DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Truth Hurts

Written by: on March 8, 2018

It’s an easy stretch to apply Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to the world refugee crisis.  It is another piece of the leadership and global perspectives learning puzzle which is heavily focused on globalism and capitalism this semester (with a good dose of sociology throughout).  As noted in Heath and Potter’s The Rebel Sell, and in Exceptional People: how migration shaped our world and will define our future by Iain Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan, “historically, the capitalist world market developed in a contradictory fashion, from the nation state. At some stages, the importance for capitalism of ‘freedom of trade’ was to the fore. At others, the importance of national barriers. Today the productive forces have long outgrown nation states, and yet still remain partially constrained by them. Capitalism’s attitude to migration reflects this contradiction.”[1]  Because the current circulation of commodities globally is not a democratic system (where consistent rules apply to all) it represents a network of “political impositions and violations of workers’ rights.”[2]

According to Santiago Zabala, these (impositions and violations) are “accompanied by growing social divisions” that create tensions that often lead to military interventions with drastic consequences. The “true threat to our common way of life,” Zizek explains, “does not come in the shape of refugees but lies in the dynamic of global capitalism,” which can be overcome only through a “radical economic change that abolishes the conditions that create refugees”.[3]

The link between attitudes toward refugees and Max Weber’s text The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (one of the world’s most famous studies in social science) is simply this –protestant’s value hard work, accomplishment, and profit-making.  Accepting and providing for displaced refugees complicates libertarianism (an extreme laissez-faire political philosophy advocating only minimal state intervention in the lives of citizens)…[4]  “A philosophical descendant of Max Weber, Fifield married Christian thought with a new era of economic development, and spread the gospel through his organization, Spiritual Mobilization. Its mission was simple: to stamp out Christian support for a generous welfare state—which paired naturally with New Deal concern for the poor, elderly, and vulnerable—and to advance a new theory of Christian libertarianism.”[5]

There is a startling assertion in Weber’s work – religion helped to create modern capitalism. The story of how the link between religion and capitalism came into being is also constructed in a very dramatic way, with the earnest Protestant believer looking for “signs to please God”, and discovering that “hard work and profit-making” are such signs.[6]  While this concept is challenging to wrap your thoughts around, even more disturbing is the idea that “the result was a tremendous social force that made it possible for modern rational capitalism to ideologically emerge as the most important institution in the West, displacing the Church once and for all.”[7]  Sects of Calvinists, Pietists, Methodists and Baptists played a key role in helping this new “spirit of modern, rational capitalism” come into being.  Their beliefs were similar to Lutheranism, Weber says, in that they all saw man’s work on earth as a religious task, something that began with the Reformation and had its roots in Luther’s famous translation of the Bible.[8]  The result of capitalist growth, when a “creature of the state” is oppression of people rather than freedom.[9]  Why is this so?  Protestants showed “a special tendency to develop economic rationalism”, that is, a particular approach to creating wealth that was less focused on the gain of comfort than on the pursuit of profit itself. The satisfaction was not in the money to buy things (which had always driven money-making in the past), but in ‘wealth creation’ based on increased productivity and better use of resources. Even after needs had been met, the capitalist did not rest, “forever seeking greater profit for its own sake and as the symbol of more profound ends.”[10]  I imagine this revelation is significant to our own Mark Peterson’s research on Philanthropy. The Protestant ethic simply involved living with your eyes on God but fully in the world. [11]

While it’s unsettling to think Protestants have been the creators of capitalism (which led to a disconnect in caring for people) Weber is quick to point out the following positive attributes of Protestant workers:

  • A spirit of progress;
  • A love of hard work for its own sake;
  • Orderliness, punctuality and honesty;
  • Hatred of time-wasting through socializing, idle talk, sleep, sex or luxury (expressed in the sentiment, “every hour lost is lost to labour for the glory of God”);
  • Attention to the most productive use of resources, represented by profit. (“You may labour to be rich for God, though not for the flesh and sin” said Calvinist Richard Baxter);
  • Absolute control of self (emotions and body) and aversion to spontaneous enjoyment;
  • Belief in calling, or “proving one’s faith in worldly activity”.[12]

I don’t disagree with Weber’s assertion that the Protestant work ethic heavily influenced capitalism, but I am disappointed that capitalism takes precedence over Biblical commands to care for others.  The global refugee crisis (as interpreted by the United States) is just one example of the oppression and marginalization that occurs from the Protestant work ethic – the following attitudes are directly connected to capitalist fears:  refugees will take jobs and lower wages; refugees abuse the welfare state; refugees are a net fiscal cost; refugees increase economic inequality; today’s refugees don’t assimilate like previous refugee groups did; refugees are especially crime prone; refugees post a unique risk today because of terrorism; amnesty or failure to enforce immigration laws will destroy the rule of law in the US;  refugees won’t vote for the Republican Party; refugees bring with them their bad cultures, ideas, or other factors that will undermine and destroy our economic and political institutions…the resultant weakening in economic growth means that refugees will destroy more wealth than they will create; some races and ethnic groups are genetically inferior…they need to be prevented from coming here, breeding, and decreasing America’s good ethnic stock.[13]  Are you convicted at all by any of these fears?  Each one of them is directly connected to capitalist principles.  Do not be paralyzed…the Bible gives clear direction on how to approach refugees. As Matthew 25 makes clear, Christians should see everyone as “Christ” in the flesh. Scholars argue that in the New Testament, “stranger” and “neighbor” are in fact synonymous. Thus the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” refers not just to people whom you know – your “neighbors” in a conventional sense – but also to people whom you do not know. “Man is only a trustee of the goods which have come to him through God’s grace. He must, like the servant in the parable, give an account of every penny entrusted to him, and it is at least hazardous to spend any of it for a purpose which does not serve the glory of God but only one’s enjoyment”. [14]















About the Author


Jean Ollis

14 responses to “The Truth Hurts”

  1. M. Webb says:

    I for one support increased church efforts to minister to our local refugees. The above links are to Glocal in Boise, ID. They are involved in a great work to train and equip ministry volunteers and then connect them with refugees and let God work in developing the relationship. If you come to Boise sometime, we will introduce you to the Armstrong’s who are the missionary leaders for Glocal.
    JoAnne and I served in Botswana and saw hundreds and thousands of refugees from Zimbabwe cross into Botswana to try and earn money to send back to their families. It is heart breaking to see men who were professionals in their country, driven to enter another country with the hopes to be a gardener, laborer, or housekeeper to earn wages in a currency that still has value, that they can send home to support their loved ones.
    As a Christian, we encounter a lot of things that “hurt” that causes grieving, righteous indignation, and sometimes action. While I do not believe we can solve the problems associated with refugees, within the context of our fallen world, we can answer God’s calling to minister to “the least of these” and meet needs, offer support, show love, and project Jesus Christ.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • mm Jean Ollis says:

      Thank you for your feedback Mike! I will check out the links to programming in Boise. I always appreciate and value your real life experiences!

  2. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Really interesting point. While many arguments about refugees are under the guise of safety and public concern, there is an underlying capitalistic defense mechanism that pops up consciously or sub-consciously. As you point out, I suppose this means greed. or it means we will be a little bit lesser of a nation because of having to care of all these extra mouths.

    How sad indeed.

    really great insights.

  3. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jean,

    You are teaching me weekly about immigration and refugee issues. Thank you for that.

    I have been thinking of this Scripture this week, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23)

    Seems to me, most of us use our time and resources for our own SELF. But, your points of looking out for “strangers” and “neighbors” is spot on and well received. Keep it coming!

  4. Well said, well said fellow social worker…”I don’t disagree with Weber’s assertion that the Protestant work ethic heavily influenced capitalism, but I am disappointed that capitalism takes precedence over Biblical commands to care for others.” I wish the Protestant ethic was not just about working hard to amass wealth, but to promote the ethic of helping the hurting and using our resources to help those who have very little. Love how you always direct our attention to the marginalized in our communities. Great post as usual Jean…WMOFENSM!

  5. mm Dan Kreiss says:


    Interesting of you, and quite insightful I think, to connect the Protestant ethic with the lack of empathy for refugees. I wonder if you think the same link could be made for the racism evident in the US. The thought being that; “People of color just need to work hard in order to make something of themselves.” Not realizing that there is systemic injustice that consistently prevents that from happening. Do you think that is a fair link as well?

    • mm Jean Ollis says:

      Hi Dan! I absolutely agree with you – this same link can be made for any population that is vulnerable or oppressed.

  6. Shawn Hart says:

    Jean, your post really provoked my thoughts on how many different variable there could be when looking at capitalism. Particularly, you commented on the struggle of dealing with the refugee problem based on capitalism, which really got my mind going. So with the research you are doing, have you found anything that might show that the link to this struggle is not just because of refugees, but also become of nationalistic pride? Do countries perhaps not want to help because to build up one group may somehow diminish their own? For example…Shawn had $20 and Jean had none…so he gave $10 to Jean and now they were both equal. Shawn regretted giving Jean $20 because the status quo had changed. I know this could be used to argue a number of issues today, but in regards to capitalism, the concept is always self-serving to some degree, in my opinion. Why fix a problem if leaving it alone leaves you on top?

    Even in Christianity, it seems that churches are always trying to compete with other Christian religions…there is no sense in it, but it is there. One church buys a bell, the next buys a piano, the next an entire orchestra. Who is most holy?

    • mm Jean Ollis says:

      Shawn, yes you are absolutely right! Nationalism – even when unintentional – is another barrier to caring for refugees. At any time when we have to forego power to allow another population to have some of that power, we become fearful, and ultimately grab the power back! Thanks for your thoughts!

  7. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Jean, I appreciate your approach and connection to refugees. I do think Weber is trying to understand what connections seem to come about between Protestants and capitalism by exploring the different groups of Protestants named. Do you think Methodists take a different angle? I was disappointed by the section on Methodism because I expected a different and stronger advocacy for Methodists to not prove their salvation/election by their work. They seemed bland at best in Weber’s opinion.

    Also, your list of fears around capitalists (and seemingly also Protestants) regarding refugees is just overwhelming. I can see how people might be concerned about these things and we need to have systems for receiving people well so that they may integrate into our country more seemlessly but for Christians this list is not acceptable. The bible has so much to say about the poor, the outsider and the rich. Two readings immediately come to mind: James and The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion And Inclusion In The Biblical Story by Frank Spina at Seattle Pacific University. I have taught on James chapter five and the warnings to the rich and have read the Spina text and loved it. It’s a biblical study on characters throughout the Bible who were included into God’s people even though they were outsiders. Hope it’s helpful to you.

  8. Dave Watermulder says:

    Hey Sociologist,
    Thanks for this strong post! I enjoyed reading some of the literature that you included and quoted from, and to see your “worldview” on display as you read this book. I think you are right to focus in on the way that capitalistic impulses have overrun a general concern for the poor and marginalized. Along with this, the global flow of people, means that while many Protestants are involved in capitalism today, this economic system doesn’t really seem to reflect the sort of “gospel values” that we proclaim. Thanks for re-focusing the conversation in this direction.

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