For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 1 Timothy 6:10
Our economic system is capitalistic and it has been since Europeans first invaded the North American continent centuries ago. Capitalism is by its very nature “the love of money” as evidenced by the countless atrocities that have been perpetuated by capitalists and the governments which prop up capitalism as they continue to put profits over people. From its early days when Europeans began colonizing Caribbean islands and what is now known as the Americas, this profit over people mentality has led to the exploitation of human beings and ecosystems that have been radically altered to meet the money grubbing aims of capitalist profiteers. Capitalism is a system that requires “more work from common people,” and extraction of “far more energy and matter from nature,” and “ever greater production and innovation in a relentless drive for increased profits.” (1) With that kind of economic motivation and the human penchant for greed it is no surprise then that capitalism is rife with human exploitation and ecological destruction.
Consider the early days of colonial sugar production in the Caribbean islands. Because sugar production was incredibly labor intensive in the 17th century, Europeans chose to use indentured and enslaved people’s labor in its production for exporting sugar back to England and continental Europe. As historian Alan Taylor notes, “Sugar making required costly equipment, precise timing, technical knowledge, and especially strenuous labor by a large workforce under strict supervision.”(2) That labor was exploited as sugar became more important as a cash crop for planters and lining the coffers of European nations. As time passed in the 17th century, English political leaders began to think it was wrong to have white laborers doing such demanding and dangerous work thus creating what Taylor calls “a solidarity of whiteness” which conferred a “certain minimal dignity to all white men” which in turn fostered white supremacy. This led sugar planters to import more enslaved Africans to work the sugar plantations. (3) English plantation owners became fabulously wealthy on the backs of enslaved Africans who had endured a brutal, tortuous Middle Passage voyage in the hold of slave ships from Africa to the Caribbean for a shortened lifetime of unpaid, highly dangerous labor in sweltering tropical conditions without the benefit of legal or political rights. This was often done with the sanction of Christian clergy beholden to the crown.
Capitalism and the enslavement of African peoples spread throughout the American colonies, was sanctioned by the Constitution, and eventually led to the deadly and destructive U.S. Civil War. Though the South had the vast majority of enslaved Africans, the Northern states, as well as European trade partners, benefited from the brutal system of white supremacist chattel slavery that enriched the Southern planter class. This economic entanglement was also how the American colonies initially sustained themselves with the triangular trade system of import and export of raw materials and trade goods, as well as the aforementioned Middle Passage bringing enslaved Africans to the Americas. Capitalism in America was literally made by slavery as Cornell historian Edward E. Baptist wrote in his fantastic book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The foundation of capitalism has been built upon since the Civil War ended by proponents of “free enterprise” through the suppression of wages, utilizing convict leasing and for-profit prison labor, strike breaking, warfare to obtain resources, lobbyist buying politicians and their votes, and the gutting of safety and environmental regulations in order for corporations to maximize their profits.
The latter abuse of capitalism has played out with horrifying results with the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio that was carrying toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride which is known to cause cancer. The derailment has created an environmental catastrophe, the effects of which will not be known for some time, and which will likely spread far beyond the community where the train derailed. The toxic chemicals were burned off in a so-called “controlled explosion” (4) sending an enormous plume of toxic smoke into the sky which looked eerily apocalyptic. Creeks around East Palestine are now contaminated, toxic fumes are in the air, pets and chickens have died, and people have developed persistent coughs, yet community members are being told that it’s safe to breath and municipal water supplies are untainted. Norfolk Southern, a company whose profits are in the tens of billions of dollars, offered residents of East Palestine a paltry $25,000 in the aftermath of the derailment. That amounts to about $5.00 per resident. I suggest that their assets be seized instead to pay for the ecological and human damages they have caused.
This accident was preventable, but Norfolk Southern in typical capitalist fashion had lobbied against safety regulations that could have prevented it. Former President Trump in 2017 had rescinded a safety rule in response to corporate lobbyists from railroad corporations like Norfolk Southern. This action likely made the accident far worse according to a railroad industry insider. (5) Meanwhile, President Biden, who is denounced as a radical leftist by right wing politicians and pundits, showed that he is anything but when he chose to break a railroad worker strike by siding with corporate interests. Promoting and protecting capitalism is a bipartisan effort from politicians on both sides of the aisle – which shows we need a major reworking of our political and economic systems.
Unfortunately, far too many people of faith, in particular faithful Christians, have bought into the capitalistic ethos thinking that humans have a divine mandate to subdue the earth, exploit its resources and ecosystems, and are thereby blessed with financial prosperity for doing so. Many anachronistically foist capitalism onto Biblical scriptures in an attempt to rationalize and validate their capitalistic endeavors and abuses. Using convoluted, white supremacist logic for instance, Richard Furman, a Baptist pastor in South Carolina in the antebellum period and one of the fathers of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote a defense of slavery in the 1820s. In this absurd treatise, Furman wrote that the enslavement of others was a Divine law laid out in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. According to Furman, “In proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions. The Christian golden rule, of doing unto others, as they should do to us, has been urged as an unanswerable argument against holding slaves. But surely this rule is never to be urged against the order of things. which the Divine government has established; nor do our desires become a standard to us, under this rule, unless they have a due regard to justice, propriety, and the general good.” He further stated that “slavery, when tempered with humanity and justice, is a state of tolerable happiness; equal, if not superior, to that which many poor people enjoy in countries reputed free.” (6) Such was Furman’s dedication to the enslavement of Africans and white supremacy that he brazenly chose to ignore Jesus’ teachings in general and the golden rule outlined in the Sermon on the Mount in particular. He certainly would not have chosen to be enslaved in order to live in a state of “tolerable happiness” as he so disgustingly termed it.
Furman is far from unique among Christians in choosing to ignore the Bible’s teachings in order to prop up capitalism as an economic system. The evidence of this abounds to this day in America and elsewhere and often remains intertwined with white supremacist ideals. As a theologian and public interpreter of Biblical scripture this mystifies, outrages, and saddens me. It does so because in ignoring spiritual and religious teachings “capitalist competition degenerates into a rapacious, violent kleptocracy,” in the words of Alan Taylor. (7) Where are the Christians demanding an end to the evil excesses of capitalism? Where are the people of faith demanding an end to the profits over people paradigm while also clamoring for corporations to pay for the ecological destruction they have wrought while raking in billions of dollars? A faith that doesn’t stand up for those oppressed by capitalistic exploitation is hollow and tepid. Capitalism kills. It kills people, communities, and ecosystems. It is destroying the planet because it is so pervasive and embodies “the love of money” and therefore is evil. In my theological opinion, being pro-capitalist makes no sense for people of faith, or those of no faith. And while it seems too monolithic to take down, so did feudalism and the divine right of kings. As I wrote in my book Go Golden, permaculture and the golden rule provide an alternative to capitalism. Let’s get busy and bring forth the downfall of capitalism by enacting creation care, neighbor care, and future care.
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(1) Taylor, Alan The American Colonies: The Settling of North America, p. 21 Kindle edition.
(2) Taylor, p. 208.
(3) Taylor, p. 211.
(6) Quoted from “Richard Furman,” in Exploring Christian Heritage: A Reader in History and Theology, pp. 154-156.
(7) Taylor, p. 22
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