Reflection: Subverting the Economic Suicide Machine
I have considered many of the personal issues of the ethics of money. One thing that has always stood out to me is how prevalent the theme is throughout Scripture. I haven’t done the math myself, but I have heard that greed is the second most-critiqued sin throughout the Bible at over 3000 verses. Only idolatry is mentioned more, and you could argue that greed is just one specific form of idolatry and the one that is the most common in the contemporary Western world. Avoiding greed is a sort of an obvious baseline, then, functioning as a starting point in financial ethics. However, Jesus sets the standard for us at not just avoiding doing wrong to others but actively doing to others as we would want them to do to us. At the centre of Christian morality is active love, but it does take some more reflection to figure out what that means when it comes to issues of money.
This means expanding into questions of globalization, which is something I haven’t reflected on too much before. The world is interconnected in ways that are still amazing to my small-town mind. The t-shirt that I decide to buy may affect a hundred children in China who I never have and never will meet. This realization of interconnectedness should force us to think about the effects of our day-to-day decisions. I think the main moral imperative that goes beyond simply avoiding greed is what I’ll call conscientious consumerism. This means things like researching companies to find those without exploitative business practices, which may often mean buying more expensive products. In these ways we slowly subvert the problems of our world’s economic system.
I grudgingly accept that our fallen world will not be free of consumerism in some form at least for a very long time. Emergent Village author and pastor Brian McLaren refers to our economic system as part of the world’s “suicide machine” in his book Everything Must Change. It is a machine that won’t be stopped easily as it is so engrained in the lives of all of humanity, yet he argues that Christians should be fighting to subvert the system even if the goal of totally stopping it is very far away. This puts us in an interesting position, although one that is not unusual for Christians: we know that we are a part of a suicidal system and we need to try to subvert it, but we also need to work within it to some extent in order to be able to subvert it.
One of the big questions that remain for me is how much can we attempt to force others into a more equal and less consumerist world. It is one thing to talk about sacrificing my wealth. I don’t like capitalism, or more accurately I don’t like the greed that fuels it. Yet even if it were possible, an enforced economic equality doesn’t last and I don’t think it is any more ethical than what we have now anyway. It would be a case of replacing one oppressive economic system with another. I conclude that the suicide machine will only really be stopped when more and more people willingly choose to go against it.
What’s our realistic goal then? The starting point is always with ourselves. We won’t single-handedly change the system, but we can and should have an important part to play. I know this is an over-used sermon illustration, but there is a popular story of a boy who threw as many starfish back into the sea as he could. A man pessimistically asked him if he really thought he could make a difference. The boy responds “it made a difference for that one” and throws another starfish back. The older man’s attitude is analogous to most of the church. Even when we realize that we should be subverting the suicide machine, as I think most do to some extent, we roll over without a fight because we think the machine is too big and too strong. The starting point then, I think, is to continue to subvert in whatever ways we can, making as much of a difference as we can instead of giving up.
While I might not be officially a leader within the church in any way, beyond our own lives, I think for all Christians the duty is to disciple each other in this as well. In something as fundamentally counter-cultural as this, we need to work together to constantly remind each other of our commitment and help each other carry them out. And slowly but surely, we will disrupt the suicide machine.