Skip to content

The Ethics of Complicity

One of the topics that consistently comes up in discussions of whether or not Christians should endorse capitalism is that of complicity.  All of us in the West are very much cogs in the machinery of the capitalist engine, and as such speaking out against it seems hypocritical to say the least.  How can one legitimately critique a system they grow fat off of?  Likewise when the question of the just use of violence is raised, the objections to the Christian pacifist always entail pointing out the fact that he generally lives in a country which allows him to uphold his convictions at no risk to himself.  It is the work of violence that makes his commitment to nonviolence possible, and as such he occupies a highly compromised ethical position.

Now, on one level the force of these criticisms simply has to be acknowledged.  Yes, most vocal Christian opponents of capitalism drive decent cars and have comfortable houses.  Yes, most vocal Christian pacifists have never been in a situation where the temptation to use physical violence has been a real temptation and their safety is largely secured by the violence they decry.  And this is a scandal.  However, the tacit assumption of the above objections is that the hegemony of capitalism and the ubiquitous use of violence to safeguard social life in the West places a moral obligation on Christians living under the benefits of such systems to either endorse them or refrain from participating in them altogether.  Once we grant that we are all kept safe by violence, and that capitalism enables me to have my precious iPod, we either need to buck up and stop our moralistic jabbering about the injustices of violence and capitalism, or move to Belize and live in utter simplicity.

However, such binary alternatives are precisely the creation of the very global order in question.  The either/or of support or get out is a false alternative, precisely because there is no way to get out.  There is no idyllic “outside” into which Christians may flee.  The fact that Amish furniture can be bought online with the greatest of ease illustrates capitalism’s ability of absorb and sublimate attempts to withdraw from it. 

The point of all this simply to state with the greatest clarity that there is no pristine, untainted position of moral high ground in which Christian social critics might be insulated from complicity with the violence and injustice of our world.  The simple fact is that we are all complicit people, deeply embedded in violence(s) we fail to see, and pervasively compromised by the principalities and powers of this world.  The key to proper theological action in a world in which we are all guilty lies precisely in not allowing our complicity to lead to resignation.  That is precisely what the ruling powers are always after.  Once we can be made to see that our lives are ruled by the powers of the state and the market, we rushed to believe that therefore we should simply become good citizens and good consumers, rather than placing ourselves in the precarious position of being a critic with blood on their hands.

However, this is precisely what prophetic action in the world entails.  The way beyond complicity is neither resignation nor the pursuit of moral purity.  It is rather to continue to speak words of resistance and newness in the midst of our own complicity.  It is to allow ourselves to be put into question, to insist that every theological critique we make of anything must always also be a critique of ourselves and our practices.  All of this is to say that Christian critique of political and social injustice is never the critique of the outside observer, but always and only the words of repentance.  Of course, the belief that repentance is a true response to our pervasive complicity in injustice is quite tenuous.  The idea that attempts at repentance can be a viable “answer” to those who would dismiss theological critique is a precarious one indeed.  Nearly as precarious and counter-intuitive as the confession that the Crucified one is risen.


  1. Andy wrote:

    Perhaps. But:
    If there is no way out, but we nevertheless speak words of resistance/repentance, which are also words of critique (read: judgment) against these systems, then what do we hope to accomplish with these words?

    You say: “The key to proper theological action in a world in which we are all guilty lies precisely in not allowing our complicity to lead to resignation. That is precisely what the ruling powers are always after. Once we can be made to see that our lives are ruled by the powers of the state and the market, we rushed to believe that therefore we should simply become good citizens and good consumers, rather than placing ourselves in the precarious position of being a critic with blood on their hands.” Is there no place for making friends with ungodly mammon? Is not the most pervasive complicity that which thinks its self-critique is sufficient? Or, put another way, is there not more to repentance than words? Are there no actions, no attempts at political rectification, no acts of penance that are required by the work of repentance?

    Is the alternative to resignation merely speech? And is it not already a resignation to repent of our complicity without striving to alter it? Perhaps the answer is to be a good citizen and a wise consumer. Maybe the problem is our allegiance to particular (non-Christian) forms of such a society. In fact, it IS part of our duty to live into our words.

    And so, with John the Divine can we not also pray, not simply for repentance, but also for justice? Cannot our prayers rise to the heavens and be cast back upon the injustice of this world in thunder and flame? Do we not strive for a more just society? And if we do not, have we become Laodicea? Maybe Zizek is right. Maybe in modernity the only functions religion can play is as impotent critique or illusive therapy, and in that case there is no hope for change.

    Wednesday, February 27, 2008 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Andy, one line I’d point to in my post stated that “every theological critique we make of anything must always also be a critique of ourselves and our practices”. What I had hoped would be clear from this is that a critique of our practices implies and demands a change in them.

    All words must be embodied words that we strive to live into, but we are always striving within our complicity. As I point out, even the Amish are complicit with gobal capitalism. That shouldn’t be taken to mean that we throw up our hands and do nothing, or just talk. Just the opposite. It means our work is never done, we must always place ourselves in a posture of “radical reformation” so to speak.

    Wednesday, February 27, 2008 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  3. Danny wrote:

    It is apparent to me that these types of dilemmas only occur when certain theological stances are taken. As someone who is a pacifist and who rejects capitalism Halden you have to live with this ambiguity even if you reject either/or thinking. Yet it is apparent, as Hans Blumenberg points out in “The Legitmacy of the Modern Age” (and charles Taylor in a different manner) that such thinking led to humanism or what he describes as self-assertion . Imagine the kind of life you are asking the everyday Christian to live with the assumption that Christ could return in ten million years.

    It is a world “deeply embedded in violence(s) and pervasively compromised by the principalities and powers of this world.” The temptation arises for humans to take control and change with some hope of a more stable existence.

    Wednesday, February 27, 2008 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  4. Andy wrote:

    Hey Halden,

    Thanks for the reply. I really enjoy your thought, and I understand the value of the critique you’re asking for. What I wonder is whether such a critique actually effects any change in institutions. What remains fuzzy to me, is the telos of our critiqued practices. Zizek, Badiou, and their ilk are great critics of current Capitalism, but they also know they can’t simply go back to Marx–Communism failed. So while they present great critiques of current politico-economic systems, they don’t seem to be offering any kind of alternative program (I would argue, because they are unable or unwilling to think through the kind of concrete institutions necessary for such a program). Is the kind of prophetic witness in the world you are asking for doing anything different? And these are not simply knit-picking questions. These are questions that affect any citizen (whether we like it or not) of a democratic republic. Should we vote? Should we care who becomes President? If so, then we are not merely complicit, we are actively involved. We are complicit in anything our representative government does in our name, but we are directly responsible for our in/activity in the process of choosing that representative government.

    A question I come back to every once in a while is whether policy-making can be a form of theology. It certainly can be a way of exercising ethics. I don’t see any room for this kind of “direct” resistance to the current system in your vision. But it does seem to me that either subversion/transformation from within the system OR revolutionary action against the system are the options available for those who hope to change things. Revolution doesn’t seem to work–and it entails direct violence. Are policy decisions and lawmaking a viable option for you?

    The bottom line comes to this: is your critique of politico-economic systems intended to be transformative, and therefore political (offering an alternative to the current forms), or is it intended to be anti-political, and thereby offering no alternative? What is the positive side of your argument?

    Wednesday, February 27, 2008 at 7:42 pm | Permalink
  5. Geoff wrote:

    In a way it proves Luther’s point, only Jesus can save us.

    Wednesday, February 27, 2008 at 9:41 pm | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    Thank God Luther came along to teach us all that only Jesus can save us.

    Wednesday, February 27, 2008 at 10:03 pm | Permalink
  7. Jon Stock wrote:


    A couple of quick thoughts that may or may not track with the spirit of this thread.

    I’m in the middle of teaching Ephesians (with a touch of Colossians) so when I’m reading this discussion of the “powers”, I’m hearing Pauline language about the powers in the back of my head, which is quite different than Zizek, and tends to push a Christian response into the realm of eschatology. It has been years since I’ve read Yoder or Berkhof on the powers, but I wonder what they would make of this conversation (let alone Paul :-)).

    Secondly, is it possible to be a “critic” without blood on our hands? I tend to think not. To some degree the prophetic is always critique from the “inside” in that the prophetic is always “fleshed” — hence, critique is always filled with a certain type of wonderful ambiguity (at least this is how I read someone like Jeremiah). I wonder if the incarnation is informative in how we think about this.

    Thursday, February 28, 2008 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  8. Geoff wrote:


    I didn’t mean to imply that Luther is the only one who ever thought such a thing, he just makes it particularly clear in a rather ascerbic manner.

    Thursday, February 28, 2008 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  9. Geoff wrote:

    acerbic even

    Thursday, February 28, 2008 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    I figured. I’m just having a little fun. :-)

    Thursday, February 28, 2008 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  11. ElihuVedder wrote:

    One alternative to capitalism would be to reject participating in lending money at interest. Yes, this was part of Christendom for a long time (See the Zone Books edition titled “Your Money or Your Life”), and is, of course, part of current Muslim practices, where you can get an ‘Islamic mortgage’, even in the West, that somehow doesn’t involve paying interest/lending with interest.

    Deirdre McCloskey’s recent work on the Bourgeois Virtues (she’s an economist) argues that contrary to Christian anti-capitalist critiques, there’s more to capitalism than greed and that capitalism embodies (or at least can) embody the Christian virtues.

    Friday, March 7, 2008 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, and McCloskey’s, well, pretty much a crazy idiot. Have you checked out Eugene McCarrher’s review of her book in Book & Culture? I’d highly recommend it.

    Friday, March 7, 2008 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  13. Jon Dawson wrote:

    I realise this is an slightly old post but I wondered if we could discuss the implications of this way of thinking about complicity on the incarnation. I completeIy agree that we all find ourselves in a position of complicity, and that therefore a stance of repentance as opposed to self righteous indignation is called for, but how does this relate to Christ, the one who knew no sin. I guess we’d agree that the incarnate Christ was (somehow) able to maintain his place on a pristine, untainted moral high ground (to use your phrase). And yet he certainly participated in the economic system of his day advocating as he did the payment of taxes to Ceasar?
    Would really appreciate your thoughts.


    Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 5:49 am | Permalink
  14. Jon Dawson wrote:

    no thoughts? or is it obvious? thanks Jon

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 4:04 am | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Jon, sorry, but I often forget to follow up on new comments on old posts like this one. On this point, I’ll bow out of another conversation here, but I would recommend Rowan Williams’ book, Resurrection in which he discusses Christ as the “pure victim” and Herbert McCabe’s God Matter’s where he discusses the humanity of Christ as the one who loves absolutely, and thus offers an important definition of Christ’s sinlessness.

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at 8:41 am | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site