In response to the post of my World commentary, reader Kyle Smith has offered a very insightful comment, which I urge you to take a look at before proceeding. His observations deserve a measured reply, and so I’ve put a bit more thought into this post than my usual fare.
First, let’s agree that Occupy Wall Street and its religious left cheerleaders are irrelevant. As Charles Cooke has observed, OWS is more about performance art than actually getting anything accomplished. The religious left, meanwhile, is hopelessly stuck in the 1960s, their only answer to America’s current economic and social problems being, “more of the same!” More Great Society, more government intervention, more regulation, more imposition of values that have been firmly and repeatedly rejected by most Americans, as well as most American Christians. That way lies madness.
But that is not to say that OWS and the religious left are entirely wrong. They have glimpsed the truth, but failed to understand it because of their Manichaen, us-against-them approach. You see, what ails America is not that it’s the 1% against the 99%. Instead, it’s the 100% against reality.
The reality is that every human being in his or her unredeemed state is selfish (in fact, even the redeemed continue to struggle with it their entire lives). Selfishness is a universal characteristic that none of us, no matter how idealistic or politically correct, can escape. Businesspeople, politicians, community organizers, college students, pastors, government bureaucrats, religious social justice activists, conservatives, liberals, moderates–all of us deal with the same problem.
Selfishness, in turn, manifests itself in a variety of ways. For some, it’s the mindless accumulation of wealth. For some, it’s running a company or a government without any regard for how one’s actions effect anyone. For some, it’s demanding that those who produce wealth subsidize those who don’t (this is what the OWS demand for universal free college tuition is about). For some, it’s about exercising power over others without regard to their well-being. For some, it’s the demand for the freedom to do whatever they want unless it immediately and physically harms another (this is what some forms of libertarianism are about). In all of these instances, and many more that could be adduced, selfishness is at the core of what’s going on.
At their heart, the problems of the American economy come down to this universal characteristic. Capitalism is founded on the notion that human selfishness can be used to bring benefits to an entire population, a theologically counter-intuitive idea that only works inasmuch as the economic system is not isolated for all the other functions and institutions of society as a whole.
In fact, capitalism is the one system that instead of trying to change our innate selfishness (because neither economic systems nor political ones can change human nature), seeks to harness it in such a way as to maximize the benefits of human labor for those participating in the system. This is the reason why capitalism works better than any other system of economic organization in the modern world–because it works with human nature, rather than against it.
But that hardly means capitalism is perfect. Because it relies for its energy on a trait that is sinful, it requires constant fine-tuning in order to mitigate the worst effects of that sin. Hence the need for at least some forms of state regulation, regulation that needs to change as circumstances change. Why state regulation? Because there is no other mechanism through which the values of the population as a whole can be expressed, at least in democratic societies.
Capitalism has earned the scorn of the religious left because the ethics and goals of capitalism are not those of the Kingdom of God. That’s inane, because most people are not Christians–they do not live according to the ethics of the Kingdom because they are not part of it, and to expect them to live by those ethics is an expression of what amounts to a kind of economic Pelagianism (which is to say that people can, if they simply choose to, organize production, labor, markets, and consumers in a way that reflects the Kingdom, even though they reject the One who has given us those standards). In other words, the religious left wants the economy to function as if only saints ran it, and when it doesn’t, they insist that the government–which last time I checked wasn’t run by saints either–should step in and bring the Kingdom of God about. Needless to say, that isn’t going to happen.
At the same time, the religious left, like OWS, is not entirely wrong. The poor do need to be cared for, the powerful do need to be restrained, and the forces of human selfishness do need to be prevented from doing harm where possible. But here’s the thing: I don’t claim to have all the answers to how to do that, and I feel reasonably sure that Jim Wallis, the National Council of Churches, and the social justice bureaucracies of the mainline churches don’t have all the answers, either. What I do have that the latter worthies seem to have lost, however, is a healthy understanding of human sin, its pervasiveness in all areas of human life, and its annoying tendency to muck up pretty much any plans that we have for bringing about the Kingdom of God on our own.
Sin–expressed in selfish attitudes, actions, and ideologies–is the reason why corporations do things that hurt others. Sin is why politicians do things that betray their offices. Sin is why protesters make stupid demands and do things that are seemingly designed to undercut their message. Sin is what we are up against, and sin is not something that we can legislate away, nor is it something that the market can fix, nor is it something that we can defeat with enough activism. So what should the churches be doing?
They should be faithfully carrying out the mission God has given them, and bring the gospel to bear on every aspect of human existence, including the economy, the government, politics, etc. But that means bringing the gospel into the lives of those who live and work in all of those realms. The gospel and its ethics cannot be imposed on people who don’t share them. As has been demonstrated repeatedly, however, by Christian businesspeople, Christian politicians, Christian social workers, Christian teachers, Christian accountants, Christian stockbrokers and money managers, Christian union leaders–in fact by Christians in every walk of life–when the people of God live as such within their innumerable contexts, the effect on society as a whole can be electrifying.