In my last entry I noted that the roots of capitalism are to be found in the Roman Empire, and I asked the question whether the retreat of the imperial spirit has led to today’s financial chaos. Today I want to suggest that the first response by the church (in the so called ‘west’ at least) is to repent for the extent it has taken capitalism to its heart.
In 1904 the German sociologist, Max Weber, published his work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Opinion is still divided as to how correct his thesis is, but it would appear that a majority believe he was at least partially right. His thesis is that modern capitalism has been influenced to a significant extent by ‘ascetic Protestantism’. He believed that central to the capitalism of his time (now over a hundred years ago) was the tendency to view work (including the creation of wealth) as a vocation, and that there was an ethical duty for an individual to work as hard as he/she could.
Weber noted that creating money as an end in itself used to be frowned upon by the church. But he believed that this changed with the ideas circulated by the Reformers. During the 16th century the concept of ‘vocation’ was stretched not only cover religious work (e.g. being a priest or monk), but also to include secular work. This concept Weber traced back to Martin Luther. Ordinary labour and not just the religious elite were now infused with a sense of vocation.
According to Weber, John Calvin took this a step further. Calvin believed in the concept of double predestination, i.e. that some have been elected to salvation and others to damnation. Activism was seen as proof of election to salvation. If this activism led to creating wealth, then this should not be spent on self, but should rather be saved or invested. The Puritans, developing Calvinism in England and later in America, introduced a ‘stern and honest morality’ to economic life. They disapproved of idleness, and believed that hard work that was blessed by the fruit of wealth was a sign of God’s approval, thus legitimising capitalism.
Whether we accept Weber’s theory or not, we can all see how the western church, and especially the religious right in the US, has portrayed capitalism as being a good system. During the cold war with the east, a constant comparison was made between the capitalist and democratic values of the west and the communist and totalitarian system of the USSR – Regan’s ‘evil empire’. But in truth capitalism is just as humanistic as communism.
Repentance is therefore a good place to start as we respond to the current crisis. The church then needs to call in – in prayer and practice – a different economic system. Nursing the wounds of the current system will not suffice – we need to stand for Kingdom values.