On defending your economic views: an internal memo for the Christian capitalists {part 1}

A while back, President Obama gave a speech about the minimum wage. Then Pope Francis did his thing. Add a dash of social media, a community with (apparently) very wide-ranging economic views, and stir. Voila, you have me with opinions.

I honestly believe that truly free markets are better than any alternatives we've yet seen in this fallen world, but I have a hard time standing with many of the people who defend them. I also can't stand with people who oppose them, so I'm over here in a corner. The wind is howling, and as I tuck my scarf tighter around my ears I'm starting a series of posts to explain why I don't want to stand over in the defense camp.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm hoping to tease out my two main difficulties with defenses of capitalism. The first is the Darwinian language used to describe the operation of capitalism and the way that market forces ensure the survival of the "best" businesses. The second is the use of "two-consenting-adults" language to defend agreements, especially between laborers and employers. A third area of difficulty, not directly related to the language used in defending capitalism, is a common assumption that man is an entirely rational creature - an assumption which frequently ignores the power of advertising to sway consumer in ways that are contrary to their good. Finally, I'll make a couple suggestions. It's not fair to criticize without offering something of your own now, is it?

On tipping your server well

When you go to a restaurant, and you're considering how much of your hard-earned cash to spend as a tip for your server, I just want you to consider two things:

Mercy

First: when you have a server who is inattentive, or distracted, or clumsy, remember that such were some of you. Was there any point in your day when you were brusque with somebody who needed your help? Have you ever forgotten an important task, or a minor one? In that moment, did you wish for mercy? You have a chance to be an instrument of that same mercy to your server. Servers know when we've* done a bad job. We are, frequently, painfully aware of the times when we have given lousy service. A bad tip makes us feel justified: the customer deserved the bad service because there wasn't a bigger tip. 

On the other hand, a good tip for crummy service is like heaping coals of fire on the head of your server. That's an analogy, by the way, not to torture but to sacrifice; by heaping coals on someone's head, you allow them to pass through the fire and ascend to God like the smoke from the altar. The church fathers were fond of speaking of our prayers ascending like smoke, and I can tell you from personal experience that I was moved to pray more by the generous tips for mediocre service than by the reasonable tips for reasonable service. 

In other words, do not return evil for evil, but rather repay evil with blessing.

Gratitude

Second, and even more importantly, what do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? (1 Corinthians 4:7) 

It is possible, from a certain perspective, to talk about having earned or deserved your material blessings. If you are a fine carpenter, the best in the shop, and you work long hours producing excellent work, then you have "earned" your wages. But why are you working at this shop? How did you get your training? Who trained you when you were a lazy five-year-old and taught you diligence? That was all grace. Your truck that keeps taking you to work long after you thought it should be dead? Grace. The fact that your boss is a just man, who pays you what you are worth? Grace upon grace.

Stinginess denies that grace. Freely you have received; freely give. Do not resent the fact that there is a tip line on your check. Look on it as a chance to imitate the generous grace of God by bestowing on somebody a portion of the grace that you have been given. 

*I'm not a server now, but I worked as a waitress and prep cook in restaurants after I graduated high school and all through college. 

On sermon applications: a haiku.

When the sermon seems
inapplicable: use your
imagination.

On gratitude and priorities

There's been a lot of discussion in the last few weeks about how Christians should conduct ourselves as we debate questions of what might at one time have been called "things indifferent", like where you source your vegetables or how you treat illnesses or how you educate your children. 

I think it's fair for Christians to have these debates. It's worthwhile to discuss the issues, and iron sharpens iron. I also think that it's easy to make these debates more important than they should be, or to at least talk about them in ways that makes them sound too important. Most of it comes back to a question of how we order our loves. We need to love more important things more, and less important things less. 

Doug Wilson taught my freshman Lordship class at NSA, and he made a point then that is relevant now. He said that while he believed that churches should sing psalms in corporate worship, he would choose a faithful church that sang praise choruses over a decaying church that sang psalms. He had good support for the claim that we should sing psalms, and I don't think he's ever going to back away from that point. But it didn't stop him from saying we should prioritize living faith over worship styles. 

I think we need to clarify the same principles for any discussion, whether about food or education or whatever. What has been called "neighborly farming" in some facebook threads is probably preferable to non-neighborly farming. I mean, with language like that, who can disagree? But preferable above either is gratitude. A McDonald's chicken nugget received thankfully is objectively better for the eater than a homemade nugget from the chicken you raised in your backyard eaten with a holier-than-thou attitude.  And, of course, a McDonald's nugget eaten with a bad attitude is also rotten to the core; that bad attitude could be "I'm giving the finger to the hippies" or it could be "Ew, gross, this is nasty... Mom, why did you take the grandkids there?" 

I would say the same for Christian education: the essential thing is parental involvement. Kids who go to public school and have involved parents will be better off than ones who go to Logos and have parents who don't care. If we're talking about clothing standards, a fundamental principle would be kindness - kindness to people who don't wear enough clothes, and kindness to the people who might criticize you for your clothes, and kindness to all the people who feel like they have to stare at the ceiling. In the world of entertainment? How about self-control, which is the antidote to gluttony (indiscriminate or excessive consumption) and an antidote to vanity (consumption with the goal of acceptance in a particular set).

I would like to think that we've known this all along. The fruit of the Spirit is not organic, industrial, sustainable, genetically-modified, soy-free, deep-fried, public-schooled, Calvert, unschooled, local, or Chilean. These are the essentials: love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, humility, meekness, longsuffering. And above all these things put on love

On fumbling: a pre-emptive apology

I have, for the better part of the last year at least, tried to stay out of arguments on the internet generally. When I did join in on something, it was usually movie-related and honestly pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of world ideas. Or even the middling scheme of local ideas. Poof, bang, flash, it's over and done with. There were three tightly-connected reasons for this.

First: my mantra was "don't feed the trolls," which I still hold to be true. I think it's really an update on the old exhortation from Proverbs to refrain from answering fools according to their folly, and remembering what James said about the power of the tongue. The best way to get out of a hole is to stop digging. You don't put out flame wars by throwing gasoline.

It was also, if I'm honest, the result of adherence to the belief that it's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. I am not wise. I know this. I would much rather that other people didn't have voluminous confirmation of my folly as well. Here is a scene I have participated in many times, and one I try to avoid: knowledgeable people are talking; I assent to something one of them says, and elaborate; my "elaboration" elicits quizzical eyebrows, gentle sympathetic nods, and the subject is quietly turned in another direction. Basically, I would rather be quiet than publicly wrong. 

The third reason, the one I think is probably the most noble (and thus the one I put last), is that I didn't really know how to say what I wanted to communicate. Alan Jacobs, bless him, described exactly this phenomenon in his recent blog post
If you follow my advice ["get out of your comfort zone, your echo chamber"] in the short run you’ll find it harder to express your ideas because you’ll be less sure what they are. It’ll be tempting to fall back on prefabricated assumptions, intellectual clichés that do the same work as linguistic clichés.
I still don't trust myself to say well what needs saying, but I also think I should probably start trying to say it anyway. The short run is over, and it's time to start at least drafting formulations. 

Please bear with me