The driving characteristics and hallmarks of capitalism today would have all found an uneasy home within the theological and moral world of John Wesley. He did not accommodate himself to the themes of the pervading culture, and despite his hierarchical political approach, he was revolutionary in his political and economic thought because it was predicated on a commitment to a specific image of God and a proper order for creation. Of the many things that might most concretely disrupt and deter from this image was an irresponsible relationship and understanding of one to wealth and capital.
Indeed, Wesley one finds almost the complete antithesis to most major themes that buttress the design of capitalism run rampant.
Themes that include, but are not limited to: a disregard for the other, the valuation of material, the desire for affluence, insatiable want, the inability to share, a disregard for community, the holy trinity of democracy, republicanism and economic theory, a lack of personal austerity, the limitless pursuit of desire, solidarity with the poor, a generous spirit with ones resources and a fixated concentration on market values and futures. At virtually every point Wesley is opposed from an economic, political, and most importantly, a theological perspective.
Wesley was not an economic theorist nor did he hate money. What concerned Wesley were the economic structures that would result from an inordinate desire to have money, to earn money, and to hoard money. In other words, what concerned Wesley was the unsanctified nature of the world. The theological resolution to keeping money in proper perspective was Wesley’s commitment to a theological concept he called sanctification or also Christian Perfection.
Simply defined, sanctification literally means setting a particular object or person apart for God’s use; humanity consecrates the said object and God sanctifies it, sets it apart, for Gods use. Sanctification is the reality of the life of the believer because it is the manifestation of the love of God in the believer wherein selfish desires are progressionally driven away. Perhaps more than any other theologian in church history, Wesley emphasized the process of sanctification as a necessary aspect of Christian existence. As Randy Maddox notes, “For Wesley this facet is an inseparable compliment to justification; namely, our present deliverance by God from the plague of sin, not just its penalty.”
Wesley an evangelical that not only cared about converting; he was intimately interested in how God shapes the world through sanctified people.
Sancification was part of saving grace that shaped how a believer related to the world, so when Maddox indicates that sanctification is about delivering from the “plague of sin” such may be interpreted as that grace that reshapes how one relates to the world and lives out their daily existence in practical ways. Sanctification is the means by which one is delivered from colluding in evil and selfish uses of money and our lives redirected toward living a life that is reflective of God as a donating, mutually sharing and all-together loving way of relating to the world and others. The reorientation from love of self to love of others is in no clearer way embodied than in our economic transactions and in one’s ability to speak truth to that which seeks to debase humanity through cycles of production and consumption. For Wesley, capital is not a goal; the goal is holy living. The result is surrendering one’s resources to God.
An additional aspect of sanctification was its communal orientation. Sanctification was something that occurs within the community of faith in order to minister to creation.
As H. Ray Dunning points out, virtually all sanctification texts in the New Testament are corporate in nature. All aspects of a Christian’s life fall under the auspices of sanctified reality. This means Wesley was concerned with a sanctified relationship to money due to his awareness of the unbridled nature of human desire. Sanctification in our current context need not mean Wesley was concerned with making money holy, but that he understood it to be an object that must be properly set apart for specific purposes and ends, thus squarely placing our relationship to capital and economics within his theology of the ordo salutis (Order of Salvation).
Wesley further notes that unsanctified Christian practice has the ability to implode as it could potentially become the hand-maiden of demonic political and economic forces that seek to challenge and re-narrate the world. Wesley is prophetic as to the current impotency of Christianity to occupy anything other than its own institutions and bigoted agendas precisely because it is unsanctified in its disposition:
“For wherever true Christianity spreads, it must cause diligence and frugality, which, in the natural course of things, must beget riches! And riches naturally beget pride, love of the world, and every temper that is destructive of Christianity. Now, if there be no way to prevent this, Christianity is inconsistent with itself, and of consequence, cannot stand, cannot continue long among any people; since wherever it generally prevails, it saps its own foundation.”
Wesley’s political and economic philosophy is bound to his anti-materialistic convictions founded on his reading of the Bible. When the world around him was appealing to natural rights, empiricism, nominalism and other popular intellectual fads, Wesley was insistent on founding his political and economic perspective on Jesus.
As Stephen Long notes,
“Wesley’s moral theology assumes Jesus as archetype (against Hume’s ectype). This necessitated an apriorism. What is something cannot be determined solely by its brute givenness; it is intelligible against the backdrop of the archetype. But this does not dissolve the world into essences and ideas that have no real existence. The pattern for reason is the hypostatic union where humanity and divinity are brought together such that a particular individual discloses to us the fullness of divinity.”
Wesley was convinced of a biblically shaped politic that placed others at the fore of one’s embodiment of Christ. Just as Jesus was not concerned with the acquisition or accumulation of goods, but was marked by a life of giving, so too did Wesley envision the Christian life as one lived in service to the other as a model of the supreme archetype that is Jesus the Christ. Yet money has the inverse effect of not disclosing ones servitude and obligation to the other as an obligation to God, but as that which enables others to serve us, feeding the monetary urge to desire more and give less. Wesley was suspect of the role of money in the lives of believers because of its power to negate Christian faith.
Wesley’s sermon on the “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” is an excellent example of how serious he takes avarice and the misappropriation of means when he declares that if one has gained all the money they can, and saved all they can, then they should in greater portion give all they can if they have any desire to escape damnation. Otherwise, Wesley fears that one can have no more hope of salvation than Judas Iscariot himself. Wesley is so utterly convinced of the corrupting nature of money that he offers little by way of hope for anyone who is rich. His notable sermon “The Danger of Riches” squarely places the onus of corruption on money in general and not simply as part of the immoral acquisition of money.
At this juncture, Wesley’s famous sermon on money has incredible import. Here, Wesley advocates a proper understanding of capital and how it is to be used. It is not a sermon on the demonization of money, but it is a sermon that clearly articulates a healthy relationship to the object of exchange known as money. In fact, in the sermon one gets the very strong impression that money and capital, when used rightly, is a good and virtuous object; yet money that is not dissipated properly can result in various evils and injustices. Along with sound personal economic advice, one finds a thoroughgoing Wesleyan critique of the very idea of money that keeps our system occupied through debt and exchange values. A look at Wesley’s take on money, and then debt, will show Wesley’s revolutionary political core.
Simply put, Wesley suggests one should make all they can, earn all they can and then give all they can. The first 2 propositions are self explanatory. Wesley believed in making an honest living and saving what is necessary for one’s future sustenance. The most important anti-capitalist sentiment found herein is his conviction that one should not harm the well being of another in ones quest for earning a living. Wesley would find it abhorrent for one to put another out of business or to attack another’s trade in any form of economic activity, especially activity that would result in the destitution of the competitor. But isn’t this exactly what the “free” market does? Does not a market built on competition and capital, driven by desire and greed, encourage activity that will generate individuals/corporations whose ultimate value is the value of money? Indeed, are not some of the most “successful” businesses in America those that see weaknesses in competition, study them and then implement strategies seeking to destroy the other company?
Hear Wesley’s injunction
“We are to gain all we can without hurting our neighbor. But this we may not, cannot do, if we love our neighbor as ourselves. We cannot, if we love every one as ourselves, hurt anyone in his substance [note Wesley’s personal italics here]. We cannot devour the increase of his lands and houses…by gaming, by over-grown bills, or by requiring or taking such interest as even the laws of our country forbid. We cannot, consistent with brotherly love, sell our goods below the market price; we cannot study to ruin our neighbors trade, in order to advance our own…None can gain by swallowing up his neighbors substance, without gaining the damnation of hell!”
In addition, his statement that currency should not be manipulated seems to embody a preference for a working wage wherein the consumer and the producer can operate at an equal level of exchange, neither one abusing the other. However, in our current climate, not only is currency manipulation adversely affecting its valuation, and thereby undervaluing property and working wages, the entire global edifice of economic exchange is based on currency valuations against other currencies, which often times results in the over-valuation of the goods of some countries to the extreme detriment of another.
Another crucial issue raised by Wesley is the issue of debt. Perhaps more than any other issue this lies at the heart of capitalism as multiple recent studies continue to contend from liberal and conservative economists alike.
Philip Goodchild notes, “There is no more significant social force within the contemporary global economy than debt…Debt is a means that becomes an end…to repay interest on a loan, someone else must have created the money elsewhere as debt, so that the original loan is repaid and the debt is canceled. The amount of debt money in the economy spirals ever higher. The force of debt grows ever stronger.”
For Wesley, debt keeps people from being able to give. Wesley’s emphasis on ministering to the poor is not out of pious ambition; it is out of his commitment to love of neighbor and love of God. The poor need to receive as a redemptive act, and in such reception, one is also part of the activity of God whereby one declares their independence from the compulsion to consume and the worship of mammon. Thus, accruing debt is in sharp contrast to the spirit of giving, particular in our culture today where non-existent money is not called debt; rather, it is known as a form of discretionary spending called credit. The accumulation of debt, especially discretionary debt, is a clear indication the ones affections toward money are already unsanctified.
Wesley’s historical context prevented him from developing a rigorous theory of money, but had he been able to do so he most likely would have been able to see that on a global scale money is unable to sustain the stability of trade because there is nothing beneath it to guarantee its value. Money is a symbol, whereby the means of exchange value, and exchange use, are confused in the symbol money with use value imposed by the physical presence of money, the idea of money itself. The great miracle of capitalism is that it discovered, along with the invention of credit, the nature of money as a value established without any intrinsic worth. Money becomes its own goal that actualizes hope in itself and is defined by invisible markers such as “markets” and “speculation” both ideas and concrete economic places that are in actuality nowhere precisely because they have no location and do not exist.
While Wesley did not have a sophisticated opinion on how an economy might function on a micro or macro-economic scale, he knew well the things that drive our current markets such as fear, desire and greed. His sermon, “The Danger of Riches” can almost act like a primer on economic exchange and consumer psychology.
In this sermon, Wesley offers an acute awareness of the role of desire in economic exchanges. He writes, “First, they that desire to be rich, to have more food and coverings; they that seriously and deliberately desire more than food to eat…” He notes that desire is the catalyst of inordinate consumption. He then couples the desire for more than one’s necessity with the idea of endeavor, or the commencement of causes to satiate the desire for more than one needs. One might today call the endeavor entrepreneurship or venture capitalism.
Endeavors are falsified because the place from which they arise is the unholy affection of “more.” It naturally follows for Wesley that the result will be an individual that is determined to possess material wealth, rather than immaterial recognition in the being of God. An economic exchange built on desire, mobilized by endeavors, results in more things than are necessary. This collection of things results in the apparition of personal property for individual purpose and ownership. The result, for Wesley, is not a decrease in desire or the arrival of the American dream or the “good life,” but a perpetuation of the “desire of having more.” A desire that is endless and who’s own longing is its own destruction.