Christianity today is an immensely complex and varied institution. As a religion it self-asserts. But in the hands of anyone, it is plied to less predictable ends.
Now, throughout its history, organized Christianity has been ambiguous, to say the least. It’s been wielded as a sword in the hands of empires; used to legitimize wars, genocide, and a murderous exploitation of the commons as well as the neighbor it urges us to love as ourselves. And in the modern era, it’s been a potent political tool by parties, political strategists, and politicians themselves.
Still, insofar as it’s functioned as a vessel for the spirit and original message of Jesus Christ, Christianity has, in countless ways, been an enormous force for good in the world.
Christianity gave us the very foundations of our ideals of humanitarian democracy through the radical egalitarianism espoused by its earliest leaders and communes. The words of the apostle Paul have been formative in this regard almost beyond expression:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. Gal. 3:28-29
Crisis of Conformity
Overall, though, the heritage of institutional Christianity is a rather bleak one.
It’s played a major role in the expansion of empire, colonialism, violent nationalism and the eradication of indigenous cultures since at least the early middle ages.
The idea that the gospels would uplift and glorify every human culture on their own terms is actually a very influential perspective of missionaries throughout history, albeit almost always overshadowed by the imperial concerns of the dominant powers funding and protecting the mission.
As a Christian theologian, I, of course, claim that the promise of universal salvation borne by the Christian traditions — and their reliable witness of God’s concrete intervention in human history to facilitate our salvation through the cross — is the main issue, upon which the role of institutional Christianity in worldly affairs has little bearing.
But that’s beside the point.
Only a pawn in their game
No matter what its core values, institutional Christianity has largely been subverted by dominant culture, and ironically and perversely used as a tool of confusion, oppression and imperialism.
Yes, there has always been deep-rooted resistance from within by those mindful of the inconsistencies between servitude to God as portrayed in the gospels, and servitude towards the authorities of society. Yet such concern has been marginalized at best, and manipulated to dubious ends at worst.
This holds true today.
It doesn’t add up
It’s evident that the single greatest threat towards human life, liberty and dignity in general, as well as the integrity of our irreplaceable environment, is indisputably the system of rampant industrial capitalism and the power relations underpinning it.
The ideological roots of capitalism are those of the great autocratic empires and the immensely powerful early corporations of the renaissance, as well as the assumed nationalistic exceptionalism of early modernity.
In short, capitalism is a culture of relentless domination.
Historically, most institutional Christianity has been employed to spread and fortify this system. Then, in the modern era, a more ideologically compatible materialistic secularism, with few exceptions, took hold of most parts of the developed world.
This is a completely logical progression of events: as industrialism really picked up speed in the western world, and people were herded into cities and factories, alienated from the remaining traditional family structures and their land, and assimilated into the world view of a consumerist capitalism, obviously Christianity (as well as other forms of traditional religious belief), utterly alien to these new values, practices, and ideals, had to be either assimilated, co-opted to confusing ends, or moved aside.
For the most part, the latter is what took place.
The ensuing secular world-view can most accurately be described as a composite ideology, constructed upon a foundation of watered down enlightenment philosophy, where a naïve mythology of progress has been fused with reductionist materialism (while of course paying lip service to the originally Christian humanism, far too entrenched in the grass roots to be completely eradicated).
This perspective functions superbly with industrial capitalism, effectively shaping public opinion in such a favorable manner that most forms of dissent are reduced to a superficial longing for reform that never questions the very system itself. Actual criticism is rendered absurd by the dominating scientistic discourse.
And thus is secular materialism made complete, however much we might feel ourselves to be something more.
Capitalistic empire gave us a mutated version of the enlightenment philosophy, cleansed from most forms of subversive elements just like institutional Christianity had been, reduced to a cult of efficiency and “reason” (really little more than a dogmatic belief in the inherent good of western culture and its tools of expansion and oppression).
Dog is my co-pilot
This being said, one major, and truly interesting exception to the secularization phenomenon (at least on the surface) is the resurgence of evangelical Christianity in the United States during the latter half of the 20th century.
In the US, the secularism of late modernity had a poorer outlook from the start in comparison to its European counterparts, largely due to America’s unique relationship to religion. The US was to a great extent founded in relation to an escape from religious persecution, which entrenched adherence, and ensured that it would be somewhat harder to sway by the enlightenment critique (which mainly concerned itself with institutionalized state religion anyway, and church and state was never truly united in colonial America).
Though individual colonial Americans remained steadfast in their denominations and observances, a vigorous element of the new world was this religious freedom —freedom for and freedom from, religion. Thereby, religion played a larger role in the foundational ideas and documents of the US than in other democracies of the modern era.
Later, the US was shielded from much of the critique of established religion put forth by socialism and Marxism, due to the largely successful persecution of these ideologies during the early and mid 20th century in the US.
Ultimately the resurgent evangelical Christianity of the late 20th century has mostly uncritically espoused neo-liberal capitalism since the Reagan administration.
But due to the fundamental incompatibility of the capitalist ideology with the basic tenets of Christianity as such, this resurgency alone is ample evidence that much of the dominant mainstream of contemporary evangelicalism has been subverted to further the interests of the corporate and financial élite, in the same manner that the enlightenment heritage was assimilated.
The sole reason that this enormous conflict isn’t painfully obvious to the vast majority of its adherents, is that what passes for authentic Christian tenets in this context has been watered down to little more than those of a cargo cult whose main focus is upon how magical thinking will result in personal, worldly success along the lines of prosperity theology.
Prosperity theology allows a distorted Christianity to legitimize modern industrial capitalism, as it so emphatically underscores the believer’s personal responsibility to utilize the tools of financial, material prosperity bestowed upon the faithful by God.
Essentially, much of what passes for evangelical Christianity in the US may be defined as secularized materialism with a little God thrown in for good measure.
My argument then, for the fundamental incompatibility between authentic Christianity and industrial capitalism (as well as the cargo cult, feel-good version of the former), is quite simple: If we read the gospels, and look upon the Christ meeting us there, it’s obvious that His character, His works, and His teachings are utterly antithetical to the capitalist ideology and practice:
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep: for ye shall laugh. But woe unto ye that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Luke 6:20-21, 24-25
This is Christ’s promise: That God’s kingdom necessarily entails a radical, transformative justice which will fail to meet society’s expectations; which will uplift the suffering and allow their tormentors (the rich) to perceive some of the anguish that they’ve laid upon others.
Jesus didn’t say that we who are privileged can happily ignore the horrible injustices of this world and keep on benefiting from them by, in Joel Osteen’s words, “going to the store and expecting to find what we seek.” Or that the main problem is the fact that “our own wrong thinking is keeping us in mediocrity” and thus hindering personal success.
Jesus didn’t tell us to expect our narrow-minded wants and dreams to be fulfilled on our own terms, and that God surely would make them come true if we just believe “aggressively enough.”
He also never said we would prosper materially.
Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do
On the contrary, Jesus told us to turn from our selfish ways; to pick up our crosses and follow Him, and that it wouldn’t be easy (ever tried to push a camel through the eye of a needle?).
Sure enough, He promised us salvation and eternal life, but only at the gruesome price of the cross — in that creation, stained by sin, could die away with Him and ultimately be resurrected into perfection.
Disregarding doctrines of salvation itself, the radical social justice demanded by the teachings of Christ as well as the New Testament overall, is also obviously utterly discordant with modern capitalism as such. Consider the following passages:
Jesus said unto him: if thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. Matthew 16:21
But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Luke 6:35-36
These admonitions to love our neighbors unconditionally, to give while expecting nothing in return, and to care for the well being of our fellow humans to such an extent that we ought to renounce all of our property just to alleviate some of their suffering, is impossible to reconcile with a form of society which functions by exploitation and deceit; which concentrates wealth and power in the hands of an absolute minority and leaves the hungry and the poor utterly voiceless; or which approaches them with derision and contempt, eschewing the common good — even robbing the common good — in exchange for the private good of the few.
It’s not a coincidence that the only people Jesus ever displayed any real anger against were the money changers in the temple. In this regard, is Occupy Wall Street really so far off base, even if they don’t have a five-point set of concrete demands? Is feeling the inconsistency between a political message that co-opts Christianity as if it’s at the heart of a party’s message, and the reality of an economic message of corrupt riches for the privileged few and God against everyone else, enough to legitimize the movement against plutocracy?
But due to the inherent dichotomies of the western mindset, all that we’re left with today in the way of a worldview is a false choice between two imperialistic ideologies, which in fact both function as tools for the same underlying power structure. It’s a choice which tends to channel dissent into adherence to one or the other. One is the reductionist materialism and its cult of Science, Reason and an omnicidal technological progress. The other is an imperial religiosity, entrenched in an infected discourse of exceptionalism, nationalism, and holy war.
Any one of us on a quest for truth therefore must leave behind the dogma of a mythologized secular scientism and dare face the often seemingly incomprehensible realities around us, relying on nothing but the genius of our own minds.
Divining the truth
Likewise, we’ll scarcely be able to relate to the God many of us claim to have truly met, nor discern His will regarding our own lives if we only cling to the simple answers on the façade of an organized religion in the hands of a dominator culture, and fail to seek the heart of the God of our very own understanding.
If we were to humbly seek God in concert, with little regard for the labels intent to divide and conquer us, or for the temptations of greed, acquisition and me-firstism driving the capitalist ethos, and instead cooperated in overcoming them, refusing the plutocrats who abuse religion to their own ends, I’m certain we’ll be met halfway.
In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, often considered the last true enlightenment philosopher, and an avid critic of organized religion, and yet nonetheless a theist – albeit on his own terms.
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.
–Johan Eddebo, Transition Voice
Though in a different spirit than this article, please see the hilarious video by Al Franken called The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus for another look at how Christianity and Capitalism are incompatible: