Friday, January 16, 2009

The Invisible Hand of Evangelicalism

I had a chance to hear Jan Jans (Tilburg University) this past week. There were several moments that caused synaptic firings in my wee brain, but one was a discussion on greed as the engine of capitalism. That individual greed, described as the individuals pursuit of maximized gains, is assumed to produce a corporate good by fueling the economy. The system goes terribly awry when it is divorced from ethical considerations on the functioning of this invisible hand. In fact the invisible hand is an assumed deus ex machina that follows the proper functioning of individualized action - if I pursue maximum profit, like everyone else, then the invisible hand will automagically cause the system to function in a way that we all benefit. Two big problems result: 1) there is no real way to connect the invisible hand to the individual actions, hence it is hard to critique the system when it fails as it has obviously done even in this current recession and 2) the system is based on a sin.

Ah, but that language of sin is outdated, outmoded and not useful. If we define sin as the adherence to naive religious edicts then it is hard to establish a case for using the language of sin here. But are these edicts really so naive? And is it not also possible to expose a core of humane expectations, sometimes called virtues, that animate most religious legal structures? If so then the language of sin indeed becomes highly useful in critiquing social (even economic) structures. I would argue that this is the case.

Sins fall into certain categories, for my purposes I will define them as actions that disadvantage a partner of a certain transaction. The Hebrew texts begin by establishing the nature of sin: first sin against the creator (Adam) and second sin against the other (Cain and Abel). Implicit in the second creation narrative is also a sinful transaction between Adam and Eve, these initial events serve as a means to explain how sin enters into creation as a distinctly human enterprise with dire consequences. So in this sense, and this continues throughout the first testament, sin is a uniquely human problem and robs at least one participant of the capacity for an ideal life. Adam and Eve are expelled, Cain is marked and Abel is dead. From the get go the notion of sin has tragic and serious consequences. Let us take that standard into our current problem.

In order to maximize profits it is necessary that we create a situation where there are winners and losers. Certainly there are degrees to which this is true. But it is not true that everyone equally participates, or even has the opportunity to participate, in a way that will make them winners. Contrary to the American Lie, uh I mean Dream. The ever growing disparity between haves and have nots, in affluent North America even, is undeniable proof that this is the case, despite the rants that exist about the poor simply being lazy. This is even more evident in the so-called third world which has for too long been the lap dog of the so-called first world.

The critique has to be what else can use as an engine for economy?

But this was all content of the discussion - the synaptic jump in my brain had to do with Evangelicals and how we have modelled our religion in the image and likeness of Capitalism. Let me explain...

We call people to individual salvation and we ask them to manage their own lives well. That is good, but it is not enough. We expect that through these individual actions a social reality will automagically be changed (bettered in the best cases of evangelicalism). We believe in an invisible hand, but one we cannot have direct influence over.

We are right to believe in an invisible hand - but as Christians we name this invisible hand the God of the first and second testaments. If that is the case then we must take seriously the instruction that those testaments provide. Specifically in relation to our interaction with the social aspect of real life. By de-politicizing religion, that is relegating it purely to the private sphere of life, we have literally rendered ourselves socially impotent. Yet, we are by nature political beings. Even in the garden it is recognized that humans do not function as they should in isolation - and this is given the weight of being the words of God. So if our call is to individuals, and I do not dispute that it is, it must be for individuals to become what they are capable of being - political, responsible and active.

This does not repute the invisible hand, rather it recognizes that we participate with God (invisible hand) in making this world a better place. Standing for justice as did the prophets. Working for peace as do the blessed. Speaking of hope as did the evangelists. I am not calling for something less than personal piety - but actually something more. Just as Jesus instructed the Pharisees to practice both their meticulous practice of tithing AND to regard the weightier issues of justice, this is the call we need today.

A system that focuses only on the individual is just as flawed as the system that is based on greed. Sin is overcome when we consider the cost to others (and ourselves). So in the words of Jesus, "go and sin no more."

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