Capitalism and Christianity: What Should We Render to Caesar?
Under capitalism, the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” philosophy reigns supreme. The goal is to make a profit, and the people who act fastest, smartest, and savviest are the ones who deserve to make that profit and reap the financial awards that society has to offer. If you’re “fit” you are entitled to a good life, in the materialistic sense, because you have the ability to carry yourself to the top of the ladder; if you’re on the bottom of the totem pole that means you weren’t able to keep up with the big dogs and don’t deserve to be anywhere else.
While no economic system is actually that simple, and there is a lot more that goes into a capitalist system than “big dog eats little dog,” it is true that the traditional U.S. business model, and capitalistic thinking in general, is conducive to a stratified society with the savvier, more aggressive, and more skilled members on the top of the pile while everyone else scrambles for the best possible spot somewhere else below. In a system where rewards are based on individual merit, personal capabilities, and accomplishments, wealth isn’t going to be any more evenly distributed than intelligence, wisdom, and physical prowess.
True capitalism is not very sympathetic toward the handicapped, the poor, the uneducated, the untrained, and the uncoordinated. If you can’t keep up, no one in a pure capitalist economy is going to bother taking the time to help you across the finish line. How can we, as Christians condone such a system when the Bible tells us that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, and show compassion even for our enemies? Is there any room for a dog eats dog political or economic worldview among the Christian community?
Jesus certainly didn’t seem to act much like a capitalist during his time here on earth. He didn’t charge a fee for the miracles he performed and he wasn’t particularly focused on personal political and economic advancement. Think about how much he could have made if he had pursued a career in unlimited food production? Honestly, Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight with his quote “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” seems to be a better representation of true capitalist thinking than our Lord and Savior.
As someone going into the business field of Accounting, these kinds of questions have taken up a lot of brain space in the last several years. From what I have seen, learned, and experienced personally, capitalism seems like the most efficient and effective way to run a society overall when the end goal is materialistic progress and financial gain.But how can I, as someone desiring to be a faithful follower of the Christian faith, justify participating in a system that causes so many people to struggle in poverty because they lack the skills and resources necessary to compete and get ahead?
Communism and socialist thinking in general, comes from those who have balked at the harsh, unsympathetic worldview of capitalism. “Human beings should look out for one another” say socialist thinkers. The people of our nations and communities should be willing to come together and work as one for the betterment of all rather than for the selfish progression of individuals. We should all be willing to work as hard as we can, not because it will get us ahead of the rest, but because the whole world will benefit from the fruit of our combined and selfless labors.
In theory, a socialist or communist system sounds pretty ideal and quite compatible with the Christian faith—far more so than a capitalist system anyway. If you have been blessed with a strong church community, you have likely seen the good that comes from groups of people coming together to help a neighbor in need without asking for or expecting repayment. When a dear member of a congregation falls ill, loses a loved one, is released from a job, or is simply struggling to handle all of the day to day challenges that life has thrown at him, many times others in the congregation step in to help out in some form or another without any expectation of reward. The result of this ‘stepping in’ a stronger, healthier, and happier community (at least in my experience).
Why couldn’t, or why don’t, we enact such a communal or communist system across the country and leave the more brutal and self-serving style of capitalism behind? Well, for one thing, history hasn’t provided us with a very positive track record among those nations and peoples that have embraced communist and socialist philosophies. Despite its numerous faults and failings, the people of the United States seem to be thriving a lot more than the people of Russia, China, North Korea, and every other nation that has attempted to enact a political and economic model of socialism.
Why is that?
Sin, I think, is the more straightforward answer. Ultimately, I think the reason capitalism has produced such successful results, at least when compared to socialism, is quite simple. Human beings are fallen, sinful creatures that are typically more than willing to act upon selfish and self-serving motives. Capitalism runs on people who are willing and eager to pull themselves to the top of the food chain. Sloth is an incredibly powerful force, but often greed is the one that wins out, and capitalism works because people are willing to work hard and produce results, albeit often good results that are beneficial to society as a whole, if they know that they will be able to reap the rewards of their labor afterwards.
Communist and socialist societies are doomed to struggle for the same reasons that capitalist ones have a good shot at success. On a large scale, most people are not going to be interested in dedicating their lives to hard work and strenuous labor if they know that the fruits of their efforts are going to be distributed among those who didn’t work as much as them or even at all. The potential entrepreneur isn’t going to put his neck on the line to develop a new business if he knows the wealth he will garner as a result will be no greater than anyone he employs, and the scientist who might have the intellect and resources necessary to develop a cure for some deadly disease will be far less likely to devote years of his or her life to the necessary research and study if there is no great personal reward for that sacrifice of time and energy.
Human beings are selfish; human beings are lazy; and human beings, by and large, do not want to participate in a society where everyone works together to make the world a better place if they are likely to benefit just as much if they let everyone else take care of things for them.
Those who campaign for a socialist utopia fail to grasp the true extent of mankind and the world’s sinfulness. Sure, we may be willing to come together as individual families and congregations to help each other out, and we may be willing to participate in some selfless act or another once in a while for a dear friend or loved one, but when it comes to strangers, self-sacrificing acts become a lot less appealing. Even within church congregations and families we often see strife and opposition stemming from conflicts of interest and childish selfishness.
So, as Christians we should understand the true beauty and Godliness of laying down our lives and self-interests for the betterment of others and for the progression of society as a whole, but as Christians we should also be aware of the fact that every member of the human race is flawed. They are interested primarily in making their lives and the lives of their loved ones as good as possible with the minimum amount of effort, and not in necessarily in making the world a better place overall.
Does this mean we are doomed to just accept the fact that (if we want to live in a functional society that doesn’t end up like the Soviet Union) we have to bow to necessity of capitalism and all the unfortunate side effects that go along with it?
Surely there must be a way, despite human weakness, to show loving kindness to our neighbors, to the poor, to the lost, the hurt, and the lonely without dooming our country to economic failure. Even though humanity is flawed and faulty, Jesus gave up his life upon the cross for the salvation of all mankind, and it seems like there must be some way for the members of Christ’s church to find a balance between participating in a successful economic system without becoming entirely selfish and brutal members of the business world willing to doom everyone lacking the resources to move ahead in the world to a life of poverty and misery.
I don’t have a perfect solution, but as I prepare myself to enter into the business arena where I am told you must have sharp wits, quick feet, and an aggressive personality to succeed, I remind myself of the following passage:
13 Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement. 14 They came and said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? 15 Shall we pay or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.” 16 They brought one. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” And they said to Him, “Caesar’s.” 17 And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him. (Mark 12: 13-17)1
We, as followers of Christ, are to live in this world but not of it, and part of that includes learning how to survive and lead decent lives in a world struggling against the ravages of sin. Capitalism is a system that works because it is a system that acknowledges the sinfulness of humanity and finds a way to use the selfishness of man to drive society forward, but just because we live and work in a capitalist society doesn’t mean we have to accept the poor and unprivileged as unavoidable casualties of war either.
The economy, the government, and the political and materialistic realms of today are all Caesar’s. They belong to this world, and in the same way that we are called to honor and serve the leaders God has placed in authority over us in this world, there is no sin in trying to educate ourselves and work hard to get ahead in our jobs or fields of work. There is no great shame in trying to provide the best possible life for our families that our labors can earn in this life, and there is nothing inherently wrong with expecting a reward for honest work.
The worker is deserving of his wages after all.
However, the people around us that may not be able to compete on the same level as us, and the people unable to get a degree or find a job because they simply do not have the time, skills, or resources to keep up with the head of the pack are God’s people bought and paid for by the blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As Christians, understanding that the things of this world will not last and that ultimately our hope lies not in the wealth and status we acquire in this life, but in the death and resurrection of our Savior, we should understand that there is more to life than getting ahead in the capitalist society to which we belong.
While we live here on earth we are to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and that means we are subject to the laws of the land and victim to the wages of our sin – that same sin which seems to make the brutal capitalist system the best available. As children of God and members of the church, however, we should love and honor our neighbors as we love ourselves. Capitalism and Christianity are compatible, not because they alike, but because it is the Church that can make capitalism possible. In the name of progress and profitability, the economy will continue rolling forward without stopping to consider who is left behind, but because we know that our salvation lies elsewhere, the Church has both the freedom and the duty to care for and strengthen those whom capitalism leaves behind.
Where capitalism has been unsuccessful in the world today, I don’t think it has been because the system itself is flawed or malfunctioning, but because the Church has either kept silent and has failed to care for and serve its community as it should or because the community has rejected the Church.
Is it lawful to participate in capitalism? I am a fallen sinful human being incapable of keeping the law by virtue of my own reason and strength and living in a world doomed to end, so the best answer I can give you is this: Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s.
1 New American Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: World Publishing Inc, 1995) 1152.