The economy of Jesus

Aug 15, 2016 by

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Capitalism is killing Christianity. When a seminary friend first suggested this theory to me a year ago, I thought it was overblown. I have no affinity for capitalism as an economic system. I’m as much an Acts 2 socialist as the next millennial. But it seemed far-fetched to blame an economic system for church attendance.

Hillary Watson

Watson

Until I began to notice the patterns in my own congregation. About a third of the teenagers in the youth group are employed; they regularly turn down youth trips and even Sunday school because of work. The freelancing and part-timing adults do it too, running to their service-based jobs early on Sunday mornings or right after church. At the same time, I watch families walk into the sanctuary with Starbucks coffee; Dunkin Donuts; bagels; pastries. They duck out before Sunday school to catch an early lunch with friends and out-of-town relatives.

We’re familiar with the statistics: automation and free trade has shifted the North American economy from manufacturing-based industry to a service-dominated industry. Service industry doesn’t pay; college graduates are filling their pockets with tip money to pay rent. But few churches are doing the theological or missional analysis to make sense of this new economy.

The new capitalism relies on convenience. It relies on the premise that money never rests. And Christians have the audacity to complain that church attendance is declining while they stop for their Sunday morning coffee. What of the half-dozen baristas who arrived at 6 a.m. to open this one store? What of the servers who pick up extra hours because $7 on a weekday lunch shift doesn’t make ends meet?

Christians undermine our own values every time we shop on a Sunday. Christians fall into the myth that Sunday is not a day of rest; it’s a day of bonus consumption. Capitalism, as it exists currently in North America, relies on the assumption that consumption runs the economy, and tight communities make bad consumers. Neighbors who share snowblowers are bad consumers. Church members who swap cars or give away garden produce are bad consumers. The endless-growth premise of capitalism relies on breaking down communities in order to create better consumers.

I try not to fingerpoint. I’m as guilty as any of us of the after-church lunch rush. But I’m also more and more convinced the most radical thing Christians can do is honor the Sabbath. Claim a day of rest. Insist the consumer economy rest. Refuse to go out to eat. Stay home. Eat lunch at home.

And I’m convinced the second most radical thing Christians can do is tip their servers 28 percent. Christians are notoriously bad tippers. Remember the “I-give-Jesus-10-percent-why-should-I-give-you-18-percent” social media scandal of 2013? No? The server at your next restaurant does. And I guarantee it made that server less likely to go to church. The answer to “Why should I give you 18 percent when Jesus gets 10?” is that Jesus doesn’t pay rent. Your server does, and often works so hard to pay it that going to church isn’t an option. Sunday is a workday. My server friends tell me the minimum tip now is 20 percent. When I go out with servers, they often put me to shame, tipping 25 to 30 percent. They know that even at that percentage, the hourly wage rarely passes $14.

“Provide for the widow and the orphan and the alien.” It appears over and over in the Bible. “Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy.” It’s one of the Ten Commandments. This is what it means to live in Jesus’ economy.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.


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  • Joshua Rodd

    I found your experience reflects mine when I was spending a lot of time around young folks who were new to church – and who could rarely attend on Sundays, since they often were scheduled to work. At the time, I reacted by encouraging us to keep having fellowship on weeknights, and offered to pray to find new jobs for these young folks. (Much to my surprise 3 of the people we prayed for did end up getting jobs that didn’t require Sunday work.)

    In the spirit of not telling someone to be “warmed and be filled”, I came to a personal decision not to make other people work on Sundays if I could help it. In exchange, I found my Sundays became focused on spending time with others, and that other folks who also wanted to avoid making other people work on Sundays chose to open up their homes to have lunch with visitors, spend time in non-commercial recreation (e.g. going to a park instead of going to a formal organised sporting event with staff), and my mindset changed from dreading Sunday when I couldn’t go grocery shopping or buy gas for my car to looking forward to Sunday since I knew it would be filled with rest, fellowship, and recreation and would be a welcome break from the endless consumption I am immersed in.

    In the conservative circles I’m in, this is a tradition many have but one that is quickly being lost. I appreciate your perspective on it.

  • Rainer Moeller

    I appreciate that you are looking for ways out of capitalist decay. But they are a bit clueless, I think. Having lunch at home doesn’t exactly mean that nobody has to work. It often means that work is shoven back to the housewife, from the pay-money economy to the unpaid economy.
    And having lunch at home means that the server gets less tips. A server will be better off with ten people who tip 10 % than with five people who tip 18 %.
    Okay this all is not sophisticated economical thinking. But we are starting here at an extreme low level of economical thinking and so we have to start with extreme low-level objections.

    • Joshua Rodd

      How is the pay-money economy better than the unpaid economy? I think it’s a mistake to view everything of value in dollar terms.

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