Taking Capitalism Out of Christianity: Pope Francis and the Problem of Consumption

On Thursday, Pope Francis will address our current "throw away culture" that encourages the wonton use of the earth, her recourses and her inhabitants for the arbitrary good of the economy and those who control it. The Pope strongly believes that as we disregard the poor so too do we disregard the Earth. If we want to heal both and bring balance to the world then we must move away from a culture where money rules all and find new ways of bringing meaning and joy to our lives.

This is great rhetoric but how do we turn it into praxis? Do we want to turn it into praxis? Actually paying attention to what the Pope says -- or to what Jesus says for that matter -- would rightfully turn our society upside down. The free market that we worship in the West -- the one that tells us the poor deserve to be poor and F you for trying to suggest otherwise -- has done a great job of convincing us that more is better, less is evil and that God, despite Jesus' near every word in the Gospels, loves the rich and abhors the poor. It's a theological concoction so absurd that any reasonable person who has spent more than two minutes reading the Gospel of Matthew (or Luke or Mark or John) would ultimately laugh off. Yet thanks to our good friends Adam Smith and John Calvin, this theological premise serves as the lens through which many see Christianity.

What Pope Francis is asking the church to do is to go back to its roots. It's a throwback to the early church. A church that that was radically different than the empire that surrounded it, which insisted community came before caste and that a person's worth wasn't bestowed by society but was inherited by simply being alive. It's harkening back to a Church when egalitarianism wasn't something to be admired but rather something that was achieved daily. Where women, immigrants and the poor were elevated to positions of leadership rather than being systemically relegated to the lowest orders of society.

But Christianity became the religion of empire. It started out strong with the Romans, moved fluidly through Europe and has found a very tidy home here in America. The religion of empire has little interest in its roots. Its whole purpose is to prop up and justify the actions of the empire. The empire wants to conquer new lands? God wants to conquer those lands too. The empire wants to own slaves? God wants slaves too. The empire wants all the things? God wants the empire to have all the things too.

The Christianity of the American empire could also be understood as the religion of capitalism. Others produce, we consume and we throw it away. Where it came from or where it's going are moot points. What's important is that I always look fresh, always am keeping up, always skating along the curve. It doesn't matter what the impacts of the throw away culture is in the religion of capitalism. Whether people or planet die is not part of its calculus. Profit is all that matters.

Pope Francis is asking us to take a collective step back and evaluate what we are doing as a culture and as a world. Has this style of life made us happy? Are we prospering? Is the world flourishing? Is this a world and society that we want future generations to inherit? The questions answer themselves if we take the time to look around and see the ever widening wealth gap, the increasing conflicts over resources and the programmatic dehumanization of the poorest and most oppressed amongst us. If we want to solve climate change then we must too address the systems that brought it into being. It's heavy and it will be hard but it's certainly worth it.