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The love of money

17 December 2009

Heb 13:5 Be ye free from the love of money; content with such things as ye have: for himself hath said, I will in no wise fail thee, neither will I in any wise forsake thee.

1Tim 6:10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil: which some reaching after have been led astray from the faith, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

Matt 6:24 No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Over the last thirty years or so, serving two masters has become one of the most dominant occupations of Christians in the West. Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace for this link Is Stealing a Virtue? – by Jim Johnston – Heartland Perspectives:

I am profoundly disappointed in Caritas in Veritate, the encyclical issued on June 29, 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI. It contains no fewer than six endorsements of wealth redistribution by government. It must be understood that wealth redistribution by government involves the use of its coercive powers to take resources from those who have earned them and give them to those who have not.

What Jim Johnston says “must be understood” is in fact the core of the Big Libertarian Lie (using “libertarian” in its new-fangled American sense) — that those who are rich “must be understood” to have “earned” their wealth, and that the poor deserve to be poor. That is a profoundly un-Christian notion, and I think the Roman Pope Benedict XVI has more credibility on that score than Jim Johnston. Johnston asks if stealing is a virtue, but what does St John Chrysostom say?

“See the man,” He says, “and his works: indeed this also is theft, not to share one’s possessions.” Perhaps this statement seems surprising to you, but do not be surprised. I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of others’ goods but also the failure to share one’s own goods with others is theft and swindle and defraudation. What is this testimony? Accusing the Jews by the prophet, God says, “The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses.” Since you have not given the accustomes offerings, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere Scripture says, “Deprive not the poor of his living.” To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others. By this we are taight that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished like those who steal. For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need.

And a hat-tip to Brian McLaren for this link: Richard Stearns and Lamar Vest: Christians losing their way:

Despite the fact that God’s heart for the poor is mentioned in some 2,100 verses of Scripture, many of us simply miss it. In a recent survey of adults in America conducted by Harris Interactive, although 80 percent of adults claimed to be familiar with the Bible — the best-selling book in history — 46 percent think the Bible offers the most teachings on heaven, hell, adultery, pride or jealousy. In fact, there are more teachings on poverty than on any of those topics.

I’m not sure I’d go along with Stearns and Vest in their project to produce a “Poverty and Justice Bible” — that seems to turn the Bible into a political football almost as much as the Conservative Bible Project. It takes the frequently heard polemical phrase “My Bible says…” to a new level of meaning, accentuating the difference between “my Bible” and “your Bible”. And I have very serious reservations about their references to “God’s DNA”. I wonder if they would acknowledge that God’s DNA — all of it — came from the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the virgin Mary? Because that is the only sense in which God has DNA at all.

But I digress.

The main point here is the seduction of Western Christianity into attempting to worship both God and mammon. And it is not confined to “the West”. Recent obituaries of Oral Roberts have suggested that he was the originator of the “prosperity gospel”, though that has been queried, and Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland are more likely candidates. But no matter how it originated, it is undoubtedly the gospel contextualised for the yuppies and wannabe yuppies of the West. Yet it has also taken root in Africa, where it has contributed to what the late Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Bill Burnett, called “the politics of greed and envy”, which affect rich and poor alike.Those values have spread to Africa, where, though lip service is paid to ubuntu, among the elite ubuntu has in fact been muscled aside by the desire to be rich, and not just ordinary rich, but filthy, stinking obscenely rich.

Well, let mammon worshippers worship mammon — they always have and always will. But Christians are not to serve two masters, or even attempt to. G.K. Chesterton puts it rather well:

Is there any answer to the proposition that those who have had the best opportunities will probably be our best guides?
Is there any answer to the argument that those who have breathed clean air had better decide for those who have breathed foul? As far as I know, there is only one answer, and that answer is Christianity.

Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained
from the beginning that the danger was not in man’s environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest–if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this–that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy.

Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable.

You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck.

It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor. A Christian may consistently say, “I respect that man’s rank, although he takes bribes.” But a Christian cannot say, as all modern men are saying at lunch and breakfast, “a man of that rank would not take bribes.” For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes. It is a part of Christian dogma; it also happens by a curious coincidence that it is a part of obvious human history. When people say that a man “in that position” would be incorruptible, there is no need to bring Christianity into the discussion. Was Lord Bacon a bootblack? Was the Duke of Marlborough a crossing sweeper? In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment.

So compare the two statements:

Jim Johnston: It must be understood that wealth redistribution by government involves the use of its coercive powers to take resources from those who have earned them and give them to those who have not.

G.K. Chesterton: The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man.

I don’t believe that governments are necessarily qualified to handle wealth redistribution. But that is a side issue, almost a red herring. Jim Johnston’s biggest whopper is where he asks us to believe that the Roman Pope Benedict XVI advocated taking resources from those who have earned them and giving them to those who have not. Jim Johnston needs to show exactly where the Roman pope said that. I suspect that Jim Johnston’s  allegation not only begs the question, but it twists the pope’s words, and tries to misrepresent him as saying something he did not say. Is bearing false witness a virtue?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 December 2009 12:19 pm

    Hi Steve,

    As always, you not only put the point across clearly, but you do it with such wonderful insight and depth! Thank you!

    Indeed, the issue of wealth and money is a vexing one for the world (and so naturally also for Christians). I have encountered a much more subtle form of prosperity Gospel in the largely evangelical circles in which I now move.

    Interestingly, I have found that many younger American and European Christians have understood the power of money to corrupt their lives (and so also their spirits) and are searching for alternatives. However, in many of the mega-Churches and ‘Bishop so and so Ministries’ in places such as Nigeria money and economics (in the worst possible sense) are at the core of the message that is proclaimed. It is very sad indeed!

    I am guilty because I am so wealthy. It is quite a struggle. My experience is that wealth is seldom a good thing, particularly when you are Christian and you have close relationships with sisters and brothers who have much less! I say that this is my experience (it may be different for others). I have come to realise that I am greedy and selfish, and even weak when it comes to money. The simplest test (which is one I often do with the various congregations where I am invited to preach) is to ask the worshippers to tell their neighbour how much they earn and what they give to others… There is most often silence as a response! Heck, I am silent!

    Of course, as my friend Alan Storey taught me, anything that has the power to silence you must be encountered by the liberating power of the Gospel of Christ (which is, amongst other things, good news to the poor!)

    Thanks for causing me to think!

    Rich blessing,

    Dion

  2. 17 December 2009 12:25 pm

    I have always thought Robin Hood was a good Christian (and he had a deep reverence for the Theotokos).

    I dislike Chesterton’s insisting that Christianity is the only antidote to the worship of mammon, because I think any genuine spiritual tradition should have a distrust of money – but I completely agree that money poisons and corrupts right relationship.

    Some thoughts on charging for spirituality that I wrote a few years ago. http://pagantheologies.pbworks.com/Charging-money

  3. 17 December 2009 1:32 pm

    How would the vow of poverty be understood today?

  4. 17 December 2009 2:47 pm

    Just a few thoughts from a friend of a friend,

    1. The “heartland project” website that is being quoted is an American website. I’m not sure anyone in America fits the description of “poor” that someone in 1st century Palestine had in mind.
    2. Forget if government is “qualified.” Shouldn’t the question be, should they be doing it in the first place? Is it the government’s role to pick up with the Christian world is slacking? If so, why?
    3. Why should it be “forced” economic distribution? Shouldn’t it be done voluntarily, as in all Christian service?
    4. Was Christ missing 1/2 of a regular human’s DNA? Wouldn’t the Spirit have supplied the other half?

    • 18 December 2009 7:21 am

      Well yes, forget if the government is qualified. That is why in this post I was not talking about the role of governments, but about the attitudes of Christians.

      There seems to be a tendency nowadays to speak of DNA metaphorically, in fields remote from biology and genetics, and that has dangers, like any other piopularised technicalities. To speak of God having DNA is heretical. DNA belongs to bios, biological life, it is part of creation. God’s life is zoe, and does not have, nor does it require DNA. Orthodox dogma says that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine. His divinity does not require DNA. His humanity requires a full complement, which could only come from his mother. I think the metaphoricasl use of DNA like this is silly, but if people are going to insist on using it, they should think of the theological implications of what they are saying.

  5. Art permalink
    17 December 2009 2:48 pm

    Well said, Steve! I’ve also encontered some American Christians lately who call themselves Libertarians and are great admirers of Ayn Rand’s writings and philosophy. I don’t see how you can square her ideas with teachings of Christ!

  6. 17 December 2009 6:27 pm

    Great post, Steve.

    I’d like to respond to Elliot’s first three comments.

    1. There are people in America who are living in their cars, under bridges, and in the streets. They have no permanent home, no job, and no regular source of money. So I’d say the answer is “yes.”

    2. Who would you have pick up where the Christian world is slacking instead? Because the Christian world clearly is slacking.

    3. Perhaps it should be done voluntarily. But it’s not being done voluntarily. Or at least it’s not being done sufficiently through voluntary actions. So now what?

    • 17 December 2009 7:08 pm

      Jarred,

      That is a good point about American homeless, but there are places that they can go (not funded by the government, by the way). The problem is usually pride or substance abuse.

      I think I will respond to 2 and 3 together – are we supposed to give up on the church? Are we supposed to say that Christian ethics haven’t worked, that we need to try something else? Are future Christians off the hook? Why give in and let the government do it?

      • 17 December 2009 7:43 pm

        Elliot,

        What’s the alternative? Let people suffer until Christians get their act together? I don’t consider that an acceptable option.

        • 17 December 2009 7:46 pm

          No, the alternative is for Christians to get their act together.

          Once you begin a government entitlement program, it’s impossible to rescind it. No government will ever allow itself to be merely a stopgap measure.

          • 17 December 2009 7:56 pm

            Christians have had 2,000 years to get their act together. They haven’t. It’s time to end the suffering. If it’s by a stopgap, that’s fine. If it’s by giving up on Christians altogether, that’s fine too. I’m more interested in making sure people get the help they need than getting Christians to live up to the faith they profess.

            I’ll also note that “government entitlement programs” is usually a dogwhistle here in the United States for “poor people getting stuff they don’t deserve” and “poor people deserve to be poor.” Considering this is the very attitude Steve is challenging as unChristian….

          • 17 December 2009 8:16 pm

            If you want to give up on Christians, that’s fine. I won’t.

          • 17 December 2009 8:30 pm

            Considering that Christians haven’t managed to get it right in several centuries, why shouldn’t I give up on them?

            Considering that Christians would rather argue whether the poor “deserve help” or are “looking for entitlements” instead of just helping the poor already, why shouldn’t I give up on them?

            Considering that Christians would rather go on about “welfare queens” rather than acting like the sheep who “did for the least of these,” why shouldn’t I give up on them?

          • 18 December 2009 7:28 am

            The term “goverrnment entitlement program” is pretty meaningless, and has very little to do with this post.

            But I find it interesting that some people seem to think that “entitlement” (whatever it means) is a very bad thing for the poor to have, but that it is something not to be criticised when it appears among the rich.

    • 18 December 2009 7:24 am

      As I said to Elliot, I wasn’t, in this post, concerned about the role of governments, but about the attitudes of Christians.

  7. 21 December 2009 2:14 pm

    Steve, thanks for posting that excerpt from the writings of St John Chrysostom. It’s making me realise how my own Christian background misses out such treasures from the Saints.

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