I was not prepared for what I was about to learn on reading Walter Brueggemann’s Commentary on Isaiah. In his note on Isaiah 2:6b-8, he wrote, “The prophetic tradition, long before Karl Marx, understood that distorting religion and distorting economics provide mutual reinforcement and together seriously impinge upon the character and identity of the community.”1 This is what Jesus, Himself, warned about: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” [Matthew 6:24]. In Brueggemann’s words, You cannot serve “religion and economics.”
For those, as myself, who know little about Marxism, here is an excerpt from his manifesto. For the record: I think Marx is misrepresenting the market as a place of trade but he has shown an uncommon astuteness in describing the greed that has overtaken it. Capitalism—a system in which trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state—Marx contended, “has pitilessly torn asunder the motley … ties … and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’”2 Even the least observant has come to view “Wall Street” as the purest form of greed. Anyone there, is there for one purpose, only, to make money—as much money as possible. The New Testament word for greed—perhaps, you recall—means “wanting more, getting more, having more, wanting more ….” And Paul called it idolatry! “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: (he listed here ) evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” [Colossians 3:5 NIV]
Marx, went on to say, that capitalism “… has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor … in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless and indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.”3 Here he confused trade with greed, which is a bit like blaming the gun for someone’s murder. But still, if this is socialism, it is a war on the middle class, but not by the poor but the elites. Marx, nonetheless called it “… exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. … The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the [capitalist] over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.”4
In Graham Ward’s edited short work on Postmodern Theology he alerts us to this ever present danger of greed. He sees it in terms of consumerism. To the market dweller, we are only here to spend the money they give us. We serve no loftier purpose. And for this to work, we need to be consumed with an interest in consuming, purchasing—and not just shoes or the latest smart phone!
Ward called it a “fetish” (an excessive and irrational devotion or commitment to a particular thing) writing: “It is significant that the structure of commodity fetishism involves both a recognition that the fetish is a substitute, not the object desired itself [the pleasure is not in having the newest whatever but in the purchasing of it!], and, simultaneously, a disavowal of its substitutional character [we deny that that is what is happening!]. It has the grammatical structure of “I know, but even so. . . .” As Jacques Lacan pointed out, this intrinsic disavowal renders desire itself unstable. The desire can then continually displace itself onto new objects. The pleasure of not getting what you want drives consumerism. Consumerism becomes an endless experience of fetishism – as Marx was inchoately [not fully but in a rudimentary sense] aware.”5
The Progressive idea of economic health is based on a demand side economics: Give people money to spend. As a country we are unaware of the danger, for example, in encouraging the citizenry to attempt to win a lottery worth over three-quarters of a billion (with a ‘B’) dollars! Someone or ones will be momentary happy and then comes “hell.” As Jesus warned, “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” [Matthew 16:26]. The lottery is feeding a dangerous beast and only making it hungrier!
And Isaiah, having God’s wise counsel, reported that the economy of the nation of Judah under Uzziah and Jotham prospered, but with that prosperity came a worldview, a Zeitgeist, that excluded God: “Their land is full of silver and gold; there is no end to their chariots.…they bow down to the work of their hands” [Isaiah 2:7]. ] Judah became, what Brueggemann called, “an accommodationist money economy in pursuit of affluence … like all the nations.” 6 They were trapped in an endless cycle of insecurity—needing money to buy weapons to guard a growing treasury. And God was replaced by “the works of their own hands.”7 Their self-reliance was exposed and humiliated, which—the prophet lamented unforgivably—that this forebode their own destruction. “So people will be brought low and everyone humbled—do not forgive them.,” Isaiah excoriated them [Isaiah 2:9].
Some scholars think it harsh of the prophet to claim no forgiveness for Judah but they were beyond repentance having gone through cycles of prophetic warnings, Only repentance could “save” them but this was not on the agenda for a self-dependent society!
“But Jeshurun [Israel] became fat and kicked, you got fat, thick, and stuffed! Then he deserted the God who made him, and treated the Rock who saved him with contempt” [Deuteronomy 32:15 NET].
Then Brueggemann wrote, “the triad of money-weapons-idols forms a convergence that is at the core of Karl Marx’s critique of an alienated society.” Wanting to learn more about this alienation, I went to the writings of Ludwig von Mises of the Austrian School of Economics who lectured on Marxism for the Freeman Magazine, delivered at the San Francisco Public Library in 1952. “Don’t think it is possible for a man to practice all his life a certain ideology,” he concluded, “without believing in it.”8 And Judah had replaced the teachings of the Mosaic Law, God’s, so-called, “Old” Covenant with something culturally and spiritually alien to the Lord’s explicit instructions for their life.
“This threefold ‘fullness,’” Brueggemann lamented, “has decisively shifted the identity of the community, which now neither depends upon Yahweh … nor obeys Yahweh. No wonder Yahweh has rejected [it].”9 Judah had been brainwashed into an ideology that replaced Torah.
But Isaiah would take comfort in the prophetic knowledge that someday the truth would win out and God “…will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths” [Isaiah 2:3]. But that was a distant hope, that we now know is written into the “New” Covenant in the Savior’s blood at Calvary.
This, however, does not mean we are not vulnerable to the same Zeitgeist Judah fell victim to. Brueggemann warns, “This analysis, which pertains to an ancient society, is a workable model for our continuing social analysis of our own time and place, an analysis that is at the heart of prophetic faith.”10