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The Politics of Scripture

Baptism and the Gods of Capital

Everyday life gives us ample opportunity to fulfill all righteousness, at least as far as the gods of global capital are concerned. Building credit, contributing to a 401K plan, purchasing ordinary goods produced through an extraordinary supply chain, we participate in the enchanted world of mammon, in which money defies space and time to make and remake a world that bears its image. But in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus inhabits a different kind of story about God and the world, about empire and capital.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:13-17

According to Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist initially hesitates to baptize his cousin. His preaching ministry was preparatory, and he understood Jesus to be the main event. But Jesus prevails upon John through an appeal to right ordering: “…it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Everyday life gives us ample opportunity to fulfill all righteousness, at least as far as the gods of global capital are concerned. Building credit, contributing to a 401K plan, purchasing ordinary goods produced through an extraordinary supply chain, we participate in the enchanted world of mammon, in which money defies space and time to make and remake a world that bears its image. It is unavoidable. We buy and sell, we hunt for good prices and hope to build a “nest egg” of savings as responsible actors within the system we have been given; we fulfill all righteousness. But in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus inhabits a different kind of story about God and the world, about empire and capital.

The particular story Jesus inhabits is important to note because righteousness, after all, can become a relative term. Twenty years ago, my neighborhood in Pittsburgh was left for dead by developers and city planners. Trapped in stories of decline prevalent in rust-belt cities. But a collaboration between city leaders and a non-profit development agency began to attract investors and businesses. A Home Depot, Whole Foods, and Target moved in to occupy abandoned commercial property. Some Section 8 housing was torn down. Expensive lofts were built. Stylish pubs and sushi bars soon followed.

These economic goods came at a cost. East Liberty was not only or simply a place of distressed infrastructure and empty storefronts. It was home for generations of people – predominantly African American – with deep roots in the tangle of streets around Highland and Penn Avenues. The pace of investment outpaced the best-laid plans of city commissioners and non-profits. Urban renewal became urban removal. And now the thousands of us shopping at Target and Home Depot, grabbing a drink at Urban Tap or an appetizer at Margeaux do our part to fuel capital’s restructuring of space and time. We fulfill all righteousness to the gods of capital.

It is a practice as old as America. After the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson’s Land Grant Office began to survey and distribute 160 acre plots of nutrient-rich land in the Mississippi valley to subsistence farmers. America needed space to stretch its legs, space so that adventurous and hard-working (white) men could live off the land: a vast territory for the exercise of liberty. But where Jefferson saw opportunity for subsistence farmers, investors and bankers saw profitability.

Money poured into the Mississippi valley, choking out the interests of small farmers and Indigenous peoples and laying the groundwork for the cotton plantation. Militaries and bands of white Americans forcibly removed Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands. The large tracts of newly-acquired land needed to be cleared, tilled, and planted. Industrial scale textile production demanded industrial scale farming. And so a new market opened up for human bodies to work the land, and over a million enslaved persons were sold and transported from the eastern seaboard to the Mississippi valley.

Cut loose from other moral or societal concerns, capital rips across the land like a hurricane storm surge, displacing people, remaking the land, and using up both in the process. A drive along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, a blasted mountaintop in West Virginia, or a stroll through the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco reveals both our helplessness and devotion to this quasi-divine fiction we call capital. Unable to imagine other alternatives, we become like our gods: instruments of instrumentalization.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus inhabits a different kind of story about God and the world, about empire and capital. Jesus finds John on the banks of the Jordan River, outside even the meager colonial cities of Palestine. Identifying himself with John and those gathered around him, Jesus begins his ministry outside the city gates. He steps down into the Jordan River and aligns himself with the prophetic tradition and the call to repentance. He joins himself to Israel’s struggle for liberation, Israel’s yearning for the promised Reign of God, and all that means. 

A voice from the heavens breaks through in stereo – “this is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased” – while the Spirit of God descends and rests upon him. To paraphrase Robert Jenson, God the Father stands with this alleged Son, the one who identifies with the prophet in the wilderness and who joins himself to repentant and expectant Israel. Righteousness fulfilled.

Whatever ontological status Chalcedon later attributes to him, the Jesus of Matthew’s narrative receives authority from the prophetic tradition, legitimacy from his solidarity with repentant and expectant Israel, and identity from God the Father through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In this moment, Jesus signals the particular shape of the moral and theological imagination he cultivates and makes possible.

That is to say, the story Jesus enters and embodies also seeks to remake place and people. The Spirit who descends upon Jesus is the same power anticipated in Isaiah 42, when the prophet imagines a servant-people known by their kindness and gentleness – “a bruised reed [they] will not break” – and their restless pursuit of justice, liberation, and wholeness. A pursuit and a liberation, Isaiah says, that will spill beyond the servant-people to encompass God’s whole creation.

The story Jesus enters at the Jordan is one in which place and people are transformed – the mountains rejoice, the blind receive sight, the prisoners are set free, the hungry are fed – by way of their openness to one another and to God. Entering into John’s baptism, Jesus joins himself to John and John’s community, and John welcomes Jesus in return. This kind of mutual hospitality, reciprocity, participation, becomes the means as well as the aim of Jesus’ ministry. Such openness both fulfills prophetic hope and anticipates God’s promised future.

Jesus’ openness to John, to the prophetic tradition, to a repentant and suffering Israel is impossible to understand apart from his openness and responsiveness to the calling of God the Father and the gifts of God the Spirit. “All righteousness” signals deep coherence between Jesus’ ministry and aims.  For in the economy of the Triune God, medium and message are interchangeable. The way of redemption coheres with redemption itself. Means are not separated from ends.

Which brings us back to our current political economy, and the ways in which we are caught up in the story of capital, pitting our interests against those of others, funding the instrumentalization of our neighbors and neighborhood. These economic forces carry the weight of inevitability, flood waters that rise around us regardless of what we do. But there are other ways to be in the world, and opportunities for us to join in the work of God’s Spirit in bearing witness to them.

A few years ago, an art exhibit above a trendy bar in East Liberty proclaimed “There are Black people in the future.” It appeared with no fanfare or public announcement, and it immediately became a source of controversy, offering a different story than the conventional narrative of “renewal.” More recently, several congregations and activists organized against a development that would have built luxury lofts at the cost of affordable housing. In a small, but consistent act of defiance, my neighbor continues to call things by their old place-names, refusing the upscale language for intersections and buildings brought in by marketers and real estate agents. These are small, but not insignificant reminders that we all need a baptism for all righteousness, one in which we can place ourselves within traditions of resistance and in relationships of mutuality and reciprocity, where we might receive and be compelled by the spirit of Jesus rather than capital.

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