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Friday, March 17, 2017

The Spirituality of Capitalism

Written by  Rev. Dr. Robert Apgar-Taylor

I have recently found myself on a spiritual journey of sorts. I’m not sure where its leading or if in fact it is a journey at all, but it started about two years ago, with the Democratic primary process for the recent presidential election.

Sen. Bernie Sanders was described as a Democratic Socialist. (It is important to remember that “socialism” is an economic term, not to be confused with “communism,” which is a political term. The two are not synonymous.) I started hearing more about socialism and realized that I agreed with many of the same things. I believe that the right to safe housing, a living wage, quality education, and health care are basic human rights, not privileges to be afforded to those who work hard or earn it through some effort of their own. In American Capitalism, it seems like it’s all about competition. Do the best you can. Be the best you can. Earn the most you can.

I recently had a Facebook exchange with someone who commented “No one has a right to a job or a house or healthcare. You work hard and earn them for yourself. If you want to give them everything that’s fine, but not if it means taking from me and mine to do it!” I simply wrote back, “Wow, so it really is all about what’s in it for you? That’s really sad.” And that exchange got me thinking: Has capitalism come to its logical conclusion? Look out for you and yours; work hard and climb the ladder to the top, making and keeping as much as you want. And we wonder why the rich get richer and the poor get forgotten, while the middle class finds itself increasingly more frustrated and angry. And so, this pastor has to admit: Bernie Sanders has become my “second favorite” Socialist Jew.

But this isn’t the surprising part. I began thinking about the message of my faith tradition in light of an understanding of economics that was seemingly more based in caring for self over others (looking out for #1). I also started seeing a correlation between capitalism and spirituality, primarily Evangelical Protestant spirituality as it developed in a uniquely American context during the 19th and 20th centuries.

And so, a spirituality developed around the concept of personal, spiritual success. With its mourner’s benches and tent revivals, the role of religion shifted to one of “getting saved,” where the primary purpose of the spiritual life was a “personal relationship” with the Divine which ensured the believer a place in Heaven where peace and perfection would be granted for all eternity. In a spirituality based on personal success, it seems one is concerned more with achieving eternal blessings for oneself and less with responsibility for those less fortunate. Pray hard, believe hard, earn the most you can. Relationship with God becomes important, almost to the exclusion of relationship with the world around us. In such a religious (mis)understanding, is it possible that care for the poor, the disenfranchised, the environment, and the like, have become secondary concerns that may or may not be chosen, rather than responsibilities that flow naturally from a right relationship with God?

My faith is clear. Right relationship with God necessitates a right relationship with the world around me. Faith is not about me. It’s the exact opposite – it’s about realizing how being loved enables and empowers me to love others: the poor, the disenfranchised, those who find themselves on the outside of life looking in on those of us who have it all.

And so yes Mr. Facebook friend of a friend, I do choose to believe people have a right to a good job, a fair wage, a safe home, adequate healthcare, and an education that gives them a future. And it may in fact mean taking from “me and mine” to do it. Buts that’s okay. Because it’s not all about me. It’s about understanding how I am in relationship with my God and how that relationship leads me to a relationship with my world.

Dr. Robert Apgar-Taylor is pastor of Grace United Church of Christ, Frederick¡ and Veritas United Church of Christ, Hagerstown.

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