Arts & Culture & Public Square

Oscar-Nominated Films Raise Questions about Power and Self-Interest

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Two of the most highly nominated films for Oscars this year were The Favourite and Roma—both had ten nominations each. In an excellent article, Christian film critic Brett McCracken contrasted these two films, which both dealt with the topics of power and human dignity but landed in two very different places.

As McCraken describes, The Favourite depicts a dog-eat-dog world in which people treat each other like animals in order to compete for the favor of the British monarch (definitely not a film that is recommended by McCracken or this blog). The Roma depicts an opposite world, in which the path of selflessness and a respect for human dignity leads to real freedom. In his article, McCracken challenges Christians not to selfishly look for power in the fleeting favor of political leaders but to remember Christ’s call to self-denial (Matt. 10:39).

His article raises a few questions for Christians to reflect on regarding the nature of power and self-interest. How should we view power in light of our call to care for the weak and poor? Also, how should we think about competition and self-interest? Must it lead to a Darwinian world with no respect for the image of God in human beings?

1. Real Christian power looks like being salt and light in the world.

I agree with McCracken in that Christians should not view political power as the means of societal transformation. We need to take the long view not the expedient one. The late evangelical thinker and author John Stott reminds Christians that real power to transform society comes from being salt and light, as Jesus commanded us (Matt. 5:13-16).

Yet, salt is not effective if it stays in the shaker. Likewise, a light can only be helpful if it’s switched on in a dark room. As Hugh Whelchel writes,

Salt and light have a powerful influence on their environment, but for salt to stop rot it has to be rubbed into the meat. For light to shine in the darkness it has to be set upon a lamp stand and not allowed to go out.

2. Wealth doesn’t connote power unless it uses the law to coerce.

Just as Christians are called to be preservative agents in the world around us, we are also commanded to care for the weak, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. The question is, does our current free-market system help or hurt our efforts to care for the “least of these”? In other words, are the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor?

IFWE has written extensively on this topic both on this blog and in two books, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty and Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism. There are several key points to make here. First, the poor have a better opportunity to escape poverty through capitalism than any other system. Second, the market in and of itself is not enough to protect the weak. People need relationships in order to succeed, which we’ve highlighted in Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty. Lastly, those who get ahead in a free-market economy do not have more power unless they become crony capitalists who bend the law to coerce others.

3. Legitimate self-interest and competition do not lead to a Darwinian world if the rule of law and economic freedom exist.

First of all, selfishness and greed are different from legitimate self-interest. Art Lindsley writes that Jesus himself appeals to our own legitimate self-interest when he teaches us that in order to truly find our life, we must lose it (Matt. 10:39):

If we try to save our lives by seeking our own selfish pleasures, we will lose both our eternal life and the fullness of life right now. These losses are certainly not in our self-interest….If we lose our lives—in other words, give them away to Christ and to others—we will not only gain eternal life, but fullness of life in the present.

And it’s this same self-interest that leads us to leverage our gifts and talents in the marketplace to improve our condition. In a free-market, competitive system, this creates not a zero-sum game but win-win situations where both parties benefit. It forces us to serve others in order to benefit ourselves. Jay Richards explains why the rule of law, a critical element for true economic freedom, is essential for creating these conditions for mutual flourishing:

The law of the jungle is that there is no law: The strong kill the weak. Economic freedom, in contrast, exists only where rule of law prevails—where people can’t kill, steal, and defraud each other, where private property rights are protected and trust is widespread. These laws channel our economic behavior.

The rule of law and property rights help restrain our selfish tendencies. In a country without these, the weak are vulnerable and will never flourish.

4. Yet competition can get ugly in a post-Christian world.

Kenneth Barnes, in his book, Redeeming Capitalism, has pointed out that free-market capitalism arose in a world long gone—a world that honored Christian values and ethics:

When capitalism emerged from the primordial ooze of feudalism and mercantilism, it was rooted in a religiously inspired ethic. As it has evolved over time, however, it has drifted further and further from that ethic, morphing into the postmodern capitalism I have described previously as ‘devoid of a moral compass and resistant if not impervious to ethical constraint.’

When compared with all other systems, capitalism is still the best tool for lifting people out of poverty; however, the actors within that system, you and I, are crucial to its being used for good and not evil.

So, what can we do to cultivate a more virtuous society so that free-market competition leads to true flourishing for all? The task feels daunting, yet one thing we can do is to avoid thinking about our work as separate or second place to “real” spiritual activity. The more we understand that all work matters to God and is a matter of stewardship, the more we can impact society by reflecting biblical principles and values in our workplaces.

Hollywood’s stories have power to raise important questions and to impact our thinking about life’s big picture. Does human dignity matter? Is self-denial and serving others the path to true flourishing? I appreciate writers like McCracken who help us think more deeply and understand challenging stories like these through a biblical lens.

Editor’s note: Learn more about the type of environment that promotes real human flourishing in the late Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism: 30 Years Later.

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