Victims All

Branden Henry thinks that some (many?) Americans are in denial about race relations in the U.S. Take, for instance, the white supremacists who marched last summer in Charlottesville:

Playing the Victim – This, right here, is what we witnessed in Charlottesville. Grown white men marching against Jews and Blacks because the white men believe they are being replaced. These same folks who cry foul when minorities attempt to be treated as equal are the same folks who tend to ignore the genocide of the native people of this continent, as well as ignore the long-lasting effects of slavery, Jim Crow, etc. on black persons. These people remind me of the husbands I work with who get angry at their wives when their mistresses are discovered. It is absurd and downright shameful.

Henry has a point. Thinking that whites have had it anywhere near as bad as descendants of slaves is folly. But has Henry considered what happens if economics (class) trump race? What happens if we experience forces even larger and more powerful than structures that perpetuate racism? Finding critics of capitalism who see it as sufficiently powerful to shape (or even change) human nature is not difficult.

Consider this:

My argument in Desiring the Kingdom is that, in fact, the vast majority of our action and behavior is “driven” by all sorts of unconscious, pre-cognitive “drivers,” so to speak. Those pre-conscious desires are formed in all sorts of ways that are not “intellectual.” And so while I might be fueling my mind with a steady diet of Scripture, what I don’t realize that is that all sorts of other cultural practices are actually forming my desire in affective, unconscious ways. Because of the sorts of creatures we are, those pre-conscious desires often win out. This is why it’s crucial that Christian spiritual formation – and Christian worship – is attentive to a holistic formation of our imagination.

Or this:

Nike seems well aware that the good life can be on display on the living icons that are today’s celebrities.

I’m using Smith’s book in my classes to teach my students about how culture shapes us to be particular kinds of people–people that perhaps we did not know we were before we thought about it in class. We’re learning just how substantially we’ve been shaped by culture, rather than how much we think we’re immune to outside influence. Contrary to how we might imagine ourselves, we’re not autonomous, deliberative, rational, choice-making creatures. Often, we’ve been habituated into certain ways of being and doing in the world, before we’re even aware of it. You were saying the Pledge of Allegiance before you had much of a choice in the matter. And by the time you had a choice, you simply would have chosen to keep doing it because you would have been habituated into the story of why it was good to do so.

Learning about this phenomenon of our cultural formation is a strategy to help us think about how we might participate in the counter-formative efforts of influencing the world in manners that are faithful to the ways of Jesus, rather than damaging and destructive ways of culture. Consumerism–the sort that Nike seems able to foster–is often damaging and destructive. It makes us competitive–we start comparing ourselves with each other and our relationships get bent way out of shape. It messes with our desires to the extent that our sense of satisfaction becomes insatiable and we know no contentment. It even replaces religion, and we end up chasing transcendence by means of consumption.

Or this:

In the late nineteenth century, argues Leach, advances in industrial technology, the availability of electricity, and the newly available means to pool vast amounts of capital made production much cheaper and hence threatened to flood the market with goods. This worried capitalists greatly. Marketing consequently acquired the purpose not merely of informing potential customers how a given product might fulfill their existing needs, but of creating new desires. As one proponent of the new culture, Emily Fogg Mead, wrote, it was imperative that Americans be awakened to “the ability to want and choose.” What was needed was a moral reeducation, the replacement of traditionally religious values with consumer values.

Thus, one of the new breed of merchants, Alexander Turney Stewart, was hailed by Harper’s Bazaar for freeing Americans “from the guilt of having wealth and desiring money.” L. Frank Baum, who was not only the author of The Wizard of Oz but a pioneer in the creation of the display case and show window, counseled hedonism: “To gain all the meat from the nut of life is the essence of wisdom, therefore, ‘eat, drink, and be merry’—for tomorrow you die.” To inculcate the ability to forget the past was a key aspect of the needed moral reeducation. Harry Selfridge, superintendent of Marshall Field’s, exhorted his staff “to forget the past, and deal more and more with the present.” Likewise, Mead “urged businessmen to penetrate the home, break down the resistance of ordinary housewives, and ‘forget the past’ in their pursuit of profits.”

That’s why we need churches that ordain women and podcasts that use the latest audio software to teach us how to resist such cosmic forces.

Or, it could be that people actually have agency and make calculations all the time — based on reality, like, even though I really want the BMW I don’t think I can afford those car payments. Or, as much as I’d like to wear Joseph Abboud suits all the time, that might not be the right look on campus (and may be a tad more expensive than piecing together items from Jos. A. Bank and L. L. Bean).

I do understand that consumerism creates certain desires. But we are not 16-year olds with dad’s credit card. Some people make better decisions than others. Capitalism and big business have not turned us into victims. Even fans of Bojangles sometimes crave a meal at Waffle House.


Blame It On the Reformation (Part 5): Channeling Schaeffer

In his chapter on economics and the “goods life,” Brad Gregory has a kvetch-fest about free markets and consumerism (that echoes Francis Schaeffer on Aquinas):

The earlier and more fundamental change was the disembedding of economics from the ethics of late medieval Christianity’s institutionalized worldview, in conjunction with the disruptions of the Reformation era. What needs explanation is how Western European Christians, whose leaders in the Reformation era condemned avarice across confessional lines, themselves created modern capitalism and consumption practices antithetical to biblical teachings even as confessionalization was creating better informed, more self-conscious Reformed Protestants, Lutherans and Catholics. Conflating prosperity with providence and opting for acquisitiveness as the lesser of two evils until greed was rechristened as benign self-interest, modern Christians have in effect been engaged in a centuries-long attempt to prove Jesus wrong. “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Yes we can. Or so most participants in world history’s most insatiably consumerist society, the United States, continue implicitly to claim through their actions, considering the number of self-identified American Christians in the early twenty-first century who seem bent on acquiring ever more and better stuff, including those who espouse the “prosperity Gospel” within American religious hyperpluralism. Tocqueville’s summary description of Americans in the early 1830s has proven a prophetic understatement: “people want to do as well as possible in this world without giving up their chances in the next.” (288)

To his credit, Gregory does not exempt the Roman Catholic Church from the guilt of avarice. He observes that the Renaissance papacy was not too bullish on self-denial.

. . . the popes and cardinals at the papal court, along with wealthy bishops in their respective dioceses — who, already long before the Avignonese popes and their courtiers intensified all these trends in the fourteenth century, so often sought to augment their incomes through simony, pluralism, and a deep participation in the monetized economy through the purchase of luxurious material things and the borrowing of large sums of money. (253)

At the same time, he credits the papacy with an effective rejoinder to modern acquisitiveness, the Church’s social teaching:

They reiterated the claim that the natural world is God’s creation, intended by God for the flourishing of all human beings; repeated that economics and the market are not independent of morality; reasserted that the right to private property is not absolute, but is rather subordinate to the common good; restated that unrestrained acquisitiveness does not serve but rather impedes genuine human flourishing and eternal salvation; confirmed the biblical view that the pursuit of affluence above love for God and service to others is idolatry; argued that minimizing workers’ wages in order to maximize profits is exploitative and immoral; and insisted that the poor and marginalized, as a matter of justice, have a moral claim on the more affluent to share with and care for them. (296)

What is missing from this social teaching and from Gregory’s account is where human beings, who are supposed to be dead in trespasses and sins, are supposed to summon up the reservoirs of virtue to carry out such social teaching. His summary does mention eternal salvation on the plus side and idolatry on the down side, but where is grace and how do fallen people become good apart from the supernatural work of the Spirit? Not even the best of the church’s sacramental system and all of that papal charism could prevent popes from padding their accounts, nor did the theology of the medieval church prevent the hierarchy from raising revenues through the sale of grace — as in indulgences.

If the Reformation contributed to modern acquisitiveness, at least it supplies a good explanation for why people are selfish and want to acquire lots of cheap stuff. It is called depravity. The Reformers also knew that the only genuine remedy and the only way for people to lead a selfless life is through the operation of the Holy Spirit. If we want the redeemed and lost to live virtuously, we need to redefine this notion of human flourishing, call it some kind of moral subsistence, and double-down on efforts to beef up the authorities — parents, teachers, pastors, neighbors — who create expectations that restrain human viciousness.

In the meantime, Gregory’s history needs to avoid the kind of sermonizing that follows from an assumed theology, or he needs to write his own version of How Shall We Then Live?