Christianity and Capitalism Are Incompatible. On Shifting from Charity and Advocacy to Solidarity Models

What Is to Be Done? Aaron Stauffer | May 31, 2021 ChristianSocialism.com The “Engaging Christianities and Socialisms” series was co-hosted by the Institute for Christian Socialism and the Wendland-Cook Program for Religion and Justice. You can watch all three webinars here


The Engaging Christianities and Socialisms series arose out of a fundamental unease with the current state of our economic, political, and religious lives. We see deep economic inequalities only heightened by the pandemic, where working people are once again placed at the mercy of a capitalist system that prizes profit and shareholders over working people’s lives and the planet. Our political democracy seems to be democracy in name only with corruptible politicians at the mercy of the moneyed elite. Our religious leaders, more often than not, offer excuses for the current quagmire of troubles and suffering that late modern capitalism has created.

But we at The Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice at Vanderbilt Divinity School and the Institute for Christian Socialism know that the current reality is not our only option. There is a deep and wide tradition of democratic socialism that Christians can again engage today by building economic, religious, and political democracy in their communities. By telling the story of how we got here, we can break open new imaginaries for where we can go. And yet, we need not only imagination but practical strategies for building God’s cooperative commonwealth.

Over the course of the three webinars we’ve held this spring, we’ve highlighted working peoples’ movements in response to the evils of capitalism, rising white supremacy, Christian nationalism, and ecological destruction. We have often said—and it should not be overlooked—that religion is part of the problem. Religion is not a panacea to our economic and political challenges. Instead, religion itself must be transformed into a deeper resource for liberation movements today. This is why throughout the series we’ve not only examined various economic and political responses found in socialisms broadly, but we’ve also examined how a commitment to democratic socialism and economic democracy can change our religious expressions: liturgies can be found in organizing strategies; in the body of Christ assembling in public; in listening to the movement of the Spirit through listening campaigns and deep canvassing. Christianity can make a difference within people’s movements for greater economic and political democracy, but it takes the right sort of religious vision and expression for it to make the right sort of difference. The best of the Christian democratic socialist vision and expression emerges from a dialectic of religion and organizing, where both are transformed and edified.

In the first webinar, What Have Christianity and Socialism to do with Each Other?, we explored this relationship broadly. Angela Cowser, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Joerg Rieger, and Cornel West addressed how for many on the left, Christianity provides a grounding and deepening of socialism. Socialism is a particular moment in the broader Christian worldview, as West said in our conversation, And, as Rieger argues in his written contribution to this project, this doesn’t mean that the Christian socialism we have in mind is utopian or optimistic. The Christian socialism we have in mind is deeply connected to democracy and democratic peoples’ movements that place questions of production and agency over questions of consumption. Rather than blaming individual consumers, the sort of Christian socialism we have in mind takes aim at unjust systems and structures of production and labor.

Theologically put, God invites us into covenantal relationships that are morally and ethically significant and enhance our agency as producers and co-constructors of the world with God. The model of society is not the social contract, but the Christian socialist covenant that envisions a model of society characterized by radically democratic institutions and distribution of power in all areas of life, where human and non-human agents have control over their own productive and reproductive labor, and where finally all are liberated from extractive neoliberal, neofascist, white supremacist capitalism.

Then, in the second webinar, How Can Christian Socialists Build Deeper Solidarities?, we explored the challenges of building deep solidarity. Timothy Eberhart, Obery Hendricks, Sarah Ngu, Jeremy Posadas, and Josh Davis argued that intersectional analysis, an analysis that argues for the liberation of all people and all of the planet’s biodiversity, is part and parcel of this movement.

Often, socialisms are unhappily associated with deformed visions of liberation and democracy by the working people for all working people—this leads to misconceptions and overlooks that “capitalism is the ism that funds all the other ‘isms’” as Jeremy Posadas puts it. Intersectionality is crucial here. As Posadas says in my interview with him, “We rightly pursue vibrant and intentional inclusion with regard to identity-based forms of identity, but with regard to economic and class-based difference, we’re talking about abolishing not only the divides themselves, but the underlying mechanisms that create those divides.”

“Practice and demand”: That is Jessica Gordon-Nembhard’s advice for Christian socialists today in our third webinar, What is to Be Done? Gordon-Nembhard joined Ed Whitfield, Andrew Wilkes, Micah Uetricht, and myself in a conversation that addressed the question, How can Christian socialists today join all working people to build religious, economic, and political democracies, and what are the unique strengths that Christian socialists might bring to these action-oriented movements?

The challenges and opportunities set before Christians interested in socialism are rapidly shifting: for the first time in almost one hundred years democratic socialism and economic democracy are popular terms; through patient organizing, black radical critiques have hacked their way back into the mainstream liberal news, so much so that The New Yorker is publishing them. Mass mobilizations in support of police abolition have occurred in numbers the United States seldom sees. But protests do not create political and economic power. For Micah Uetricht and Megan Day, co-authors of Bigger than Bernie, the Democratic Socialists of America offers a unique platform through which to construct a viable political party for the Left. The key is to use the dialectic of mass mobilization and electoral work to shift us away from late modern capitalist politics.

This strategy, Gordon-Nembhard worries, too often forgets that democratic socialisms are economic visions (not just political visions) for change and so participants never truly grasp their class agency. Gordon-Nembhard has magnificently chronicled how Black cooperative efforts built economic power and agency to protect and fight for their political and civil rights. Without power over productive and reproductive labor, those who work for a living, immigrants, women, and people of color are at the mercy of the moneyed elite who exercise undue influence over our political life. The point of economic democracy is not just more democratic distribution, but actualizing democracy in the processes of production.

For too long, Christian communities have demurred to the political elite for reform efforts directed at a system that is designed to disenfranchise and crush the working majority, especially people of color, women, and immigrants. Late modern neoliberal capitalism thrives when communities are under false consciousness regarding their economic position and pitted against each other by racial, gender, and sex identities. These identities are significant—but as thinkers of racial capitalism and black radical traditions have shown us, capitalism uses value differences to benefit the few.

What is to be done? The way forward starts with agency grounded in our unique experience as working people and starting small. The practical vision we want to offer has to do with reclaiming intersectional agency as working people and beginning to participate in the solidarity and cooperative economies in ways that practice our ideal. This vision comes from the history of peoples’ movements for liberation who stay committed to this fight because their faith grounds them and helps them weather the storms that always come with difficult organizing. From this practice, however small, we can begin to demand support of the solidarity economy from our political and economic systems and begin to transition to an economic and political democracy that puts labor over capital.  Participating in this work puts us in solidarity with the most vulnerable workers, people of color, immigrants, and women. But the transformation extends beyond economics and politics into the transformation of our religious practices. For churches, a first step can be to align themselves to support, and eventually contribute to incubating worker, consumer, or producer cooperatives. When we practice solidarity and cooperative economy, we can begin to demand the realization of God’s cooperative commonwealth. This is the work set before us.  Beginning with unease, we end with a chastened hope in the work ahead.


Aaron Stauffer is the Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Vanderbilt Divinity School, working primarily with the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice. A recent PhD graduate in social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York, his dissertation, “Organizing Lived Religious Practices for Power: Sacred Values in Broad-based Community Organizing” focuses on the political role of sacred value in broad-based community organizing. Drawing from a tradition of radical democracy, constructive feminist and anti-racist critiques of liberal political theory, and the rising field of “lived religion,” he argues for the importance of religious values in the practice of community organizing.

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An interview with Jeremy Posadas | May 10, 2021 | In The Bias. Watch the webinar that accompanied this forum here, entitled “How Can Christian Socialists Build Deep Solidarity?” Also see first conversation with Cornel West, Joerg Rieger, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Angela Cowser. https://christiansocialism.com/jeremy-posadas-interview-capitalism-christianity-socialism/

Theologically speaking: “What is the vision of society we’re going for and why?” What’s crucial here is focusing both on the what and the why of this question, because the Christian doctrine of creation says there’s a fundamental connectedness and integrality that is our ground of being and the source of our life-force, as well as the vision where we seek to be. Again that doesn’t replace a sort of classical Marxist analysis of material interests and conflict, but it provides another way to talk about our relationality to one another. For me (as for many liberationists), eschatology is always about ongoing struggle, not some final end result or apocalypse. This sort of eschatology is a much more complete political program: to imagine that we are always more fully living into the reign of God and the Beloved Community. One of the problems that socialisms have often encountered is the idea that it’s either revolution or we’re just mired endlessly in the system. I think that eschatology—I mean distinctly liberationist eschatology—has within it a sense of what it means to be committed to ongoing struggle and that we create a politics and a spirituality that’s based on ongoing transformation in the world.

There are multiple popular trends and thinking about creationism and eschatology that address ecological issues, or address political issues, or address economic issues—but they address them all separately. What you’ve offered us is a way to integrate them all and strategically redirect the conversation in a way that takes class, race, gender, and sex seriously—all together. This is exciting not only just for this conversation, but it’s also suggestive of the emerging trends within the study of theology: more people need to pay attention to the way that class, race, gender, and sex are mutually implicating oppressions.

We rightly pursue vibrant and intentional inclusion with regard to identity-based forms of identity, but with regard to economic and class-based difference, we’re talking about abolishing not only the divides themselves, but the underlying mechanisms that create those divides. Solidarity means we have to learn multiple ways of being in solidarity. The push for diversity is one of them, but it needs to be complemented with a much clearer class critique.

Churches have to be willing to confront capitalism as part of the problem. So, for example—and this isn’t the case everywhere—but in some progressive Christian contexts, you’ll see a reference to classism, rather than capitalism, alongside racism, sexism, and nationalism. What’s at stake with regard to our economic inequalities is fundamentally the question of capitalism, not classism (which is a wholly owned subsidiary of capitalism). We have to name that as part of the problem. And then—in terms of how we get there—I think something that Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger have brought up is a key conceptual shift that’s also a practical shift, and that is shifting from charity and advocacy models (where it’s based on Christians already occupying a certain position of privilege) to solidarity models, where it’s not about solving some problem for people, but really acknowledging what is our situatedness in the capitalist system and how do we disrupt that? It comes down to naming the problem and also having different understandings of what is our position within the system that we’re trying to dismantle and transform. We have to reach a place where we can name that Christianity and capitalism are fundamentally incompatible.

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For the second forum in the “Engaging Christianities and Socialisms,” hosted by the Institute for Christian Socialism and the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice, Jeremy Posadas sat down with Aaron Stauffer to explore the significance of Christian socialism today, how theology bolsters his socialism, and how churches can confront the challenges of capitalism. You can watch the webinar that accompanied this forum here, entitled “How Can Christian Socialists Build Deep Solidarity?”

Aaron: Well, Jeremy, again, thanks for taking this time to sit down and talk with me. We’re really excited to have you be a part of the upcoming Engaging Christianities and Socialisms webinar titled, How can Christian Socialists Build Deeper Solidarity?

To start, I want to get a sense of what it means for you to call yourself a Christian socialist. What does that term mean to you?

Jeremy: I think, for me, it says as much about what it means to apply the label socialist to Christian as it puts me in relation to other socialists. To say I’m a Christian socialist is to say I find value in Christian traditions for thinking about why socialism makes sense as an approach and that Christianity provides the kind of foundational ideas about human being and about society that motivate or bring me to a socialist vision. But in some ways I find it’s as important to think about what it means to say I’m a socialist Christian as a Christian socialist.

Particularly now there’s a lot of discussion in left Christianity or progressive Christianity in light of the Trump era—and the utterly reprehensible collusion between Christianity and Trumpism that assists white nationalism—but, for me, to connect socialism and Christianity is to say it’s not enough for progressive Christians to have a bland kind of general inclusiveness that doesn’t really look at undermining, disrupting, or dismantling fundamental economic systems. There are some versions of progressive Christianity that are largely comfortable with the underlying capitalist system that we’re in and mostly want to make it a little less bad without really reworking some of those fundamental mechanisms that create these problems.

The connection between Christianity and socialism is also a commitment to fundamentally transform not only identity-based inequalities and disparity, but also class-based forms of inequality and exploitation. For a number of years I’ve shared in the concern of Christian scholars and activists—including the Wendland-Cook Program—that we just aren’t paying enough attention to class-based inequalities and integrating that with identity-based inequalities. I find that the Christian socialist vision does a good job bringing those concerns together.

Aaron: I think that was one of the things that I really loved about our first conversation with Cornel West, Joerg Rieger, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Angela Cowser. That conversation helped emphasize that a socialism without a Christianity is, say, soulless—that a general humanism for Christian socialism isn’t enough.

Perhaps let’s get a little more theological here, though. What theological concepts, then, do you really find as particularly operative in your socialism?

Jeremy: One concept that’s been important to me for several years now is a Christian theology of creation. Such a concept of creation, to my mind, does not replace Marxist perspectives on material interest but complements it. I’m thinking here of Christian cosmology, protology (the area of doctrine dealing with first things and beginnings), as well as anthropology. In a different way, each of these concepts gets at the question, “What is the vision of society we’re going for and why?” What’s crucial here is focusing both on the what and the why of this question, because the Christian doctrine of creation says there’s a fundamental connectedness and integrality that is our ground of being and the source of our life-force, as well as the vision where we seek to be. Again that doesn’t replace a sort of classical Marxist analysis of material interests and conflict, but it provides another way to talk about our relationality to one another.

Another important theological concept involves the ongoing struggle in Christian theology regarding eschatology. For me (as for many liberationists), eschatology is always about ongoing struggle, not some final end result or apocalypse. This sort of eschatology is a much more complete political program: to imagine that we are always more fully living into the reign of God and the Beloved Community. One of the problems that socialisms have often encountered is the idea that it’s either revolution or we’re just mired endlessly in the system. I think that eschatology—I mean distinctly liberationist eschatology—has within it a sense of what it means to be committed to ongoing struggle and that we create a politics and a spirituality that’s based on ongoing transformation in the world.

Aaron: I think those are really important and interesting interventions. What you’re offering here is really exciting because there are multiple popular trends and thinking about creationism and eschatology that address ecological issues, or address political issues, or address economic issues—but they address them all separately. What you’ve offered us is a way to integrate them all and strategically redirect the conversation in a way that takes class, race, gender, and sex seriously—all together. This is exciting not only just for this conversation, but it’s also suggestive of the emerging trends within the study of theology: more people need to pay attention to the way that class, race, gender, and sex are mutually implicating oppressions.

Jeremy: Yes. We haven’t done enough with what creation and eschatology can mean as both ecological and economic critiques. I mean, just to pick up on something you were saying just now, I think obviously we are constantly drawing upon the creation account to think about ecology, but there’s also an economic side. If you take the ecological and the economic sides together, you have to start pushing towards a socialist vision, or that is to say: if one reads the creation accounts carefully with an eye to both ecology and economics and social equity, I don’t see how Christianity can ultimately uphold a capitalist order.

Aaron: That’s extremely well put and is a helpful way of bringing us to think together about the theme of the next webinar, which is building solidarity and intersectionality. Why is this an important theme for Christian socialists to think about today?

Jeremy: Yeah, so two things come to mind. One of which, you know, we’ve talked about before in other contexts. Religious communities at their best can be places where multiple parts of people’s identities come together. You and I have talked about this on the labor side of things, in regard to Jane McAlevey’s “whole worker” organizing and community-based organizing, but I think religious communities have a parallel or an analog to offer. Religious communities invite people’s whole selves to be present within and to each other, and that creates the possibility of people connecting across multiple dimensions of their identity. Now, of course, this only works if religious communities truly are committed to bringing together diverse communities and/or reaching out to communities that are different from them and engage in authentic relationship building.

I also think solidarity is important for Christian communities particularly to wrestle with right now, especially in a time when more and more churches are pushing to diversify their staff, programs, and congregations. But in terms of economic justice, diversity is not going to be the primary pathway for economic justice. An economically just community does not mean a proportional representation of each class within the congregation. It means we ultimately abolish inequalities based on class. So, I think Christian communities have to wrestle with that difference and have to learn additional ways of talking about that. We rightly pursue vibrant and intentional inclusion with regard to identity-based forms of identity, but with regard to economic and class-based difference, we’re talking about abolishing not only the divides themselves, but the underlying mechanisms that create those divides. Solidarity means we have to learn multiple ways of being in solidarity. The push for diversity is one of them, but it needs to be complemented with a much clearer class critique. For me, the most important solidarity Christian committees have to wrestle with is bringing together our commitments to race, gender, and sexuality inclusion with the abolition of class exploitation.

Churches have to be willing to confront capitalism as part of the problem. So, for example—and this isn’t the case everywhere—but in some progressive Christian contexts, you’ll see a reference to classism, rather than capitalism, alongside racism, sexism, and nationalism. What’s at stake with regard to our economic inequalities is fundamentally the question of capitalism, not classism (which is a wholly owned subsidiary of capitalism). We have to name that as part of the problem. And then—in terms of how we get there—I think something that Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger have brought up is a key conceptual shift that’s also a practical shift, and that is shifting from charity and advocacy models (where it’s based on Christians already occupying a certain position of privilege) to solidarity models, where it’s not about solving some problem for people, but really acknowledging what is our situatedness in the capitalist system and how do we disrupt that? It comes down to naming the problem and also having different understandings of what is our position within the system that we’re trying to dismantle and transform. We have to reach a place where we can name that Christianity and capitalism are fundamentally incompatible.

Over the years, I have done a lot of work on LGBTQ inclusion in the church and, you know, Christianity has very readily wielded the language of what’s incompatible with Christian teaching: what kind of relationships, what kind of intimacy are incompatible with Christian teaching. Well, it’s time for churches to proclaim—Christian socialism asks churches to prophetically proclaim this—that capitalism and capitalist inequalities are incompatible with Christian teaching. We cannot serve the gospel and also uphold the dictates of capitalism.

We have yet to fully live into this prophetic teaching, and that I think is what the prospect of Christian socialism offers us.

Aaron: Thank you so much, Jeremy, for this time.


Jeremy Posadas is an associate professor of religious studies and core faculty member in gender studies at Austin College (on the rural Texas-Oklahoma border), where he holds the John F. Anderson Chair of Christian Thought. A queer-feminist social ethicist, he has written on anti-work theory, reproductive justice, and Christian rape culture and is currently writing an eco-queer ethics against capitalism. He is a member of the committee that oversees the largest gathering of religion scholars in the world and has twice been selected as a fellow of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion.

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