Today we look at the response to the third law of theocapitalism as presented in Everything Must Change.
Theocapitalism Law #3: The Law of Salvation Through Competition Alone: By win-lose competition alone you have been saved.
Jesus’ Law #3: The Law of Salvation Through Seeking Justice
When McLaren wrote about the third law of theocapitalism, he presented a quote from Andrew Carnegie about the necessity of concentrations of wealth and the importance of competition. I have not gone back to read the context of the quote but the essay it was taken from was written 1889. McLaren immediately follows the Carnegie quote with this observation.
“…Even religious fundamentalists who reject Darwin in biology typically celebrate an economic or social Darwinism, which reveres inequality in order to reward the fittest – the most industrious, the hardest workers, the most task-oriented (as opposed to people-oriented). The poor, this law states, should and must be poor because they are unfit (individually or as a group); the rich, even though they concentrate great wealth “in the hands of a few,” should and must be rich because they are the fittest competitors. To violate this law would be to work against the very structure of the universe, and would run counter to the will of God and his “gospel of wealth.” (194)
Well if this “social Darwinism” is the dominating view today, then why not present current evidence of it? There is an important justice issue that lives in a tension between two important justice claims. One is that everyone should be able to reap the rewards of their accomplishments. The other is that there is a communal responsibility to “take care of the least of these.” Apart from the ethical questions appropriating others resources, we know that when highly productive people are significantly deprived of the fruits of their labor the cease excelling and society begins to function at a mediocre level. Of course, I expect McLaren would jump in here with a “hooray!” Because it is economic growth (which is responsible for lifting humanity out of 20-30 year life expectancies and lives of misery living slightly above subsistence levels) that is the great driver of his “suicide machine.” I’ll have more to say on this later but once again what we get here is more unhelpful caricature.
For his presentation of the alternative to theocapitalism, McLaren turns to the story of James and John asking for positions of power when Jesus come into his Kingdom. (Matthew 20:20-28) He also draws on Matthew 23:1-12 to highlight Jesus teaching about not lording if over others. He writes:
The word competition has strange and almost mystical appeal to some devotees of the prosperity system of theocapitalism. If by competition we mean a respectful struggle that brings out the best in all competitors, this appeal seems legitimate enough. But if the term suggests a system that creates a few winners and many losers, we will find it hard to square with Jesus’ emphasis on concern for neighbors, a concern that extends to enemies and that singles out “the losers” (the last, the least, and the lost) for special care.
So it is not the hunger for domination through competition that will save us, Jesus teaches. … (217)
Later McLaren explains that in place of these base drives, Jesus calls us to to seek God's Kingdom and justice. The concern for justice is unfolded more in the discussion about the last law.
The concern about competition and domination expressed here is valid enough. I think it is important to highlight that Jesus was talking about competition and domination 2,000 years ago which means it did not originate with modern economies. It is part and parcel of the human condition. Wherever there are structures that create opportunities for power, competition and domination will present themselves. In Jesus’ day, it was about ascending one’s way up the ladder of the patronage system. In our day, it is about running the corporation, heading up the government, or just being better than everyone else at something.
Therefore, witnessing the presence of competition and attempts at domination in an economic system is not an indictment of that system. The question is how are these human inclinations channeled? In our day, we have established various separate spheres of societal life with separation of powers in an effort to thwart moves toward totalitarian control (“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”) Furthermore, market economies channel greed and competition into productive activities. If you want to succeed you ultimately have to satisfy customer needs in order to make it to the top and stay there. We also expect moral institutions and families to instill values that place competition within its appropriate context and make sure it is seen as part of an array of other important virtues.
The reality is that market exchange is, at its core, about creating win-win, not win-lose, transactions. Those that excel at creating the win-win situations are the ones who tend to predominate over the long haul. Could we do better within our society? I suspect so. Can we create an economy free of competition and attempts at domination? Sure. Just as soon as the New Creation is realized in all its fullness.