Advent 2009, Week One, Day Three

Inscribed on all US currency is the motto ‘In God We Trust’. It first appeared in 1864, and then only on coins. Not all American citizens were happy with it. Some saw it as incompatible with the separation of church and state. To others it seemed an irreverent, if not sacrilegious, invocation of God’s holy name. But it served a purpose – a two fold purpose. The overt purpose was a straight-forward affirmation of faith. We place our trust in God, not gold. But at a less conscious level, the motto also served another purpose. And this had more to do with ideology than with faith. It suggests that, because we see ourselves as the sort of people who trust in God, might not the system we have set up have some sort of divine backing? Does our economic system- capitalism – have divine backing?

 

 

Advent 2009 – A World In Waiting

Week One – A New City

Day Three – Faith or Ideology

 

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

O my God, in you I trust;

do not let me be put to shame;

do not let my enemies exult over me.

Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;

let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord;

teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth, and teach me,

for you are the God of my salvation;

for you I wait all day long.

Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your

steadfast love,

for they have been from of old.

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my

transgressions;

according to your steadfast love remember me,

for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!

Good and upright is the Lord;

therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

He leads the humble in what is right,

and teaches the humble his way.

All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and

faithfulness,

for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.’

 

Psalm 25

 

Inscribed on all US currency is the motto ‘In God We Trust’. It first appeared in 1864, and then only on coins. Not all American citizens were happy with it. Some saw it as incompatible with the separation of church and state. To others it seemed an irreverent, if not sacrilegious, invocation of God’s holy name. But it served a purpose – a two fold purpose. The overt purpose was a straight-forward affirmation of faith. We place our trust in God, not gold. But at a less conscious level, the motto also served another purpose. And this had more to do with ideology than with faith. It suggests that, because we see ourselves as the sort of people who trust in God, might not the system we have set up have some sort of divine backing? Does our economic system- capitalism – have divine backing? If pressed, we would, of course, deny it – wouldn’t we? But a look at the history of the development of that system shows why some might be tempted to see it in those terms. For there are two theological foundations on which capitalism has tended to rest for support – one Christian, the other Deist.

 

The Christian ancestry of capitalism has often been linked with the Reformation. Over a century ago, Max Weber’s famous treatise on ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ argued that capitalism’s strength was owed to the Protestant ethic with its stress on work as a vocation, honesty as a key virtue, deferred gratification as a discipline that promoted saving, investing and philanthropy as a responsibility that comes with wealth. The Deistic support for capitalism came later, notably in the works of Adam Smith. Strictly speaking it was more about a free economy than about capitalism as such. Smith was attempting to show how a free economy was rooted in the natural order of things. According to this happy vision, we can rely on the harmonious workings of the natural forces of free movement of capital and labor, free markets and competition and, of course, free play to self-interest, all of which would combine, serendipitously, in the furthering of the public good. As if these two theoretical interpretations of the divine backing of capitalism were not enough, a third has been added in more recent times. It is the collapse, twenty years ago, of what was called the ‘godless system of communism’, the inference being that God was on the side of system that opposed it.

 

Is it important to distance ourselves from any residual belief that capitalism is God-given? Yes, so that it can be subjected to the criticism that needs to be applied to any system of power, whether cultural, political, or economic. Adam Smith would certainly agree. Stephen Green, an Anglican priest who also happens to be former Chief Executive and now Chair of HSBC (the world’s local bank), recalls Nigel Lawson’s application to capitalism of the comment which Winston Churchill once made about democracy: ‘every other system of economic organization is far worse.’

 

Is this a mark of wisdom or a counsel of despair? The value of a discussion is that it helps us to avoid placing our trust in the structures, systems, laws and models of behavior that we ourselves have made and then giving them a divine imprint. If we really do trust in God, should we not feel free to devise, reform, and create economic, political and social systems that are ever more capable of ensuring justice? Perhaps it is not simply that we place our trust in God but that it is mutual. God is also trusting us – to earn our wealth justly and to use it wisely for the good of one another and of our beleaguered planet.

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