When Capitalism and Christianity Collide

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” Acts 4.32

Urban Hope is a business camp. It was born out of felt-needs community development, out of the conviction that in order to build up a community we must focus on their needs and desires, their strengths and not their weaknesses. It is focused on what the people of Walltown believe the focus should be, on their thoughts and dreams for this neighborhood, on Christianity and financial literacy. Urban Hope is a camp committed to teaching and practicing Christian ideals, another felt need and desire of the community in which it exists. It is a camp dedicated, among other things, to entrepreneurship, to equipping and empowering campers with the necessary skills and resources to navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of capitalism and the free market economy that profoundly influences our lives as Americans.

We live in a society whose economic system has incredible wealth generating opportunity. Our brand of capitalism values and encourages virtues such as working hard, perseverance, and creativity, but also others such as greed, ambition and, at times, exploitation. Capitalism’s strength lies in generating wealth, but not distributing it. And, of course, it values private property, a phenomenon considered by many to be vital to the success of free market societies. While these things are not the only focus of Urban Hope, they inevitably enter into the conversation as economics are discussed.

Above I have quoted a verse from the book of Acts that has profoundly influenced the way that I have approached money, ownership, and capitalism. In this verse we find a description of some of the earliest followers of Christ, men and women we presume to have had possible direct contact with Jesus, or at the least only a few levels of separation from Christ and his original disciples and apostles. We see a radical Christianity, one that practices a vision of community that shares everything: thoughts, desires, passions, and possessions; all were of one mind, heart, and material. While I find the first two important, it is this last thing that has always struck me as the most profound, the one that is perhaps the most difficult to achieve.

When I first got to Urban Hope, I was a little confused. As I mentioned at the beginning, Urban Hope is a camp focused on business, committed to teaching our campers financial literacy and equipping them for success in a life inextricably bound to our economic system. I understood the concept of felt needs, and that financial literacy was a need of this community, yet I couldn’t silence the voice in my head that kept reminding me of that verse in Acts, and honestly many other verses in the Bible that appear to me to condemn many of the practices and attitudes found in capitalism. There seemed to be a tension: when a distinct, felt need does not line up perfectly with the practices of the Bible, how do we reconcile them? And another, perhaps more pertinent question is can I, as someone who has grown up in a context with extensive knowledge of the details of business, make a decision that this felt need should or should not be legitimately pursued? For a good portion of this summer, I felt this tension, and often during the economic development time I would feel a deep unease as I heard some of the values of capitalism being taught at a Christian camp.

I was able to talk to Jonathan and his wife Leah about this question, who have both previously worked at Urban Hope. They acknowledged that this tension does in fact exist and is something that they had both noticed. Yet despite recognizing this tension, both had been able to reconcile it with the themes of the Bible. Leah, at one point, offered up a pragmatic piece of wisdom: “Well, they’re going to learn about the economy from someone. Why not let it be us?”

The simple reality is that capitalism is inescapable; our campers, like Leah said, are going to learn about it from someone. They could learn from school, a setting that does not simultaneously emphasize the values of humility, love, community, and many more found in Christianity. Or they could learn about it in “alternative economies,” with black markets instead of free markets, in a setting wholly unsafe and disconnected from the dreams and desires of this community. Both of these situations result in our campers learning about the economy, yet both are outside of the context that results in the complete flourishing of our campers and, by extension, this neighborhood.

It became clear, through this conversation, that there is room for reconciliation and proper empowerment between the tension of two seemingly different ideas. On a personal level, this required an understanding of the incredible complexity of development and the various questions that I must ask myself when working in a community. First and foremost, I realized the deep need to acknowledge the realities of a given situation, rather than focusing on the theoretical; the youth of Walltown are going to learn about capitalism and its values from someone at some point in time. Through Urban Hope, we can focus on the good of capitalism as well as the good of Christianity, and walk with them to combine the two into a coherent worldview.

I think the further beauty of this approach is that it forces the cohesion of my religious beliefs and the actions that I take in a community. It is a frightening moment when we abstract our religious beliefs away from the context in which we find ourselves, and equally disconcerting to divorce our work from our beliefs and focus on the former. To fully engage, and enrich, a community, both our beliefs and the wants, needs, and desires of the people we are serving should influence each other. At Urban Hope this means economic instruction that focuses on the positive aspects of capitalism and its possible benefits, all taught through a Christian lens, one that recognizes the importance of humility, generosity, and love for our brothers and sisters.

This is the approach employed at Urban Hope and I am now able to see the felt needs of this community addressed and reconciled with our Christian ideals. The result is a camp committed to Walltown and committed to Christ, a camp that addresses true wants and needs of this community and stays true its beliefs. And I am glad to be a part of it.