Capitalism and Our Lives: a Reflection

God Money

I turned 31 yesterday and I’m long overdue for a migration away from our “Big Bank,” Chase. The last straw came in a recent phone call I made to inquire about a small service fee I found to be predatory. Unfortunately, I was lectured by the representative about my need to “remain apprised” as to how my “products” work. He also informed me that Chase has over 66 million customers and that it costs chase MILLIONS to field calls from just 10 percent of customers (meanwhile, chase is valued at over 2 TRILLION DOLLARS!). Finally, he reminded me that I ought not feel slighted because certain Chase customers have “had accounts with Chase since before I was born.”  …OK, so this last bit made me feel a bit less anxious about taking another step into my thirties, but still…

Despite the rudeness and lack of tact I experienced on the call, the decision to handle our monies differently has much more to do with trying to establish certain patterns, relationships, and cultures in our lives than with a single call. Besides, it doesn’t do any good to pin a structural, systematic issue to a single person (“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”). The experience I had on my call is sadly but a microcosm of the alienation created by banks deemed “too big to fail.” Just think about it: we are charged to use accounts that hold OUR money and even these accounts become “products” used to build and maintain a “healthy,” “competitive” market. We’ve gotten to the point where “free” checking accounts are an exception worthy of television and radio commercials! Meanwhile, “Big Banks” are charging us to hold OUR money! More importantly and outstandingly, what we see again and again is that the primary function of these “Big Banks” is to sustain a financial system and economic philosophies that value “products” over people, revenue over meaningful relationships, and the rich over the poor. 

Over the weekend, I took part in a rich conversation with friends and family about the nature of the market and it’s relationship to the Bible’s call for justice and the structure of our own lives and hopes. As we talked and listened, we repeatedly encountered the ways that American capitalism requires “losers” to function properly; we thought about what it means for Christians to live in a capitalist system that leaves some folks to die of starvation, homelessness, or depression; and we painfully reflected on some of our own complicity. Our conversation reconfirmed something I’ve known for a long time: capitalism is not merely an economic philosophy, instead it has become THE dominant religion in America. Within this religion there are various “denominations” (e.g., individualism, materialism, careerism) that pretend to provide space for autonomy–the working out of our own unique dreams and goals.

As I talked with friends and family, I was reminded that one of the scariest things about capitalism is its ability to make space for and cooperate with Western/American Christianity. One can participate in capitalism–for better or for worse–and feel little to no need to think about what the teachings of Jesus have to say to an economic system that is fine with allowing poverty to persist and the poor to live and die in invisible communities. Even more concerning are Christian teachings that prioritize values of “work to eat” over Jesus’ call to “die in order to live.” Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, capitalism persists in teaching that those who work hard enough will reap the proper benefits. In a system that NEEDS people to believe in Capitalism’s work ethic, it is no wonder that Jesus’ call to “lose one’s life in order to save it” (Luke 17:33) is so often either religiously mutilated (so that it has very little to do with the material lives of our communities and everything to do with out individual “souls”) or ignored altogether.

Changing banks wont solve all of what ails our communities and worlds, but thinking carefully about the types of lives “Big Banks” lead us to live is surely a necessary step in the process of molding lives that witness to God’s grace, patience, and love for us.

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About bens3rd
I am a PhD candidate in Christian Theology and Social in the joint program at the University of Denver & Iliff School of Theology. I blog here when my Facebook posts get too long.

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