Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A Promised Post On Capitalism & Christianity

It is a philosophical commonplace of these postmodern times that every identity or community is a reciprocal product of its binary opposite. Simplistically rendered: 'I' am not 'You', and 'You' are not 'I'. Also commonplace, and obviously related, is the recognition that evangelical Christianity, to be itself, requires 'the damned' -- i.e. in order that the redeemed / saved might be identified as such. Less often discussed, though, is how all this relates to evangelical Christianity's (not-simply-economic) commitment to market capitalism.

In short, the productive matrix of capitalism not only requires the concept of 'the damned' for the maintenance of evangelical Christian identity, but, more importantly, actively posits its necessity. Which is to say, for the evangelical Christian, 'the damned' are a sort of excess that is actually constitutive of Christian redemption. For those inclined towards a hardline doctrine of 'original sin', this may not seem an immediate problem ... that is, until the reciprocal thought would require you to acknowledge this excess as a conditioning agent, the originality of this sin, itself retroactively presupposed by the evangelical Christian. Is this only the vicious circle of faith?

Similarly, as we know, capitalism also requires losers. Such is the nature of the 'risk', for instance, we are told to enjoy as 'free Americans', that we might lose all that we own in a stock market crash, a corporate scandal, etc. This is the precise means by which the free market creates and sustains itself. Without the risk of loss, which is another way of saying without the reality (and maintenance) of loss and losers, the system simply cannot last. In contemporary, liberal society, all people receive, at least formally, the opportunities of success -- a la 'freedom' / 'democracy'; but, in reality, not all people actually have (or are provided) the means to receive and/or utilize those opportunites. Free trade for us -- the EU, the US, Australia, etc. -- but not for you -- the 'developing nations' who are kept that way under the heel of the First World's protectionist subsidies and trade tariffs.

It is easy to see how this easily weds itself to the evangelical Christian self-understanding. More problematic, however, is the degree to which this self-understanding undermines its official mission: that of 'saving souls'. What many non-evangelicals do not seem to understand is that the Christian mission is, for the evangelical, constitutive of his exclusivism. This leads to a lot of intentional and unintentional misunderstandings of rhetoric and action, some justified and others not. On the other hand, and on a level that goes beyond conscious misunderstanding, many evangelicals do not seem to understand the capitalistic reasons for or implications of their exclusivism's constitutive role in their mission.

This is, I think, the horrific truth of evangelicalism, that from which it shrinks. Namely, that it forces the betrayal of that which he must hold most dear, the mission of saving souls. The radicality of evangelicalism's necessary exclusivity, what it must exclude to be itself, is too much to bear. The betrayal is two-fold: by betraying itself -- i.e. its offical goal -- to realize itself, the truth of the horrific/repressed void at its heart emerges. All my talk of 'void' is not that of passive nihilism -- something I've been accused of in the past. Rather, it is the truth of an unthinkable absolute freedom, an active willing of the impossible, the 'nothing' of an impossible thought that somehow happens, that happens even at the heart of evangelicalism, though necessarily repressed (if formal evangelicalism is to remain what it is); the Event that blinds just before it breaks the old, and creates the conditions of something wholly new.