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’. (Indeed, in the garden story, when the Serpent tempted people to be dissatisfied with being in the Image of God, he waved being "like God" in front of them.) 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 a 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. 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. One friend of mine 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 right to buy elections with their money). The problem with that is that the managers 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 force them to place the Image above profits in its concerns.
Capitalism and the Attack on the Imago Dei | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)
Capitalism and the Attack on the Imago Dei | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)