Book Review and Interview: Redeeming Capitalism

Note: This book will be launched tonight with a special event at the Chicago Faith at Work Summit.

Many subjects can move a conversation in an unintended direction as the result of preconceived notions or baggage associated with the material. One topic that is often difficult to discuss for this reason is capitalism. I am pleased that Kenneth Barnes has taken the time to write about it and specifically described how it can be restored in Redeeming Capitalism. (Dr. Barnes is no stranger to The Green Room. My colleagues have written about him here and here.)

What we have today is post-modernist capitalism. If we don’t redeem it, we won’t like what replaces it. –quote from the author at a book launch event held in Grand Rapids, Michigan on June 19, 2018

Before his academic career, Barnes spent many years as a senior international executive for multiple multi-billion dollar companies, doing business on six continents. He has also served as a bi-vocational pastor in both the United States and the United Kingdom, where he holds dual citizenship.  He is currently the Mockler-Phillips Chair at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and tutor of Theology & Religious Studies at Oxford University. Barnes is married to Debby, a singer/songwriter and professional voice-over artist. They have three grown children: Bernadette, Christian, and Julia.

Dr. Barnes most recently served as Dean of the Marketplace Institute at Ridley Theological College in Melbourne, Australia and Associate Director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Initiative at Oxford University’s Centre for Christianity and Culture. Dr. Barnes also teaches theology and religious studies at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education and taught at Oxford’s Saïd Business School in their M.B.A. program.

Redeeming Capitalism isn’t just about bringing morality to capitalism, though. It’s also about the place of economics in who we see ourselves to be as humans and about how we understand the basic orientation of our lives. It’s an endeavor to align capitalism not just with common morality, but with our very humanity…For Christians, the great challenge behind the moral challenge is to reform capitalism so that, “sinner” that it will always remain, it can still be integrated into the striving for the “kingdom of God” as the true “location” of human hearts and the true goal of our lives….Redeeming Capitalism is an important resource in helping Christians engage in serious debate about how best to undertake an endeavor critical for the future of our world: how to reform capitalism both by lessening the importance in our lives of the goods capitalism can deliver and by bringing moral conviction to bear on its functioning (from Miroslav Volf’s introduction)

Redeeming Capitalism has received many well-deserved endorsements.

Many who live in glass houses built by the fruits of capitalism are the first to throw stones at it. Yet few understand the underlying economics and theology. Barnes is one of the few theologically trained scholars and clergy to also bring firsthand insights, knowledge, and experience from an extended career in the corporate world and global marketplace. A theologically informed, constructive critique of global capitalism, Redeeming Capitalism is a must-read for all those who wish to build more sustainable houses. –David W. Miller, director of Princeton University Faith & Work Initiative

For any who might be wondering just how our banking systems, markets, and consumerism might be reimagined within the context of a specifically faith-based ethics, Barnes provides both challenge and hope. –Very Rev’d Professor Martyn Percy, dean of Christchurch, Oxford

In Redeeming Capitalism, Barnes explores the history and workings of this sometimes-brutal economic system. He investigates the effects of postmodernism and unpacks biblical-theological teachings on work and wealth. Proposing virtuous choices as a way out of such pitfalls as the recent global financial crisis, Barnes envisions a more just and flourishing capitalism for the good of all. –from the publisher’s publicity information about the book.

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Barnes to learn more about the book.

Chris Robertson: What was your original purpose or goal for Redeeming Capitalism?

Kenneth Barnes: This book started out as a series of lectures for a course I taught at Oxford University entitled: “More Money Than God”. It was a summer intensive that explored the relationship between religious belief and economics. In the wake of the global financial crisis, it proved to be a very popular course. As someone who spent a lifetime combining an international business career with life as a pastor and scholar, I knew that capitalism had become morally bankrupt long before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. As I delved deeper and deeper into both the causes and the effects of the crisis, I knew this book had to be written.

CR: Capitalism is a system that can have a bad reputation. Why do you think, for good or ill, that capitalism has achieved this reputation and what can be done to redeem it?

KB: Capitalism’s reputation is in tatters for a variety of reasons, not least of which due to the perception that greed and excess are its primary drivers. However, that hasn’t always been the case. In the book, I discuss the moral assumptions about wealth and social responsibility that once undergirded economic theory and praxis. I trace the evolution of capitalism’s ethics from the traditional capitalism of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to the “Protestant Ethic” observed by Max Weber, to the “postmodern capitalism” of today and conclude that the latter can best be described as “void of a moral compass and resistant, if not impervious to ethical constraint.”

I contend, that in the absence of religious hegemony, our best hope for the redemption of capitalism is the cultivation of universal virtues (including the often misunderstood and overlooked “theological” virtues of faith, hope and love), from the bottom-up (i.e. by changing corporate culture) and the top-down (by changing the aforementioned “drivers”).

CR: One of the aims of your book is to reframe capitalism to help correct some thinking. I’m curious to learn of any individuals whose thinking was corrected by this message and what were results of this new thinking.

KB: I teach the course – now re-named “Redeeming Capitalism” – to both matriculated and non-matriculated students at Oxford and at Gordon-Conwell. I also teach it on campuses and in local churches, where people who are actively engaged in business can take the course and consider their own work lives through the prism of the book and the lectures. It is rewarding beyond words to see how their perceptions change and how a new narrative is beginning to emerge.

Perhaps the most stunning example was this spring when a recently retired senior executive of a world-renowned investment bank (who also sits in the House of Lords), told a gathering of economists, theologians and business people at Oxford University, that despite my protestations to the contrary, he believed “Redeeming Capitalism” to be the start of a movement that would change the way future generations think about capitalism and more importantly, change how we “do” capitalism. Only time will tell of course, if he is correct.

CR: I’m intrigued by Dr. Volf’s statement, “Once we are convinced of the deep poverty of living by bread alone, we’ll be ready to start the great endeavor of morally taming capitalism so as to push it into being less of a master and more of a servant.” What does the process of taming the capitalism master look like?

KB: Professor Volf’s statement is indeed true and applicable to every aspect of our lives, but it isn’t only capitalism that must be tamed, it is our desires that must be tamed as well. The current iteration of capitalism, based as it is on crass consumerism and mountains of debt, merely reflects the malaise at the heart of Western culture. The transactional has replaced the relational, disposables have replaced renewables, and most importantly, temporal considerations leave no quarter for things eternal. We can only turn capitalism into a good servant by taming our own desires and by refusing to allow it to become our master.

We can only turn capitalism into a good servant by taming our own desires and by refusing to allow it to become our master.

CR: I’m intrigued by your  emphasis on virtuous business cultures focused on the common good. Readers of The Green Room would certainly agree with the importance of seeking the common good and these virtuous cultures being a means toward this end, but in the face of ever-increasing non-virtue, where can Christians start to bring about this change? The current climate can seem discouraging. 

KB: As I say in the book, the only way to eat an elephant is “one bite at a time”. There are no quick fixes available to us. It took generations for us to get to where we are and it will take generations to turn things around. That is one of the reasons why I reject well-meaning but misguided attempts to “replace” capitalism with an artificial, utopian construct. The problems are too complex and the scale too great for even the greatest minds to devise a workable alternative to capitalism.

Instead, we must change business and economic cultures by agreeing a shared set of universal values (a.k.a. virtues); creating a narrative that reinforces those values; and finally practicing virtuous capitalism and celebrating its successes. I give some very real examples in the book from the Mars Catalyst project to companies I’ve personally worked with, and know from experience that it can be done. But it won’t be easy. Nothing of lasting value ever is.

CR: Capitalism, like economics, can be politicized resulting in a fear on the part of pastors and other church leaders in discussing it. I don’t think this need be the case and I would like to hear your suggestions on how economics and capitalism can be presented in the church.

KB: It is impossible to separate politics and economics. In fact, economics used to be called “political economy”. But that doesn’t mean pastors or church leaders need to be partisan in their discussion of economic issues. On the contrary, there are countless examples from scripture and theology that deal with the very issues that are being discussed in political circles today, but without the burden of partisan affiliations or unhelpful political slogans.

Church leaders are on very safe ground if they focus on the aforementioned virtues of prudence, justice, courage, temperance, faith, hope, and love, without having to expose themselves to meaningless debates about “Left vs. Right”, when the church’s real concern should be “wrong vs. right”.

CR: Is there anything you would like The Green Room audience to understand about capitalism in particular?

KB: Capitalism is a subject, not an object; it possesses no “hypostasis” of its own and is simply the result of countless individual and corporate decisions. As every economic decision is a moral choice, the capitalism we have is the capitalism we have chosen, and its redemption rests on the choices we are yet to make.

It is not a question of whether or not we “can” redeem capitalism – it is a question of whether or not we “will” redeem capitalism. I hope the Green Room audience takes up the challenge because the stakes are very high and I firmly believe that if we don’t redeem capitalism, we aren’t going to like what replaces it!

Thank you, Dr. Barnes for taking the time to answer these questions and for your work on this important book. I recommend you read Redeeming Capitalism and share it within your network.

  One thought on “Book Review and Interview: Redeeming Capitalism

  1. Ken Barnes
    November 17, 2018 at 10:04 pm

    Thanks for the interview Chris. Keep up the great work! K

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: