Jesus and capitalism?
Strange things happen when we start talking about Jesus and popular culture. Having watched a great deal of material by Kevin Smith in the recent months only makes any observations more bizarre.
For a few weeks now, I have been slowly reading through a book called The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. Thus far, its been a book that deeply resonates with how I view the world, if not how I actually live and interact with the world.
One of the things about the author that fascinated me the most was how he makes all of his own clothing. Looking at one of the pictures of the author, on the inside back cover, I can’t say that he makes quality clothing, but they do seem to perform their function fairly well. He picked up this habit while working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta.
Now hop over to the Kevin Smith part, specifically how in the first Clerks, where Dante, Randal and the roofer are discussing the use of subcontractors on the second Death Star. The whole discussion was about if it was right, and good, for the rebels to destroy the Death Star, given that it was not complete, with all the ‘innocent’ subcontractors, just trying to make a living on a government contract, on board.
Now comes how the two things fit together… see, Jesus started his ministry at the age of 30 years. There were many reasons for this, but the big one was that he wouldn’t have been accepted by the Jewish community until he reached that age. So many things Jesus did were so that he would be in accordance with all the Jewish rules and regulations, of which there were a LOT, so that he would at least get a hearing from the people. His earthly father, Joseph, was a carpenter, so it is very likely that he studied with Joseph and learned his trade. When Joseph died, likely before Jesus began his ministry, otherwise we would have heard more about Joseph in scripture, Jesus, being the eldest boy, most likely ran the family business.
So, here he is, Ruler of the Universe, King of all Kings, Lord of all Lords, building tables and chairs for the other poor people of Nazareth. Almost strikes you as odd, unless you know the rest of his story. But have you ever stopped to think about the probably 20+ years he worked in that shop? Many of the years would have been learning the trade, although he likely knew all there was to know about it, because that’s what fathers did, teach their children their trade.
A side note that just occurred to me… how odd must Joseph have felt at this? People have for years asked how Mary must have felt at nursing and changing Jesus’ diaper, but what about Joseph? Did he have to tell Jesus what type of lumber came from what trees and which boards made the best legs versus a table top? Did he feel weird, knowing that the one who crafted the world, was now crafting furniture in his shop?
Back to the point of all this, Jesus was a business man. It is a bit hard to think of him in that light, but he really was. He owned the shop, the tools and the property. No, its doubtful he was really wealthy, but he was probably better off than a lot of people. He wasn’t looked down upon like a shepherd or fisherman. He was in a somewhat respectable profession. He purchased raw materials and he sold finished goods. He made money. He paid the bills. He purchased the goods that other people grew or made. He didn’t work the ground, so he had need of the farmer. He wasn’t a herdsman, so he needed them for meat. Jesus was part of a functioning economic system.
That to say, I do not believe that Jesus ever cheated anyone, nor do I believe that his external purchases were anything like those we make today. He purchased for his needs, and most likely the needs of his mother, but did he never purchase anything because of a want? True, he owned it all anyway, but he also wouldn’t just take something from another human, especially if that something helped the other human put food on his table. Was there never some bauble or memento of a trip to Jerusalem during the feast, that returned to Nazareth with him? Knowing how we humans operate, and if he was fully human, would that not mean he operated in the same way?
So back to the book I am reading and the author who makes his own clothes? He does so, admittedly, because he enjoys doing it and because he has a vested interest in not purchasing clothing that is made in sweatshops by people who do not have all the advantages he himself has. Very noble, and I have no problems with that. I think it is very cool, even though it is not something that I feel called to do. But what if his reason had been something else, like he felt Jesus called us all to live lives where we provided for ourselves all that we needed, but nothing that we wanted. Would this be an accurate sentiment?
I just cannot believe that it would be accurate. Given my earlier points that Jesus himself provided for others, and their labors helped provide for him, I just have a hard time believing in anyone who might say that we are called to give up our possessions to follow Jesus. Yes, most definitely, Jesus did tell some to do that, but he told that to the ones who needed to do that. Not all of us value their possessions in a manner like that, although I will fully admit that most of us Americans do put a great deal too much value in their possessions.
So where does this leave us? I really wish I knew. I really enjoy the question and all its possible ramifications, even though I have no real good answer to it all.