[This essay was first published in March 2012. DJT] We know people who refuse to visit any Walmart store because they are virtuous and principled, and the gigantic chain that employs several hundred Chattanoogans and grosses F$447 billion in revenues a year is evil, oppressive of its nonunionized “associates” and destructive of small stores in every area in which it operates. *
Christianity is all about redemption, the buying back from slavery, the freeing of the lost, the rescue of the discarded. This matter is always a live one for my wife, Jeannette, and I, and we go to great efforts to learn more about it. On March 8 she and I had a date, dinner at Yellow Deli on McCallie and a lecture at UTC by Dr. Ralph Wood of Baylor University, who gave a talk he titled “Rum, Romanism, and the Sacramental Imagination: G.K. Chesterton as Defender of the Faith.”
Dr. Wood, in this 30th lecture for the annual C.S. Lewis series at UTC, said several things about redemption, the buying back of the lost, the infusion of God’s person and authority into creation. The concept of sacramental imagination will prove helpful in answering our question about Wal-Mart.
IN THE LORD’S PRAYER we pray, “thy kingdom come.” We are asking that Satan’s kingdom would be destroyed and the kingdom of grace be advanced, with ourselves brought into it and kept in it, and that Christ’s government and kingdom would be hastened. We pray these things confident that God will bring them about in His time. We pray in confidence and hope that of an increase of Christ’s government and peace there will be no end, as Isaiah puts it (9:7).
History is God’s story of conquering the race of men through space and time, starting with Adam, Noah and a tiny minority, and working toward greater proportion among mankind with his covenant with the Israelites and, with the coming of Christ, expanding the covenant to every tongue and tribe. What is remarkable about Christianity, according to Paul Johnson in his 1976 book, A History of Christianity, is its comprehensive and all-encompassing nature through the course of history. The Scriptures make us confident that sovereign mercy will leaven the loaf so that every corner will be affected by its transforming nature.
At church a Christian hears about redemption of the world through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. We talk about local economy, liberty and free markets as redemptive in a similar sense. I don’t view these virtues as causing or offering any sort of salvation for men, for often redemption is attained by God’s men during the worst persecutions and greatest poverty. Salvation is not necessarily man’s outward circumstance.
Rather, liberty and free markets, the horizontal society that will slowly replace today’s vertical one, are a fruit, an outgrowth, of the gospel. They are not the redemption of Christ of his people, but an evidence of it occurring. Free markets don’t redeem or save man, but are a faithful demonstration of men who have been redeemed, and who live pleasing to God and in accordance with His commands. They are a sign of blessing.
We are getting closer to our subject, Wal-Mart and sin, and a further reference to Dr. Wood’s ideas.
THE IDEA OF A COMMAND contains the idea of a sin. The back side of sin, similarly, is God’s law, like the face and obverse of a coin. To talk about sin, in anything, is to talk about the law against which the sin operates. I taught all my children starting at age 2 1/2, “The First Catechism,” a now very tattered booklet with a precise definition of sin. “What is sin” “Any thought, word or deed that breaks God’s law by omission or commission.” The catechism goes on to define the terms. A sin of omission is “not being or doing what God requires,” the girl chirps. A sin of commission is “doing what God forbids,” the lil guy intones.
The concept of local economy offers an indirect apologetic for the simple and compelling truths of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, for a redemption of culture brought slowly about, as through an evolution, by redeemed men and women who are joined to God through their commitments at hundreds of local churches.
Local economy is a self-conscious fruit of the gospel, not a substitute for it. The idea of personal dealings, personal relationships, personal conversations and so on draw from a holy rite in Christendom: The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, a point implied by Dr. Wood in the title of his lecture. Sacramentalism, he said, is a way of seeing meaning in everything, as seeing the world in personal terms because its creator is an eternally personal and totally providential and omniscient God.
Which takes me to the question about Wal-Mart.
We shop at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other big retailers with the sole consideration being price and savings to our purses. Why? We are part of a money economy.
What is that? My economic consultant, 13-year-old Joshua Goodpaster of Hixson, hints at the nature of the money economy in an earlier post. To find out more, read Andrew Nelson Lytle’s wonderful essay “The Hind Tit” in I’ll Take my Stand (1930, 2006). This agrarian explains how the South’s cultural mores were lost to an industrial and interstate-commerce controlled national economy.
BUT IN THE ECONOMY Lytle decries, the dollar is sovereign. Everything is measured in terms of it, and its system of valuation consumes the human perspective and separates individuals. We no longer live in terms of land, physical labor and personal relationships. National economy is a form of temptation; it invites us to see life in terms of its denominations (F$1s, F$5s, F$10s, F$20s, F$50s) rather than through a biblical nomenclature (and the denominations that arise from that).
When you hire a man to work on your house because of WHO HE IS and not based on what he charges, you will see the point I am making. You will have come over to this other side.
Which is closer to the truth? “Shopping at Walmart is a sin of commission” or “Shopping at Walmart is a sin of omission”? Neither is closer to the truth, and the answer to each question is no.
The Walmart store is a blessing of capitalism and the free market. No Soviet satellite could ever see such a bounty as Wal-Mart. Its might is its vast buying power, its financial strength to command suppliers and wring from them every needless penny in their invoices. It offers convenience, selection, easy return rules. It is a lawful business. It commits no torts as a matter of policy. It pays its employees agreed wages. It operates with a keen interest to serve the poor with the lowest price.
BUT LEAVING THE MATTER here does not satisfy. There’s more. As I said, the temptation to which I have long submitted is to think almost solely in terms of dollar amounts, and not in terms of people. Where can I shop where I am known, where I have a relationship with the person I am engaging? How can I have meaningful connections with other souls? Are there places I can shop to support the livelihood of a single family?
I often frustrate my children by having chats with Wal-Mart clerks about their lives and doings. I am not here referring to these sorts of personal relationship. The great, glittering expanse of the well-stocked superstore offers conversation and gab with the checkout woman, yes. But the heart of corporate business is a vast abstraction that makes a personal connection impossible, and this latter virtue is that for which I am searching.
If you have questions along these lines, please join us for further explorations.
* A Wal-Mart spokeswoman in Arkansas declined to participate in the creation of this story by answering our question about Chattanooga-area employment figures.