Christian Ethics in Relation to Capitalism and Ecology

Christian Ethics in Relation to Capitalism and Ecology

The role of Christian ethics in the political sphere has shifted dramatically over the last thirty years, as the fall of the Soviet Union and a growing awareness of the planet’s interconnected nature has forced a reevaluation of theology’s role in public life. The near-total triumph of capitalism over socialism and communism (even in ostensibly “communist” states such as China) requires theologians to consider how Christian ethics might be usefully applied to this dominant economic system, while increasing evidence of humanity’s effect on the planet requires a simultaneous reevaluation of ecology as to how it can embody Christian ethics. The crises of the next century will largely be economic and ecological, and theologians must necessarily direct their intellectual efforts to preventing or alleviating these crises. By reflecting on the role of Christian ethics in a post-communist, ecologically unbalanced world, it will be possible to formulate some general principles for the effective deployment of Christian ethics within the political and public arena, without allowing the more extreme dictates of either capitalism or ecology to alter or otherwise influence those ethics.

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Arguably the most dramatic shift in modern society occurred at the beginning of the 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union. Practically overnight, the global political and economic landscape was transformed, and the effects of this transformation were felt universally, if unevenly. In their 1991 essay “Responses to ‘A Postcommunist Manifesto’: Ethics, Economics, and the Corporate Life,” Robert Benne and Preston Williams consider the opportunities presented to theologians by this global transformation. Benne and Williams respond to a previous essay (Max Stackhouse and Dennis McCann’s “A Postcommunist Manifesto”) written as an intentional adaptation of Marx and Engel’s original Communist Manifesto, and evaluate the suggestions of the “Postcommunist Manifesto” while adding some of their own. Before exploring the ramifications of Benne and William’s work, it will be useful to examine their critiques of the earlier essay, as a means of placing their larger arguments in some context.

Overall, Benne and Williams agree with the intentions and conclusions of the “Postcommunist Manifesto,” but according to Benne, they “cannot give three cheers for the particular form of [Stackhouse and McCann’s] proposal,” because “they need a dash of Lutheran diffidence to dampen an unseemly enthusiasm.” Benne sees “two basic fronts on which their enthusiasm needs to be qualified” (Benne & Williams 489). Benne and Williams’ criticisms will be explored in more detail in a moment, but to summarize, their main contention is that the tone and certain portions of the “Postcommunist Manifesto” appear to engage Christian ethics as a justification for global capitalism, rather than as a means of making global capitalism more just. Thus, Benne’s first criticism is that the authors of the “Postcommunist Manifesto” “confuse the central Christian message of salvation with political and economic practice, in this case capitalist practice,” thereby proposing “that human efforts at economic and political transformation are in some sense salvatory” (Benne & Williams 489). Benne does not allow that this might be the result of “the careless exuberance of manifestos,” but rather sees it as a continuation of “a tendency to qualify the radicality and universality of the gospel by conflating a desirable human practice with salvation.” The problems with this tendency are twofold, and although Benne and Williams only explicitly address the problem it presents for theology, they hint at the somewhat more dramatic problem this tendency creates for society as a whole.

First, as Benne notes, this conflation of the gospel’s universal, redemptive power with a particular economic system “leads to an inclination to rule others out of the reach of redeeming grace” by suggesting that only those supportive of one particular manmade system of commerce are able to benefit from the gospel (Benne & Williams 490). Although a major problem, as it attempts to circumscribe the totality of Christian salvation with prerequisites, it is easily identified and rectified, as Benne has done. The second and perhaps more pervasive problem, which Benne and Williams only hint at (likely in order to keep from accusing their colleagues of something so nefarious), is the threat of Christian theology being used as a justification for capitalism. Benne notes that the authors of the manifesto “claim that if our generation does not respond to the challenge (the constructive engagement with capitalism they commend), we betray the gospel” (Benne & Williams 489). This claim is a far cry from suggesting that Christian ethics might be usefully applied to capitalism, arguing instead that engagement with capitalism is a requirement of Christian ethics. The danger of this thinking then, is the perversion of Christian truth in the service of a definitionally secular belief system (capitalism), which can ultimately lead to Christian theology being deployed as justification for atrocities committed in the name of capitalism, just as the misapplication of Darwin’s theories served as justification for atrocities committed in the name of racism. As mentioned before, Benne and Williams do not go this far in pointing out the dangers of conflating Christian belief with capitalist practice, but their critique of the manifesto evidences their fears.

The second “front” where Benne and Williams see the need for some tempered enthusiasm is the manifesto’s “particular formulation of public theology” (Benne & Williams 490). Benne and Williams disagree with the manifesto in terms of the location at which Christian ethics enters the discourse of capitalism. Whereas the manifesto sees “theology and ecclesiology […] on the front lines of the public discussion,” Benne proposes “that the most effective public theology will be carried forward by laity who are more expert in their fields than theologians and ethicists will ever be” (Benne & Williams 490). In short, Benne suggests that a truly useful engagement between capitalism and theology will be mediated by those individuals best suited to navigate both. Thus, while the theologian and ethicist are dedicated to understanding capitalism in light of Christian ethics, it is the specialists in the fields of sociology, economics, and political philosophy who will ultimately bring these ethics to fore of capitalist discourse. Bearing these critiques in mind, one can now easily see where Benne and Williams agree with the manifesto. Namely, they agree with the need for Christian theologians and ethicists to focus on “the moral and practical possibilities inherent in varieties of democratic capitalism rather than diverting their efforts to the unrelenting and exaggerated criticism that has been so characteristic of the past,” coupled with “strong support for a renewed public relevance of Christian religious and moral claims for the evolving system of democratic capitalism in the face of a world that has marginalized and privatized those claims” (Benne & Williams 489). The need for this renewed focus can be seen most plainly in the field of ecology, where the conflict between capitalism and a secularly-informed conservation movement has thus far failed to yield solutions for the ever-increasing economic and ecological disasters that are the hallmarks of 21st century global capitalism.

In his essay “God and Country,” Wendell Berry contemplates the phenomena of “churches, which claim to honor God as the ‘maker of heaven and earth,'” showing “little inclination to honor the earth or protect it from those who would dishonor it” (Berry 524). Berry’s qualms are not rooted in any ephemeral notion of “dishonoring” the earth one might find in neo-pagan theories of Gaia or an earthly consciousness, but in a very literal interpretation of humanity’s role in relation to planet as informed by Christian ethics and theology. Berry notes a general disinterest in ecology among churches, even though “those of use who are devoted both to biblical tradition and to the defense of the earth” see churches as belonging “properly and logically” to the cause of ecology (Berry 524).

Berry argues that this inattention to the planet’s well-being arises from “the failures and errors of Christian practice,” rather than Christian truth. Specifically, he identifies Genesis 1:28 “in which God instructs Adam and Eve to ‘be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it,'” as the point of contention, and sees any subsequent problems in addressing ecology from a Christian perspective as arising from a misreading of this verse (Berry 526). He suggests that it is “the belief of many non-Christian environmentalists as well as at least some Christians that Genesis 1:28 […] gives unconditional permission to humankind to use the world as it pleases” (Berry 526).

This is precisely the kind of misapplication of theology Benne and Williams warn against, because it arises from “an extremely unintelligent misreading of Genesis 1:28 itself,” focusing only on the “subdue” portion without any attention or interpretation of “replenish.” (Berry 526). Berry goes on to point out that “such a reading of Genesis 1:28 is contradicted by virtually all the rest of the Bible,” and that “the ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable,” the most important part of which being the fact that God “has never revoked the conditions, bearing on his gift to us of the use of [the earth], that oblige us to take excellent care of it” (Berry 526). Thus, the ecological teaching of the Bible is of stewardship, so that rather than being “spiritual at the earth’s expense [….] it means exactly the opposite: do not desecrate or depreciate these gifts […] by turning them into worldly ‘treasure’; do not reduce life to money or to any other mere quantity” (Berry 526). This biblical ecology would seem in direct opposition to the engagement with capitalism Benne and Williams support, as capitalism by definition reduces everything to money or mere quantity, but a more nuanced reflection of the theological implications of either essay actually reveals both to be in harmony with each other.

In order to understand how one might embody a biblical ecological stewardship while simultaneously engaging in capitalist discourse, the concepts under discussion must be clarified, in order to distinguish between the ends of capitalism and the ends of Christian ethics and theology. One must necessarily begin with an honest appraisal of capitalism, paying attention to the totalizing effect of capitalism. In short, capitalism reduces everything to a commodity, whether that commodity is a loaf of bread, the labor it takes to bake that bread, and/or even the work of the critic, analyzing the commodification of goods and labor. This is not to argue that everything is a commodity, but rather that capitalism treats it that way.

This distinction is important to make, because it informs the distinction previously made by Benne and Williams between theological engagement with capitalism and the conflation of theology into capitalism. To use an obvious example, consider the continuing problem of sweatshop and child labor. Considered solely within the ideological framework of capitalism, both of these situations are perfectly acceptable, and the only difference between sweatshop or child labor and unionized labor is the difference in cost per hour of labor. From a theological standpoint, however, sweatshop and child labor present ethical problems concerning exploitation and domination, and so an apparent difficulty arises because one might be reluctant to engage capitalism at all, fearing that such engagement would thus justify and legitimize said exploitation. Furthermore, theological engagement with capitalism may appear ultimately useless, because no amount of theological coaxing would be enough to alleviate these ethical problems, resultant as they are from the defining characteristic of capitalism: everything is a commodity, differing only in price.

This apparently unbridgeable lacuna between theology and capitalism likely gave rise to churches that “are mostly indifferent to the work and the people by which the link between economy and ecosystem must be enacted,” leaving capitalism to carry on, unguided by any moral or ethical precepts except those few which have been enshrined into human law (Berry 526). Thankfully, however, this gap only appears insurmountable, and in fact disappears when it is considered for what it truly represents.

As mentioned before, capitalism treats everything as a commodity, whereas Christian theology requires that nothing be reduced to mere commodity. When considering the two ideologies in opposition to each other, they appear utterly irreconcilable unless one or the other was to forfeit their defining tenets. Happily, this is not actually the case, because the real problem lies in considering theology and capitalism in opposition to each other, as if they were equally robust epistemological categories. In truth, capitalism is simply an invented way of structuring society, and as such can only deal with concepts within its purview. Theology, on the other hand, deals with categories above and beyond economics, and as such is relevant to any of the second-order systems of organization, such as capitalism, socialism, or really any other “-ism.” Thus, the constructive engagement with capitalism that Benne and Williams propose is not the meeting of two differing sets of opinions with its attendant reconsideration of either opinion (which the “Postcommunist Manifesto” toys with), but rather the application of theology and ethics to capitalism as a means of furthering the former with no consideration for the goals of the latter.

Put simply, theology need not adopt the perspective of capitalism in order to effectively engage with it. On the contrary, instead of adapting theology to fit with the ends and means of capitalism, theology can influence capitalism, and the world in which it dominates, to the point that its ends and means are no longer in conflict with Christian ethics, with the product being an ethical capitalism in which its commodification of everything does not bring with it a concurrent evacuation of ethical value. (Although to be absolutely clear, it should be pointed out once again that the goal of Christian ethics is salvation, and not any idealized economic order which would only be the happy, almost extraneous result of a resurgent Christian ethics.) Having thus clarified the categorical differences between theology and capitalism, it will now be possible to consider in greater detail the possibility of integrating engagement with capitalism into a biblical ecological stewardship.

As the previous paragraph hopefully made clear, there is no a priori conflict in attempting to engage capitalism from the perspective of the biblically informed ecological stewardship of Berry. Instead, this apparent conflict is simply one instance of capitalism, as it is most commonly deployed, failing to live up to Christian ethical standards, and as such should not be taken into consideration at the outset. Instead, one must begin with the understanding that Christian theology has useful things to say about capitalism, and that the utility of theology’s input is present regardless of capitalism’s reception of it. It will not be productive to outline all relevant portions of Christian theology here, but instead to focus solely on the Christian ecological stewardship put forth by Berry as a means of investigating how theology can improve the human condition under capitalism in one specific context.

Berry’s ecological stewardship does not preclude the use of the planet or its resources for human purposes; indeed, to suggest this would be to misread Genesis 1:28 as egregiously as those who see it as the justification for the wholesale looting of the planet. Instead, it seeks a balance, wherein the use of any given resource is wholly permissible so long its does not impinge on others or treat said resource as something ownable, that is, as something belonging solely to humankind, not God. Furthermore, it does not elevate humankind’s use of nature above nature itself, because both constitute aspects of God’s creation. Instead, Berry’s proposed stewardship places humanity in the position accorded it in Genesis; first among God’s creations, and thus responsible for all of them. In this way, humanity can be seen not as lords over the earth, but rather as elevated but constituent parts of the earth. Thus, the order to “be fruitful and multiply,” which is often read relatively independently of the instructions to replenish and subdue the earth, can instead be seen a crucial component of the subsequent instructions. If human beings are the chosen stewards of God’s larger creation, then it is only reasonable they be instructed to multiply, filling that creation so that it might be adequately cared for. This is even more obvious when considering the whole line “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth,” because it draws a direct sequence between the expansion of humanity and the replenishment of the earth.

These are not two separate instructions, but rather an instruction and the proper result of that instruction’s completion. One of the great tragedies of contemporary culture is the fact that the truly empowering consequences of this verse are so wholly ignored, because it states in plain language what climate scientists have been attempting to argue for decades: more than anything, humanity dictates the fate of the planet. This is not a mere consequence of technological development, but rather the fundamental element of the relationship between humanity and the planet, laid out in simple terms in God’s first instructions to humans. Geologists have only recently begun calling the current geological era the Anthropocene in a nod to humanity’s potent effects on the planet, but this is only late recognition of this fact. With this in mind, it should be obvious that one of the areas in which Christian theology has much to offer the world is capitalism’s approach to the earth and its resources.

With Berry’s notion of an ecological stewardship in mind, the devastating climate change occurring as a result of industrialization can largely be seen as the result of an abrogation of God’s first instruction to humanity. This recognition alone, however, does not go much further than the “criticism that has been so characteristic of the past” lamented by Benne and Williams. (Indeed, it is not difficult to point out any number of problems with contemporary society that are the result of abrogating Christian ethics.) Instead, one must offer a constructive analysis resulting from this observation, which can be done by separating the means and effects of capitalism from its goals, and by demonstrating how Christian ethics can inform those means (and effects) without concerning itself with the goals.

Capitalism works towards the production and accumulation of capital, and for much of the nineteenth and twentieth century (and even now) this goal was met with practices that damaged both people and the environment. Instead of simply criticizing these practices and the damage they caused or extending that criticism to the economic system those practices were in the service of, the theologian attempting to embody Berry’s ecological stewardship and Benne and Williams engagement instead offers suggestions for theologically sound practices without bothering to consider ethics of the larger economic system. In this way, biblical ecological stewardship may be performed practically within the confines of capitalism without acquiescing to the monetary goals of capitalism. Once again, because the goal of theology is wholly separate from the goal of economic systems, theological engagement with capitalism necessarily focuses on how capitalism can be used for the furtherance of salvation and the embodiment of theological ideals. Thus, rather than criticizing capitalism for not living up to a biblical ecology, the theologian should strive to demonstrate how a biblical ecology can be embodied even within capitalism.

There should be some hesitance at the suggestion that theologians should work “within capitalism,” because this essay, as well as Benne and Williams’, have made pains to point out that theology should never become subservient to economics. Therefore, this possibly contentious statement can be qualified with Benne and Williams’ previous predictions regarding the role of the laity in any theological engagement with capitalism, because it deals precisely with this point. As the reader will recall, Benne and Williams propose that the laity will offer the means to carry on theological principles into the discourse of capitalism, because “the most effective public theology will be carried forward by laity who are more expert in their fields than theologians and ethicists will ever be” (Benne & Williams 490). Thus, while it is up to the environmental scientist to determine best-practices for resource management and to argue for those practices to lawmakers and corporations, the theologian nonetheless provides the initial standards by which the scientist can determine the role of humanity in relation to nature. This formulation holds in nearly any context, because as mentioned before, ecology is only one of the many topics on which theology can offer contemporary capitalist democracies guidance, and in every case, it is theology which will provide the basis for the laity to affect change in those capitalist democracies.

With the near complete domination of capitalism across the globe following the fall of the Soviet Union, humanity is faced with numerous problems arising from certain destructive practices which have been employed by capitalism. Among these problems, the devastation of the earth and its resources and the subsequent climactic shifts is one of the most readily apparent, as it affects the entire planet. Relatively recently, theologians have attempted to determine the best way to engage capitalism as a means of reinvigorating Christian ethics and effecting their use in economics, and addressing the need for better ecology presents the ideal location for this engagement. Because the Bible presents a relatively clear-cut ecological ideal, in which humans are the preeminent stewards of creation while acknowledging their existence as part of that creation, one can consider how this ecological ideal might be attained even within the admittedly less-ideal context of capitalism. With the laity serving as a conduit for Christian ethics, theologians are able to argue for the application of Christian ethics to an economic system which itself sees little use for them except as another commodity. In effect, theology can teach capitalism ethics, even if capitalism refuses to acknowledge it.

By approaching capitalism from the perspective of a biblically informed ecological stewardship, as laid out in Wendell Berry’s essay “God and Country,” the theologian is able to effectively engage capitalism without misapplying Christian ethics to serve the goals of capitalism. Instead, by reaffirming humanity’s biblically elevated position of steward as first among creation instead of separate from it, one can demonstrate the efficacy of Christian ethics within a capitalist society without conflating the two, or otherwise elevating economic success to spiritual success, economic goals to spiritual goals, or monetary accumulation with eternal salvation. This kind of engagement with capitalism, encouraged in Robert Benne and Preston Williams’ essay “Responses to ‘A Postcommunist Manifesto’: Ethics, Economics, and the Corporate Life,” recognizes the fundamental lack in contemporary economic discourse which has arisen due to a previously combative relationship between Christian theology and capitalism, itself the result of a confusion of categories which placed theology and economic theory on the same plane of epistemology. Using Berry’s notion of stewardship as a test case in the application of Christian ethics to capitalism has demonstrated how theology can engage with economics without conflating the goals of the two, such that capitalism might be used in the furtherance of salvation without pretending that capitalist success is a form of that salvation, or more ominously, that capitalism is a prerequisite for salvation.

Works Cited

Benne, Robert & Preston Williams. “Responses to ‘A Postcommunist Manifesto’: Ethics,

Economics, and the Corporate Life.” ed. Boulton, Wayne, Thomas Kennedy, and Alan

Verchey. From Christ to the world: introductory readings in Christian ethics . Grand

Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994. Print. 489-492

Berry, Wendell. “God and Country.” ed. Boulton, Wayne, Thomas Kennedy, and Alan Verchey.

From Christ to the world: introductory readings in Christian ethics . Grand Rapids, MI:

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994. Print. 524-528

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