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

Evangelicalism & Capitalism: A Surprising Omission

Written by: on February 11, 2020

Before the technologically sophisticated classrooms of today were those of my childhood, the walls of which were adorned with rolled-up maps. Many of these enlarged atlases featured transparent overlays that charted topics such as the history of global discovery, the migration journeys of ancient populations, and the shifting borders of North America. The meticulous mapping technique that Dr. Jason Clark deploys throughout his dissertation, Evangelicalism and Capitalism, is similar in that it effectively generates a systematic understanding of the interplay between Evangelicalism and capitalism. By the journey’s end, we are given not only a theological foundation but insight into how evangelicalism “is uniquely situated to respond to the problem it has caused.”[1]

As I walked through Evangelicalism and Capitalism (in conjunction with our reading and conversations so far) four themes have surfaced that I want to explore here: Insecurity, Sacrament, Pilgrimage, and Silence.

(1) On Insecurity: Whether Evangelicalism generated capitalism or vice versa, what has struck me is the power of insecurity in shaping human behavior. Clark does well to chart the transition[2] in doctrinal preference from the assurance to providence and, in so doing, exposes the honest depths of human anxiety about the relationships between God and humanity and the now and hereafter. I’ve been humbled by how swiftly insecurity generates a scarcity mentality that, over time, results in a myopic ethic. This narrow and rigid ethic seems to prioritize “my” flourishing (temporal and eternal) over and above that of others. Similarly, I’m struck by how confidence in Whose we are, as suggested by Paul to be possible because of the fusion of the Cross of Christ and the empty tomb[3], generates an abundance mentality that, over time, shapes a generous ethic. This more spacious ethic seems to prioritize the other over the self.

Could it be that the former is effective at tilling the soil for a society organized by capitalism while the latter may invite a more human-centered economy that engenders equity? While Clark seems to suggest that Evangelicals should navigate rather than replace capitalism, are our imaginations porous enough to imagine an alternative to the capitalist status quo? Are we courageous enough to explore its possibility?

(2) On Sacrament: In conversation with Karl Polanyi’s take on oikos (household), Clark points to the provocative notion of the oikos-polis to expose “how the early church was both a move, and countermove, to the nature of market and political life.”[4] Because of his conversation with William T. Cavanaugh’s understanding of the sacrament of Eucharist, I reason that Clark is suggesting that the church existed neither as a willing participant within imperial society nor distant from it and in a posture of antagonism. Rather he seems to suggest that the church committed to an alternative ethic that was meant to awaken the imagination of the Empire to a better way forward. Eucharist, when understood, received, and embodied as “institution and event”[5] generates in the life of the family a “counter-politics”[6] that is sacramental. That is, when the Eucharist is embodied by a community, the systems that they generate should reflect the self-sacrifice and abundant generosity of the God we discover in Jesus. Thus, these systems should be in diametric opposition to the power & wealth-hoarding systems that define the status quo.

(3) On Pilgrimage: Further expounding upon the oikos-polis imagery, Clark identifies the location of the church neither in one nor the other, but between the two “with its centre of gravity and home in pilgrimage.”[7] While the Christian tradition has ever struggled to embody it, the pilgrimage motif defines what it means to be Christian. From Paul’s articulation of incarnation as downward mobility through Jesus’ invitation to follow Him to the Spirit’s empowering of us to go into the world on restorative mission, the sojourn was and should remain the dominant image for Christian faithfulness. Rather than inspiring us onward, the onset of the relationship between Evangelicalism and capitalism seems to have generated inertia toward settling. The misunderstanding of wealth as evidence of both God’s blessed provision and eternal assurance leads to wealth’s accumulation.  This, in turn, tends to cause one to settle and protect rather than sojourn into the restorative revolution.

On Silence: Perhaps the greatest struggle for me as we’ve navigated the relationship between Evangelicalism and capitalism over these past weeks is the lack of voice given to people of color. Void within each piece of literature, from Bebbington to Clark, is a conversation about race, the social and systemic realities of racism, white supremacy, and slavery, and how these factors may have contributed to both the emergence of and relationship between Evangelicalism and capitalism. The commodification of black and brown bodies by “white” Christian benefactors for financial benefit is worth careful consideration.

Additionally, because of the silence regarding people of color generally and black/brown Evangelicals more specifically, it seems as though the presumption of Evangelicalism, specifically by Bebbington, Weber, and Clark, is that it is a white movement that is preoccupied with their eternal destinations and is capable of growing their certainty of God’s favor through the accumulation of wealth.  As Matthew Desmond argues, it seems evident that, regardless of the genesis of capitalism, it is a system that has been built on the backs of people of color for the benefit of (Christian) white folk.[8] He is suggesting that capitalism has been leveraged throughout time for the benefit of white Christians. If true, then perhaps capitalism is a system that must be replaced rather than tolerated or navigated.

My last thought here is with regard to the kind of eternity that shaped the imaginations of the early (and contemporary) Evangelical capitalists. If the accumulation of wealth was a symbol of God’s provision and assured (almost exclusively white?) Evangelicals of their eternal destination, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that they did not anticipate people of color gaining entrance? Because phenomenal wealth (God’s favor) has been built by white Evangelicals through the system of capitalism in ways that have (and continue) to oppress, violate, and impoverish communities of color (poverty = absence of God’s favor), wouldn’t it stand to reason that their preferential picture of heaven was a white, wealthy eternity?

So where does this leave us? It should leave us…

  • ..auditing our sense of Christian faithfulness and how it has been polluted by our insecurity and love of money.
  • …interrogating the religious, social, financial, and political systems that are designed by power-brokers.
  • …moving toward the margins where the echos of a more communal, human-centered ethic and economy still reverberate.
  • …lamenting our compliance with systems that have crushed our neighbors.
  • …committing to becoming the kinds of people who prioritize the flourishing of others over our own.
  • …prophetically tending to the soul of the economy.

~~

[1] Clark, Jason. “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A reparative account and diagnosis of pathogeneses in the relationship.PhD Dissertation. (University of Middlesex, 2018), 1.

[2] Ibid., 49.

[3] See Colossians 1:19-20

[4] Ibid., 151.

[5] Ibid., 191.

[6] Ibid., 190.

[7] Ibid., 191.

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/slavery-capitalism.html

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

24 responses to “Evangelicalism & Capitalism: A Surprising Omission”

  1. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer,
    Thank you for seeing what’s missing. Jason’s dissertation is dated 2018, but its foundations are built upon much older texts, with Miller having the newest writing in 2005. I would argue they were written in a time that POC were invisible, less than human, so consideration of them in the context of their research is non-existent. Thankfully, new voices are emerging and historical perspectives are expanding. What writers have you discovered who are giving voice and contributing perspective for the time periods we’ve been examining thus far?

    Also, do you have suggestions for breaking down the walls of evangelicals who think they are faithfully following Jesus in the systems that exist, i.e., they don’t see or refuse to see the need to do any of the things you suggest at the end of your post? When I bring up what we are studying, many people look at me like I’m crazy for being concerned about the many oppressive and corrupt systems that have influenced the church, and vice versa. They will say things like, “God’s in control” or “God has a plan.” Which as you know is a cop-out to not have to make changes to their lifestyles or theological constructs.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Hey Darcy.

      I’ll address your first question here & the second question in a second post.

      While new voices are emerging, historical accounts regarding race, racism, colonization, slavery and the subsequent systems these have produced and how these are tied to Christianity and capitalism preceded the research of Miller and Clark. Because colonization and slavery were significant tools that were leveraged by Christians (Catholic and Protestant alike) to accumulate wealth, their omission from our authors’ research is disappointing. What’s more, understanding context and how it is a contributing factor to the emergence of both Evangelicalism and capitalism has been repeated as a value over these five weeks. Thus, the silence on racism, colonization, slavery, and their systems reads as tone-deaf. It should cause us to wonder why they were disregarded/disqualified as viable for the research.

      As to what I’m reading, Willie Jennings has been a prominent voice. So too has been Howard Thurman, Samuel Escobar, Mitri Raheb, Mirobai Starr, Richard Twiss, Wilda Gaffney, James Cone, Mercy Amda Odoyuye, and Randy Woodley.

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        Thank you for these names. I will be adding their voices to my learning. Your post highlights how easily we are duped into believing that even when we think we are doing valuable research and analysis for the benefit of our Church communities, we still live in a bubble of isolation and under the illusion of inclusion. It takes intention and dedication to wade into unfamiliar waters that promise to be stormy, as they will definitely disrupt the status quo. But reality isn’t realized with only a few perspectives; there must be many diverse perspectives to obtain a clearer picture.

        • mm Jer Swigart says:

          So well put. The hardest work that I’m currently doing is that of breaking out of the petri-dish of homogeneity. With each crack of the glass, I’m seeing the world in more vivid detail. What’s more, I’m becoming more human…more alive…more moveable. It’s a journey that is so worth it.

          • mm Darcy Hansen says:

            I’d love to have a conversation around the becoming more human aspect. It’s a core component to my research on death. In my reading, a common thread is that we have lost our identity as humans, thus we are unable to embrace all aspects of life, including death. Reimagining our humanity in light of Christ’s humanity is key. Will you be coming up for the day conference at Alongsiders Church later this month? If so, maybe we can grab a meal or cup of coffee?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Part two of my response:

      Simply put, we need to decenter white male leadership.

      While I value the scholarship of everyone we’ve read over these past five weeks, the fact of the matter is that white male perspectives are the only ones that have been featured. We have to question the feasibility & wisdom of white male analyses that continue to center male whiteness as the sources of authority and repair. Being that white Christian male dominance has been at the center of theological, political, and economic power, it’s hard for me to imagine that white male-centered analyses are effective in shaping the way forward.

      Decentering white male-ness needs to happen in our scholarship and leadership, but it first must happen in our discipleship. (We could and maybe should have a much longer conversation about the theological construction of “God” that has justified the centering of white male scholarship & leadership over time).

      Let me be clear. I don’t think that this semester’s authors have been intentional in their dismissal of race, racism, colonialism, slavery, and the subsequent systems these have generated from their arguments. I don’t imagine that they have been vindictive in their lack of critique of how Evangelicalism and capitalism have been built upon and exacted a severe price on communities of color. That said, it does seem evident that the lack of any critical analysis on these issues (nor noticeable inclusion of scholarship from female thought leaders nor scholars of color) exposes a deficiency of the white, male-centered scholarship that we’ve engaged with this semester.

      My arguments in this section expose the thinking behind the immersive learning experiences that my team and our international colleagues have designed and facilitate. The impact of being displaced into unfamiliar territory and learning from impacted individuals (theologians, faith leaders, peacemakers) is remarkable and so very necessary if we’re going to learn how to collaborate toward a mutually beneficial, just, and equitable future.

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        And here’s the rub: “it’s hard for me to imagine that white male-centered analyses are effective in shaping the way forward.” Not all white-men are willing to step aside and invite others onto their platforms or around their tables. Gosh, I could barely get a meeting with the pastor of my previous church. There was no way he would even consider allowing me to teach, preach, or have a voice, not just on Sundays, but really any day, especially if men were present. I often wonder if that male-centered leadership perspective was as much his wife’s as it was his?

        I hope your vision will come to pass. I do. In fact, your leadership model and disposition give me great hope that things will change. So thank you. I think white-men will be most influenced by other white-men who are inviting them into the something more of God. The work you’re doing matters, especially to those who aren’t usually seen by leaders in our patriarchal systems.

        • mm Jer Swigart says:

          Thank you, Darcy. That’s very kind. And I have a LONG way to go. It seems that, over the past decade, I have daily awakened further to many ways that I have benefitted from the privileges of white patriarchy. I’ve awakened to my homogenous incubator and how, while cozy and well resourced, it’s actually a prison.

          I am awakening to the many ways that my grooming has blinded me to my dismissal of women, people of color, and their perspectives as impoverished, subordinate, and unnecessary. I lament it, confess it, and am learning how to repent from it. Keep me accountable, okay?

          • mm Darcy Hansen says:

            Deal. And same for me. As a white upper middles class woman, I too, benefit from deeply skewed systems. Call me out as needed. 🙂

  2. mm Dylan Branson says:

    It’s interesting to note the continual connections insecurity has on how we perceive our faith and day to day lives. These insecurities show us where past wounds have yet to be healed and where the scars are still visible. One of the things I’ve been wrestling with is the reactions to the coronavirus here in Hong Kong and how fear acts as a motivation to what people think and do at the moment. For example, right now if you look in any store, you’ll find that they are completely sold out of toilet paper because of a fake message that circulated last week saying factories were going to stop producing it to make more masks. But a big part of this fear stems from the old wounds that SARS left on Hong Kong.

    I think the biggest pushback that we see when we ask people to reevaluate their beliefs is that, in part, we are asking them to reevaluate their identities. When you’re told that what you’ve always believed or the systems you’ve been part of aren’t true, we go through an identity crisis of sorts. But this discombobulation is needed if we’re to unravel the lies we’ve told ourselves. How can we go about unraveling these false identities within Christianity and replacing them with a more accurate identity?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      D. I appreciate your question at the end of your comment. Some would say that we can just keep teaching/reading people out of the ravel and into newfound clarity. I just simply disagree. From my perspective, we have done such a disservice to Christain folk both in catering to their consumerism and also in leading them to the brink of wonder and abandoning them there. If we’re serious about transformation, then we’d better start disciplining and accompanying dominant culture Christians in ways that push them beyond the brink of their comfort, beyond the myth of certainty, beyond the fences of dogma, beyond the incubators of safety and into real life. Once there, we have to encourage them to give themselves permission to acknowledge that life is hard and confusing and painful and saturated by the presence of Creator, and inhabited by folks different than “us” who are friends/mentor/teachers worth having.

  3. mm John McLarty says:

    I have a colleague who is currently teaching at a seminary in South Africa and he’s been posting lately about “decolonizing Jesus.” He’s found writings from early Methodist missionaries in Africa that reinforce exactly what you lifted up- a church (and understanding of faith) that is very much shaped by one perspective. I’m wrestling with information overload right now and how (if at all) to integrate some of this into my pastoral work. There’s so much that I feel I’m barely ready to receive, how much more so for the average person in my pews? What are some ideas about opening eyes, ears, and hearts a bit without stuffing bags full of “inconvenient truth” down people’s throats?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      One of my favorite authors is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In her Ted Talk (which has now been viewed 21 million times! https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en), she speaks to the danger of the single story. I encourage you to give it a view. I’ve used it dozens of times with teams to challenge the notion (& preference) of the dominant culture (white-male-centered) narrative. See my thread with Darcy for more commentary on decentering white maleness.

      Also, I’m biased, but I do think that immersive learning is far more potent than simply diversifying one’s library, news feeds, and media outlets. If anything is going to change, I submit that dominant culture people of faith have to displace ourselves into proximity with those who have suffered because of our single-story and learn from them.

      • mm John McLarty says:

        I’ve seen that Ted Talk and used it. It’s fantastic. And you’re right- getting out of our comfort zone can be transformative.

        • mm Jer Swigart says:

          I’d go beyond “can be transformative” to “is essential to our transformation.” That said, the obstacles of privilege and the benefits of the status quo are what lock so many of us in the prison of paralysis. I’m finding myself reflecting with many on what it is that will generate the urgency in dominant culture faith leaders to take the necessary pilgrimage out of homogeneity.

  4. mm Steve Wingate says:

    “is uniquely situated to respond to the problem it has caused.”

    I wonder then, what is pathway to help those among us who don’t believe, because they don’t act, that regularly attending discipleship/ worship services is critical to one’s faith development? If we have solutions then what is hindering us/ me from fully engaging in them.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks Steve. Could you give me a bit more context, though, as to what you’re saying? I’m not sure that I follow the connection between the quote and the rest of your commentary.

  5. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer
    I hear your heart in this post. I ran across this article a while back when I was doing some personal research on the influence of the prosperity gospel in Evangelicalism.

    https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-are-black-and-hispanic-evangelicals-more-favorable-toward-the-prosperit/

    Though not a huge fan of the gospel coalition I did find the survey they are discussing quite interesting.
    Apparently a greater percentage of Evangelical minorities believe that wealth is a result of prayer and a sign of God’s favor than white evangelicals. It also appears that black evangelicals have a higher opinion of white prosperity preachers than white evangelicals. When you get time take a gander I would love your take on it.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Very interesting article.

      Couple thoughts:
      1. White, male wealth is the standard upon which success is measured. It has been so for as long as the construction of race has existed. It’s an ideal that has been imported into non-white consciousness. Thus, I guess its not surprising to read statistics of non-white folk idolizing prosperity gospel & preachers.
      2. While the data is interesting, what is alarming to me is how the author concludes the article. He shames “minority” congregations for not rejecting prospertity orientations to the same degree that his largely white denomination does. His conclusion seems to indicate that the entire point of the aritcle was to shame non-dominant culture folk. Honestly, it reads as self-congratulatory and is off-putting.

      How did you interpret this article in connection to Clark’s dissertation and my reflection? I’m curious as to why you chose this article.

      • mm Greg Reich says:

        My bad! That”s what I get for responding late in the evening on cold and flu meds. I intended to copy and paste your comment:

        “If the accumulation of wealth was a symbol of God’s provision and assured (almost exclusively white?) Evangelicals of their eternal destination, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that they did not anticipate people of color gaining entrance?”

        I could have chosen other articles as well but I felt this one showed how people of color especially those in the health and wealth gospel mindset have entered the ranks of an accumulation of wealth and see it as a sign of God’s favor. It is not an exclusive club any more. Consumer christianity knows no boundary regardless of where and with what race it started. As a Pentecostal my interest stems from the fact that the prosperity gospel started out as being a predominately white pentecostal issue (Copeland and Hagan) but now I see articles showing it has grabbed minories as well in many different countries and entered the catholic church.

        • mm Jer Swigart says:

          I hear where you’re coming from better now. Thanks Greg.

          We shouldn’t be surprised that communities of color have sought to assimilate into the intersection of evangelicalism and capitalism. My question wasn’t with regard to whether people of color are excluded from these systems and their intersection nor how they have attempted to benefit from them.

          Moreso, I’m wondering about what the white male pioneers of both evangelicalism and capitalism thought about people of color. Specifically, if securing eternal certainty was acquired through the successful navigation of the capitalist system could people of color ever win at that game? Put another way, if capitalism is an unjust system that is designed around values that are antithetical to those of Jesus…and if its a system that was built on the commodified backs of people of color…and if that system was designed/catalyzed by white evangelical men to ease their insecurity…and if the generation of this fusion subordinated people of color, then what can we understand about who they believed heaven was for? I am arguing that they would have had to have believed that heaven was for them and the other financially successful white men who could win at the system. If people of color were incapable of receiving the same assurance as white men, then the eschatology behind all of this seems to be self-satisfying, exclusive, and wildly unjust.

          Another conversation should be with regard to the God that white male evangelicals have constructed in order to justify all of this.

          Am I making any sense, Greg? Help me think about this.

  6. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    You are vastly better read than I am when it comes to this topic. I am beginning to grasp your thought process and why you are so passionate about it. If people of color were considered property, as was the case in early America , they may have been considered unregeneratable by white christians of the day. This may have been similar with the native American people groups, especially when history tells us that the American government intentionally gave them blankets with the chicken pox virus with hopes of exterminating large numbers. Also taking into consideration that early mormons believed the mark of Cain was black skin one could state that Heaven was considered an exclusive destination for whites. The only question that arises to my mind is if this was the mindset of the day, did they see Jesus as white? Could they have really been so blind and arrogant? There is no doubt that whites in power have done terrible atrocities in the name of God. Interesting discussion! I would hope we could talk more from you in a face to face discussion to gain insight into your studies.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      “Did they see Jesus as white?” It’s such a good question.

      As is: “Who is the Jesus that white Evangelicals have constructed and is he anything near the dark-skinned Palestinian Jew who turned over the tables of ‘capitalism’ in part because they further impoverished the already poor?”

      And: “If white folk can’t address the mythological Jesus that we’ve fabricated, how well suited are we to address the systems (evangelicalism & capitalism) that we’ve created?”

  7. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, what might motivate white Christian leaders to see the need for such a whole-scale discipleship process? Where’s the entry point? I suppose to some level, this is the role of the Spirit, but I’m wondering how to invite others to take first steps in this transformative journey.

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