Capitalism and the Attack on the Imago Dei

All men matter. You matter. I matter. It’s the hardest thing in Theology to believe – GK Chesterton

Like many, I have been watching the events in Wisconsin unfold. We have similar things going on in my state of Ohio. In my circle of theologically conservative Christians, some have taken to declaring their support for the Governor by claiming his stand biblical and at the same time calling the Unions immoral and anti-Christian. As I look at the issues and the people, I find another force is at work. I find that the tenor of business in America today is an attack against the Imago Dei. And, because corporations have tremendous – almost dictatorial – influence over the politicians, our country’s leadership is following suit and our Churches are complying with alarming docility.

Now don’t get me wrong: Under Communism, man oppresses man; Under Capitalism, it is exactly the opposite

As my heading quote indicates, this drive is not unique to any system of economics but in reality is the drive of mankind. Theologically, if it is true that Genesis 9 contains the germ of government, that government’s mandate was for protecting the Imago Dei. The current climate among the Conservative churches in America is to remove government and its regulations and hand over to corporations’ free reign. Given the attack of the Imago Dei on the part of corporations, I believe that this is in the exact wrong direction.

Imago Dei is a Latin phrase used theologically for the concept of the Image of God. Biblically, this concept begins with Genesis 1:26-27: And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image … And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. The teaching says there is something significant about the makeup of mankind.

Biblically, there is no strong description of what the ‘Image’ means. Often the discussions on this teaching – I believe erroneously – revolve around how man is ‘like’ God. What characteristics man has (Such as the ability to reason or creativity or morality) which can be called ‘godlike’. Rather, the biblical record applies the teaching ethically. Essentially, it is applied in a way that anybody who has seen a protest with an effigy recognizes: how you treat the image is how you would treat the reality behind the image. As Jesus put it, I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me. (Matthew 25:40)

In Genesis 9, which as I mentioned above is considered the divine mandate for human government, capital punishment is proscribed for murder. What is important is the reasoning for it. Whoever sheds human blood, by other humans must his blood be shed; for in God’s image God has made mankind. (Gen 9:6) The first point made about governance is that it reacts to attacks on the Image. Every homicide is in reality attempted deicide. While modern conservatives would agree that the point of government is to protect its citizens from foreign attack, this first mandate is quite pointed towards individuals.

In the New Testament teaching, there are a couple of applications of the Image of God teaching that I would like to quickly point out. The first is the well-known teaching of Jesus, He said to them, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21). What connects this to the teaching is the set-up. The Leaders tried to trap Jesus by asking if the people should continue to pay taxes. Jesus asked to see the tax coin. “Whose image is on the coin?” asked Jesus. Upon hearing that Caesar’s image was on the coin, Jesus gave the above response. What was owed to Caesar was that which carried his image, so what is owed to God is that which carries his image. The Image of God is given an ethical application. This is what stopped the Leaders in their tracks. Far from discussing taxes, Jesus confronted the Leaders with the choice to give themselves to God.

The second is found in one of the New Testament letters. It makes the exact application of the Image and treatment of the image which reflects back on the reality. Talking about how we use our speech, James writes With it (the tongue, a figure of speech for our speech) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people made in God’s image. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. These things should not be so, my brothers and sisters. (James 3:9-10) Applying the Image of God ethically, James says that it is incongruous to bless God and curse his image. Indeed, cursing the image shows the blessing of God to be a false confession.

I don’t believe it too far a stretch to observe that the well-known summary of the Law given by Jesus, to love God and love your neighbor, is found in these two applications of the Image of God.

Pilots are expenses. They are not assets, like planes and computers – American Airlines Vice President during contract negotiations in early 1990s.

I can’t think of a better summary of the modern attitude of corporate boards towards their employees than the above quote. Nor can I think of a better illustration of the attack on the Image of God which I am seeing at work.

Readers who have accounting degrees or accounting experience may wish to point out that “bookkeepingly speaking” the above quote is an accurate statement. When one is accounting for the financials of a company, what the company pays for its employees and their benefits go into the “Expense” ledger. When the company buys equipment it is placed in the “Assets” ledger, as it retains value even as its depreciation goes into the expense ledger.

Clearly, though, the above quote is not about accounting categories. In that statement, accounting categories are being used to dehumanize Image Bearers. Accounting categories assign value to the company and its people (Imago Dei) are being placed on the side of negative value. Employees – those who provide services to the customers or manufacture the product which the company sells – are viewed as threats to the company’s best interest. So, some are to be eliminated. Those who remain must take cuts in pay and benefits as well as take on the added work of those who were cut. Also, there is the shutting down of factories to take advantage of slave and close to slave labor in other parts of the world, destroying whole towns for the sake of “good business sense” to eliminate these “expenses”.

The things you think are precious, I can’t understand – Steely Dan

An incredibly blunt comment confirming what I am saying was made recently. CNBC Host Larry Kudlow reporting on the 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan which killed over 30,000 people said, The human toll looks to be much worse than the economic toll, and we can be grateful for that. Of course, Mr Kudlow apologized for his comment explaining that the human toll was “tragic”, but he was just trying to say something positive about the situation.

Besides the dehumanizing of the Image of God, there is the clear hypocrisy that the Vice-President speaking the above quote no doubt considers himself an asset to the company. He considers that his multi-million dollar a year salary is earned, even though he does not fly a plane himself nor do the “assets” he apparently prefers to pilots fly themselves. Recall the recent government official who when asked about the huge salaries given to corporations’ board members said “maybe it’s because they are the only ones who do anything”. The class warfare inherent in the quote is more flagrant now, whether it is my $8 million/ year CEO telling me I have to concede pay and benefits because my 40k including benefits is what is wrong with the company, or Gov Walker giving millions in tax breaks and giveaways to his rich friends while demanding the teachers pay for it, or my own Gov Kasich who gave a 45k raise to his chief of staff while cutting secretaries’ pay from 27k to 25k “to save money”.

Also related here is the drive to eliminate the expenses of safety regulations and safe waste product disposal. Everybody knows that it is cheaper to just pour something untreated down the drain than to go through a treatment process which neutralizes harmful effects, but what is the human cost to those around the plant? or Downstream from it? Rather than calling for the elimination of regulations or defunding their enforcement, a commitment to the Imago Dei would wish to be concerned beyond the drain to protect the people even if it means the company makes less profit. An interesting verse in Deuteronomy says When you build a new house, install a parapet along your roof so that if someone falls from the roof, you won’t bring guilt of bloodshed on your house. (Deuteronomy 22:8) Under this law, negligence of the safety of workers and bystanders brought guilt. It may be cheaper and quicker to work without the parapet, but there is a more important concern – the Image of God. I recently read an explanation of that verse saying that God is concerned with the expenses of a job and the parapet ultimately saves money, but that explanation fails to consider the verse’s concern with “guilt of bloodshed”. This law ultimately is to protect the Imago Dei, not some construction company’s bottom line.

An old man, covered in sores and continuously wheezing, has been there 40 years.
“He’s allergic”, The workers tell me
“Why doesn’t he quit?” I ask.
They stare as if I had lost my mind. “And lose his benefits?”
– Hamell on Trial, Vines, from the album The Chord is Mightier than the Sword

Ed Hamell’s brilliant take on blue-collar work contains this great scene. The picture is of one in terrible conditions which adversely affect a worker’s health and yet “benefits” keep him there – a not uncommon occurrence in American employment. It is not surprising that keeping a worker dependent on the company for ever-decreasing benefits is part of the attack.

Once the probation period is done and the employee is given his benefits. That makes it harder to leave and start the probation period somewhere else. As such, the benefits become a huge leverage for corporations to hold over employees’ heads. Given corporations’ commitment to the bottom line “first and always and only”, it is surprising that corporations were so against Health Care Reform so that America remains one of the few countries without national health care even as they spend multiples more for health care than other countries whose health care is rated better. Such a national policy would greatly lessen a huge financial burden for companies, but it would also lessen an employee’s dependence on the corporation. Free from the concern of how they will be taken care of, an employee would be free to negotiate on other issues.

So, since a company’s bottom line is more important than the well-being of the employees, what resulted was the argument, which I heard amplified as the “Christian” position that health care – care for the Imago Dei – was not a “right” and certainly not something the government – which was created to protect the Imago Dei – should concern itself with. Christians – who in other situations would call themselves “pro-life” – arguing “when is enough enough?” to advocate taking health care away from someone who is “costing the taxpayer too much to take care of”. Christians arguing that profits are more important than people.

Not surprisingly, the “employees are expenses” philosophy is committed to eliminating even these benefits. A part of the multi-governor push to eliminate public employee bargaining is so that they can cut into their pensions and health care. Also, one friend finished his agreed 6 month probation at a company only to be told that his health care was not to kick in for another 6 months and then found that after those 6 months that the company wanted him to wait another 6 months before getting health care. Such overreach will eventually get push back as without the benefits there is a resulting lessening of the leverage. My friend left that job, but at the cost of a year invested in a company (a profitable company at that) which did not honor their agreement and future interview questioning over why he left this job.

It is argued, with some justification, that Corporations are machines dedicated only to making money and so we must accept whatever serves their bottom line (this by the same people who also argue that corporations are “persons” who have a First Amendment right to buy elections with their money). The problem with that is that the management of these corporations are themselves people (Imago Dei) who must deny their own Image to deny the Image in their employees. Biblically, the true bottom line is the Imago Dei. Capitalism, with its drive for profits above people, with its commitments which look at people as the enemy who cost too much to be concerned for, is attacking the Imago Dei. Government, which was created to protect the Imago Dei, is exactly within its bounds to regulate business and to place the Image above profits in its concerns.

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This entry was posted in Culture/Society, Ethics, The Image of God, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Capitalism and the Attack on the Imago Dei

  1. ScottL says:

    xulon –

    Very stirring thoughts. Living in Belgium, in a socialist context (though not full socialist-communism), it has been interesting to really learn of a different way to approach life. Of course, a socialist society also has its negatives. But it is easy to think that free-market capitalism is the way. But, as you point out, whatever way one’s nation and culture functions, we must guard the image of God.

  2. xulonjam says:

    Thanks Scott, I’m sure were I in a more socialist context, I would find attacks on the Image there as well. What concerns me here is that the Church here has so bought into the attacks.

  3. ScottL says:

    It would be interesting to consider all the connections between conservative evangelical Christianity in America and Republican politics, and then Republican politics with capitalism. But in this world today, it is very hard to make blanket statements. We are such an eclectic world more and more.

  4. xulonjam says:

    I may be deluding myself here, but I kept political party names out of the post wishing to key on the Theology. There are Corporate Democrats (Clinton for one and Obama for another) who have also bought into the attack and are more interested in protecting the corporations than people.

  5. xulonjam says:

    Here is the recent comment from a congressman that workers are commodities “like corn or beans”. As mentioned in the comments, this is straight agreement with Engels, to say nothing of Rand’s godless “Objectivism” Philosophy. Why has the Church adopted this? I’ve read Christians who love Rand “Too bad about her atheism, though.”

  6. xulonjam says:

    I just saw the author of the budget plan, not the only budget plan but the one that is treated as if it is the only budget plan, say “Ayn Rand, more than anybody else, does a fantastic job of explaining the morality of Capitalism.”

  7. Imago Dei in the Hebrew Testament:

    ‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
    but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?’
    (Micah 6:8)

    In the New Testament, Jesus as Imago Dei:

    ‘He [Jesus] said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
    (Matthew 22:37-40)

    I like to keep my practice of Christianity simple. Judge actions by looking through the lens of these two passages. Also, the Golden Rule, to do as you would be done to.

    Very interesting post, xulonjam.

  8. xulonjam says:

    Here is a recent article with at least a similar title. In seminary, I had a fellow student tell me, with all the sincerity that a depraved heart could have, that Capitalism is the ONLY Christian economic system. Why?, you ask? Because, he said, it is the only one which recognizes human depravity. http://www.salon.com/2014/04/25/capitalisms_war_on_christianity_how_a_makers_vs_takers_culture_poisons_our_ethics/

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