Therefore, although in Christ I have no hesitations about telling you about what your duty is, I am rather appealing to your love, being what I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for a child of mine, whose father I became while wearing these chains: I mean Onesimus. He was of no use to you before, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you – that is to say, sending you my own heart. I should have liked to keep him with me, he could have been a substitute for you, to help me while I am in the chains that the gospel has brought me. However, I did not want to do anything without your consent; it would have been forcing your act of kindness, which should be spontaneous. I suppose you have been deprived of Onesimus for a time, merely so that you could have him back for ever, no longer as a slave, but something much better than a slave, a dear brother; especially dear to me, but how much more to you, both on the natural plane and in the Lord. So if you grand me any fellowship with yourself, welcome him as you would me; (…).
From Philemon 1:8-17
One of the best critique of capitalism remains Karl Marx’s work, and in particular “Das Kapital”, and although communism as it has been implemented failed to produce the expected results (USSR) or has been superseded (China, and now Cuba), its eschatological essence should – and this is obviously a very personal opinion – remain a source of inspiration, in particular to Christians. Again, Marxist theory should not be used to implement a similar economic system, but solely to remind us of the limits of capitalism.
One of Marx’s strongest contentions in his Theory of Commodity Fetishism is the idea that, in the capitalist system, workers get their worth from the product of their labour and how they relate to others depends on the current price of their output. As a result, how people relate and how they value themselves are not dictated by human relations but by relations between the relative values of products. By privatising output, we loose any scope for people in a group or in society to be free to relate humanly. In other words, we are slave to economic forces no one is fully in control of. Today we would probably add that people’s sense of value depends on what they can afford (hence taking a demand rather than supply approach), but then what people can afford depends on the value of their output, with only limited scope for credit, which is a short-term distortion. In the long term, we’ll assume that ceteris paribus: individual purchasing power = value of individual output.
The sense many in the society currently have that they are subject, or let’s call a spade a spade, slaves to economic forces seems true. The question then, and in particular as Christians, is: what should we do about it? Should we challenge the current order? Should we accept it? Is there anything we can even do?
Hinkelammert, a Costa Rica based German liberation theologian (and an unreconstructed Marxist), argues that St. Paul’s approach would be to recognise the existing political and economic forces as valid but not legitimate. He gives the example of Onesimus, a slave to Philemon. We all know that Paul tells slaves to obey their masters. Paul is not one to challenge the existing order it seems. However, Hinkelammert’s point is that Paul challenges Philemon to treat Onesimus as a fellow Christian brother, implicitly asking Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom. He does not challenge slavery, or the fact that Philemon owns Onesimus but implicitly confirms the validity of laws of ownership (of human beings in this case). He however challenges Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom because this is what a transformed Christian ought to do. Pauls reaffirm his authority as religious leader, and as such affirms that Onesimus is to be free if Philemon is any Christian.
Paul never calls for political change at the macroeconomic level, but for spiritual change at the individual level. Freedom, as given by Christ, is the realisation that only God’s power is legitimate, and is based in eschatological hope for freedom from the current powers that be. However, as of today, we are called to function within the realm of the existing structures and powers. Give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
So should we just accept that we cannot change the current economic system? This is the wrong question to ask it seems. Rather the question we should ask ourselves is: how do we find freedom in our daily lives by making choices that uphold the current economic system as valid but not as legitimate? I would argue that an examen of our individual economic and political choices should help us discern ways in which we perpetuate a sinful system that is not legitimate in God’s eyes because it dehumanises people. The real challenge then is to give up a critique of others and start with holding ourselves and our sinfulness to account. Then through our conscious de-legitimisation will we be able to truly challenge the economic forces that hold us in slavery. Only then can real change happen as it did when a small sect of so-called Christians changed a whole empire, and eventually changed the whole world over the past two millennia.