The fifth week of Lent arrived before I finally understood why I felt so compelled during this time to read Karl Marx’s Capital.
Lent is the liturgical season spanning Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday in which many Christians devote themselves to fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, with the purpose of cultivating an attitude of repentance for their sin and reflection on God’s mercy. It is a time for spiritual discomfort. Pope Francis said, “Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.”1
Capital is an unrelenting historical analysis of the development, processes, and consequences of capitalist economy. Labor theory of value aside, excerpted official reports from doctors, factory inspectors, members of parliament, etc., recount horrifying details of the living and working conditions modern society has heretofore deemed acceptable in the name of profit. Such testimonies truly trouble the conscience.
The problems inherent to capitalism are not faraway abstractions for me. Marx’s analyses carried the familiarity of a newspaper. I was not shocked that people exploit each other. What troubled me this Lenten season was my complicity.
Since I began to learn how money and politics work, I fully embraced, if not endorsed, many of the popular dogmas that prevent us from questioning the status quo. But what if, in the words of Jesus, “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men”?2
When it comes to the use of money, we have confined love to individual acts of charity. Regardless the logistical limitations of private or non-profit organizations, we maintain that “government interference” automatically precludes authentic goodwill. Love of humanity must then mean love of one human at a time, since by this sophistry, addressing problems that affect large populations cannot be love.
Justice, as an ideal, receives similar treatment. If a business owner charges too much or pays too little, or if rent or utilities rise to untenable rates, that is merely “the market”. But if by force of legislation people impose anti-gouging laws, livable wages, and fixed rates, that is essentially theft, shrinking the few’s right to maximize profit. How often have we heard the cries in defense of small business owners! Yet no one thinks it strange that we value the survival of a business over the survival of a human being.
We freely acknowledge our economy inevitably produces both winners and losers, yet still portray poverty as a moral failure. Righteousness is thus a question of material wealth. Self-examination is likewise moot. The refusal to acknowledge problems inherent to the economy as economic problems serves to deny the possibility of systemic sin. We as sinners cannot repent.
Finally, if nothing else, in spite of its “flaws”, capitalism is the best we’ve come up with, the least of all possible evils, the most reasonable accommodation of human nature. After all, didn’t Jesus say the poor would always be with us? (Never mind that He was defending a “frivolous” expense to His incessantly charitable disciples.)3
We ascribe to capitalism the immutability of a natural law. But Christ came to reverse the natural order: namely, that the self is a predetermined fact one discovers but cannot change;4 that the world must always endure injustice;5 and, indeed, that those who die remain dead forever.6 If I hold as true that Christ conquered death, I must also believe people can change, and with them, the world.
All this to say, what if I stop giving myself excuses?
I had never seriously considered that it isn’t all about me. This is my faith, my relationship with God, my destiny, my motives, my actions, right? Group behaviors—such as those expressed in “the market”—don’t apply to me. Right?
But if the scope of morality stops at the individual, God had some gall to compare Jerusalem’s sin with Sodom’s—as if the conduct of whole cities could be discussed!7 If moral responsibility does not apply to groups, what right did God have in the first place to mandate legal protections for wage laborers and the poor?8
It is true that Christians are not obligated to obey the Law of Moses.9 Interestingly, God described the Law as something already in the people’s hearts.10 Now, if the Christian has a new heart,11 the mind of Christ,12 and if grace and truth, in contrast with the Law, are realized through Jesus Christ,13 should we not expect better from our conscience? Similarly, if the national conscience of ancient Israel, a precursor to Christ,14 enacted laws that “punish success” and “force charity”, how much more should those whom Christ inhabits15 overcome evil with good?16
It is also true that Jesus did not speak directly to any political topic besides taxes.17 However, to assert His teachings have no political application is not only an argument from ignorance, restricting one’s entire moral code to only things mentioned by Christ is both ludicrous and an easy way to justify all manner of evil.
The more difficult task lies in living out Jesus’ commandment, “Love one another, just as I have loved you”,18 within every conceivable context—to actually desire “Your will be done on earth.”19
If we are to acknowledge the supremacy of God-who-is-love,20 we cannot excuse anything that makes money a competing master.21
If we believe Scripture, which says, “The love of money is a root of all sorts of evil,”22 then we cannot believe profit motive is the foundation of a good society. Indeed, if we are to apply the rule of love to the use of money, we must conclude, “A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable.”23
Moreover, if we are to love others as Jesus has loved us, we must be willing to forfeit what we perceive as our rightful advantages,24 including our wealth.25
Love says, “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.”26 If we cannot think of others as important as our own limbs, we have no business evangelizing. If “God so loved the world,”27 we should too.
Karl Marx was not a prophet, but Capital wouldn’t be the first time God sent a Gentile to trouble the conscience.28 This year I found it is not my conscience alone that needs troubled.
Ultimately, an economy based on love would look radically different from what we consider normal. The journey there will no doubt be humbling, uncomfortable, even painful—like Lent.