Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Are Money and Possessions Morally Neutral?

For those of you who have been anywhere near a church over the last few years, it's more than likely that you've heard of the "Prosperity Gospel". For those of you who haven't, the Prosperity Gospel is basically the teaching that God wishes to bless us with all the good things in this life - health, wealth and happiness. All of these things and more are guaranteed to be ours if only we exercise enough faith. Consequently, sickness, poverty and depression in our lives are all signs that we lack faith. Not surprisingly, this teaching has polarised opinion in the broader Christian community. While some have heralded the Prosperity Gospel as a great scriptural truth and an important corrective to a prevailing "poverty mentality" in Christianity, others have regarded the teaching as a scandalous aberration that manipulates people from prosperity teaching churches into giving money to them.

The first thing to recognise is that the Prosperity Gospel offers commentary on the nature of money. Advocates of this teaching are quick to insist that it is not money itself that is the root of all evil, but that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil, as 1 Timothy 6:10 expresses. Implicit in this assumption is the idea that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with money itself, but rather it is the selfishness of the individual that should be regarded as sinful. Indeed, it is suggested that neither is money morally neutral, because to assert this would be to deny that money is part of God's good creation. Money is instead seen as an intrinsically good entity that can be used to further the Kingdom of God and partake in the blessings that God wishes for us to enjoy. According to this view, money only becomes bad when its inherently good nature is corrupted through sin.

Even if the abovementioned view was considerable to be legitimate, I'd still have to ask the question: "How do you know that you don't love your money?" I must admit that I'm astounded by the confidence of people who tell that while they may be financially secure, they nonetheless have no attachment to their money. When I have bring up the story of the rich young ruler asked by Jesus to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor in Luke:18:18-27, they point out to me that this request applied only to this specific individual. They tell me that if Jesus told to give up all of their worldly possession then they would gladly do so. Conveniently though, he hasn't. I wonder how they are able to speak with such confidence since they apparently haven't crossed this bridge yet? And is it even remotely possible that Jesus has indeed asked them to part with all of their worldly possession but they have found a way to rationalise this direction out of existence to alleviate their consciences?

I believe that Thomas à Kempis expresses a view on money and possessions that really challenges Western Christianity. He suggests that it is absurd to talk about owning possessions without also being attached to them. His is a very radical asceticism, in which he actually suggests that we should seek to "free [ourselves] altogether from worldly desires". Failure of a person to do so indicates that they are "spiritually weak and to some extent still subject to the flesh". I would suggest that I don't know of a single Christian who is not in this state.

If you still believe that you no longer have any love for your worldly possessions, then I have a challenge for you. Invite me over to your house and watch me drag mud over your carpet and start writing my next blog entry in crayon on your walls. I might also start appropriating a few things for myself. If this provokes no reaction, then my blessings will be upon your house. But if you complain that I am ruining your beautiful house and am taking stuff which belongs to you, then I will know that your declaration not to love and desire the things of this world is a mere pretence - a dishonest display of smoke and mirrors.

Reflecting upon this challenge begs the question: "Why do we respond to the theft and damage of our property with such indignation?" I would suggest that just as we are we what eat, what are what we own. Our purchasing decisions say volumes about the type of people we are and what we value most. Furthermore, I would suggest that to the extent that we consider ourselves owners of something, that thing becomes part of us. We become unmistakably bound to that object until such time as we give it up. I vaguely remember the joy in receiving a shiny new toy as a young child and the profound distress I felt when I slightly damaged the toy. Notwithstanding the fact that the toy was still very much usable, it would never be in its original, perfect condition. In a way when that toy became damaged, a part of me became damaged too. This isn't simply childish behaviour - I think that on a deep level we feel personally aggrieved when someone damages or steals something we own because we feel that in a way they have struck out against us and our identity.

Far from being morally neutral, I believe that money and possessions are inherently destructive entities that prevent us from realising spiritual realities. To the extent that we own something, we are also owned by this thing. Indeed, as Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul argues, money is not neutral by very definition because it is a ranking tool that the powers of this world use to determine the worth and value of a person. This reminds me of the scene in "Pretty Woman" where a salesman refuses to serve Julia Roberts' character because she comes into the store dressed as a prostitute, thinking that she must be poor. His attitude changes markedly when he learns that she has money to burn. Money truly does talk - our bank balance determines our status in society. To the extent that we pursue money for whatever reason, we are buying into this discriminatory system. The only way to subvert and destroy the equilibrium of this system, Ellul argues, is to do what was never intended to be done with money - give it away.

I write to you today as a self-confessed hypocrite - I certainly haven't given away all of my worldly possessions at this stage. This said, I'd like to think that I am taking steps to live a more simple existence in which I rely less and less upon the luxuries of this life. I invite you to join me on this journey.


Giraffe Pen (기린 만년필) said...

Hi David,

My name's Haydn and I once went to church with Craig, whose blog you sometimes write on. I recently read your blog entry, and much as I sometimes disagree with what you argue I understand what you mean by feeling as though you're 'on the margins'. In many ways I am the same as you, having struggled with many issues (which I don’t want to explicitly mention on the Internet) which are far from being mainstream problems. Being on the margins has caused me a lot of heartache, bitterness, and frustration, and by focussing on them so much and by tacitly viewing myself as a hapless ‘fringe dweller’ I developed a victim mentality.
When I was at church with Craig and in other fellowships, I set all my hopes of overcoming my struggle onto others and when they didn’t meet my needs I became full of contempt and hatred- which only served to isolate me further and make my problems worse. Had I been more patient, graceful, thankful and kind to my fellow brethren I would have had a much better experience at church. These problems became so great that I was tempted to fall away from Christ altogether.
I can appreciate the frustration that you have: if your spiritual brothers and sisters can’t understand you (especially if you have a rare condition) then how can they reach you where you’re at? The biggest risk in thinking this is that you start to pin all your hopes on other people who will only let you down. Ultimately it is only God who can fill your needs, REGARDLESS of what the rest of humanity is doing.

Eventually I got out of that “I’m on the margins” thinking, particularly after I was married this year. When that happened, I had to put someone else’s needs before mine and in doing so I found out who I really was. I saw that my wife loved me unconditionally and- most importantly- so did God. I didn’t need to find my satisfaction in anybody else because God is there supplying all I need. My wife and I have gone through many ups and downs since we were married in March but God is sustaining us.
I was particularly humbled by Colossians 3:13- “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Jesus went further in Matthew 18:25 when he said that forgiveness has to come from the bottom of the heart. Sins committed in ignorance against us are not intentional (God made provision for unintended sin in the Old Testament!) and we’re called to bear with one another in love even when others hurt us regardless of their intention, are unrepentant, and do not want to know us. Forgiveness isn’t a matter of just saying “Yeah, I forgive you” but needs to be worked out from the bottom of the heart.
That’s hard work but it’s the spiritual stuff that God has called us to do. John 13:34-35 drives the point further, and 1 John says we can have no fellowship with him if we hate our brethren in Christ. Remember also that the church- as flawed as it is- is Christ’s body and is here to fulfil his purposes

Perhaps I’m wrong about where you’re at but I sense some anger and frustration in you towards mainstream Christianity, because it doesn’t understand you. At one stage you wrote, “My role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. Remember, brother, you are not God and only he (through the work of the Holy Spirit) can rebuke us sinners, and that with the purest of motives. He knows the hearts and minds of us all (Revelation 2:23), so only with his holy motives and knowledge is he best able to judge and act.

I’m writing this to you as an encouragement because I’ve been before that where you are now, and I fear it will only lead to the same disillusionment that it created in me. I pray that you may have calmness of spirit and strength in your identity as a son of God.

CraigS said...

Thanks for sharing that with us Haydn, it was very humble and insightful.

Giraffe Pen (기린 만년필) said...

No worries. I hurt a lot of people in that frame of mind, and I deeply regret it.

David Castor said...

Hey Haydn,

Thankyou greatly for your contribution - it is much appreciated. It would be dishonest of me to suggest that I had not experienced the type of hurt that you are talking about in the past. I'm the first one to admit that I have not always responded as I should have. This said, I should point out that while I may not have come to the margins of my own volition, it is of my own volition that I choose to stay here. I have found my place and my role and I am quite contented being situated here. It is a place of vibrancy and growth and dare I say, joy.

I think my relationship to the centre has changed significantly over the last few years. Whereas my attitude was once one of anger and resentment, I believe that I am trying to adopt an attitude of empathy and compassion. Taking a step back has helped me to realise that it is sometimes the most oppressive people are at the same time the most oppressed. I can honestly say that I wish to understand people where they are at and I make a conscious attempt to let them tell their story.

Documentor said...

David, another great article. Don't bother coming to my place to write on my walls in crayon as i have 2 daughters who sometimes undertake this actvity!

One Salient Oversight said...

I think you're spot on when you link both money and possessions together with our own sense of identity.

It's very difficult living in such a rich and prosperous society to not somehow want more since it essentially validates our self-worth.

David Castor said...

Hey OSO - thanks for your comments.

The thing I find difficult about writing blog entries like these is the inescapable realisation I have that money is certainly not an area in which I exercise full control. Indeed, truth be known, I'm sure that there are many who have been far more successful than me in rejecting the power of money, including those who aren't nearly as vocal as I am on the subject. The only thing I think I can do is be upfront about my weaknesses and make it clear that I am a fellow journeyer who struggles with this issue.

As much as I hate prosperity teaching and its unashamed declaration that to pursue money is a noble goal (as long as honestly believe that you are doing it for the right reasons), I think that pretty much all of Western Christianity, particularly Protestantism has its own form of prosperity teaching, albeit more subtle and sophisticated, yet equally insidious. We have used the titles "Protestant work ethic" or "good stewardship" to justify our pursuit of money. Maybe I'm the only person on the planet to have had mixed motives when it comes to money, but there are definitely times when I think we as Christians are fooling ourselves when we say we don't really love our money and the power that comes with it.

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