My (spiritual) beef with capitalism

Disclaimer: I am not saying that the Church is wrong, or its stances on economical or political are wrong, but simply commenting on the current Church culture and our knee jerk, overblown reactions against the supposed dangers of socialism and the glories of capitalism.

Dantzel and I are fairly same when it comes to social issues. However, when it comes to economic issues, it’s pretty obvious from the start that Dantzel is a capitalist, and I am a socialist. That doesn’t mean we can’t cross-pollinate. Dantzel wants universal health care, and I think the free market is a brilliant way of handling most situations in life. Many people assume the reason that I’m socialist about things is because I’m from Seattle. However, I ascribe most of my feelings about socialism to growing up Korean-American.

When I was but a wee lad, I remember distinctively the day I became angry at my father because he had helped a recently immigrated Korean family purchase a computer when I had been begging him to get us a new computer for the longest time. The computer we had was just fine – I played Castle of the Winds on it gleefully for hours – but it didn’t run the latest game I wanted to play – Age of Empires. A new computer was pretty much always on the list of things I wish I had when I was kid, over Power Wheels and radio controlled cars. I was truly the geeky son of a computer programmer.

Why didn’t he look out for his own family first? I fumed over this question for many a year. I would mutter under my breath at what felt like a scam about how such and such Korean family was leeching off of us or sucking us dry or why we had to help them get something that we ourselves didn’t have? it didn’t seem fair at all.

Then, I got married. And as we opened the gifts, we received what I can only call a tsunami of financial support from our Korean friends. I knew they could not afford to give us this much to help us out. I was deeply humbled and my heart still swells with gratitude a year later when I think of it. As we opened the envelopes, my mom did a most curious thing. She pulled out a notebook and had us dutifully report who gave us the gift, what they gave, and if they gave money (they often did), how much they gave us. When I asked her why she took such impeccable records, she replied that when these parents’ kids get married, they would give equal the amount for their wedding as well.

When we came home from our honeymoon, my mother-in-law mentioned how she was awed by how cooperative the local Korean branch of our Church was. They all helped bring food so that it ended up being a huge, festive potluck. Many brought decorations. Most families came early, helped set up chairs and tables, lay out the food, string up lights and put together a lattice for the background of the line. Nobody asked anything in return, or gave grudgingly. I let her know it was because they fully expected the same in return should a similar call of duty come in to our family, and this is what helped create stability. Though it was technically my wedding, the Korean branch cheerfully helped spread the cost around so that it was paltry compared to other receptions thrown.

It was then that I realized how much I missed my tightly knit, meddlesome Korean community. Suddenly, I missed the fact that everyone knew your business, that even though they didn’t know you personally, because you were still a member of the community no matter how distant, they still wanted to help you. I missed that feeling of a secure safety net where people would catch you if you fell. It was never perfect, as most human institutions are wont to be, but it was secure. It wasn’t capitalism – we took care of each other because we belonged in a community, not necessarily because we thought we would get something in return. We knew our mutual positions and duties and acted thusly. Since then, I’ve become more enamored with the old traditions of community. Dantzel and I make plans to move in with my parents a little bit after we graduate and possibly help them look after the house – we enjoy the idea of three or even four generations of a family living in the same building. We look forward to someday moving to Seattle and participating in that Korean branch – even though at the time we only know barely any rudimentary Korean. We miss that kind of society.

However, the general Utah Mormon community loves capitalism and denounces socialism, and this is the situation we reside in today. The denouncement of socialism no doubt stems much from President Benson, in his famous talks about socialism. The biggest offender of socialism was the lack of agency within a socialist system. “It’s Satan’s plan!” I often heard from members. It seems we embrace capitalism for two main reasons: 1) The “other” alternative of a planned, socialist economy is obviously flawed and thus capitalism by default is the champion, and 2) it gets us money. We use reason number one to justify it intellectually, and number two has its obvious lure.

But capitalism isn’t perfect either. Its biggest flaw lies within its biggest asset – self-interest. Capitalism requires the capitalist to ask, “What’s in it for me?” However, the gospel economy runs on something entirely different – charity. Charity requires the saint to ask, “What would God have me do?” Capitalism, by its very nature, is at odds with God’s plan. It requires one to think of the self, to think of incentives, to think of bettering the individual. But, as Brigham Young mentioned, “No one supposes for one moment that in heaven the angels are speculating, that they are building railroads and factories, taking advantage of one another, gathering up the substance there is in heaven to aggrandize themselves, and that they live on the same principle that we are in the habit of doing.” We laugh out loud to ourselves as we imagine angels scurrying to the celestial stock exchange, but only moments later glance at the ticker on the bottom of the screen with furtive looks, and then announce next week in church that surely God intends us to live in His glory with His angels in the heavens.

Capitalism forces us to monetize, to assign value to everything. We gasp with horror at even the thought of assigning a monetary value to a human life and recoil even more at the thought that we would place less monetary value on a crippled old man than a young, 21 year old worker, but that we must do. Everything has a price. After all, the old sly devil says, you can buy anything in this world for money. The economic principle of Zion and Christ works on a completely different level. “Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation?” the prophet Nephi asks. “Behold I say unto you, Nay; but he hath given it free for all men; and he hath commanded his people that they should persuade all men to repentance” (2 Nephi 26:27). The prophet then warns, “But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money, they shall perish” (2 Nephi 26:31). We as Christians should ascribe price to very little, and when we do, it is infinite. The cost of the Atonement wrought by the blood of the Messiah was infinite – yet salvation to the sinful masses of Father’s children is for free. The capitalist would charge for repentance (and some clergymen have tried in the past) but the love of God can never be sold, nor can it be bought. When the world tries to buy the authority of God through Simon Magus, it gives the universal temptation: “And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost” (Acts 8:18-19). But the answer from God, given through Peter, is just as universal: “Thy money perish with thee, because thou has thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Though has neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God” (Acts 8:20-21).

We quibble over semantics: After all, Paul warned Timothy that it was the love of money that was the root of all evil, not necessarily money itself. But we either ignore or flinch when we hear Christ declare that it is easier for a camel to travel through the eye of a needle than a rich man enter the kingdom of God (Matt 19:24). We fret over the radical ideas of the Christ – give everything to the poor? Forsake everything? Even “houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands” (Matt 19:29) for your sake? Are you sure, Christ? And so we hesitate, and we lose out. “The Lord really means what he says when He commands us not to think about these things; and because we have chosen to find this advice hopelessly impractical ‘for our times’ (note that the rich young man found it just as impractical for his times!), the treasures of knowledge have been withheld from us: ‘God has often sealed up the heavens,’ said Joseph Smith, ‘because of covetousness in the Church'” (Nibley, Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless, 292).

But the early Apostles did not hesitate, Elder Neal A. Maxwell pointed out, and had Peter lingered at his fishing nets rather than following right away, he could have owned a very lucrative fishing business – but instead, he was able to see the Transfiguration of the Christ. Which would capitalism value more? What about Zion?

Eschatologically, capitalism has no place in the kingdom of God, nor in His plan. Flawed from the beginning, the system serves only one purpose – the self. Free markets are ironically named when viewed in a spiritual sense, for they are rarely ever spiritually free. “We do not have time here to review Satan’s brilliant career in business and law: how he taught Cain the ‘great secret’ of how to ‘murder and get gain’ while claiming the noblest notions, ‘saying: I am free'” (Nibley, 314). We claim that wealth creates freedom to pursue options – but remain slaves to our jobs and professions, to our material wealth that constantly asks us to pay attention and ever increasingly demands for our time. Meanwhile, Christ continues to beckon, asking us to leave behind paltry material wealth, which rusts and corrodes, for eternal treasures on high, which aren’t treasures in a worldly sense at all. What is the treasure? To know God and to live with Him again. Relationships have low monetary value, unless there is money to gain. Alas for the capitalist, there is no money to gain in a relationship with God at all – only eternal life!

So, what do we do with the system we live in now? Should not we thank the markets for the relative comforts and advances we have made as a society? Yet capitalism also shoulders much blame for excess, for want, for greed, for imbalances, for exploitation, for murder, genocide, war and on and on. Certainly, capitalism has its worldly merits, but the place of the saint is not in such a system. Our Church revolves around charity, with safeguards against excess wealth. We have our 10% tithing offerings, but we are also encouraged to donate to the Book of Mormon fund, missionaries, to feeding the poor, humanitarian aid, helping educate those trapped in the cycle of poverty. For the price of a recreational boat, you can easily choose to instead finance one or two missions – but how many rich people would choose the spiritual rather than the material? God has warned us time and time again against material wealth, and perhaps it is this commandment that is one of the hardest to heed. Brigham Young warned that if we keep our riches, “with them I promise you leanness of soul, darkness of mind, narrow and contracted hearts, and the bowels of your compassion will be shut up.”

As Latter-Day Saints looking forward to the titular latter-days, we should act as the cast and stage crew of a theater, quietly building the new set while the old set is still up so that rotation of the two can follow immediately. “So it is with this world. It is not our business to tear down the old set – the agencies that do that are already hard at work and very efficient – the set is coming down all around us with spectacular effect. Our business is to see to it that the new set is well on the way for what is to come – and that means a different kind of politics, beyond the scope of the tragedy that is now playing its closing night. We are preparing for the establishment of Zion” (Nibley, 234-5).

Moral of the Story: Capitalism has no place in our gospel economy. We should take care of our attitude to money in comparison to our attitude to God, because it can cost us eternal life.

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