Friday, August 24, 2012

American Capitalist Christian? Or Christian Capitalist American? Or Capitalist American Christian?

I am a natural born American citizen; I am practically a natural born Christian, too.

I was, after all, born on American soil to American parents who took me to church for the first time when I was ten days old.

My growing up years were marked by a seemingly natural and comfortable alliance between love for God and love for country. At Vacation Bible School we pledged allegiance to the United States and Christian flags with absolutely no sense of irony. It was made clear to me that good Christians supported their country, even if its actions ran counter to the teachings of Jesus.

I was born in that little window that kept me from even having to register for the draft, but I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I ever had to kill people because of my devotion to country I would be honored whereas if I refused to kill people because of my devotion to Christ I would be vilified. That’s just one (and an extreme one, at that) example of the tensions that can arise for someone trying to be both a faithful Christian and a faithful American.

Over the years I began to try to think seriously and critically about those tensions; specifically, I began to think about how I and others could appropriately live in America as Christian citizens.

The position that I developed could be summarized as follows: “A Christian’s allegiance to Jesus Christ should always come before any other allegiance, including the allegiance to country.” To put it negatively, “A Christian should never put being American ahead of being Christian.”

Things get complicated pretty quickly, though.

Take, for example, the matter of a Christian’s stance toward American economic policies and practices.

It seems to me that many Christians in America are much more “American” when it comes to economics than they are “Christian.” I am neither an economist nor the son of an economist, but we all know that the heart and soul of the American economic system is capitalism. According to Wikipedia, “Capitalism is an economic system that is based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods or services for profit. Competitive markets, wage labor, capital accumulation, voluntary exchange, and personal finance are also considered capitalistic.”

Ideally, everyone has the chance to profit in and from such a system. If I operate a successful business, everyone associated with my business (shareholders, employees, vendors, etc.) might reap the benefits. And, if I am a Christian operating a business, then ideally grace, love, and generosity will be churned out along with profits.

Still, it is difficult to make a case that capitalism is a Christian system or is even particularly compatible with Christian practice, given that it is based on competitiveness that all too often degenerates into making a profit at any cost, even if that cost is a human one, and into an atmosphere of greed and selfishness.

It was Jesus who said, “You cannot serve God and money” and successful capitalism practically necessitates, when push comes to shove, having God be the one eliminated from the equation if the choice has to be made.

It seems to me, too, that many professed followers of Christ who put capitalism ahead of their Christianity do not take seriously enough the very clear bias of God, as God is revealed in the Bible, toward the poor and the helpless.

Now, I do think that many folks sincerely believe that, left to itself and to the hard work of business owners and operators and of their employees, the free market will eventually create a situation in which the rising waters of profit will float all boats.

I also know that many people try very hard to participate in the capitalist system in a way that honors Christ; I know that many such folks do everything they can to be honest, fair, and charitable in ways that they make and invest their profits.

Some of us find ourselves wanting an American society that cares for the poor and the helpless as much as, and maybe even more than, it does for the preservation of wealth (although, in the interest of full disclosure, let me make it clear than I am doing what I can to preserve enough wealth to be able to eat after I retire, if I ever do).

I’m not convinced that we couldn’t have it both ways—that is, that we couldn’t foster a robust business climate that still finds a way, through the combined efforts of government, churches, and non-profits, to protect and care for the poor and helpless among us. I furthermore believe that Christians could and should be in the forefront of such an effort.

My thoughts on this subject are complicated by my belief, as expressed elsewhere, that a nation is not capable of being Christian, and thus to talk about a “Christian America” is to employ a misnomer. I am aware of the tension between that conviction and my desire to have my nation display in its policies and practices the emphases that characterize basic Christianity, namely, “to care for orphans and widows” (James 1:27) and robust prophetic religion (note the consistent emphasis of the Hebrew prophets on the responsibilities of the “haves” toward the “have nots,” of the 1% to the 99%, if you will).

Having said that, though, I think it’s fair to observe that what I want my nation to practice is basic kindness, fairness, and compassion, emphases that bleed across religious lines and indeed are a part of just being decent human beings. So yes, “secular humanists” could and can participate, too.

This much I know: if we follow Christ, our priority is our faithfulness to him and to his ways, ways that are best described by the words “service” and “sacrifice,” words that are difficult to apply and concepts that can be difficult to live out if we buy whole-heartedly into any other way, even if it is the American way.

Friday, August 3, 2012

What Do Your Choices Tell You?

(My weekly column in our church newsletter is called "When You Stop a & Think About It." What follows is this week's column.)

A friend and I were discussing some movies we had seen recently when another friend standing with us chimed in to say, “You two must have a lot more free time on your hands than I do since you have time to watch so many movies.” I responded, “How did the Braves do last night?” He said, “They won!” I asked, “How often do you watch the Braves?” He proudly replied, “I never miss a game!” I didn’t do the math for him but, if I watched two movies a week I invested around five hours in them while if he watched six Braves games a week he invested about twenty hours in them.

Of course, I really couldn’t say much since on those nights when I wasn’t watching a movie I was probably watching the Braves, too; I respected my friend’s devotion to the Braves. The difference between us was defined by his belief that my watching movies was a waste of time.

Priorities and choices—so much of life is about priorities and choices. The truth is that, while some things are thrust upon us, we all in large part do what we want to do. We choose what is important and we give our time and energy to those things.

While every Christian must, with the help of the Holy Spirit, figure out for herself exactly what her discipleship should look like, we can name some elements that can and should characterize all of our lives.

One element that should characterize our lives is prayer. The longer I live the more I value the practice of prayer. How much time do we spend opening our lives up to God, who wants to commune with us, in prayer? How much time do we give to developing our relationship with God?

Another element is worship. Worshiping God along with other members of the Body of Christ is to me akin to eating a meal with other hungry people. Do we prioritize corporate worship?

Yet another necessary element of the Christian life is service. The greatest commandment, Jesus said, is to love the Lord our God with everything we are while the second is to love our neighbor as we love our self. To love our neighbor is to serve our neighbor in whatever ways we can. We are called by our Savior especially to serve those who are the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. How much of our time and other resources do we invest in helping others?

This Sunday morning we’ll think together about another important element of the Christian life that I suspect most of us neglect: solitude.

When you stop and think about it, we do what we want to do. What do our lives reveal about what we truly value in our lives?