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

To Share Our Daily Bread

Written by: on February 9, 2017

Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the Lord?” or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.   Proverbs 30:8,9

 

In his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, written in 1904-1905, Max Weber argues that the religious ideas of some groups, notably Calvinists and Puritans, played a role in the development of capitalism. He begins by pointing out that many businesses are owned by Protestants. He believes that there is a correlation between “certain expressions of the old Protestant spirit and modern capitalistic culture” (page 8) and he sets out to explore the possible relationships.

Weber gives some historical background to what he means by “the spirit of capitalism” as he lays out the problem. He believes that the idea of one’s duty in one’s calling is one of the sources of the Protestant work ethic. Weber is not unfairly criticizing Protestantism; he is looking for answers. Seemingly an agnostic himself, Weber is familiar with the Bible verses that have been used by Christians to support the idea of “calling”. (His mother whom he loved very much was a devout Calvinist). He wants to show that this “call” leads to the Protestant work ethic as understood today (Or at least in 1904 for him!).

It’s a complex issue and he weaves through other strands of ideas such as traditionalism (in organizational structures), rationalism (leading to increasing individualism), and “disenchantment” with the old way of explaining things through mystery and magic.

Weber recognizes that in Reformed thinking, especially Calvinism, there is an emphasis on Providence. During the time of the Reformation a big question was, “How do I know if I’m saved?” Roman Catholics could look to the Catholic Church. Some of the followers of Calvin looked for evidence of a providential God’s blessing as proof that they were right with God or saved.

Weber also stressed that the emphasis on the transcendental as an explanation of depersonalizing the religious ethic of giving. (My side reflection – But is doesn’t have to be that way. The emphasis on the transcendental, unchanging God (pages 55,72) is only one side of the picture. God is also an immanent God. The holiness movement (probably fairly new in Weber’s time, and possibly not in Germany yet?) would give Christians a balanced view.) The experiential side of our faith should balance the rational side.

Weber explains the concept of religious and worldly asceticism. Christian groups early on, Pietists, Methodists, and Baptists did practice asceticism and they shunned ostentation and worldliness. But at some point, the religious roots gave way as prosperity and material success became the order of the day in secular society.

Until one gets to the end of the book, it often seems as if Weber is contradicting himself. How did asceticism lead to capitalism? Weber himself admits to the paradoxes but invites us to see that the issue is very complex. I think he sums up his case best with the quote from Wesley:

“I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. … For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of he world in all it branches.”

But do riches always lead to greed? I think the changes occurred gradually. There was a time when businesses actually were more responsible. The following picture shows what I mean. (Another aside – Jason hinted that we seem to be less selfish when we are in dire circumstances. This photo was taken during the depression.)

Weber’s observation near the end of the book was that the gain should be given away. As we noted in last week’s chat, the Christian can grow in grace and lay up treasure in Heaven. Weber noted that some religious people still believed that external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But “fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.” (page 115)

Weber’s answer then is – Protestant groups may have started out with good intentions, but their religious roots withered and utilitarian worldliness took their place. Puritans only desired to work at their callings. But the secular economic system which gradually came to be is now in place. We are thoroughly entrenched in it. Material goods have “gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history.” (page 115)

Weber wondered “who will live in this cage in the future?” (page 115) If he could have seen the world a century later he would note that our whole society seems to be built around consumerism. People’s desire for more goods, less expensive, and more convenient just fuels the fires of “greedy” capitalism. Businesses must make decisions on how to keep costs down, and often do so while treating workers like numbers on their spreadsheets.

Mr. Obama recognized that our economy is based on consumerism. After a recession, he wanted to get the economy going again by sending out “stimulus” checks to everyone. The idea was that people would inject money back into the economy. When he came up with his plan, I prayed that people would just put their checks in their savings accounts, or pay off debt. (We had a negative savings rate for the first time in history – debt, especially credit card debt, exceeded savings.)

The media was pumping up the idea that it was our Patriotic duty to spend the money. Wow! That’s a new one.  I wonder if Polanyi would have seen this as good government intervention? But a reporter that was interviewed about Mr. Obama’s plan said that giving out the checks was like giving a heroin addict another dose of heroin to keep him happy in the short run. Eventually, a day of reckoning will come as the inflation bubble bursts.

For my part, I just cry every time I drive by one of the huge land fills we have here.

I wonder if Weber would have said “I warned you of the danger of the ‘iron cage’?”

I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this mess. Everybody will just have to agree that we will all stop being selfish I guess. Wherever I have influence I will try and encourage people to see what is happening and learn to give more.

As a Christian, if the whole thing comes crashing down, I want to be ready to open my door to the poor and invite them in to share my daily bread with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Mary Walker

8 responses to “To Share Our Daily Bread”

  1. Beautiful summary of the book Mary. I also really appreciated your heartfelt plea for people to give more when they have received more. Seems like a great principle to live by.

    Our patriotic duty to spend money! Wow, that’s a new one. I wonder what would have happened if we put money back into the economy by sharing with those in need around us? Anyways, yes, we have an indulgence issue and a need for immediate gratification in the U.S. I am concerned for what this is doing to our kids. I just keep training my kids to give, see the needs of others and be considerate. Partially for the betterment of our world, but also because one day they will be caring for me.

  2. Mary Walker says:

    I love your idea, Jen! Maybe some people did use their money for charitable causes.
    Unfortunately though, some news articles related that people did do their “part for the economy” by going out and purchasing things.
    I also love the way you are raising your children. That is really an answer against the consumerism of our day. Wish more people would take your advice!

  3. Mary I enjoyed how you wove your summary of the book and your reflections together. If you recall, the first Economic Stimulus Act was in 2008 under President George W. Bush. He signed it into order on February 13, 2008. I remember this because I was excited to get some extra funds from the government. Especially since Republicans are not widely known for giving money to non wealthy common every day people. I could see the rationale behind it but they were only giving us money that we as tax payers had already given to them. So we were in essence getting some of our hard earned money back via a tax rebate.

    Many of my friends and I did put our check in savings. We refused to give the money back to the government or economy because it would be like we never received it at all…LOL

    I do agree that our country likes to associate “patriotism” to agendas that only benefit those in power. While many of us knew the stimulus would fail because our economy was already spiraling downward (economists would have told you that we could not do anything at that point to break the fall), I cannot blame the use of the stimulus on George W. Bush’s or anyone’s administration, I believe that responsibility lies on each individual. Lack of fiscal responsibility is something every personal must be held accountable for.

  4. Mary Walker says:

    Praise the Lord! and Amen, sister, if you don’t mind my saying so, Christal.
    I always look forward to your response to my post. I am an accountant with a business degree, and involved in business as you are (though I only run a vineyard). I value your insights because you are a professional. And because you are one of the best at relating religion to real life!
    Yes, you are right the gov’t was only giving back “our own”.
    I know Christians who won’t pay taxes because they think the government is evil. I think there is a more Scriptural response. What do you think?
    Rom. 13:6,7 – Pay taxes. The ultimate goal is to witness for Christ. Even Jesus got his tax payment from a fish one time.
    On the other hand: I have advised Christians that they aren’t in a position to change the whole big system. If the government takes your money (you have no choice) why not take every opportunity to keep the money from going to things you don’t agree with (armaments?) and get some of your hard earned tax dollars back that you will use for care of your family, charity, etc.??
    Praise the Lord, here in the US we can still take charitable deductions. Is this left over from that Protestant background?
    So, the responsibility is on each of us as you say. I only hope that it could spread somehow.

  5. Geoff Lee says:

    Consumerism is surely one of the major idols of our time and the church has been deeply compromised by it. Our constant accumulation of more and our debt-fueled culture will indeed (has already!) come home to roost.

  6. So good, Mary. Thank you for the reminders.
    When I taught high school history we spent quite a bit of time focusing on the “patriotic spending” that came during the post-WW2 era. In the 1950s and 60s, the government encouraged people to buy new cars, all new appliances, and other big ticket items to stimulate the economy after the war. When people couldn’t save enough in advance for those things, credit was born.
    You said, “But do riches always lead to greed? I think the changes occurred gradually. There was a time when businesses actually were more responsible.” This is a really important thought and I think we are actually seeing a resurgence of this type of responsibility. The millennial generation is a driving factor in responsible business practices. I believe that, as this generation takes the lead, we will see a shift. To be honest, though, I also think this is part of the battle we are seeing now. It is hard for the people who prospered most in the 80s and 90s (when it was “all about me”) struggle to understand how business practices that actually keep in mind the wellness of the planet and of people can prosper.

  7. Great post, Mary. I wonder, if the issue then, as now, is not so much a focus on an unchanging God, but rather on a false God – mammon.

    It is such a fine line to do our best and use our gifts and abilities to glorify God and bless others with them, without the accumulation of wealth becoming the god – I have had the opportunity to minister in some incredibly materially wealthy communities, and in those places have encountered some families that really used their blessings in amazing ways – but it is the definite exception, and I think the temptation has to be fairly constant.

  8. mm Katy Lines says:

    Capitalism, as you mention, has become the dominant economic model today. And while some individuals (and companies) choose philanthropy over greedy consumption, the vast majority of us do not. Obama’s encouragement to show patriotism through shopping is not new in America. W. Bush, in the aftermath of 9/11 encouraged spending money to keep the economy strong: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/business/consumer-spending-as-an-american-virtue.html

    We do have a choice– we may not be able to step off this hamster wheel of capitalism, but, as you suggest, we can always show hospitality to others.

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