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The Church and money – synchroblog

14 November 2007

In my first-year Theology course at university the first essay we were asked to write in the Ethics class was on Usury, and it forced us to look at the way that Christian ethical standards have changed over the centuries.

Lord, who shall dwell in Thy tabernacle: or who shall rest upon thy holy hill?
He who hath not given his money upon usury: nor taken reward upon the innocent (Psalm 14/15:1,6).

The book to read was Religion and the rise of capitalism by R.H. Tawney.

Those who are concerned about changes in moral standards, even among Christians, on such matters as abortion and sexual morality, which today are tearing some groups of Christians apart, should be aware that long before this there were changes in morality concerning money and economics. A thousand years ago usury was regarded as at least as bad as, if not worse than, fornication with a person of either the opposite or the same sex.

So what is attitude of the church to money? And what should it be?

To save myself some typing I’m going to quote from an article I wrote some years ago, on Orthodoxy and liberation theology, which was originally published in the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa.

Liberation theologians, especially those in Latin America, have often used, or been accused of using, Marxist tools of social analysis. Most Orthodox Christians have experienced the modern exponents of Marxism not as liberators, but as the “God-hating Soviets”. Nevertheless there is at the core of Marx’s analysis something that comes very close to the Orthodox understanding of the world.At the heart of Marx’s analysis lie two simple equations:

G –> M –> G
and
M –> G –> M

In the first equation, people produce Goods (G). One person may make shoes, and another may make bread. Shoes will not feed the cobbler, nor will bread clothe the baker. So the Goods are exchanged for Money (M), which in turn is exchanged for the Goods (G) that are needed. Money is the medium of exchange, the means by which Goods are exchanged for other Goods at equivalent value. This is more convenient than direct barter, because it means that if the baker doesn’t need shoes today, the cobbler does not need to go without bread — she simply sells shoes to someone else.

But in developed capitalist economies Marx observed a different dynamic at work. Someone who has money uses it to acquire goods to sell at a profit in order to acquire more money. Money, instead of being the means of exchange, the facilitator of the distribution of goods, becomes the goal, an end in itself.

Now this is not at all incompatible with the Orthodox understanding of creation. In the beginning, when God created man (male and female), he gave them dominion over the non-human creation. Man (male and female) is made in God’s image, and God shares his image by sharing his dominion. The earth is given to humanity as a whole, not to particular groups or sections of humankind. But, as a consequence of the fall, this dominion, this image of God, is distorted. The creation is up for grabs, and individuals and groups and alliances compete with each other to get a bigger share. Not only so, but they also try to extend the dominion to people instead of things. Injustice, oppression and slavery are the result. So Orthodox Christians could agree with Marx, and would say that the exchange of the

Goods –> Money –> Goods
equation for the
Money –> Goods –> Money

one is a sign and manifestation of the fallenness of creation. When money, instead of being a means of exchange, becomes the end or goal of economic activity, it has lost its creatureliness, and its purpose. It becomes an idol, and in this sense capitalism is a system of idolatry, of Mammon-worship.

But Orthodox Christians would go beyond Marx, and would argue that what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics and economics is not all that is wrong with us. These are symptoms and secondary infections, they are not the root of the disease. Nevertheless, they are part of the disease, and they need to be taken seriously — a lot more seriously than most Christians in South Africa have taken them up till now. As the Orthodox philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev says:

It was the industrialist capitalist period which subjected man to the power of economics and money, and it does not become its adepts to teach communists the evangelical truth that man does not live by bread alone. The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbours, for everybody, is a spiritual and religious question. Man does not live by bread alone, but he does live by bread and there should be b read for all. Society should be so organized that there is bread for all, and then it is that the spiritual quest ion will present itself before men in all its depth. It is not permissible to base a struggle for spiritual interests and for a spiritual renaissance on the fact that f or a considerable part of humanity bread will not be guaranteed. Such cynicism as this justly evokes an atheistic reaction and the denial of spirit. Christians ought to be permeated with a sense of the religious importance of the elementary needs of men, the vast masses of men , and not to despise these needs from the point of view of an exalted spirituality.

Money was originally seen as a medium of exchange and a measure of value. In the example above, how much bread is a good exchange for a pair of shoes? But money provides a measure value by means of which different kinds of goods can be exchanged.

Even though Marx’s analysis of what can go wrong with capitalism can give us useful insights, however, the way he proposed to solve the problem did not really work. If, as Berdyaev pointed out, it was the industrial capitalist period that subjected man to the power of economics and money, Marx did not offer to lift the burden, but merely to call it by another name, because his system also subjected man to economic forces. Both Marxist communism and industrial capitalism subjected man to economic powers. They are two different denominations of the same religion of Mammon worship. For the free enterprisers, the name of the deity is “the free rein of the market mechanism”, while for the Marxists it is “the dialectical forces of history”. But in the end, economic forces rule.

Christians take a different view. Economic forces, like other principalities and powers, are subject to Christ. As the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, so economic forces need to be brought under control.

In the light of this we need to ask why Greed changed from being regarded as one of the Seven Deadly Sins to being seen as one of the cardinal virtues in the West. My son works in a bookshop and he told me that the most popular book right now is one called The secret, which is simply an apology for greed. And though there were several attempts at a Christian refutation of The da Vinci code, apparently no one has even tried to refute The secret or to warn Christians about how unChristian it is.

We need to ask why, in the Reagan-Thatcher period, many building societies demutualised and became commercial banks, with nary a squeak from most of the churches. This happened in several countries.

There are banks advertising to retired people, urging that they borrow money, which they won’t have to repay in their lifetime, without telling them that their heirs will be saddled with the debt.

There was also an interesting article in one of our newspapers, which divided the population into three groups — collectivists, welfarists and consumerists.

The terms were perhaps misleading, but the attitudes and values they described were very interesting, and I wonder which of them is most Christian. I posted on that in another blog entry on Consumerists, Collectivists and Welfarists. Which are we, or are we as Christians called to be something else altogether?

This does not necessarily mean that Christians should choose the “most Christian” economic system and start campaigning for it. Christians have lived in societies with many different kinds of economic systems. But whatever the system, money should not become an idol, an end in itself, and we should be wary of espousing values that lead to people being enslaved by the system.


This post is part of a monthly synchroblog, which which a group os people blog on the same general topic, in this case, Money and the church.

Here are links to the other synchroblogs on the theme:

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Steven Tramel Gaines permalink
    16 November 2007 12:26 am

    Thanks for the insightful post! It spurs introspection.

  2. 16 November 2007 4:00 am

    I really enjoyed reading this well written post. I would like to hear some of your suggestions for action or change. It seems that we must apply Kingdom principles and a trust in the Lord within the system in which we live. Thus, whereas our system is built on buying and selling, God’s Kingdom is built on giving and receiving. How can we as Christians do that within a market driven economy?

  3. 16 November 2007 6:11 am

    Bryan,

    Before we can apply Kingdom principles, we need to be aware of Kingdom values, and how values that are antithetical to Kingdom values are promoted by society and the world around us.

    St Paul said, “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12), but too often we are conformed to this world. The world brainwashes us into believing that greed is good, and the brainwashing is sometimes so subtle that we can barely recognise it, and sometimes we have been so conditioned by the message that we fail to recognise it even when it is blatant.

    Yes, I do have some practical suggestions (bring back building societies, for one), but there’s little point in discussing them unless we are on the same page where core values are concerned.

    Here in South Africa various Christian bodies have published reams of stuff about “economic justice”, but it is all abstract unless we can identify the core Kingdom values that it is based on, and can recognise (especially in ourselves) the contrary values that society seeks to impose on us.

  4. 17 November 2007 4:29 pm

    Hey, I am happy to link to stuff like this…It’s clear thinking and a good challenge to us all.

  5. 19 November 2007 11:38 pm

    Here are a couple of short You-Tube music videos, relevant to this topic, recommended to me by a friend.
    <My Jesus
    <Face of Christ
    Great post, thanks – I’m going to hang onto it!

Trackbacks

  1. Silver and Gold Have We–Oops! : Subversive Influence
  2. Money and Me « Awaken Me
  3. Church and money redux « Khanya
  4. November Synchroblog: money and the church « Notes from underground
  5. Shuck and Jive: Render to my ex-wife what is my ex-wife’s… « Notes from underground
  6. Anniversary of Khanya blog | Khanya

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