see, capitalism is, in fact, a counter-religion to the Christian gospel.

Capitalism as Mammon

Recognising the fundamental tension between capitalism and Christianity is not exactly theological rocket science. All you need to come to this conclusion is some familiarity with Jesus’ teachings (and those more broadly of the New Testament) on money and wealth. I have written at length on this subject in a series of four Manna Matters articles between May 2015 and May 2016, but to summarise briefly: (i) Money is named by Jesus as Mammon – a primal spiritual force in direct opposition to God; (ii) the New Testament maintains an almost univocal warning against the perils of accumulating money and wealth. Put like that, it seems a very stark assessment indeed, raising a whole host of questions about how we are to live in a world where money is essential. This is a complex question and it is maybe worth reading the final article in the series, ‘Money in the Kingdom of God’ (May 2016), for a fuller discussion; however, the upshot is that, once we dig deeper, we find that the teachings of Jesus are surprisingly positive and life-giving. Our present question, though, is to ask how these teachings bear on our view of capitalism.

I have described capitalism as the system of endless accumulation and relentless commodification – the process of continually monetising more and more dimensions of life so that they can be traded on the market. You do not need to be an Oxford theologian to realise that this bears a pretty close correlation to the idol of Mammon that is so powerfully named and denounced by Jesus. Essentially, capitalism takes means – money and the production of goods and wealth – and turns them into ends. Even more that, it bestows the forces that do this work (especially the market) with an almost irresistible and reverential quality, even though it is merely a human creation. We are being continually told that, whether we like it or not, the market is something that must be obeyed. This is a good definition of idolatry.

While it is reasonable to equate capitalism with Mammon, it does not follow that Mammon should be equated with capitalism – Mammon is a far broader and more subtle force that exists in all human systems and contexts, whether capitalist or not. The core temptations of money – the illusion of self-sufficiency and the power of self-gratification – remain true of life in the Roman Empire, the Islamic Caliphate, feudal Japan or even Soviet Russia. If Mammon is an archetypal genus of idolatry, capitalism is merely one sub-species. Nevertheless, once we have equated capitalism so closely with Mammon, as we must, the verdict is clear: ‘You cannot serve both God and Mammon’.

Capitalism as a Power

Once we have identified capitalism with Mammon, it also brings into view those teachings in the New Testament that discuss what Paul refers to as ‘the principalities and powers’. In advising the Christians in Ephesus to put on the ‘armour of God’, he reminds them that ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Eph 6:12). It is not exactly clear what Paul means by this, but many scholars suggest that Paul is not referring only to some purely supernatural satanic forces, but rather he is describing both the actual human structures of power (in this case, those of the Roman Empire) and the spirit that pervades those structures. Paul insists that these human and spiritual structures must be resisted by those seeking to follow God and that it will take the whole armour of God to do so.

Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the 20th Century, has described these as the ‘lordless powers’. They are powers of an ultimately human origin, but which have denied any recognition of a higher authority. Barth identified the two archetypal lordless powers as Leviathan – the myth of the sovereign state – and its close ally, Mammon. These become lordless powers when two necessary components of human life – political authority and economic systems – begin to take on their own laws and become forces which exert pressure on humanity to submit in obedience. Mammon is most virulent as a power in its most abstract form: money – the ultimate measure of value in modernity. For Barth, the obedience that Mammon can command makes it an ‘absolutist demon … not to mention what happens when Mammon meets and joins with that other demon, Leviathan’.

In the first article in this series, I argued that ever since a capitalist world-economy came into being at the close of the Mediaeval Age, it has been an ungoverned system that has itself largely governed governments and under which the forces of capital – abstract money – work largely symbiotically with the sovereign state. Just think of the extent to which, during the Global Financial Crisis, the most powerful nations in the world were beholden to the power of the finance market and how prepared governments were to sacrifice spending on health, education, welfare, aid and the environment in order to appease its demands. If this is not a lordless power, I don’t know what is.

An economy of desire

Just as Mammon has its own laws and theology, so too, we can say that capitalism has a theology. Daniel Bell has written an insightful account of the theology that underpins capitalism in his book, The Economy of Desire, drawing out the implications of a capitalist system for how we understand the identity and nature of both humanity and God, and how we understand the concepts of sin and salvation.

Bell argues that at the heart of a capitalist mode of being is the autonomous, independent individual who has an unfettered ability to make choices guided by no other purposes other than those coming from within the self. The capitalist creature is self-made, self-directing and self-governing. The capitalist creature is a possessive creature – he/she is defined by his or her possession of things and driven to accumulate more things. The desire to accumulate is insatiable and the capitalist creature only meets limits in coming up against other capitalist creatures seeking to accumulate. The capitalist creature is, therefore, from his or her own perspective, in a struggle against other creatures.

It is this perpetual arms race of competition that drives the capitalist to new accomplishments. Capitalist creatures can and do cooperate with one another too, but it is the cooperation of the faction, not the cooperation of fellowship: they work together while their interests coincide, in their struggle against another faction of capital. Thus, Bell states, people, things, other creatures and the Earth, are all used by the capitalist as instruments towards his or her own ends. They have no intrinsic value in themselves, other than the pleasure they may bring or the advantage they may confer. Other than the self, there is only one thing with intrinsic worth (literally, that which deserves worship) and that is capital in it highest and most abstract form: money. Money is the measure of all things.

Of course, in real life there are very few people who actually behave fully like this hypothetical capitalist creature. The latent humanity in most people (which is their latent divinity: the image of God) is simply too powerful not to recognise the intrinsic value of the other (or of some others, at least). However, what has been described is the direction in which a capitalist logic schools us and, as we have just admitted, it is a direction in conflict with our created being. Bell argues that capitalism is, in fact, a school of desire: it trains us to want certain things out of life and how to behave to attain those things. Not only are we trained to desire, more than anything else, the gratification of self through the accumulation of things and experiences, we are trained to never be satisfied with the things and experiences we have to hand, but to always desire more of them. Thus, the Christian philosopher, Alisdair MacIntyre, is led to the conclusion that ‘Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them’.

A new god

It may seem that in the capitalist cosmos there is no role for a god, other than the gods of self and money. But the full brutal logic of capitalism is just too harsh for society to accept, so a ‘god’ has been invented to make it more palatable. That god is the Invisible Hand of the Market and his prophet is Adam Smith. The story market economists have told us repeatedly is that, via the mystery of the market’s power to allocate resources, when we all pursue our own self-interests, we are, in fact, bringing about a social system in which everyone is better off, even though (sotto voce) some are better off than others. It is hard to overemphasise the extent to which this story has come to dominate the public imagination and the political discourse of our country. Indeed, it is widely now considered to be not merely a theory, but an established fact, largely accepted by many Christians in the West.

The empirical truth of this claim has been challenged in the previous two articles (Aug and Dec 2017); here, we need to pay attention to its theological implications. The self, acting for the interests of the self, is a pretty good description of the essence of sin. It represents a fundamental rupture in the order which God intended, which is a creation of relationship and covenant between God, humanity and Creation – the great communion of love. At the heart of the gospel, revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus, is the way of self-giving love. Sin is that big little word that describes every movement and impulse in the opposite direction – towards self. And the attainment of that goal – the attainment of an independent and self-regarding ‘me’ – is perhaps a reasonable definition of Hell – the place of unending torment. In the words of George MacDonald, ‘The one principle of hell is – ‘I am my own!’

Christianity is, above all else, a religion of salvation: salvation from sin – the bottomless chasm of torment that is the self alone in the cosmos. And salvation fundamentally means restoration into the great communion of love, which is the only viable habitat for life, ‘the life that really is life’. That is why, properly understood, salvation is not something that happens after death, but must begin here and now. (I have written about this more extensively in Manna Matters, Nov 2010).

The story we have been told about a capitalist society (and which many of us have accepted) is effectively that sin is not something we need to be saved from, but rather something that can be managed via the market to bring about the common good. That is, we are given great reasons to travel further down the path of self. Here, in a nutshell, is why the relational, social, political and ecological fabric of the world seems to be unravelling all around us. The position which we have been brought to by the ever-deepening processes of global capitalism is one from which we truly and profoundly need salvation.


What has been presented above leaves little room for wriggle and that, I think, is consistent with the approach of Jesus. This will undoubtedly make some readers uncomfortable as it is set out in fairly black and white terms, yet the world as we encounter it is by no means black and white. I have attempted here to describe an economic system, complex though it is, in its essence. As the religion of the Incarnation, there is little doubt that Christianity calls us to get our hands dirty in all the messiness and mixed-ness of the world. But to do so in a way that is true to the gospel also requires a deep clarity of sight as to what constitutes the good. Before we can act well in the world, we must be able to see clearly and name things aright.

It is a mistake – and one that is all too often made – to assume that coming to such a decisive position on the spirit of an economic system flows naturally into a decisive view of what we must then do in response. That is not the case. For the real world, as we encounter it, is indeed mixed and messy. What could it possibly mean to come to such a complete rejection of capitalism when the whole fabric of our world is so profoundly enmeshed in a capitalist economic system? It is to this question that we will turn in the next and final article of this series: ‘Christian witness in the midst of capitalism’.

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