My name is Brent Baccala. Some of you know me only as the man in the white robe holding the sign that reads “Surfing the Nations is a Fraud”. I don’t particularly like the sign, but it’s been given to me by God. I’d rather just stand in front of Surfer’s Church with a microphone and preach, but Tom Bower will not allow that to happen. Let me explain, briefly, my history with STN, tell you what has happened over the last month, and summarize the message that I wish you to hear.
How are we to understand this passage? First, note that Jesus is talking about discipleship, not salvation. Salvation is being saved from sin and evil, it is deliverance from destruction. A disciple is a convinced adherent of Jesus Christ, who accepts and assists in spreading his doctrines (the definitions are from the Merriam-Webster dictionary). The difference is that you might be able to enter heaven (salvation) without becoming a disciple of Christ. More on that later.
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
How are we to understand this passage? It certainly doesn’t read as a ringing endorsement of democracy! Indeed, the Bible warns us to be wary of populist thinking, and indicates that most people in this world are headed for destruction.
How Occupy Lost
I don’t work.
For everyone who wonders what I “do”, about why I won’t “do” something, I’m now going to tell you what I “do”, and you are not going to like it.
In his best seller “The World is Flat”, Thomas Friedman identifies ten “flatteners” that are leveling the global economy; forces such as outsourcing, offshoring, supply chaining, and the collapse of the Soviet empire. His fourth flattener is open source software. None of his issues are particularly new, but it is Friedman’s treatment of them, notably both his and Bill Gates’s shocking misunderstanding of free software, that raises some of the most provocative questions of a provocative book.
My earlier spiritual journey I documented in Bicycling across America. At the end of that account, I related how I had experienced a sort of revelation in Arizona, which could basically be summed up “Your problem is that you think you can do everything yourself.” I gave away my bicycle along with my money and almost all my worldly possessions, and started walking along the back roads of Arizona. After three days of this, having driven myself to walk forty miles with almost no sleep, I gave up. I walked back into Wickenburg, Arizona, contacted a good friend of mine, and got $200 wired to me for bus fare to California.
In the eight years since, I have often wondered about that experience. Did I set a pattern for the rest of my life by giving up? Did I commit, then and there, some fatal error from which I can never recover? If I had kept walking, would I have experienced some life-changing revelation like those of the prophets? Did I abandon God?
In my nights of despair, I plead with the Lord to forgive me this and my other sins of omission. I beg him not to give up on me. I implore him to make me an instrument of his will, to grant me the wisdom to know that will, and to bolster me with the courage I so often seem to lack. In depression, I muse that my life is already a failure, that I’ve already missed my fate, that everything for here on out is just a shell of a life, for “the man who liveth not his dream is living death.”
Then I pick myself up and carry on. I view my experience in Arizona as just one stumble among many, many that I’ve committed. I reflect on Christ’s promise that “he who believes in me shall not perish, but have eternal life,” and trust that God will find in his heart the mercy to do his will in my life, imperfect as it may be. I haven’t given up. Though the light was dim, and at times appeared to have vanished completely, I’m still moving forward.
Three years after the bicycle trip, in 1996, I returned to one of the places I had passed through on my bike – the Shiloh community in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas. A non-denominational Christian community nestled in the Ozark mountains, Shiloh numbers about a dozen long-time members, and various transients. The community provides the no-stop-light town of Sulphur Springs with it’s only industry – a commercial bakery in the basement of the community’s main building, a one-time military academy on the crest of a grassy knoll. No doubt about it – Shiloh bakes the best bread I’ve ever tasted.
The community’s led by Pastor James, the aging inheritor from Shiloh’s founder. A quiet man, James reads heavily in mystical Christianity, and always conducted a meditation session at the outset of the community’s morning meeting. Prayer, singing, and some kind of spiritual reading (usually of a mystical nature, never the Gospels) were always mainstays of the hour-long meetings. Never, during the two months I was there, did I witness James take or administer communion.
Probably the most dominant personality was the pastor’s wife. In her late fifties and blessed with good health, Anna Lee managed the bakery, often donning a white hair net and helping work the assembly line. She was also one of the chief proponents of the community’s philosophy, which she usually summarized in the “Four Rules”: no smoking, no alcohol, no drugs without a doctor’s prescription, no sex outside a heterosexual marriage.
I made several friends at Shiloh, Paul Clough and John Knoderer, the local computer programmers, and including Anna Lee herself, I think. Most significant were two local teenagers I got to know – Jeremiah, a seventeen-year-old whose family rented a house from the community, and Robert, a thirteen-year-old who was good friends with Paul’s son, Micah.
Jeremiah’s interests included fast driving, loud rock music, and smoking marijuana. We hit it off right away. I tried to be a bit of a calming influence – teaching him how to start a stick-shift on a hill instead of just grinding the gears; driving slowly through town and saving Speed Racer for the highway. I remember him using my computer to research Marylon Manson on the Internet and asking if I thought demonic influences are real. I replied in the affirmative, and Jeremiah later told me that he had destroyed all his Marylon Manson CDs.
Robert, on the other hand, was a quieter boy who played Dungeons and Dragons with his friends and came up to visit me and browse the Internet almost every day, enjoying the interactive role-playing games, the net’s Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). Robert would also practice on the piano while Jeremiah and I would fool around on the guitar. I adored Robert; found him quite attractive, really. Yet I was afraid of a sexual relationship developing, not because I was worried about the police or what people would think, but because I myself am very reluctant to explore gay sexuality, especially with a thirteen-year-old. The bottom line was that, to my lasting regret, I never told him how I really felt about him. Putting sex aside, the truth is that I loved him. Yet I never put my arm around him, never said the words, “I love you”. Teenagers need to know the difference between love and sex, I think, otherwise it’s easy to get them confused. Coming from a broken home, I think Robert needed love, and I desperately wanted to give it to him, but never could quite manage.
Finally, somebody smelt the marijuana smoke from Jeremiah’s and my near-daily smoke-outs, and all hell broke loose. After being confronted with this charge at the community meeting, a vote was taken that I was to leave in a week and not have any contact with the children in the meantime. I began preparing to leave, but the part about the children I ignored. Jeremiah’s father came to the next community meeting to voice his support for me, but Pastor James refused to let either of us speak and ended the meeting. The next day, one of the older ladies came into my office while Robert was there, told him to leave, and in about the nastiest voice you could imagine, told me “we’re not going to let you hurt these children”. I left, but not before literally wiping the dirt from my shoes, as the disciples were told by Christ:
And if anyone will not welcome you or listen to your message, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or that town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that town.
Friends, let me exhort you never to lay down any curse, even if you proclaim the Gospel and be rejected in everything. We are taught to love our enemies, not to curse them. That curse I laid has brought so much grief into my life that at times I can not fathom how I could possibly have cursed the town where two of my best friends lived. It’s most obvious effect was on me! Even though I wanted badly to maintain contact with my friends, I took the curse very seriously and broke off all contact with Sulphur Springs. After two years, my nagging concern for my friends began to win out over the curse. I wrote Robert a letter for his sixteenth birthday; it was returned undelivered, as he had moved. The next year I actually returned to the town, and it took another year to track down my friends. Jeremiah had married, had a kid on the way, but was in most ways the same person; we now stay in touch. On the other had, Robert had changed completely, becoming very materialistic and selfish, and wanting nothing to do with me. Can I blame him? During the years when he needed me most, I was nowhere to be found. He was the closest thing I ever had to a little brother. I fear I’ve lost him forever.
The Drug War
Early in 1997, having returned from Arkansas, I lived with a college friend of mine who was waiting tables at a Glen Burnie restaurant. He was also a small-time drug dealer, keeping marijuana and cocaine in the house in addition to the usual alcohol. At any rate, the police found out and the house was raided. Five days later, we were evicted. What followed was the most profound faith struggle of my life.
In the midst of this crisis, I sought re-baptism. Through my prayers and contemplations, I recognized that Jesus had been baptized, not as an infant, but as a grown man, at the outset of his ministry. I decided to pursue the same course, though not for the redemption of sin (perhaps a serious error), but in search of an answer from God to this political campaign I was complementing. Just as Christ received a sign at his baptism, before pursuing his ministry, so I sought a similar sign at mine. While this may seem incredibly arrogant (it seems so to me, in retrospect), I can honestly tell you that I entered into the venture with the profound conviction that if God wanted me to pursue this campaign, he would give me a sign at my baptism.
I fasted for a week, then traveled to Ohio, where I had met a minister during my bicycle trip who baptized by immersion. After attending his service, I asked him afterward for baptism. Since he was busy that afternoon, he said that unless I could wait a few days, it would have to occur immediately. And that’s exactly what happened. He announced the baptism to those of his congregation still mingling after the service, we drove to a nearby lake, and with perhaps fifty witnesses, he baptized me in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I received no sign.
I drove home to Maryland telling myself that I didn’t have to do it, that I had no calling from God, that there was no obligation for me to pursue this campaign that so deeply troubled me. While I had many more doubts and agonies over it, I believe my baptism in Ohio was probably the turning point in my decision to scrap the campaign. In a moment of paranoia (What if the police busted me again?) I burned the notebook I had prepared in planning the campaign, and mostly got on with my life.
I would return to the drug war again. In early 2000, I had what you might call a relapse. I had rejected civil disobedience, but still considered the possibility of a speaking and protest campaign. I published It’s the Drug War, Stupid. Looking back on that document, I have to tell you that what disturbs me most about it is not the anger it relates, because that was real, but how political it is; how totally coaxed it is in political rights and strategies; how God has been completely edited out.
Some of what I proposed in that essay came about, though I had no part of it. The “shadow conventions” of 2000 highlighted the drug war as one of their issues, and were labeled as “ultra-left” by a society that split its vote between Al Gore and George W. Bush. I’m increasingly coming to a disturbing conclusion – that the majority of the people of this country want a war in their own land, against their own people, and are absolutely committed to a policy of “zero tolerance”.
I’ll probably end up as a monk, if not in name than at least in fact. My earliest direct exposure to monasticism came on the bike trip, when I visited a Benedictine monastery in Oklahoma. St. Benedict, the founder of this order, spent three years living in a cave, his only nourishment being bread lowered to him on a rope by a friend. Later, he founded the monastery at Monte Casino and the Benedictine order. He lived about 1500 years ago.
More recently, I’ve read a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order. St. Francis’ response to the Christian gospel was similar to St. Benedict’s, but also much different. Both men took their religion very seriously, and neither were content to just sing about heaven on Sunday mornings. Yet while Benedict cloistered himself in a monastery, Francis took to the road. After giving away all his worldly possessions, he began traveling around Italy by foot, preaching the gospel and begging for his food. Any money he received, he gave away immediately.
I don’t completely subscribe to Francis’ philosophy; you won’t catch me sprinkling ashes on my food because I think it tastes too good! Yet we are in agreement on many and the most significant points. I consider it a religious obligation to give to beggars, and recently have found myself on various occasions without a penny to my name. Yet I have no intention of getting a job just to produce money; I have plenty of important work to do, and frankly, pride. I despise the capitalists and will not support their nightmare system by working for them simply because I’m forced to if I want to eat. Like Francis, if I lack benefactors, I will simply go hungry. Yet God knows what we need, and will provide it – I’m not starving away, thanks to those who give to me and particularly Bruce Caslow, my most significant supporter over the last few years. It’s Bruce that paid for an apartment in Washington when I couldn’t afford the rent; Bruce who was always tossing twenty bucks my way when I didn’t have anything to eat; Bruce who was always there to review an essay or discuss my spiritual trials.
I think we need both the Benedictine and the Franciscan ideals in our lives; we find both motifs in the life of Christ. Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness, withdraws onto a mountaintop to pray, spends all night in prayer. We need to withdraw into seclusion, perhaps best the seclusion of nature, to experience God in solitude. Christ also travels from town to town, stays with friends in Jerusalem, sends forth his disciples and tells them to take no money, or packs, or extra clothing. We also need to come down from the mountaintops and express our love of God through our fellow man. Honestly, the great saints seems to know this. Francis at times withdraws into seclusion, and Benedict finally left his cave. Ultimately, we don’t need a ten-acre monastery or public vows to life as brothers in Christ. The monastery was wherever Jesus went, and the most important vows are the ones we make to God.
New Age Christianity
I’ve been exposed in the last year to New Age Christianity, most particularly through Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations With God books. For those unfamiliar with this, Walsch claims that his books are essentially channeled from God. He would take a pad of paper, write a question, and wait for an answer to come into his head. Sometimes no answer would come, and he would put the pen down until the next day. When an answer would come, he would write it down and then ask another question. He wrote three books this way.
The basic tenet of these books is that We Are All One. When the Bible states that God made us in his image, it means this spiritually, not physically. We are, each of us, a little piece of God, which God created in order to experience the universe as individuals. Those who become completely self-aware, such as Jesus, realize their own oneness with God and, through faith, find power even over death.
This theology is radically different from traditional Christianity. It claims, among other things, that there is no Devil (we invented him ourselves); that we reincarnate again and again; that Jesus was not the only one to rise from the dead, and that we, like him, can conquer death, through faith; that spiritual masters generally don’t marry, not because they don’t have sex, but because they can’t make an exclusive commitment to one person.
I can’t quite figure what to make of this. If true, it means that we can pass through death, and if our faith is strong enough, be resurrected. If false, then it represents a temptation of the Devil and a path only to our own self-destruction. Russ Wise notes that The New Age offers man the same deal the serpent offered Eve in the garden. If you eat of this fruit, you will become like God. The fundamental question it poses is simple – is Christ a guide and teacher, to be followed and emulated, or is he the unique Son of God, whose miracles can not be duplicated?
At a seminary, it’d be interesting to conduct a class on Modern Prophets. What do we make of people like Nostradamus? Edgar Cayce? Joseph Smith? A Course in Miracles? Conversations with God? We can’t just ignore them – the claims they make are too serious. Yet we’ve been taught there will be false prophets, so we can’t just accept them at face value, either. They require careful consideration.
Cayce lived in the early twentieth century, and would enter a sleeping, hypnotic trance in which he’d respond to questions with answers from a “Source” that appeared to have extra-worldly knowledge. The Source revealed that reincarnation occurs, that among Cayce’s previous lives was that of a priest in ancient Egypt, that the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza was actually a prophecy in stone that records the exact moments of Chirst’s birth and death, as well as the imminent entrance of humanity into a new age symbolized by the King’s Chamber, etc, etc.
In addition to the New Age ideas here, like reincarnation, I find Cayce disturbing because of some of the prophecies he made that I tie into my own life. He prophesied his own return “in the capacity of a LIBERATOR of the world in its relationships with individuals; for he must enter again in the age that is to come, or in 1998”. At the time of my contemplated drug war campaign in 1997 I knew none of this, but in retrospect I ask myself if that wasn’t the “appearance” that was to have occurred a year later, in the election year of 1998. And just when is “the age that is to come”? Is it a subtle shift, like the turn of the millennium, or the change from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius? Or is it a dramatic change, to be characterized by political upheaval, environment disaster, or global unrest?
In retrospect, I wish I’d never read any of this! I’d rather just not know, and stumble along, making the decisions as best I can without have all this extra stuff nagging at me in my head. Others have similar doubts about Cayce; some of his prophecies just flat out never occurred.
Early in 2001, I had a dream in which I saw a newspaper tabloid on a supermarket checkout stand. It’s headline gave three prophesies for the coming year – disaster for the United States, war in the Middle East, and the appearance of a great saint. Of course, my ego thrusts me into the later role. Am I a great saint? If so, how do I “appear”?
New Age Christianity and the Cayce prophecies raise even more disturbing questions. Could I duplicate the feats of Christ? Be the reincarnation of St. Peter? Become a Messiah? This is the fundamental question raised by these teachings – was Jesus the unique Son of God, or all we all sons of God, who can seek to obtain the same level of faith and power?
Is this insanity? Not exactly. I don’t actually believe that I am Jesus, or God, or a Messiah. Yet the reading I’ve done raises these disturbing questions. It’s more an intellectual insanity, generated by competing theologies, than a physiological one with some chemical imbalance at its source.
The Spirit at Thirty One
In another dream, I was running through a cave-like maze of passages, fleeing in terror from some attacker. I soon realized, though, that my attackers weren’t really attacking me at all – they were mocking me and my books. Mocking my attempt to learn Spanish by reading it. I emerged from the cave and decided to return to the place I was fleeing from. Perhaps I thought I had killed someone, in fact, it was only a flesh wound. There was really nothing to run from at all; then I awoke.
So what am I running from? From my failure at Wickenburg? From human society? From the Drug War? From God? And what do I make of all these ideas and theologies I’ve been exposed to? Ultimately, I can’t answer these questions, and I doubt that anyone can. Only God holds the answers. So, through prayer, I’ve asked God to reveal these answers to me, and I trust that this way, I’ll get the answers from the only source that holds them.
As I finish this essay, I’ve just turned thirty-two, so perhaps the title is becoming something of a misnomer! In the last year, I’ve given up on spending all my time in front of a computer screen, thinking I’m going to save the world through a website. I’ve hitchhiked across the United States, down into Mexico, and back. I’ve become a lot more comfortable having no money, am willing to go hungry if need be, and don’t feel tied down to a nice apartment and a pile of possessions, though I regret that I can’t fit my piano into my backpack. I’m on my way now to spend at least a few weeks in the Appalachian Mountains, fasting and praying. Certainly Jesus did this at critical times in his life, and many were the saints and prophets, from Abraham to Francis, who found God in seclusion, in the wilderness. Hopefully, I’ll find these answers, too. In any event, I haven’t given up. The spirit at thirty-two is still searching…
The peace of Christ and the love of God be with you all.
Is capitalism an un-Christian philosophy?
The answer to this question depends heavily on how you define your terms. “Capitalism” and “Christianity” are both complex words that mean different things to different people. Debating over the meaning of these words is largely pointless; it’s like arguing over whether a glass is half empty or half full. I’ll present my definitions up front, to make my meaning clear. If these words mean different things to you than they mean to me, then your answers may vary.
By Christianity, I refer to the religious and philosophical system taught by Jesus of Nazareth, and recorded primarily in the Bible’s four Gospels. I do not selectively endorse any one denomination or division of Christianity, nor do I reject any. The Bible is confusing, and there is room for honest disagreement among Christians. In my opinion, the key to Christianity is to believe in one man, Jesus Christ. To believe that he’s the son of God, that he came to this world and gave his life that we might be saved. To believe that one of the greatest gifts he left behind are his teachings, recorded for all time in the Gospels. To believe that his system, his philosophy, and not any other one devised by man, is the way to live your life. The parts we understand, we must strive to live in our daily lives, no matter how difficult or seemingly unreasonable. If any part of Jesus’ teachings were trivial or unimportant, he wouldn’t have bothered with them. If the ways of the world take precedence to you over the Gospel teachings, or if you simply don’t care what the Bible says, then read no further, as this essay will have little to say to you.
Capitalism, likewise, has several different connotations. In the course of writing and discussing this essay, I’ve identified three major interpretations of the term. Let me define them as follows:
- capitalism¹ – a laissez-faire economic system, characterized by the separation of economy and state, “anti-socialism”, free markets, free trade, relatively light taxation, and a minimum of government interference in commerce
- capitalism² – an industrial model of production, well illustrated by Henry Ford’s assembly line, characterized by heavy specialization of both capital and labor, economies of scale, with the cost of goods reflecting the distributed costs of production
- capitalism³ – a pseudo-religion of greed, characterized by pursuit of self-interest, often associated with the claim that each individual, by advancing his own self-interest, ultimately advances the good of society
For the remainder of this essay, I’ll use the superscripts to indicate which meaning of capitalism I’m discussing.
I have no real objection to capitalism¹ or capitalism², and in fact reject socialism completely, but this isn’t the meaning of capitalism I wish to discuss. Likewise, to some people capitalism means a commitment to hard work and self reliance. I don’t really object to this, either, having no problem with either working hard or taking pride in your work, though I do feel that “self reliance” can be easily twisted into an insistence that others rely on themselves.
I take serious exception to capitalism³. One of the most important functions of religion is to provide us with a value structure through which to judge right and wrong. Capitalism³ is a philosophy of life that can only be described as pseudo-religion of greed. It usurps the role of religion to provide a distorted morality. “Give to all who beg from you,” Christianity teaches us. “What’s mine is mine,” the capitalist³ answers. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is the Bible’s Golden Rule. “Take care of number one,” is the capitalist³ response. “Sell all your worldly possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow me,” Jesus told one of his questioners. The capitalist³ just laughs.
Let’s not be distracted by the capitalist³ talk of “freedom”, either. Someone who takes a gun and robs a convenience store has freedom. He’s just chosen to use it to evil ends. Freedom implies the ability to chose between good and evil, but doesn’t provide us with a value system to judge between them. This is the function of religion.
So often, when a capitalist³ talks about freedom, it’s really a clever attempt to intertwine capitalism¹ and capitalism³. Anyone opposed to capitalism³ is twisted into an opponent of capitalism¹, and the distinction between the two is glossed over or ignored completely. Anyone who opposes “capitalism” is depicted as a monster socialist who opposed to freedom and liberty. In fact, just because we support capitalism¹, a society largely free from government control over the economy, doesn’t imply support of capitalism³, a dog-eat-dog world where men live like wolves and prey on each other as best they can. Freedom does not imply that everyone lives for himself… unless that’s what we choose it to mean.
These are my main objections to capitalism³:
- The values we promote.
Don’t underestimate the impact society’s values have on people, particularly the youth. We need to teach and practice Christian values, to lead others clearly. Making money shouldn’t be our primary goal, and we shouldn’t allow money to interfere with our commitment to Christianity. Christianity’s two greatest commandments are to “love God with all your heart and all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself”. Nothing’s wrong with working hard, as long as we’ve got the right goals. Our first goal in life must be to seek God’s will for us and put it into effect in our lives. Our second goal must be to love and serve others.
If we have a product or service for which people are willing to pay, we can make money, but be sure not to turn away those who can’t pay. Remember the Christian commandment, “give to those who beg of you”; let’s be sure to honor it! Having money isn’t the problem; the problem is what people will do to get money and then to keep it. The Gospels make it clear that generosity is one of the great virtues of our religion.
So many times, when someone comes up with some nifty new idea, they immediately start figuring if they can get a patent on it, slap some restrictive license on it, or just keep the details secret. Instead of immediately asking “how can we make money on this?”, we should instead start by asking “how can we best serve God and man with this?” Make the commitment to God and others first; let the money come later.
- The kind of society we build.
Let’s face it – not all the people who try to start a company and make a ton of money actually succeed. Yet enough do succeed to make a difference in our lives – Microsoft, WorldCom, Exxon, GM, RCA. Imagine if as many people who tried to make a fortune instead set out to make the world a better place. Not all would succeed. Yet enough would succeed to make a difference, because it’s the attempt that counts. Little by little, we’d find ourselves living in a world of love and hope. Instead, little by little, we find ourselves living in a world of greed and despair.
- The legacy we leave.
What do we want our children to say about us? Do we want them to answer with pride that their parents sacrificed to make the world a better place? Or are we content to let them shrug and say, “Yeah, they made a lot of money“? How do we want our age remembered by history? Are we willing to risk being judged along with the conquistadors and robber barons? Or will we sacrifice now, so that we may be judged along with the prophets and saints? Let’s decide that the future will look back on us and say, “these people did everything in their power for the good of others”.
- The treatment of dissidents.
By “dissident” I mean anyone who won’t adopt the capitalist³ philosophy. My personal experiences in a capitalist³ society are far from pleasant. In my youth, I began quite adept with computers, and ended up working for some major computer companies in the early 1990s. Yet I couldn’t stomach the secrecy with which the technology was developed, and I decided that any software I wrote was going to freely available to anyone who wanted it. That decision cost me my livelihood and turned me into an outcast on the fringe of society. And for what? Because I wanted to write software and publish it for free on the Internet. We need to build a world were people won’t be ostracized just because they won’t go along with “the system”.
A man cannot serve two masters. If he attempts to do so, the demands of his masters may for a while coincide, but ultimately will diverge. The two masters will demand two different courses of action, and then you have to chose. Christianity and capitalism³ are two different masters promoting two different value structures.
Christianity teaches us to “give to all those who beg from us”. So long as we keep this firmly in mind, fine. Yet the capitalist³ philosophy is often one of selfishness. “I take care of myself; nobody else will take care of me.”
Of course, the capitalist³ would no doubt raise a flurry of objections:
- Capitalism³ works…
“…in the real world,” I can almost hear you adding. Well, Christianity never claimed to work in the real world. In fact, Jesus taught that Christianity would be rejected by the world, and that his disciples would be persecuted and killed.
Consider also that capitalism³ is not the world’s only “success story”. Fascism worked. By the end of 1940, fascism had conquered all of Europe. Germany was fascist; Italy was fascist; Spain was fascist; Poland had fallen in a couple of days; France a matter of weeks. Fascism ruled the entire continent. Fascism was a “success”. Hitler felt so confident he invaded Russia.
Communism worked. By the middle of the twentieth century, between Russia and China and their various satellites, communism ruled half this planet. Communism turned a backwards, rural nation into an industrial super power, put the first man into space, and cast its intellectual appeal to many of the world’s left-wing thinkers. Cuba looked to communism. Angola looked to communism. Communism was a “success”. Kruschov pounded his shoe on the table and declared, “We will bury you!”
Other notable “successes” include Negro slavery; the conquest of native Americans by both the Spanish and the Anglo Saxons; the establishment of global empires by Britain, France, and Holland; and the military dominance of the Mediterranean by Rome for nearly a millennium.
Clearly, judging “success” is a difficult matter, made easier by the passage of time and quite difficult without the hindsight of history. Yet even if communism or fascism had genuinely succeeded over the long term, neither of these societies I’d want to live in! Success shouldn’t be measured just by the expediance of the moment, but by moral and ethical considerations. To blandly declare “Capitalism³ works,” and to use this as a trump card to cancel all other considerations, to also to accept these other societies, because each, at some time and in some way, “worked”.
- You have to survive.
Total relativism. People had to survive in Soviet Russia; the way to do it was to become a communist. People had to survive in Nazi Germany; the way to do it was to become a fascist. This argument can be used to justify anything.
Jesus’ answer to this question was not to worry about survival; let God take care of your survival. My answer is slightly different. We do have to survive, and the way to survive is to take care of each other and to build a society where people can take care of themselves, and walking into Safeway with a $20 bill doesn’t count. If you’re dependent on another man for your food, freedom quickly becomes an empty euphemism. Government welfare programs simply replace one form of dependence with another.
The capitalists³ don’t want freedom, except for themselves. You don’t make a lot of money by setting people free. In fact, quite to the contrary, the way to make a big pile of money is to make people dependent. Bernard Ebbers didn’t build WorldCom by making long distance communications free. The way to build a WorldCom is to put a switch on every telephone line in this country, then sending people a bill every month and turning off their service if they don’t pay.
Under capitalism³, everyone “has to survive” because everyone is dependent on the capitalists³ for food, housing, clothing, transportation, and pretty much everything else in life. The Christian solution is to love our neighbors, and one of the best ways to do this is to make our neighbors self-sufficient.
- “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day;
Teach him to fish, feed him for life.”
- We don’t have raw, naked capitalism³; it’s regulated by the government.
A good point, but not one want we’d like to carry to its natural conclusion.
Why do we have an Environmental Protection Agency? Basically, because a bunch of people decided that it was in their business interests to build factories that dumped all their waste into the nearest river. It’d be nice if the people building factories would design them to be clean, but then those factories would be more expensive, they wouldn’t be able to compete, and the clean factories would all go out of business. Eventually, people got sick of not being able to swim in their rivers, clamored to their government for a Clean Air Act and a Clear Water Act, and now every factory in this country is regulated by the federal government.
Why do we have anti-trust laws? Basically, because people like John D. Rockefeller realized that their oil companies could make a lot more money if they also owned the railroad companies and charged competing oil companies ten times as much to use the same rail lines. All the competing oil companies would have far higher operating costs and eventually go bankrupt. It was a smart business decision. Eventually, people got sick of having their oil prices dictated by a monopoly, the government passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and now every major business deal in this country requires government approval.
Why is Microsoft now embroiled in an anti-trust lawsuit with the U.S. Justice Department? Because Bill Gates is acting in the heritage of Dow Chemical and Standard Oil. He’s putting his own profit interests ahead of the better interests of society. So Microsoft keeps all their source code secret, engages in restrictive licensing practices, violates networking standards, and deliberately breaks the backwards-compatibility of their software. These are good business decisions, and the trend is clear. Eventually, the entire high-tech software industry will be regulated by the federal government.
The capitalists³ love to gripe about socialism, but capitalism³ itself is one road to socialism. The capitalists³, by a constant pattern of abuse, will create a society in which all aspects of everyone’s lives are eventually regulated by the government.
We don’t want raw, naked capitalism³, nor do we want massive government regulation of our lives. The only alternative is for people to take responsibility for their own actions and do what is in everyone’s best interest. Otherwise, the only way we’ll have a decent society is for the government to force it on us.
- Capitalism³ gave us everything we’ve got today.
Maybe, but I won’t argue the point. I don’t think we have to give up own modern technology to live as Christians. Even if we did, given the choice between a modern, advanced, rational, scientific world, and living a simple, primitive life according to teachings of Christ, which would you choose?
- You can’t run a business like that.
Then don’t run a business! Run a charity, or a philanthropy, or a non-profit organization. If the word “business” gets in your way, discard it, because almost anything can be done in a Christian way. Jesus doesn’t tell us what kind of house to build; he just gives us a foundation to build upon.
If you’re running a restaurant, turn it into a soup kitchen. This doesn’t mean you have to run off your regular clientele, move to the inner city, and spray paint grafitti over your logo. Just make sure that when somebody comes it without money and asks for a meal, feed them! It doesn’t have to be the broiled lobster tail. Don’t hide or disguise this policy; make it clear to your workers and customers. If you have trouble paying your bills, let your suppliers know about your Christian practices, and if necessary find new suppliers who will reciprocate in kind. Go directly to the farmers if need be, and move your operation to a friendly church’s banquet hall if you can’t pay your rent. If some people leave and don’t come back, so be it. You can’t please everyone, but make sure one of the people you please is God.
- That sounds very noble, but I’m sick of working every day and want to be my own boss.
This is the great lure of capitalism³. “Sign up for own system,” they say, “then you can work for yourself.” Well, I signed up seven years ago. I ran my own computer consulting practice, then I found two partners and started a regular company that eventually grew to have about a dozen employees. To make a long story short, there’s no better way to uncover the myths of capitalism³ than to run your own business. You don’t work for yourself. You work for the marketplace. You don’t make your own decisions. You do what sells. Unless you’re a sole proprietor, you’ll have salaries to pay, a significant tax burden, probably rent and insurance as well. If you don’t make money, you’ll lose your employees, be evicted from your space, go out of business and still have the government chasing after you for back taxes. If you can manage as a consultant or sole proprietor, you’re a lot better off, but don’t risk asking yourself if this is the best you can do for others. The answer may cost you your livelihood.
Independence in capitalism³ is largely a myth. If you’re not aggressive and somewhat ruthless, you’ll always be a small player, still largely dependent upon the marketplace. The only way to become a big player is to go along with the program. It’s like going into a restaurant and being told that you can order anything off the menu, so long as it’s fish. If you love fish, that’s great, but what if you wanted chicken? You probably won’t come back to that restaurant, no matter how good the food, but the capitalists³ want every restaurant in town to serve only fish.
- This isn’t Christianity.
One of the great advantages of Christianity is the Bible. We don’t have to take anybody’s word for Christianity; we have Jesus’ teachings, written down and preserved for us over 2000 years. To know Christianity, read the Bible, particularly the four Gospels, praying for wisdom and understanding. Don’t take my word for it, or anyone else’s. Remember that not everyone who claims to be a Christian will be saved. By the same token, don’t let the ways of the world and the opinion of others distort your interpretation.
- Christianity is based on faith, not works.
- This just doesn’t make sense.
Jesus never attempted to justify his philosophy by invoking reason or logic. These are the tools used by human philosophers to justify their systems of thought. Logic worked very well for science; it laid the foundation for all the technology we use daily. Scientists had developed logical systems to explain physics, chemistry and biology, perhaps philosophers could also develop systems to explain and govern human society. Thus, in the last few centuries, we’ve seen fascism, based on the logical, rational, scientific ideas of Charles Darwin; communism, based on the logical, rational, scientific ideas of Karl Marx; and capitalism³, based on the logical, rational, scientific ideas of Adam Smith. On the other hand, Christianity isn’t based on reason or logic, it’s based on faith.
- This is what “the people” want.
A tricky argument that attempts to intertwine democracy and capitalism³. Democracy can not be used as a trump to justify any course of action. Suffice it to say that capitalism³ must be judged on its own merits, not based on how many people support it.
Let’s not put our faith in capitalism’s false, worldly pseudo-religion of greed. Christianity is a real religion, with a real God, a real savior, real prophets, and real salvation. “For God so loved the world that he he gave his only Son” to us. Will we accept him, and live his teachings in our lives, or turn him away?
Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables, set in post-Napoleonic France, explores a broad range of political, philosophical and religious issues. Two of the novel’s major philosophical themes are Christianity, personified by Valjean, and democracy, personified by Marius. In my opinion, Les Misérables represents Hugo’s attempt to reconcile the two; he fails.
The entire first volume is devoted to the development of Valjean’s character, and Christianity is the driving theme. First we meet the Bishop of Digne, known to the people of his town as a “just man”, and Hugo reinforces this. The Bishop gives up his episcopal palace because it’s needed by the hospital. The largest item in his budget is “for the poor”. A sudden windfall goes to the soup kitchen and orphans. He spends all day with a condemned murderer before his death.
Yet all this is preparatory to the entrance of Valjean, an unredeemed convict and outcast taken in by the priest after being turned away from every inn. “This is not my house,” he tells the stunned man, “it is the house of Jesus Christ.” Valjean betrays the Bishop’s trust, steals his valuable silverware and sneaks out the back door. Captured by the police, he is returned to the priest, who not only covers up for him by claiming that he gave him the silverware, but insists that he take the silver candlesticks as well, exemplifying Jesus’ commandment that if a man should take your coat, give him your cloak as well. The Bishop then imposes a benediction on Valjean:
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
The Bishop’s generosity triggers a profound spiritual crisis in Valjean, and he converts to Christianity. His is not an outward conversion of baptism or communion, but an deeper, inward conversion. Though he never sees the priest again, his life changes dramatically. Under an assumed name, he establishes himself in a small town, makes a clever invention which pulls the local industry out of recession, and in a few years is able to erect his own factory. With its proceeds, he improves the local hospital, builds two new schoolhouses, and funds a dispensary for the poor. In time, the King prevails upon him to become mayor. The bishop dies; Valjean wears black to mourn for him, symbolically taking the torch of Christianity, which he is to carry for the rest of the novel.
His willingness to restrain the police earns him the enmity of the town constable, Javert, destined to become his lifelong nemesis. Valjean once declared that there are no bad plants or bad men, only bad cultivators. Javert states that “these men are irremediably lost”. Javert, who knew Valjean in prison, suspects his true identity, and becomes more and more withdrawn from the mayor. The last straw comes when Valjean sides with a prostitute Javert is determined to imprison, invokes his powers as mayor, and frees her. He learns that she turned to prostitution to support her daughter. The woman dies, and Valjean promises on her deathbed to support her daughter, Cosette. Yet Valjean’s cover is soon blown, by his own refusal to let an innocent man, mistaken for him, go to the galleys for life, and he flees with Cosette. As the child grows into a young woman, Valjean lives in Paris, frequently changing identities to avoid the determined Javert.
Enter the last of the novel’s major characters – Marius, destined to fall in love with and marry Cosette. Like Valjean, he inherits a symbolic torch – the torch of revolution. His father was made a Baron by Napoleon on the battlefield of Waterloo, and passed the title to his son on his death. Marius has a hundred cards printed bearing the name “Le Baron Marius Pontmercy”, and fancies the restoration of the Napoleonic empire.
“Le Baron” is soon disowned by his maternal grandfather, and cast off into a life of poverty. He meets the Friends of the ABC, a revolutionary society of students, philosophers and poets led by the fiery Enjolras. While the Bishop of Digne converted Valjean through simple acts of generosity and mercy, Marius’ new friends resort to wit, philosophy, and a barrage of words to convince him to abandon Napoleon’s empire and adopt a new cause – republic and democracy – but the means remain the same: the sword, the cannon, the barricade.
Hugo goes to great length to present us Marius in the most sympathetic light. He gives his poor neighbor twenty-five francs for rent when he himself has only thirty. Yet he also appoints himself judge over his neighbors, declares “these wretches must be stamped upon,” when he realizes that a robbery is about to take place next door, and sends for the police. He regrets this judgment when he realizes that the ruffian about to commit the crime saved his father’s life at Waterloo, and begins fumbling for another way out, but ultimately it is Javert who bursts into the room and disrupts the crime. Hugo conveniently arranges for this act to save Valjean, but did the Bishop of Digne “stamp upon” Valjean after his crime? Wouldn’t it have been a simple rationalization for the Bishop to think he had to stop others from being victimized by Valjean? Let’s not forget Valjean’s original crime of stealing bread to feed his younger brothers, which lead him to the galleys and a life of crime. Marius has good intentions, but never adopts the Bishop’s willingness to turn away from a wrong, determined instead to fight his oppressors.
As revolutionary fervor again sweeps France, Enjolras rallies his secret society. Thirty years had passed since “Library, Fraternity, Equality” became the swish of the guillotine, the roar of cannon, the tramp of legions, and still they want more. The revolution comes, and Enjolras springs his plan into action, turning their favorite wine-shop into a fortress and erecting a barricade across the street. Valjean passes through the army lines wearing his National Guard uniform, enters the barricade, then gives up his uniform so a man with a family to support can slip away and be saved.
The government is determined to crush the uprising, and soldiers surround the barricade and storm it. Marius becomes the hero of the rebellion after winning the battle by threatening to blow up the barricade, himself, the soldiers, and all his friends. Now, if he could have blown up only the soldiers, would he have hesitated for a second? Moments earlier, Valjean was faking the death of his arch-nemesis Javert to free him on a side street. Would Marius fake the death of the soldiers? If the soldiers had not retreated, would Marius have carried out his threat of martyrdom? Probably. “Victory or death!” has been the rallying cry of radical patriots since day one.
Valjean, though present at the barricade, fires not a single shot. After freeing Javert, he turns his attention to Marius, determined to win his revolution or die fighting the soldiers. The government attacks again in force; the barricade falls. Marius, badly wounded with a broken collar bone and multiple head injuries, faints into the arms of Valjean, who lifts a sewer grate and drops in carrying the half-dead revolutionary. As he escapes through the sewer with the unconscious Marius, the wine-shop is taken, Enjolras is executed by firing squad, the ABC Society goes down fighting and Revolution of 1832 falls to pieces.
Marius recovers from his wounds to find much of his world collapsed around him. All his close friends are dead; what is left is his love for Cosette. They marry. Valjean confesses to Marius that he is a fugitive convict. Marius, not yet knowing that it was Valjean who saved him at the barricade, believing that Valjean shot Javert, and wondering if his six hundred thousand franc inheritance was stolen, gives Valjean the cold shoulder and gradually pushes him out of Cosette’s life. Valjean, believing that the girl has a husband and no longer needs a father, acquiesces.
Marius ultimately learns the truth – that the inheritance is legitimate, that it was Valjean who saved him at the barricade, that Javert’s murder was faked – and regrets having estranged Valjean. With Cosette in hand, he rushes to redeem himself with Valjean, only to find him on his deathbed. So Valjean dies, in the presence of his adopted daughter and son-in-law. Perhaps this is meant as another symbolic torch passing, but who will carry it on, and in what form? Will Marius “love his enemies”? Will his wife resist corruption by his hot-headed rebellion? Has the Bishop of Digne’s torch passed or finally died?
The failed 1832 uprising featured in Les Misérables was but one in a series of violent clashes spawned by the French Revolution. After declaring a constitutional monarchy in 1789, the French assembly within five years had executed its constitutional monarch. No provision for trying the king had been provided by the constitution; the national assembly simply tried him anyway. The masses packed into the Place de la Revolution and cheered as Louis XVI’s severed head was hoisted aloft. Of all the Marius’s leading the government, not one Valjean stepped forward to spirit the king away through the sewers under the city. After the king and the aristocrats went to the guillotine, next came the leaders of the revolution themselves. Robespierre, Saint-Just, Coulton – each got the six-inch haircut.
At last came Napoleon, who Marius once exulted as a “sun rising”. After leading the French to devastate Europe, he was finally defeated and exiled. Yet any doubt that his was anything but a popular dictatorship was put to rest following his escape from Elba, during the “100 Days”, after he landed on the French coast with 1200 men. Every town told to oppose him threw open its gates; every army unit sent to reverse him cried “Vive l’Empereur!” After being defeated in Russia, losing their entire army, and seeing their country in ruin, thousands still turned to the conquering general.
To this day, the masses insist on immolating themselves on the barricades in pursuit of truth, justice, and the French legions storming across Europe. How many millions of Germans cheered for Hitler as he proclaimed the Anschluss? How many millions “believed” in communism when Lenin proclaimed a worker’s state in Russia? How many millions today think that greed is the driving force behind all human progress? How many will surrender their prized silverware to a convict and a thief? Yes, Christianity can save democracy, but only by dragging it unconscious through the sewers of Paris.
Democracy is a system of government where the majority of people choose not only their own leaders, but everyone else’s. Democracy has little do to with right; nobody has the right to choose someone else’s leader. Democracy is primarily about responsibility; the majority has the responsibility to choose everyone’s leaders. If they choose wisely, it will succeed; if they choose poorly, it will fail.