Race, Materialism, and the False God of Western Civilization
Note: this is the fifth in a series on the church and racial injustice in America.
As we discussed in the previous article in this series, human beings are transformed into the image of whatever god(s) we worship. And then we create culture in that same image. So we need to ask the following:
- What sort of god entices a white policeman to grind his knee into the neck of a helpless black man, squeezing the very breath of life out of him?
- What sort of god urges men to pursue and kill a young black man jogging through their neighborhood?
- What sort of god lures a nation into systemically discriminating against black Americans in housing, in education, and in employment for centuries?
And the questions don’t end there, for our god(s) are also enticing America to engage in a host of other abhorrent practices such as abortion, sex trafficking, economic injustice, pornography, consumerism, and more.
The Worship of Homo Economicus
Is America simply worshiping some sort of white god? While we should not downplay in any way, shape, or form the fact that many people believe—consciously or unconsciously—that white people are superior to black people and people of other ethnicities, such beliefs alone cannot explain the degree of violence and oppression committed against black people. For example, older children often believe they are superior to their younger siblings, but such arrogance usually doesn’t lead to violence or murder. In addition, racial prejudice alone cannot explain the other pathologies in our culture mentioned above. America must be bowing the knee to some false god other than simply “whiteness.”
As we discuss in Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty isn’t the American Dream, there are two fundamental religious perspectives vying for followers in the United States: 1) Historic Christanity, the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3); and 2) Western Naturalism, which views God and the entire spiritual realm as non-existent, seeing the world is fundamentally material in nature.1
These two religious perspectives have extremely different views about the nature of human beings. Historic Christianity sees human beings as highly-integrated bodies and souls that are deeply wired for relationships with God, self, other, and the rest of creation. In contrast, Western Naturalism’s materialistic worldview reduces this body-soul-relational image bearer to simply a body—a physical creature that derives happiness from ever-increasing levels of material consumption and from other forms of physical pleasure, e.g. gluttony or sexual gratification.
Mainstream economics, more than any other field, has advanced the notion that the goal of life is to serve the horrendous creature at the heart of Western Naturalism, a creature economists refer to as Homo economicus.2
There are three key things to note about Homo economicus for our purposes:
- First, because Western Naturalism denies the spiritual realm, it puts the human being—or rather Homo economicus, a gross distortion of the human being—in God’s rightful place.3 The creature has replaced the Creator, and this particular creature is a monster.
- Second, as a self-interested, materialistic creature, Homo economicus views all of creation—including other people—as something that can be used to fulfill his/her physical desires.
- Third, the worship of Homo economicus is increasing. Consider this: the school of economics4 that dominates Western universities and business schools teaches students that worshiping Homo economicus is the unquestioned goal of life. After graduation, these students go on to become leaders in government and business, where they advance systems and practices that reflect the story they have—usually unconsciously—internalized: the goal of life is to serve Homo economicus. And because globalization continues to expand the role of the economy in daily life, human beings are increasingly—and often unconsciously—internalizing the subtle lie that happiness lies in hyper-individualistic, material prosperity and physical gratification.5
Human beings are transformed into the image of whatever god we worship (Ps. 115:8), and the god of Western Civilization—the god that the West is exporting to the world through globalization—is a self-serving, materialistic, consuming robot.
Homo Economicus vs. Homo Imago Dei
As summarized in this table, there is a stark contrast between Homo economicus and the creatures that God made in His image—what we’ll call Homo imago Dei—especially evident as we consider how they approach the four foundational relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.
It is crucial to remember that Homo economicus is not just an alternative perspective on the nature of human beings to Homo imago Dei. On the contrary, Homo economicus is the god of Western Naturalism, a god that conforms human beings into its image. So we should ask: What would the followers of Homo economicus be like in daily life? As image-bearers of their hyper-individualistic, materialistic god, the worshippers of Homo economicus would do the following:
- Economically exploit people from other ethnic groups, incarcerating them, or even killing them if they threaten “our way of life”;
- Abort or abandon inconvenient babies;
- Sexually exploit women and girls for personal gratification;
- Participate In the sex trade by being immersed in pornography;
- Enslave children in sweatshops to generate more profits;
- Become a workaholic to earn and spend more;
- Shrink into loneliness and isolation.
Martin Luther King Jr. Predicted This
It might seem strange to link racial injustice to the materialistic idolatry of Western Naturalism, but Martin Luther King Jr. made a similar link. Although he used different terminology, King taught that Western Naturalism’s denial of the existence of God elevates Homo economicus to God’s rightful place. And given the opportunity, the particular Homo economicus that was in power would exploit the powerless, including black people.6
For example, in 1961 King preached a sermon based on Luke 12:16-21 entitled, “The Man Who Was a Fool” in which he described the deforming impacts of a purely material understanding of the cosmos:
[The fool] failed to realize his dependence on God. Go back again and read his words. He talked as if he regulated the seasons. He talked as if he produced the rain. He talked as if he controlled the setting and the rising of the sun. This man was a fool because he felt that he was the creator instead of a creature. And so he sought to live life without a sky. He sought to live life merely on the horizontal plane, devoid of the vertical.
Now there is nothing new about this foolishness. It is still alive today. We find it in a collective sense at times when whole nations rise up and say that God is an irrelevant item on the agenda of life. This is something of what communism says; it talks about its dialectical materialism, and thinks of the whole of reality being pulled on by certain economic, materialistic forces. And so God is eliminated from the whole program of life.
But not only do we find theoretical denials; at times we find another type of atheism, which is even worse. It is a practical atheism, living as if there is no God. A part of the secularism and the materialism of modern life is found in this practical atheism, not where the individual denies the existence of God with his lips, not where the individual goes through the intellectual process of arguing this question of the reality of God, where the individual affirms the reality of God with his lips and denies His existence with his life. This is an even greater type of atheism and a more dangerous type.7
And King went on to link this materialism—Western Naturalism—to the plight of black Americans. King saw that without a spiritual realm, black people are nothing more than material things: like paper plates they can be used and then thrown away. King warned:
“A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically.”8
Homo economicus has no problem with exploiting anybody or anything. If racial categories serve this purpose, so be it.9
Confronting Racism and Helping Without Hurting
In every setting, the church is tempted to be influenced by the surrounding culture. Although we try to be “in the world but not of it,” too often we absorb—often unconsciously—lies from the culture in which we live.
Indeed, the sad reality is that American Christianity is often a mix between Historic Christianity and Western Naturalism. In particular, like Western Naturalists, we often do the following:
- We tend to view the world, including human beings, as being material in nature;
- We often exhibit the pride that comes from putting human beings, especially those
from the dominant culture, in the role of God;
Those familiar with the Chalmers Center’s work have seen these two problems before. In When Helping Hurts, we argue that poverty alleviation strategies often fail because we try to address relational problems through material resources alone and because we operate out of a god-complex, a sense that we are called to fix materially poor people. When combined with the sense of inferiority that characterizes many materially poor people, these two attitudes can result in harm to both parties. When Helping Hurts summarizes this dynamic in the following equation:10
In this light, the first step in both helping without hurting and in overcoming racism is the same thing—repentance:
- Repentance of a material understanding of the world, including human beings;
- Repentance from the pride that comes from putting ourselves in the role of God;
Repentance, because the first commandment is “You shall have no other gods before me,” so Homo economicus must be dethroned.
- Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Animism, Secularism and Theism: Developing a Tripartite Model for Understanding World Cultures,” International Journal of Frontier Missions, 10:4 (October 1993): 169–171. See also Darrow L. Miller with Stan Guthrie, Discipling the Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures (Seattle: YWAM Publishers, 1998).
- See Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream, 2019 (Chicago: Moody Publishers), 78-83; Brian Fikkert and Michael Rhodes, “Homo Economicus Versus Homo Imago Dei,” Journal of Markets and Morality 20, no.1 (Spring 2017): 101-26.
- See “What Is the Root of Racism?” from Carl Ellis, Jr., https://rts.edu/resources/what-is-the-root-of-racism/.
- “Neoclassical economics” has come to dominate economics departments and business schools in the West.
- See Fikkert and Kapic Becoming Whole, 77, 87. Fikkert and Rhodes 112-113.
- See the sermons “The False God of Science” and “The False God of Money,” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/false-gods-we-worship#
- From The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume VI: Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948 – March 1963, Clayborne Carson, Susan Carson, Susan Englander, Troy Jackson, and Gerald L. Smith, eds., accessessed online at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/man-who-was-fool-sermon-delivered-detroit-council-churches-noon-lenten.
- “Where Do We Go From Here?,” as collected in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., Clayborne Carson, ed., accessed online at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/where-do-we-go-here-address-delivered-eleventh-annual-sclc-convention.
- As mentioned earlier, it is true that some people simply hate black people, but Western Naturalism complements this and often is the more fundamental issue. In fact, recent social science research has found that more materialistic people are more likely to have racist attitudes. See Anne Roets, Alain Van Hiel, and Ilse Cornelis, “Does Materialism Predict Racism? Materialism as a Distinctive Social Attitude and a Predictor of Prejudice,” European Journal of Personality, 20, 155-168 (2006).
- Adapted from Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself, 2012 (Chicago: Moody Publishers), 64.
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