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.