I recall during the last presidential campaign that Barack Obama took quite a bit of criticism for suggesting in the midst of the unfolding economic crisis that the wealthier members of our society had a greater responsibility to the less privileged among us. He even went so far as to suggest that in some sense there needed to be a redistribution of wealth in America if we were to provide a certain level of safety to the most vulnerable.
My interest in raising this is not to open a debate about Mr. Obama’s policies, but I remember very well that as he was taking a fair amount of criticism for these remarks, with some people accusing him of being a socialist and others simply outraged that a candidate for the American presidency would even dare to speak of redistributing wealth, I could not help but think to myself that this was exactly the kind of thing that Jesus was talking about in the Gospels. All that stuff about loving your neighbor as yourself, taking care of the poor, giving people who asked you for your coat more of your clothing than they had asked for, the suggestion that we should sell what we have and give it to the poor, the parable about the rich man and Lazarus the beggar – these are all teachings about redistributing one’s own wealth so that the more vulnerable in society would be protected and provided for. It seems clear to me that if we were to classify Jesus’ views according to today’s political definitions, he would probably fit into the category of “socialist” more easily than any other.
This is an uncomfortable realization for Americans with our commitment to capitalist market economics, a system which has been an integral part of the spectacular achievements of our society over the last 200 years. We fancy ourselves to be, after all, a nation founded on Christian principles. Yet, the fundamental principle that lies at the heart of Christian spirituality and the fundamental principle that lies at the heart of capitalism are difficult to reconcile. At the heart of Christianity lies the principle of “other-centeredness”. The teaching of Jesus asks us to let go of our own egos, to dethrone ourselves as the center of our own universes, and instead center our lives in God, who calls us to compassionate service to our fellow human beings whom we are to see as manifesting Christ to us. In other words, our lives are not about ourselves; they are about God and about the human community – the beloved community. We admire people like Mother Theresa, who embody this way of living so completely, and we recognize in their lives a deeper call coming to us from Christ that in our own way we should seek to embody this way of living, even if our own practice does not rise to the level of sainthood.
The central principle of capitalism is completely different, in that is seeks not the diminishment of the ego and the dethronement of the self from the center of things, but quite the opposite. The success of market capitalism depends on economic participants who, instead of living other-centered lives, live self-centeredly, pursuing their own self-interest in order to acquire wealth. Concern for the other actors in the economy becomes a function of self-interest rather than the response to a deeply perceived, transcendent call from beyond ourselves. People are ultimately defined according to their capacity to consume, and consumption becomes an obligation upon which continuing economic prosperity depends. The beloved community of Jesus is replaced with the community of consumers.
The truth is that Americans have not been entirely comfortable with pure capitalism. We have come to see the need to modify that economic philosophy in order to provide some minimal level of care for the less privileged among us. In a purely capitalist system, we would not have things like Social Security and Medicare. We have come to the conclusion that there is something to the idea of the common good, and so we have set up structures to provide for the common good, while at the same time trying to leave room from that entrepreneurial spirit that allows individuals to achieve the kind of success that capitalism promises, and that has been the motivating factor in so much of our social and technological advancement.
In our current economic and political climate, we seem to be having a harder time discerning what the common good is. Most of us are a bit irritated with those among us who seemed to embrace capitalism a little too much, enriching themselves but creating a dangerous and ultimately unsustainable economic dynamic. At the same time, we are not very willing to look at how we ourselves were willing to take advantage of easy credit offerings and adjustable mortgages in order to obtain a standard of living that, in the end, we could not sustain. Moral questions about regulating the financial system to try to keep us from getting carried away by greed again and about expanding the social safety net to include a basic good like health care have us tied up in a kind of political gridlock, which in part has to do with an inability to determine what the common good should look like at this moment in history.
If we who are followers of Jesus allow our commitment to Christ to encounter our commitment to capitalism as we grope toward some new definition of the common good, it seems to me a new question arises which is not currently much in evidence in our public discourse: what are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of someone else? It is an other-centered question, which moves us out of the center of the picture. It is a question that asks us to think about what we really need in order to live a good life that is a blessing both to ourselves and others. It is a question that asks us to examine our lives and wonder at what point we have enough. It is a question that wants us to look at what we want in terms of material success and ask ourselves if all of our wants are really appropriate. It is a question that asks us to recognize that our welfare is linked to the welfare of others, and that none of us is an island unto ourselves. It is the question that lies behind Jesus’ invitation (command?) to take up our crosses and follow him. The cross is a symbol of what we are willing to sacrifice for others, and at the same time, it is a symbol of a new and more profound life that emerges out of that very act of sacrifice.
One of my favorite passages in the New Testament comes from St. Paul, who advised his readers of the importance of working out their own salvation in “fear and trembling.” I think that working out our own salvation means recognizing that our own personal salvation is linked to the rest of the human community. Once we have worked out that connection, the fear and trembling come because we understand that something is being asked of us. We are being asked to give up something – perhaps even something very dear to us – for the sake of others. It is not easy, it is not comfortable, but it is, according to Jesus, the path to the new and authentic life that lies on the other side of the cross.