Paul Tillich, a popular theologian in the 1960’s said that Christianity is vulnerable to being subsumed by other forms of religion, very much as a chameleon changes its color to match its background. The other forms of religion, which Tillich defined as quasi-religions, are capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism, and democratic nationalism. In the United States, the competing world religion is capitalism. Tillich said that this presented a faith-against-faith situation. To be a Christian in a capitalistic society means that it is likely that a “Christian” is a Christian only to the extent that capitalism is not inconvenienced.
Capitalist Christianity is used as a standard that provides moralistic behavior: how to be a fair, honorable, and conscientious citizen – as a capitalist. Capitalism is the force – a mighty force – that prevents many of us otherwise nice, fair and considerate capitalists from letting go of our worldly comfort, our wealth and station in society. If we are forced to walk the path that Jesus walked, we may lose our homes, our cars, our full larder, perhaps even our source of income. This would inconvenience our faith in the capitalist religion.
It is as if we have returned to the world that Charles Dickens described, where charity is unloaded onto government programs, nonprofit organizations that will do the dirty work for us, or we cover our obligation by throwing a relative pittance at local charity and mission fund raisers. Our first obligation is to our role as capitalists but we respect the presence of Christian morality. Actually behaving like a Christian, however, is out of the question.
Except for the rare committed Christian, it is impractical to insist on abandoning capitalism to walk the path that Jesus walked. But how much can we recover the path of Jesus in today’s society so that we will move closer to being a modern Christian? Simple solutions abound. Many give time and personal investment to projects like Habitat for Humanity; some take on a missionary cause like joining the Peace Corps or Americorp, or a church-related mission in the most desperate regions of the world. The pivotal change in behavior is that the modern Christian becomes involved personally, giving time and resources in person, on site, providing genuine concern and care, thereby representing God’s love. It is guaranteed that poverty, privation and desperate need are less than ten miles away from any modern Christian’s home.
Another way to grow our role as a modern Christian is to use our capitalist wealth to contribute to those who are desperate and in need of God’s love, even your love, in God’s name. Specifically, do you tithe? Do you have possessions that you don’t really need – everything from furniture to coin collections? How many changes in clothes do you own? How many shoes? Can you give up one golf game a week and spend one day a week working shoulder to shoulder with the poor? All these suggestions will turn your sense of personal value toward the path that Jesus walked. It will strengthen God’s rudder to steer your life toward being a modern Christian.