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Capitalism, Community, Christianity

Alan Cross, a friend and Southern Baptist pastor, just posted this on another thread. It was so good I wanted to make it a post of its own:

Globalization is not the whole problem and nationalism is not the whole answer. That would assume that the problem is “out there” and the answer is that if we would just band together in smaller national units based on culture, race, ethnic identity, and shared memory, then we can rebuild and survive. One can take that approach and use power to assert yourself, but it is not the Christian approach and I don’t think that Christianity is neutral and that each country can just organize itself according to race, tribe, ethnicity and then subvert Christianity to the ethno-cultural impulse to serve it as a chaplain, so to speak.

Rather, what has been missing from capitalism for a long time is any sense of morality, care for neighbor and community, and love for the “other” that Christianity absolutely demands, but that this current iteration of capitalism says is foolish. I am a big fan of many of the basic tenets of capitalism, but that is not what has been at work in our country. When capitalism was taken over by Darwinian philosophy and Christianity just bowed the knee to pursuit of the profit motive over the survival and flourishing of local communities, then you had the beginnings of the moral rot that would flash up in the 2007-2009 Economic Collapse and that now threatens us again. When greed, a vice, became a virtue and Christianity in America followed along, the only possible result would be the destruction that we now see. Instead of standing prophetically against the separation of business and care for community, we just moved along with it and supported market forces – as long as they benefitted us. When they don’t, we howl.

Working with the African American community, I have seen people work hard, invest, buy homes in stable neighborhoods, and try to advance themselves into the middle class. In the city where I live, for example, a huge section of town was made up of black and white families living in neighborhoods together. Home values were strong and middle class black families invested their money in home ownership. This was in the 1990s and 2000s. But, white flight ensued and local businesses began leaving – not because of crime and real problems, but because real estate speculators and developers were throwing up new neighborhoods on the east side of town. The newly refurbished mall (at a $70 million price tag) began to lose tenants and the “new” outdoor mall on the edge of town began to attract them. Within 10 years what was once a vibrant and solid part of town with 50,000+ people – both white and black – saw its businesses and people of wealth, mostly white, move to other parts of town or to bedroom communities. Home values collapsed, people lost their investments, and mortgages were upside down. Businesses were boarded up and by 2005, what was once a vibrant part of the city just 5 years before was in complete decline. And, this was BEFORE the economic collapse starting in 2007. Minorities, who had believed that if you work hard and try to make it then you can, suffered first and were the “canary in the coal mine” prophesying what was to come. But, what happened with the loss of millions and millions of dollars of home owner investment in just a few years in the older section (homes built in the 1960s and 70s) was not because of the Chinese manipulating currency or immigrants or any of the things that get blamed these days. It was because of greed, racism, fear, a desire for the “new” thing, and speculators convincing people that they needed the new house and that businesses needed to “chase rooftops.”

I was a staff pastor in a church and I lived in this community that over a 10 year period was completely devastated economically, not by outside forces or closing factories or liberal Hollywood or the Federal government, but by the basic decisions of businesses and those who could move and pursue what they wanted apart from any kind of thought (or concern?) about how it might impact their neighbor or community. I went to the city government, community organizations, and churches and warned them of what was coming – blight, economic despair, and a collapse of a quarter of the city that at the time was a good place to live but in a decade it wouldn’t be. No one cared or believed me. Every decision was individual and there was no thought given to how one decision would affect another unless you were a real estate developer trying to get ahead of the wave. Money was to be made, and if that meant cannibalizing one part of the city so they could make some extra money by developing another part, then so be it. The law of supply and demand was ignored because there weren’t new people moving in to the city. They were throwing up houses and neighborhoods and developments to take from one area and to develop a new area – because they could and it benefitted them to do so. When I expressed my objections about how all of this would affect families and neighborhoods and all of those who had gone to school, worked hard, and invested in their homes thinking they had arrived, I was told by city leaders, church leaders, and Christians – well, that is how capitalism works and what, are you some kind of a liberal?

Of course, all of them already had the means to surf the wave, sell early, get out, and buy or build homes in the new up and coming areas. They were not concerned with what happened to those neighborhoods left behind. They would just build new churches to attract the wealthy who could manage these constant changes. And, it wasn’t like they were bad people who didn’t care about people. They just never even thought about it. You just take care of yourself and you do what you can for yourself and that’s it. And, you ask God to bless it.

Now that this type of capitalism eats itself and has for a long time and only benefits those who can navigate its ever-changing dynamics, we blame immigrants, globalization, liberals, and everyone we can think of without realizing that WE have been a part of the whole thing and have been benefitting from it for a really long time. And, not everyone can benefit or navigate these changes. Not just Liberals, but Conservatives (and I am one) who know how to navigate this ever-changing landscape and can do it well are the real elites in our society. And, we continue to want things to work in our favor and get mad when it doesn’t.

I still remember talking to the African American gentleman about 15 years ago in the parking lot of the mall that was at the center of the community that was failing. He told me how he went in to the military, got married, had children, served his years, saved his money, retired, got another job, his wife got a job, and they bought a home in this community. And, he told me that the changes in the community being wrought by the overdevelopment on the other side of town had caused their 30 year old neighborhood to crumble in home value and he lost his whole investment and now they were upside down and could not move. He thought he was doing everything right and at the end of the day, because he picked the wrong neighborhood (right at the time but wrong 5 years later) and because he was black and white people didn’t want to live near him, he came out an economic loser and now could not recover. This was around 2002. He was angry and fearful. I will never forget that conversation. The homes being built were monstrosities that were 3000-4000 square feet and his modest 1500 square foot ranch style home was no longer good enough to maintain its value. No political movement arose to represent his interests and call for a moral capitalism that had concern for neighbor and community.

I am saying all of this to say that a discussion on capitalism is really important. But, we had a chance to introduce a moral component to it and we chose to use it to advance our own interests wherever we could. Not everyone is capable of keeping up with that. We’ve been destroying our own communities and selling them off for parts for a long time now and the church (in the South where I live, anyway) has been blessing the transactions without even questioning (or knowing how to question or even that they should) if the whole approach was right, moral, or godly in any way. And, now we are paying the price.

That section of our city now is in massive decline, schools are failing, property values have collapsed, and social problems have arisen. Poor immigrants have moved in and the white people have left, leaving poor or lower middle class blacks behind. The major businesses all left and no one wants to invest there. And, you might drive through that area and blame the people who live there or outside forces in the economy, but having lived there and seen what happened, I can tell you that there was a lot more going on that the people involved in making it happen did not even have a framework to understand. The results were predictable, but what were the alternatives? Stay, build community, love your neighbor, and forego a nice, new home and large profits? That was never an option because we don’t think that way, largely. But, that is where the breakdown is, isn’t? Not “out there,” but “in here.” And, if no one tells that story, then how can things ever be different?

UPDATE: Out of fairness to Alan, I should point out that he is not, in fact, a communist, or even an anti-capitalist. The context in which he made this remark as as a comment to a long post I made about a German economist’s claims about the socially destructive nature of the form of capitalism we have now [1] (and how there really aren’t any realistic solutions to it).

166 Comments (Open | Close)

166 Comments To "Capitalism, Community, Christianity"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 13, 2017 @ 7:18 am

Too easy to walk away? Try that out on the folks trapped in either Appalachia or inner city Detroit.

#2 Comment By Art Deco On January 13, 2017 @ 7:33 am

The sophistry that some, but not all by any means,

No one has engaged in any sophistry.

on this blog to explain away or minimize the devastating, and continuing, impact of 400 years of slavery, exclusion, and demonization that African-Americans have had to endure at the hands of both state and the People is astounding.

Next time, just say ‘abracadabra’. It’s more concise. If you wish to make an utterance with any integrity in it, let’s see an algorithm which tells us how you get from there to here in your own mind. Just what impact does the employments of one’s great-great-great grandparents have on the dynamics of property values and migration patterns in cities of middling size in the United States? Is that impact different for the descendants of Alabama slaves than it is for the descendants of Bohemian serfs?

Considering all they and their ancestors have been through, the contributions that Black people have made to America in culture, politics, religion, war, and sport should be lauded as the ultimate gesture of Christian love and forgiveness.

This statement is random, irrelevant, and cloying.

(While we’re at it, the contributions of blacks to culture are outsized in the realm of music and perhaps dance, not the visual arts or literature; blacks were not abnormally present in the military until about 1965; professional sports (other than boxing and baseball) are a 20th century phenomenon and a troublesome one; with some exceptions (Robert Bowers, Anthony Williams), black politicians tend to see their vocation as orderly management of decline (Carl Stokes, Kurt Schmoke), distribution of patronage (nearly all of them), or obnoxious public displays (Marilyn Mosby)).

#3 Comment By Art Deco On January 13, 2017 @ 7:42 am

I certainly disagree with much of Mr. Cross blaming “capitalism” for the decline of the neighborhood, but his clarifying remarks in the comment section definitely provided some further information that was very helpful in attempting to better understand Mr. Cross’s point of view.

Alan Cross said the following:

There was a larger reaction that said, “you better get out of that part of the city” and the reason was not crime. My neighborhood was safe.

Here’s the problem. Montgomery in general is not ‘safe’, at least not in comparison to any city in New York (again, the homicide rate for the city is nearly 3x national means). He’s either telling us that people were abandoning a better-than-average neighborhood or he has a cockeyed understanding of what ‘safe’ means (or he’s selling you a bill of goods).

#4 Comment By Art Deco On January 13, 2017 @ 7:44 am

I certainly disagree with much of Mr. Cross blaming “capitalism” for the decline of the neighborhood, but his clarifying remarks in the comment section definitely provided some further information that was very helpful in attempting to better understand Mr. Cross’s point of view.

Alan Cross said the following:

:There was a larger reaction that said, “you better get out of that part of the city” and the reason was not crime. My neighborhood was safe. “

#5 Comment By Art Deco On January 13, 2017 @ 7:48 am

JMJ, Alan Cross said the following:

“There was a larger reaction that said, “you better get out of that part of the city” and the reason was not crime. My neighborhood was safe. ”

Problem, Montgomery has a homicide rate that’s nearly 3x national means and more than twice what you’d expect in an ordinary metropolitan area. In general, it’s not safe. Either he’s telling you that people were abandoning a better-than-average neighborhood, or he has an idiosyncratic idea of what ‘safe’ is, or he’s trying to put one over on you.

#6 Comment By Franklin Evans On January 13, 2017 @ 10:17 am

My friends (the implied inclusivity is sincere), some of you miss Alan’s point out of the superficially valid criticism that his is an anecdotal story. His musings to the abstract are driven and informed by his personal witness, not an attempt to justify or prove any points, or so I read him.

I have my own anecdotal view, enhanced somewhat by my personal mobility prior to meeting my wife and starting a family. I’ve lived in four distinct sections of Philadelphia, distinct in the pertinent ways of racial and ethnic demographics, economic status and relative stability. My wife’s 40-plus year tenure as a public school teacher provides an expanded view to three other distinct sections. These are my thoughts:

Alan asks the important question. When economics is the driving aspect — and in the American flavor of capitalism, it is with neither pun nor sarcasm intended a slave driver — where indeed is there a moral center; indeed, can there be a moral center?

The shared community of religion is not the source, but it can be a critical supporting force. Culture comes first, and the culture within which I grew up — based in a much older world, the declining decades of the Austro-Hungarian tangent of European civilization — had a core value that is the first enemy target of capitalism: enough. It is the undercurrent of Alan’s story, of mine as well, and it stands as the main obstacle to capitalism’s first premise: wealth is a zero-sum game, and only the winners get to live beyond subsistence.

Enough is not a static entity. Its definition varies according to other values. In a rural backwater with idyllic overtones, it could be as simplistic as having 12 hens instead of 6, or neighbors close enough with whom to trade for the things they produce because they lack what we produce. In a densely packed urban center, it could be as simplistic as having 100 small businesses owned by people whose children are friends of our children, who need our labor and offer fair wages, instead of six big-box franchises whose bottom line is dictated by owners or shareholders who demand ever-increasing profits.

From a moral starting point, both definitions entail variations on capitalism. Mom’s and Pop’s corner store is not going to make them wealthy, but it sure is going to provide them with enough according to their values, and it’s an easy assumption that they share their values with their customers and employees. Contrast that with a national corporation with millions of dollars to spend on regionally targeted marketing campaigns, whose sole purpose is to impose a very different and morally antagonistic definition of enough (and a constantly moving target of one) in order to get the most profit from them as consumers… and note, please, that I strongly imply a distinction between customer and consumer, and “neighbor” has no place in the latter’s definition.

I endorse Xenia’s reference to Yugoslav socialism, it being part of my family heritage so to speak. From my POV, she implies two things: Tito (Josip Broz) crafted the socialist economy of his conquered territories in ways that promoted a sane, local definition of enough; and he tolerated no interference from the traditional religio-ethnic enmities, sometimes acting with what we’d consider egregious violence until it went into hiding. He wasn’t perfect, it all fell apart rapidly and tragically upon his death, but it stands as an objective lesson in successfully applied socialism at least by comparison to the rest.

#7 Comment By Franklin Evans On January 13, 2017 @ 12:21 pm

From Rod’s update [emphasis added FE]: The context in which he made this remark as as a comment to a long post I made about a German economist’s claims about the socially destructive nature of the form of capitalism we have now (and how there really aren’t any realistic solutions to it).

Oh, Rod, realism is there, and wishing to avoid the Golden Age fallacy, it existed (and still exists!) in our lifetime. The solution is to restore in a rational, forward-looking manner the cultural value of enough, and to do so with the clear understanding that the true fallacy of our lifetimes and from our parents is that our children’s lives must somehow be better than ours, more fulfilling, with, well, more than what we had.

It means teaching our children to say “no” (rather than urging them to boycott). It means demonstrating to them that more is not always better if it also means failing to enjoy what we already have.

Knowing that this part is also a possibly unwelcome intrusion on your parenting space, it also means teaching them that sacrifice — doing without — has a deeper and more nuanced meaning when it has a clear connection to having more of something that cannot be measured or valued in dollars. That something is a list of things that includes the spiritual paths, but if it focuses on faith at the expense of the rest of the list, it devalues things to which I know you ascribe a great value. Your post about Scruton’s “Scrutopia” program (and why the heck* couldn’t they have named it Scrutonopia?) suggests that you know what I mean by that.

* Whenever I read that, I think of Screwtape. BTW, if I can’t go next year (I add my voice to your prayer), I just might donate enough to get a local theater artist there.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 13, 2017 @ 1:46 pm

First off, the moment I, as a white guy, start scolding non-white children for being “brats,” I’m immediately going to be branded a racist regardless of how bratty the kids actually are.

That hasn’t been my experience. I get compliments for holding it down.

It is true though that people who consider certain things “normal” based on the culture they have grown up in, have trouble understanding that a neighbor with different expectations thinks they don’t have to stand for it.

There was a memoir written by a woman who moved from the south in the late 19th century, who said down south, children were trained at an early age to stomp out any blade of grass that showed itself, because it was competition for the cash crops. So, moving up north, it took a while to learn about lawn care, and cultivating grass. Her generation adopted the new attitudes, but she saw later waves of migrations where people had the old point of view from down south, and she knew why, but a lot of her neighbors just didn’t understand it.

Art Deco… other way around, actually.

#9 Comment By Julia XA On January 13, 2017 @ 11:14 pm

People have always moved away and started new, built or bought new somewhere else. That’s the entire history of this country.

I personally don’t like newer homes (they are not well built) or new neighborhoods (too sterile) but that is an individual personal preference for older homes and more established neighborhoods. It is not the norm.

It’s reversed in cities with cool already wealth-colonized close-in suburbs with a large inventory of homes built in the 20s and 30s. Prices are at a premium in older neighborhoods that somehow survived intact and became gentrified. Places like Portland OR are like this.

Affluent people generally like to live among other affluent people. Upward incomes will chase other upward incomes whether to newly created neighborhoods or gentrified older neighborhoods. Either way the less affluent (even slightly less affluent) are priced out.

This is hardly a new thing.

#10 Comment By SK On January 14, 2017 @ 7:45 am

This is a powerful article. The thing that’s moved me to comment though is the caveat that the author’s “not a communist” nor an “anti-capitalist”.

So he’s identified that the system is so bad that individual Christian morality is powerless to stop it from doing awful things… but “I’m not going to say it’s a bad system”.

Huh? Is there something wrong with us here, or are we just afraid of being associated with the “wrong” ideas. This seems like just another kind of political correctness or maybe a legitimate “Red Scare” fear of being treated as an outcast in your community, in your business, career, etc.

I mean, I can appreciate that anyone who can’t look at the horrors of 20th century communism and say there’s something seriously wrong has their own problem.

But what does it mean that this post has to be qualified with the fact that the person won’t even say they’re an “anti-capitalist”? Seems like some kind of fear or weak thinking.

#11 Comment By Hound of Ulster On January 14, 2017 @ 10:06 am

Re: Art Deco

Thanks for proving my point. The erstwhile Bohemian serf was seen as ‘white’ by the racist power structure, and this automatically had a greater access to resources than the black descendant of slaves.

#12 Comment By Art Deco On January 14, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

Thanks for proving my point. The erstwhile Bohemian serf was seen as ‘white’ by the racist power structure, and this automatically had a greater access to resources than the black descendant of slaves.

What ‘access to resources’? You seem to have this idea in your head that there’s a horn of plenty The Man doles out to his peeps. There isn’t. The erstwhile Bohemian serf was in a state of hereditary subjection (with better features) in the same time frame, likely came here around 1900 with diddly / squat, and acquired the same sort of wage employment blacks migrating from Mississippi to Detroit obtained.

#13 Comment By Chris 1 On January 14, 2017 @ 7:02 pm

Art Deco:

In public testimony and private conversations the manager of the local grocery store and VP of the chain acknowledged that the store itself was profitable. The chain’s issue was that it was now in a “high risk” neighborhood. Given that crime had not risen, it was an assertion that outraged my conservative Catholic, Goldwater Republican parents.

At the same time property values fell in the 1970s, then flatlined until the late 1990s. Today homes in the neighborhood sell for between $450,000 and $625,000.

The fact that two Latino chains are making money at the very locations the large chains declared “high risk” speaks to either 1) the stupidity of America corporate management or 2) systematic racism dressed up as economic laws.

#14 Comment By Art Deco On January 15, 2017 @ 9:15 am

In public testimony and private conversations the manager of the local grocery store and VP of the chain acknowledged that the store itself was profitable. The chain’s issue was that it was now in a “high risk” neighborhood. Given that crime had not risen, it was an assertion that outraged my conservative Catholic, Goldwater Republican parents.

If you were living in a place in 1972 where crime was not rising, you were certainly in a charmed locale. Somehow I doubt the company was declaring charmed locales ‘high risk’.

Could be just a bad business decision, but I cannot help suspecting three things were running through his mind: (1) the slim profit margin characteristic of the grocery trade and (2) the future trajectory of those profits, most notably given escalating insurance costs; and (3) further uncertainty given government price controls, with were all the rage at the time.

#15 Comment By Art Deco On January 15, 2017 @ 9:18 am

speaks to either 1) the stupidity of America corporate management or 2) systematic racism dressed up as economic laws

One manager makes a decision which doesn’t work out for him and therefore 14 million other American-born managers are stupid and or racist. You are brilliant. No clue why the chain doesn’t hire you.

#16 Comment By Chris 1 On January 16, 2017 @ 1:40 am

No clue why the chain doesn’t hire you.

LOL! Your post would have been correct if it was limited to the first two words above.