Christian Ethics in Relation to Essay

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Thus, the ecological teaching of the Bible is of stewardship, so that rather than being "spiritual at the earth's expense [….] it means exactly the opposite: do not desecrate or depreciate these gifts […] by turning them into worldly 'treasure'; do not reduce life to money or to any other mere quantity" (Berry 526). This biblical ecology would seem in direct opposition to the engagement with capitalism Benne and Williams support, as capitalism by definition reduces everything to money or mere quantity, but a more nuanced reflection of the theological implications of either essay actually reveals both to be in harmony with each other.

In order to understand how one might embody a biblical ecological stewardship while simultaneously engaging in capitalist discourse, the concepts under discussion must be clarified, in order to distinguish between the ends of capitalism and the ends of Christian ethics and theology. One must necessarily begin with an honest appraisal of capitalism, paying attention to the totalizing effect of capitalism. In short, capitalism reduces everything to a commodity, whether that commodity is a loaf of bread, the labor it takes to bake that bread, and/or even the work of the critic, analyzing the commodification of goods and labor. This is not to argue that everything is a commodity, but rather that capitalism treats it that way.

This distinction is important to make, because it informs the distinction previously made by Benne and Williams between theological engagement with capitalism and the conflation of theology into capitalism. To use an obvious example, consider the continuing problem of sweatshop and child labor. Considered solely within the ideological framework of capitalism, both of these situations are perfectly acceptable, and the only difference between sweatshop or child labor and unionized labor is the difference in cost per hour of labor. From a theological standpoint, however, sweatshop and child labor present ethical problems concerning exploitation and domination, and so an apparent difficulty arises because one might be reluctant to engage capitalism at all, fearing that such engagement would thus justify and legitimize said exploitation. Furthermore, theological engagement with capitalism may appear ultimately useless, because no amount of theological coaxing would be enough to alleviate these ethical problems, resultant as they are from the defining characteristic of capitalism: everything is a commodity, differing only in price.

This apparently unbridgeable lacuna between theology and capitalism likely gave rise to churches that "are mostly indifferent to the work and the people by which the link between economy and ecosystem must be enacted," leaving capitalism to carry on, unguided by any moral or ethical precepts except those few which have been enshrined into human law (Berry 526). Thankfully, however, this gap only appears insurmountable, and in fact disappears when it is considered for what it truly represents.

As mentioned before, capitalism treats everything as a commodity, whereas Christian theology requires that nothing be reduced to mere commodity. When considering the two ideologies in opposition to each other, they appear utterly irreconcilable unless one or the other was to forfeit their defining tenets. Happily, this is not actually the case, because the real problem lies in considering theology and capitalism in opposition to each other, as if they were equally robust epistemological categories. In truth, capitalism is simply an invented way of structuring society, and as such can only deal with concepts within its purview. Theology, on the other hand, deals with categories above and beyond economics, and as such is relevant to any of the second-order systems of organization, such as capitalism, socialism, or really any other "-ism." Thus, the constructive engagement with capitalism that Benne and Williams propose is not the meeting of two differing sets of opinions with its attendant reconsideration of either opinion (which the "Postcommunist Manifesto" toys with), but rather the application of theology and ethics to capitalism as a means of furthering the former with no consideration for the goals of the latter.

Put simply, theology need not adopt the perspective of capitalism in order to effectively engage with it. On the contrary, instead of adapting theology to fit with the ends and means of capitalism, theology can influence capitalism, and the world in which it dominates, to the point that its ends and means are no longer in conflict with Christian ethics, with the product being an ethical capitalism in which its commodification of everything does not bring with it a concurrent evacuation of ethical value. (Although to be absolutely clear, it should be pointed out once again that the goal of Christian ethics is salvation, and not any idealized economic order which would only be the happy, almost extraneous result of a resurgent Christian ethics.) Having thus clarified the categorical differences between theology and capitalism, it will now be possible to consider in greater detail the possibility of integrating engagement with capitalism into a biblical ecological stewardship.

As the previous paragraph hopefully made clear, there is no a priori conflict in attempting to engage capitalism from the perspective of the biblically informed ecological stewardship of Berry. Instead, this apparent conflict is simply one instance of capitalism, as it is most commonly deployed, failing to live up to Christian ethical standards, and as such should not be taken into consideration at the outset. Instead, one must begin with the understanding that Christian theology has useful things to say about capitalism, and that the utility of theology's input is present regardless of capitalism's reception of it. It will not be productive to outline all relevant portions of Christian theology here, but instead to focus solely on the Christian ecological stewardship put forth by Berry as a means of investigating how theology can improve the human condition under capitalism in one specific context.

Berry's ecological stewardship does not preclude the use of the planet or its resources for human purposes; indeed, to suggest this would be to misread Genesis 1:28 as egregiously as those who see it as the justification for the wholesale looting of the planet. Instead, it seeks a balance, wherein the use of any given resource is wholly permissible so long its does not impinge on others or treat said resource as something ownable, that is, as something belonging solely to humankind, not God. Furthermore, it does not elevate humankind's use of nature above nature itself, because both constitute aspects of God's creation. Instead, Berry's proposed stewardship places humanity in the position accorded it in Genesis; first among God's creations, and thus responsible for all of them. In this way, humanity can be seen not as lords over the earth, but rather as elevated but constituent parts of the earth. Thus, the order to "be fruitful and multiply," which is often read relatively independently of the instructions to replenish and subdue the earth, can instead be seen a crucial component of the subsequent instructions. If human beings are the chosen stewards of God's larger creation, then it is only reasonable they be instructed to multiply, filling that creation so that it might be adequately cared for. This is even more obvious when considering the whole line "be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth," because it draws a direct sequence between the expansion of humanity and the replenishment of the earth.

These are not two separate instructions, but rather an instruction and the proper result of that instruction's completion. One of the great tragedies of contemporary culture is the fact that the truly empowering consequences of this verse are so wholly ignored, because it states in plain language what climate scientists have been attempting to argue for decades: more than anything, humanity dictates the fate of the planet. This is not a mere consequence of technological development, but rather the fundamental element of the relationship between humanity and the planet, laid out in simple terms in God's first instructions to humans. Geologists have only recently begun calling the current geological era the Anthropocene in a nod to humanity's potent effects on the planet, but this is only late recognition of this fact. With this in mind, it should be obvious that one of the areas in which Christian theology has much to offer the world is capitalism's approach to the earth and its resources.

With Berry's notion of an ecological stewardship in mind, the devastating climate change occurring as a result of industrialization can largely be seen as the result of an abrogation of God's first instruction to humanity. This recognition alone, however, does not go much further than the "criticism that has been so characteristic of the past" lamented by Benne and Williams. (Indeed, it is not difficult to point out any number of problems with contemporary society that are the result of abrogating Christian ethics.) Instead, one must offer a constructive analysis resulting from this observation, which can be done by separating the means and effects of capitalism from its goals, and by demonstrating how Christian ethics can inform those means (and effects) without concerning…[continue]

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