Escaping Idolatrous Capitalism

To ask what comes after capitalism is on the order of asking what comes after idolatrous religion. [1] One might devote his life to defeating Baal worship only to have Baal replaced by Kali. Improvements may be made in the exchange but people will devote themselves to the gods of culture and these gods (even in their atheistic and Christian incarnation) will bear the image of their makers. Capitalism (or late capitalism in all of its incarnations) is the refinement of all that one would expect of a religious system: nothing is made an absolute something, excess/surplus value (not to be found in any actually existing entity) is the only true value, exponential desire set to consume the world (literally sacrificing the planet in poisoning and despoiling its resources) with no counter value (human survival, care for creation, care for those immediately being sacrificed) able to halt the slaughter. This new world religious order may be unsustainable but it appears all pervasive and irresistible. In the devolution of culture, the human disease – the compulsive attempt to extract life from death, has unified into a world religious economy of perfect plasticity in which the god cannot be satiated.

Equating love of money or a system which promotes love of money (greed) with idolatry (Col. 3:5; I Tim. 6:10) goes to the heart of the system and the apocalyptic nature of resistance.  It is important not to be blinded by extraneous elements – imagining that manipulating the economy, exposing the fallacies of the particular system, or reordering the religion is the answer. Capitalism reengineered or exchanged for something else might improve the lot of some: as in the joke that under communism everyone now drives a limo, the explanation comes that the party boss drives the people’s limo on their behalf whereas under capitalism the same man drove it only for himself. One might have tried to convince the ancient Aztecs that the gods did not need war or that the sun would still shine without offerings of human hearts and blood, but the underlying economy would still be at work. The gods are at the service of a very particular economy extracting life from death. One might as well try to convince Donald Trump to give up his wealth, health and wealth gospelers to give up their gospel, name-brand Christianity to sell its possessions, or evangelicals to trade in Dave Ramsey for Jesus’ admonitions against wealth and the wealthy. Only an apocalyptic reordering of the world permits the naming of the idol from the clearing of an alternative economy and kingdom.

Locating the love of money with idolatry means that this too is a nothing that can be treated accordingly. Capitalism is the same process of gaining symbolically (in the realm of the law or the gods) through a process of destruction as is found in every idolatrous sin system. As David Hart describes it, “It is a system of total consumption, not simply in the commercial sense, but in the sense also that its necessary logic is the purest nihilism, a commitment to the transformation of concrete material plenitude into immaterial absolute value.”[2] One is “morally bound to amorality,” greed is good, and the  “the lust of the eyes” is cultivated as, with idolatry, more is the goal. Just as idolatrous religion consumes the lives of its worshipers, so too capitalism is aimed at uninterrupted, planet despoiling, life destroying consumption that is destroying the planetary body for nothing. The living interchange of life becomes a death exchange in which relationship (to others, the planet, and God) is converted into an exchange value – a dead piece of paper.

The answer is not, as Hart claims, that the early Christians were communists. While those in Jerusalem may have willingly shared their possessions, others such as the Corinthians had to be coaxed into giving a respectable amount of money to aid the poor in Jerusalem. This gift reveals that the economy out of which it flows is not communism but something more pointed. The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile is broken down in Christ, and the removal of this barrier is, for Paul, the archetype of salvation. Money shared by Gentiles and accepted by Jews is the token of its accomplishment. Specifically, the money stands in place of the wall of hostility as a bridge between two alien communities and religions. Judaism is unique in this, not because its law constitutes the only barrier, but because it is representative of all dividing walls between all peoples.

At this point in history it is easy to comprehend that capitalism and nationalism, like any religion, requires its walls. That the wall is also the killing field, and vice versa, is obvious in primitive religion as well as modern politics. For example, in Aztec cosmology the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, was waging a constant war against darkness and to ward off the dark (and simultaneously ward off the Aztecs’ enemies), Huitzilopochtli required human hearts and blood (supplied, anthropologists now know, from among enemy combatants and peoples). The religion of human sacrifice is the barrier defining Aztecs and warding off their enemies. Paul once stood firm in the breach of the dividing wall of hostility, attempting as a good Pharisee to seal up the border. Christ was sacrificed by Israel to ward off Rome and to secure the Temple from Roman wrath (which eventually came anyway in 70 A.D.). Paul, as a Pharisee, was willing to make more human sacrifices to the cause.

In taking up this offering though, Paul has a very different explanation of Christ’s death: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9). This sacrifice transforms the economy of Israel, the sacrifice of the Temple, and the orientation to Gentiles. The new Israel and the true Jew will now worship in a Temple not made with hands but crafted from among all peoples in which the dividing wall of hostility is broken down. Christ’s purposeful impoverishment is to be imitated by his followers, enriched by his life which is then to be shared. “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (8:13-14).  Economies of lack, necessitating sacrifice of the Other are undone. Paul sees the death of Christ as ensuring their end through the koinonia.

This purposeful impoverishment and generosity is not a vocation for the few but, in Paul’s universal vision, embraces the world-wide (Jew/Gentile) koinonia which is to displace the god of the age. Idolatry and capitalism depend on disparity and human sacrifice: either outright slaughter or the wage-slavery which impoverishes the many for the few. In the koinonia-economy abundance is not for accumulation but for relief of the poor – an opportunity for balance on both sides. Capitalism, by legal definition, treats corporate entities as persons – persons that have a singular purpose – capital gain (accumulation of wealth). In Paul’s explanation, abundance is a sign of an imbalance that needs correcting, a gift that needs to be shared, an opportunity to give and to in turn become an opportunity for others to give. This economy is pointedly aimed at destroying the barrier of human religion and identity. It is not simply an alternative economy but is aggressively invasive in its generosity. If ever there were an anti-capitalist creed it is to be found in the koinonia of Christ.

 This purposeful poverty and dispossession explains why the New Testament does not qualify its condemnation of riches. Jesus good tidings are for the poor (Luke 4:18) and the prosperous and rich are disqualified as disciples: “every one of you who does not give up all that he himself possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33). The choice is to be rich and suffer judgment (Matt. 5:42; Luke 16:25) or to store up heavenly treasure (Matt. 6:19-20). The choice is between mammon and God (Matt. 6:24), which gets at the truth that money can become a God-like power serving to center a religious-like identity where it is not sacrificially given away.

James depicts it as an absolute and unqualified choice: “You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you” (James 5:6). In his depiction, one is either with the dispossessed savior, the righteous man, or with the wealthy. Biblical Christianity is geared to expose idolatrous religion, but the idol must be named and its economy exposed. The Christian koinonia must be as dispossessively generous as her Lord, so as not to be found among those whose gold and silver “will consume your flesh like fire” (James 5:3).


[1] For Jonathan, Scott, and Matt and the special koinonia we share and for inspiring this blog.

[2] David Bentley Hart, “What Lies Beyond Capitalism? A Christian Exploration” Plough https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/what-lies-beyond-capitalism?fbclid=IwAR0KPKstix_yBjp5QjfJvGAyZMzs4T4VbIDLpoiSC8xZajuZDV0dh8n9gpI

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.