Creative Destruction

Creative Destruction

In the early 1950s Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist popular with neo-orthodox supporters of free markets, published a book which, a little surprisingly, developed an idea of Karl Marx’s that Schumpeter labeled, schöpferische Zerstörung, which translates as “creative destruction.” The notion is that a capitalist economic system is constantly renewing itself by a process in which the components of the economy are destroyed and replaced with new institutions, organizations and technologies that are more efficient generators of profit. For example a 19th century blacksmith shop where one man makes iron tools by hand is replaced by a modern factory with metal stamping machines and automated assembly systems.

Obviously when modern factories replace blacksmiths, when wind turbines replace coal fired electric plants and when jumbo jets replace passenger trains there will be a lot of blacksmiths, coal miners and railway employees out of work. Their jobs will be destroyed. If we have faith in the wisdom of the free market economy, the theory says, then the greater profit that is created will benefit society as a whole.

From the first time I heard the term “creative destruction”, I was disturbed by the notion that destruction could be viewed as a positive. It bothers me that the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto decided to create a high-tech incubator which provides mentorship for young entrepreneurs who are developing new technologies and start-up companies to market them, then called it the Creative Destruction Lab.

What I hear in the term is the notion that destruction can in itself be creative, which I recognize is not actually what Schumpeter or Marx or the founders of the Creative Destruction Lab are saying. To them the term is a rather dramatic way of making the fairly banal observation that economic systems and their component parts, indeed life itself, is always in a state of transition from what has been to what is coming into being.

My dislike for the term ‘creative destruction’ lies in my reading of human history where too often simply destroying something we think is inefficient or counter-productive is presented as a way to make the world a better place. When the concept is applied at the societal level, it can and has led us to think that simply destroying something we don’t like, even if it is clearly something wicked, will in itself create a better world.

Schumpeter’s notion was not original to him, or to Karl Marx. We can see the idea of creative destruction in both of the texts we heard read today. Isaiah’s exultant description of the coming of the Messiah includes the prophecy that, “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” And John the Baptist, according to Matthew, proclaims that the Divine Commonwealth that Jesus is ushering into the world will begin with the separation of wheat from chaff, of sheep and goats, of righteous and wicked; and the bad will be burned in fire – destroyed completely.

The urge to see our enemies destroyed seems to be a common one amongst humans. For those who are oppressed, or who live in fear that their life and well-being are threatened, it is not uncommon that they hope that whether by divine action or some other super-natural intervention, their enemies will be swept from the face of the earth. The fallacy of this hope is that it confuses the destruction of the wicked with the far more difficult task of creating a better world.

In the United States, currently, there are many strong voices urging the exclusion from that country of Muslims, Mexicans and others who are not part of the white, Protestant America that was so great for men like Donald Trump. The President elect has promised to bomb Isis out of existence and has hinted at using nuclear weapons against other people that he perceives as enemies of America. One way that I have seen in the post-election analysis to account for the election of a man holding such vicious beliefs is that those who voted for Trump wanted to destroy the status quo, to eliminate the power of the elites in Washington and New York. The cries of those who want to jail Hillary Clinton can be heard as evidence of this desire to “blow up” the political system that is blamed for the diminished economic security and blighted future of working class Americans.

For many readers the passages we heard this morning seem to support this rather harsh and brutal application of creative destruction. They hear the coming of the Messiah as a promise of the end for those who are their enemies.

History provides countless examples of humans putting into practice the harsh doctrine of creative destruction. The Cuban revolution of 1959, we have recently been reminded, overthrew a brutal and oppressive governing elite. Those who had been oppressed, however, began the new regime with the summary execution of some 500 people who had participated in the wickedness of Fulgencio Batista. Over time Castro’s regime, although it did much to improve the lives of ordinary Cubans, in turn jailed and executed its enemies in numbers similar to those of its predecessor. A bright and brave new world may have been created, but the darkness of oppression did not disappear.

There is another way to read these passages. If we shift the focus from destruction to creation it becomes apparent, particularly in Isaiah, that God’s promise is that wickedness shall be transformed or rather that those who have behaved wickedly will be changed so that in future they act with love and mercy instead of being selfish and abusive.

I think Abraham Lincoln expressed this best when he was asked whether he wanted to destroy those who supported the continuation of slavery. “Am I not destroying my enemies,” he asked, “when I make friends of them?” Creative destruction of our enemies, whether they be Muslims and Mexicans or Republicans and the economic elites, happens just as effectively when we befriend them as when we try to obliterate them. Actually, it is more effective to make friends of enemies than to destroy them, because new enemies, more bitter and determined than the last always spring up when we engage in violent suppression of the rights of others.

In the original language, Isaiah does not quite say that the wicked shall be killed or slain. The Hebrew word “imith” is most accurately translated as ‘put to death’, not ‘killed’. The difference may be slight, but I hear ‘put to death’ as a softer term, one that can be heard as focusing our attention on eliminating the wicked behaviours, rather than on the extermination of the enemies.

More persuasively, this notion of transformation is powerfully presented in the later verses of this passage when Isaiah tells us that the leopard and the lion, the bear and the wolf – the great predators of the animal kingdom – shall all change their ways and live in peace with those who in the present day are their victims. In the day of the Commonwealth of God, the meat eaters shall eat straw and little children can safely play with the snakes that in the present time bring certain death. That is the messianic promise.

The coming of the Christ as a newborn child must be a profound disappointment for those who want to see the destruction of the enemy. The message of fire and destruction preached by John the Baptist seems totally incompatible with a messiah who comes wrapped in swaddling clothes and is unable to stand up or even roll over.

But if we accept the truth of Abraham Lincoln’s insight that friendship destroys our enemies as effectively as killing them, then we can begin to see that the promise of Christmas is real, and that “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;” When God comes in the form of a little child rather than as a fire-breathing warrior of vengeance, our image of God and our understanding of how God works to achieve peace and justice is transformed. That transformed understanding of how God is active in the world will transform us so that we too can participate in bringing into being the world of hope, joy, peace and love that is God’s deepest desire.

Rev. Dr. John Burton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.