Urban Theology 14: a prophetic critique of the idol of Western capitalism

We’ve reached the final chapter of David Smith’s Seeking a City with Foundations:  theology for an urban world. Part 1 engaged with urbanization; Part 2 with the biblical narratives, this section seeks to be an interpretative bridge between the two, working towards a theology for an urban world.

Big important themes have been discussed throughout this book. I’m the son of a geography lecturer – someone who has not only spent his life travelling all over the world but understands the political geography of the places he’s been. I guess a little bit of that has rubbed off on me after years of geography field trips on every family outing!

What I’ve appreciated about this book is that it takes very seriously the political & geographical realities connected to urbanisation and globalisation and after doing that hard work, takes seriously the biblical text and how the two meet in our contemporary world. This book is rare – if not unique – in doing what it does. It deserves to be widely read.

Smith has a multiple themes going on in this chapter. I’ll try to describe what he says in offering a prophetic critique of Western capitalism. [I’m sure there are radically different views out there from other (Western) Christians arguing for the overall benefits of global capitalism in lifting all boats …  Call me a pessimist, but I think this is too convenient a position to take by those with the most to gain from leaving the system as it is].

Prophetic Critique: the idol of Western capitalism

A recurring theme of Smith’s is a critique of the idol of western market forces and their unquestioned god-like status shaping economic and social policy with global implications. Such economism holds out the promise of freedom and prosperity for all. The urban elites have prospered, but the cost Smith argues has been terribly high. Traditional ways of life that have existed for centuries are being ripped apart.

He quotes Vinoth Ramachandra saying contemporary European and American capitalism, with its sole criterion for corporate decisions being a return on capital, is acting more and more like Maoism and Stalinism in its entrenched ideology being propagated around the world. And in the current financial crisis, Ramachandra’s words sound truer and truer. Democracy is being sidelined in the desperate rush to save the system.

Smith links the system to power and military might: hence the use of ruthless force to ensure security and ‘our way of life’.

In the OT, the critique of the city was on the underlying ideology that it represented. For Smith, much of the contemporary urban forms represent unrestrained pursuit of materialism. Such ends lead to alienation and vacuousness.

Like Babel, does much of the contemporary urban form represent hubris, and a quest for immortality, reflective of a spiritual blindness, an idolatry that leads to meaningless labour?

The idolatry of making security and prosperity the goals of life reverses the biblical priority of practicing justice and love of neighbour as a condition of human freedom. This reversal has led to the 20th cent arms race, the myth of redemptive violence, nuclear proliferation, a multi-billion dollar arms industry, ‘permanent and boundless’ war, and perpetual insecurity.

And have Christians, like in John of Patmos’ days, bought into the narrative of Empire and worshipped false gods?

He says Christians should be the ones in ‘the vanguard of resistance to dehumanizing forces at work in our world.’ Yet too many Christians have ended up worshipping false gods.

What is a Christian response of hope to this bleak picture of prophetic woe? Or to put it another way, what is an alternative Christian vision for the city – and the world? I’ll sketch Smith’s says to this in a couple of follow up posts.

But between now and then, here is a good moment to bring in Craig Blomberg who has been with us in IBI all last week teaching hermeneutics on our Masters degree.

He also spoke at jointly organised conferences in Dublin and Cork on God and money and has written Neither Poverty Nor Riches: a biblical theology of possessions (IVP, 2001 and Stewardship: a biblical theology for life. (Zondervan 2013).

One talk he gave was on the title ‘Are Christians complicit in the Global Financial Crisis?’

I’ll talk about his answer in the next post.

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