Individualism and Capitalism in the New Testament

"Let everyone mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made."

~ Henry David Thoreau

The Gospel narratives bear witness to the plight of the divine individual, the soul itself as it journeys through life and participates in the cosmic drama. Jesus, born into the world, struggles toward his destiny while authoritarians and forces of the collective seek his destruction at every turn.

The birth of Jesus is foretold by prophets. Herod is "troubled and all Jerusalem with him" (Matt. 2:3) and so they begin to conspire. Herod plans to murder the infant, who as of yet has done no wrong. Jesus and his family flee to Egypt. Herod realizes that he has been deceived. He falls into a rage and orders the murder of all male children, two years or younger, in Bethlehem. Terror rains down from the government.

Jesus was born in a manger, presumably among the animals. Here, the high is balanced with the low. The sacred appears among the ordinary, the holy with the mundane. Unlike dictators and tyrants, who can not stand ambiguity or the concept of opposing ideas, Jesus encourages and even attracts these differences, allowing them the freedom of movement and interchange. He is brought gifts from the Magi and the shepherds.

Just as the star of Bethlehem illuminates the darkness of space, so the divine light is kindled on earth and begins to permeate the deep recesses of animal instinct and unconsciousness. This divine light originates in the individual and radiates toward the collective.

Throughout the Gospels we find passages and parables that emphasize the importance of the individual and the potential dangers of the collective. The same crowd that hails Jesus as messiah later cries "crucify him!" (Mark 15:13) The shepherd leaves his entire flock to go look for one lost sheep. (Matt 18:12) The authoritarian Pontius Pilate, bowing to the masses, allows the torture, mutilation, and murder of the individual upon the cross. (Mark 15)

Jesus teaches that one should tolerate and perhaps even embrace the inferior and seemingly negative elements (sin, imperfection, sickness, poverty) in other individuals. Perhaps this allows these elements to be safely integrated into one's own self. After all, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone." (Matt. 21:42) We see this psychological axiom played out daily in our own political theater.

Then there is that passage where Jesus says, "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple." (Luke 14:26) This verse has the effect of a Zen koan. Wake up! Anger or even hatred toward the collective and toward authority, symbolized here by family, may be necessary if one is to embark on the dangerous quest for salvation.

In Matthew (25:14) begins the parable of the three servants. Here we see the idea of capitalism at work. Each servant is given a number of talents. The first two servants use their minds, their abilities, and these talents to create wealth. The last servant buries his talent in the ground, and it does not increase. The idea of productive work is championed. The productive individual is rewarded. The servant who clings too tightly to security without taking any risk is punished and "cast into the outer darkness." (Matt: 25:30) This may seem harsh, but how much harsher is the system that rewards stagnation and encourages blind obedience?

Anyway, wealth must first be created before it can be distributed. We often hear politicians quote (Matt. 25:40), "…whatever you do to the least of these, my brothers, you do it to me." The modern and fashionable reinterpretation of this verse is "whatever you do to coerce the government into forcing others to do for the least of these; you do it to me."

Presently, "progressive" politics is in fashion. We hear the terms "progressive" and "forward thinking" bandied about. But "progressive politics" is actually a regression to tribalism, where the individual is subjugated to the "common good" or the collective. In Mark (6:30–44) we see the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Notice, he does not take food from those who have it and distribute it among the five thousand. He uses his own talents to create enough food for everyone. His talent, within the context of the narrative, is the production of a miracle.

Today miracles work in much the same way. A capitalist system allows raw materials and unfinished products to be transformed into valuable goods and services, helping people of all economic "classes." In free markets, value is created, not taken from others. Capitalism allows us to "reap where we have not sown and gather where we have not strewn seed." (Matt. 25:26)

The miracles of genetic engineering and advances in agriculture have enabled us to feed more people than was imaginable just a few decades earlier. In the 1960's the "population bomb" was the fashionable crises, just as today "global warming" is the global neurosis. Political despots, not overpopulation, create famine. People are not simply consumers. Unfettered, they are creators and producers as well.

In the "laborers in the vineyard parable," (Matt. 20:1–15) Jesus tells the story of a landowner who hires servants to work in his vineyard. The servants voluntarily enter into an arrangement and negotiate a contract for their wages. At the end of the day the landowner pays each of them the same amount, even though they have worked differing lengths of time. When some of the laborers complain, the landowner answers them, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?" (Matt. 20:13) Then, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?" (Matt. 20:15) This statement embraces individual liberty and freedom. It also has something to say about contract law, which today is in the process of being gutted in our own country.

Then Jesus continues on, "So the last will be first and the first last." (Matt. 20:16) Indeed, everything moves toward its opposite. And since the universe is comprised of an endless series of opposites, everything has a cost. The balance must be paid. And the balance will be paid sooner or later. Perhaps this is why the crucifixion, within the framework of the story, is necessary.

The agony of time, the terror of creation, colludes to tear the soul apart so that it can be made aware of its self and its divided nature. Jesus said, "I came not to bring peace, but a sword." (Matt. 10:34)

"Rejoice not that the spirits are subject unto you, but rather rejoice that your names are written in heaven." (Luke 10:20) Names represent individuals, unique in their differences.

Sacrifice is an ever-present reality, and opportunity cost is its first cousin. One must consider opportunity cost, not just in business decisions but in everyday life. The individual must make choices, preferably ones that are profitable. "For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and looses his own soul." (Matt. 16:26) "…for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell." (Matt. 5:30) "…and cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness…" (Matt. 25:30)

In Mark 8:23–36, we see Jesus restoring sight to a blind man. He rubs spit in the man's eyes and tells him to look around. The man sees "men like trees, walking." (Mark 8:24) Trees are alive on a biological level, but they are not conscious or at least fully conscious as a human has the potential to be.

But then Jesus rubs on more spit to get the job done, and the blind man's sight is restored. Vision must be acquired one step at a time, little by little. It is a gradual process, as shown here. If one could see everything clearly at once, one might be crushed.

Interestingly enough, now Jesus tells the man, "Neither go into the town, nor tell anyone in the town." (Mark 8:26) This gift of sight or awareness can not be communicated or even talked about, so why waste your time? It must be experienced.

After casting out the money changers from the temple, Jesus leaves the city to lodge for the night in Bethany. In the morning he wakes up hungry. He sees a fig tree on the side of the road, but it is bearing no fruit. "Let no fruit grow on you ever again." (Matt. 21:19) Jesus must be suffering from a great deal of anxiety. This anxiety is probably brought about because he has been hailed as King. Could it be, he anticipates that his followers will be crestfallen when they discover his "kingdom is not of this world?" (John 18:36)

He could have just as easily made figs appear, but he chooses to curse the tree. It withers and dies. Here, perhaps Jesus realizes that he is trapped by life and his destiny; and he lashes out against it. The tree is a symbol of life. Its roots grow down into the dark earth, while its branches reach upward toward the sky and the clouds.

Yes, curse you! Life is a biological trap, nature a cyclical blood bath, and this planet, a gigantic fertilizer factory. And here I am stuck in the middle of it all. What is the point of doing anything?

The down side of individualism is the feelings of loneliness, alienation, and forsakenness. "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46) This perhaps is the most human of all Jesus' statements. Now begins a movement toward the collective, toward the kingdom so that he can be integrated into the whole of God's creation.

One may choose, or not choose, to participate in the evolution of consciousness, a striving toward freedom and liberty and light. One can rebel or bow down. One can blaspheme or praise.

I would like to end by quoting from a modern novel, a recently written work of fiction by Cormac McCarthy entitled, No Country for Old Men. The protagonist, Tom Bell, is sitting with his wife at his breakfast table. He is nonplussed by the senseless violence and cruelty he has witnessed. He tells his lovely wife of a dream he dreamt, a dream about his father and himself.

They were riding horses in the night. "It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode on past me and kept on goin. Never said nothin. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up."

January 15, 2009