Worth Reading: H. Richard Niebuhr and the Church Against The World

As part of my church history I have been reading a lot of writings from other Christians.  Some of these are gems and I wanted to share them with some Worth Reading posts.  They are further proof that I believe the sum total of humanity is having the same arguments over and over and over…

In a time of great crisis H. Richard Niebuhr wrote profoundly on the state of the church and asked what the church needed to do in order to be true to itself. He wrote about how the church goes through a predictable cycle that leads towards compromise with culture.  One thing that struck me was his words regarding the church’s captivity to capitalism, which is a conversation I think we need to have more as we ride out a global economic crisis.  (Or should I say I think we need to have this conversation again as he wrote these words in 1935.)

…The church is in bondage to capitalism. Capitalism in its contemporary form is more than a system of ownership and distribution of economic goods. It is a faith and a way of life. It is faith in wealth as the source of all life’s blessings and as the savior of man from his deepest misery. It is the doctrine that man’s most important activity is the production of economic goods and that all other things are dependent upon this. On the basis of this initial idolatry it develops a morality in which economic worth becomes the standard by which to measure all other values and the economic virtues take precedence over courage, temperance, wisdom and justice, over charity, humility and fidelity. Hence nature, love, life, truth, beauty and justice are exploited or made the servants of the high economic good. Everything, including the lives of workers, is made a utility, is desecrated and ultimately destroyed. Capitalism develops a discipline of its own but in the long run makes for the overthrow of all discipline since the service of its god demands the encouragement of unlimited desire for that which promises — but must fail — to satisfy the lust of the flesh and the pride of life…

I really appreciated how Niebuhr highlighted how morality and ethics become based on financial bottom lines.  This is why in our society the elderly, the handicapped and children are incredibly undervalued because they cannot produce goods and services. It is like the only people time that you matter are between the ages of eighteen until you retire.

It also has forced me to ask a number of questions. How has the Christian Church’s complicity in the idolatrous capitalist system contributed to the global economic meltdown and all the injustices associated with it? How many of our new non-profits and justice ventures are simply trying to clean up the unintentional consequences and by-product of the lives we have led and for the most part continue to lead?

The full document is worth reading and can be found here.

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About Kevin

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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One Response to Worth Reading: H. Richard Niebuhr and the Church Against The World

  1. kyleshevlin says:

    What I find interesting is that it is the Church which enabled capitalism to gain such prominence. One of the fundamentals of capitalism is the concept of interest. The Old Testament says that we shouldn’t charge interest on loans, but Calvin said that this should only apply to believers. Thus, he said it was ok to charge interest to those outside the church, allowing capitalism to begin to take hold.

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