Homo Economicus at Christmas

black fridayI can only hope that the pundits were right and the “Black Friday” holiday was toned down a bit this year. I am praying that fad dies. God has answered my prayer so many times, I no longer suspect He won’t.

Maybe the one percent have stratified income so much that it is impossible to be as gluttonous as the general populace once could be. Or maybe we have already been sold so many internet connections that “Cyber Monday” is what I should be praying about, now — I’m not sure. But I can only hope that one day capitalism can lose its grip on the Baby born in poverty, then soon to be the Refugee, and then the Executed. My hoped is always stoked at Christmas time.

Homo Economicus’ engines are also stoked at holiday time. I mention “homo economicus” to point out how it is always quite a competition for how humankind is going to see themselves. “Child of God” probably still owns the hearts of most of us, but “homo economicus” probably gets a majority of our attention. What I mean by “homo economicus” is how the proponents of a capitalist view of the world see the nature of a human being and human desire. For one thing, the capitalists would not say that one starts with a human and then this human adopts capitalism and then is influenced by it in various ways. I think they admit that capitalism forms a particular kind of human, one that relates to the environment in certain ways – like they rush to stores on Black Friday in response to a trumped-up frenzy.

There are many aspects of homo economicus that might be so normal to most of us that we would not even consider them topics to think about. But if we are going to celebrate Christmas, it might be wise to think about them. Let’s just try one on today. (Is “try one on” just another of a zillion shopping metaphors we use to define our reality?).

Above all things, “homo economicus” is an individual. Nothing generally wrong with that — being a secure, capable individual is a good thing. Jesus is certainly in favor of the dignity of the individual – especially when it comes to individuals coming up against oppressive systems (like sin, death and evil!). What capitalism does not tell you when it lifts up the individual is that it is also an oppressive system that makes you an individual in its own image. It teaches us that if we do anything that is collective or if we feel that being part of a community is a given we are surrendering our freedoms to make voluntary associations built upon individual choice.

So lets start there. Here are three of capitalism’s assumptions about being an individual that wreck Christmas.

1) Homo economicus assumes he or she is autonomous

They think they are in charge of all choices and responsible for all judgment. They think no one is born with any innate or involuntary ties to community, including their family.

So when God, who is in charge and responsible, chooses to be born into a family and forms a radical community, that’s a challenge for homo economicus. The capitalist tribe (but don’t call them a collective) is working hard to erase the incarnation by changing the character of the holiday to meet their perpetual economic interests. I don’t think it is a plot or anything, or even conscious; it is just what they do.

BaptismOfJesus2) Homo economicus thinks he or she is self-made

Capitalism encourages creativity and self-expression over obedience. Thus the poor are always told to create their way out of poverty according to the rules of the economy. If they are disobedient – won’t create themselves and stay dependent, or if they subvert the laws that protect the economy, they are punished. Tom Peters says, “We are all CEOs of our own companies: Me, Inc.” as if that is just a reality.

So when John the Baptist, our Advent person of the week, refuses to compete with Jesus and tells his disciples “I must decrease and he must increase” that seems kind of crazy. He’s obviously giving away the brand he made and de-creating himself – at least according to homo economicus.

3) Homo economicus thinks he or she owns their body and its capacities and have no obligations to society to use themselves in certain ways.

Homo economicus is not an individual like a hermit, they are an individual like a predator looking for someone a bit further down on the economic food chain – or they are at least trying to get to the IPhone 6 before someone else while supplies still last. They have been taught that reality is looking out for oneself. Like Michael Novak bleakly describes, these individuals “wander alone, in some confusion, amid many casualties” on the “wasteland at the heart of democratic capitalism [that] is like a field of battle.”

Killings By Police-ProtestsOur friends had a die-in at the Eagles game last night — at the Eagles game, the scene of the society’s exalting of battle all for the entertainment of those who can pay — the perfect capitalist event.  They looked a lot like baby Jesuses, laying out in the cold, being jeered by disappointed, many drunk, game-losers. They were prophesying; demanding that black lives matter. They were like God in Jesus, laid in a tomb to break the power of sin and death, subjecting divinity to the indignities of humanity. In the incarnation God takes on a body and then completely submits that body to the good of others. That is how a child of God is fully himself or fully herself. We are not submitted to evil forces and so surrendering our individuality, we are individuals full of the obligations of love.

I can only hope that Black Friday dies. Maybe the U.S. Americans will tire of being in a traffic jam of self-interest every time they leave their doors or log on. Already my friends tell me they are sick of social media because everyone seems like the CEO of ME, Inc. and it is tiresome to be subtly (or not-so-subtly) manipulated for someone’s self-interest every time you look at Facebook.

Many of my friends hate Christmas for similar reasons. I think they hate the Christmas stolen by homo economicus and turned into a capitalist holiday. If that’s you, please don’t hate Christmas and don’t hate the people who probably don’t consciously know they are ruining it any more than you consciously thought of them as having a philosophy. Jesus is still wheedling his way into some manger-like situation waiting to surprise them with the fact that they are saving their lives and losing them.

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About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope. Graduate of Fuller Seminary, PhD in MFT from Eastern University.
This entry was posted in 3 The Mission, Theological Help and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Homo Economicus at Christmas

  1. Circle of Hope says:

    Reblogged this on Circle of Hope and commented:
    Rod White’s blog…

  2. Jonny Rashid says:

    Great application. Way to find a nice quote from Novak too!

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