The Devil’s Discipline

 

Economics — the Devil’s Discipline? Really? Or am I just picking sensational headlines?

Well, I don’t really know much about the Devil. He turned down my request on Facebook. But I often find that exploring edgy propositions, which may turn out to be totally wrong, nonetheless can bring out issues that might get missed in ordinary discourse. So let’s give it a try.

I’m going to use a pointedly Christian argument to explore this theme. But I begin with an article (On Xmas, Jesus Checked His Privilege) from a writer, David Mason, who calls himself a non-Christian. Yet he shows a perspective on the Christian message that many churchgoers fail to see.

Early in the article he says, “At the heart of the Jesus story is the god who could, but wouldn’t”. That drew me in. Let’s look at that.

What’s your image of God? Does it include all powerful? In that case, He could have incinerated the planet and tried again at the first signs of the Great Human Screwup. You would have, eh? Me too. But no, he didn’t.

Why? Because power is exactly what God does not want to wield. He is the God of the powerless, and the God who wants to accomplish what only powerlessness can accomplish. He wants us to know that relinquishing power is the essence of love. He wants us to live that realization to our very core.

So what did He do? He tossed all his power aside. Here Mason’s prose is unmatchable:

“The unfathomable sovereign of creation, goes the tale, came into creation not only as a toothless baby, wailing wordless and simple, but came as a homeless bastard, wriggling himself to sleep in the filth of animals.  When he finally came to own language, the mighty lord of the cosmos, whose very word brought forth galaxies and snuffed them out, told the people who were willing to hang around with a ratty vagabond that divinity and humanity shone more brightly through humility than through majesty.  And, to sharpen the point, the god who could have wasted the planet, would not do it, but died, suffering, miserable, and almost all alone, on a stick, with the spit of the powerful still in his eyes.”

Long story short — then came the Resurrection — just to bring the paradox home to us dimwits — that all the power in the universe resides in its very renunciation — a love to which even death must bow.

It’s time for humans to start understanding the actual meaning of love, and the God of love. 

But over two millennia plus, have we caught on yet? I can’t speak for millennia, being only multiple decades old. But in my time, the greatest cheerleader for celebrating power in the world — and beating the humble and the loving over the head with it — has been Economics. If that’s not the work of the Devil, what is?

Just look at what Economics is all about. Here I’m not talking about real life. I’m talking about the idealized model of mainstream Economics that’s infected the conventional wisdom.

If you’re a consumer, it’s all about the power of consumption — by taking all you can away from others who want it. If you’re a producer, it’s all about wielding the power of capital to extract all the profit you can from others who’ve been excluded from that capital. If you’re Economic Man, you’re a power junkie. Economists adore you.

But those economists will jump to profess the opposite. Adam Smith and his Theory of the Invisible Hand proved that competition will convert greedy consumers and rapacious capitalists into angels. The competitive marketplace will turn everyone into humble servants. It will not allow anyone — consumers, workers and capitalists alike — to take one whit more than they deserve. They’re all totally powerless. God must approve, big time.

Problem is, the model is dysfunctional, except as a myth. But that myth is deadly — serving as a cover story for an insanely predatory system of economic abuse where those with market power grind down the powerless with ruthless efficiency.

That’s not what Christ died for. But the Devil is grinning ear to ear. Yeah, perhaps my thesis holds.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Devil’s Discipline

  1. The line that really caught my attention is that ‘the competitive marketplace will turn everyone into humble servants.” But servants of whom? Jesus is pretty clear on the point that you can’t serve money and God – you will love one and hate the other. Or, as Bob Dylan says, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody… it may be the devil and it may be the Lord…”

    The interesting thing about capitalism, as a system, is that it is built around a political culture of irresponsibility. The force of the Invisible hand, allegedly, constrains the rapacious action of human greed and lust for power. But only as an external force – the core of economic man remains unconverted. So the capitalist is a kind of paradox – powerless in the face of the movement of the almighty dollar, but able to use the power of capital to exploit others. So the constraining power of capital doesn’t work at a human level. And economics is essentially a discipline of selfishness, therefore producing an adversarial culture in which each person is set to defend their interests against those of all the others.

    I wonder, though, about your and David Mason’s definition of power. Etymologically power just means being able to, having the capacity to do something. So we can take about military power, the power of consumption, but also the power of love. The point of the incarnation is not that Jesus abdicates the heavenly throne, because he doesn’t. The point is that in Christ the power which sustains the universe and keeps it going is revealed to have been the power of love all along. Also that God in Jesus performs an act of love and absolute solidarity with a suffering world.

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    1. Thanks, Josh. I concur with your points. Just one comment. The “humble servants” label was a reference to the “consumer sovereignty” claim of the Economics textbooks. Supposedly the producer its constrained by competition to serve the consumer.

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