Money (and God)
Origins Consequences Alternatives
This talk is entitled Money (and God): Origins, Consequences and Alternatives. Money is topic Christians ought to take very seriously. Jesus had much to say about money, and almost all of it vigorously critical. The topic is huge, and so the best place to start is with prayer! Silence and prayer: so let’s pray now…
Creator and Sustainer God, we cry out to you from Babylon, from empire built upon the land of people who suffer now because of us, from empire made possible by the murders and injustices of past and present.
We recognize that you have called us out of empire, out of a spirituality of domination and oppression, out of a story of exclusion and competition, and out of violence and separation.
You have called us to be part of a radical alternative to empire. Called to a spirituality of shalom and justice. Called to embrace and welcome and peace.
Yet you have sent us into empire. To witness to another way – of justice, mercy and faithfulness. To transform the slave economy that violates the bodies of rich and poor and the earth itself.
Creator God, our refuge and strength, we confess we are complicit in the evils of our age. Breathe on us as we commit ourselves to the way of Christ to live in your story for the world; to take up the cross that we cannot bear alone; to struggle for peace and justice; to seek fullness of life for all creation; to pray for your kingdom come. Amen.
I was cycling the other day, and I asked God, what do you want people to learn in this talk about you and money? And almost immediately I had to swerve to avoid riding over a hedgehog, which was, sad to say, quite flat and quite dead because a car had quite callously already squashed it. So how would you interpret that sign! Make sure your talk isn’t flat! Don’t be prickly…. The person who squashed the hedgehog had no intention of doing so. The hedgehog was just a victim of a mindless and careless transport system. It was unintentional, but the car brought death. So I made the connection with money and our economic system: they bring death. By participating in these systems, we are visiting death upon our planet and one another.
Money says Charles Eisenstein (2011: 68ff.), is the
…corpse of the commons, the embodiment of all that was once common and free, turned now into property in its purest form… Interest bearing money, by nature, usurps the commons, ruins the planet, and reduces the vast majority of humanity to peonage.
But what I think God also wants us to realize and to celebrate is that Jesus offered not only a critique of money, but also alternatives, and hopefully we will get to explore a few of those.
But we are racing ahead. So let’s structure this talk into three basic headings.
What is money?
Why is money so destructive?
What alternative/s does Jesus offer? (briefly touch only!)
1) What is Money?
My primary source for this section is a book by David Graeber called Debt: the first 5000 years. Its 532 pages long and dense with paleo-anthropological research, so obviously I have to condense massively.
But effectively Graeber calls into question the story of the origins of money that economists base their entire science (some would say pseudo-science). The story goes something like this: First comes barter, then money, and credit comes later. So for example, take the 1996 textbook called Economics by Case, Fair, Gärtner and Heather: (edited)
Money is vital to a market economy. Imagine life without it. The alternative is barter. How would that work? Suppose you had (… eggs) and wanted (…orange juice). You would have to find someone who had orange juice and wanted eggs… The barter system requires a double coincidence of wants…In a complex society, barter involves an intolerable amount of effort…hence the invention of some agreed upon medium of exchange which neatly eliminates the double coincidence of wants problem.
The key here is to realize this scenario is presented as a purely imaginary exercise: imagine a time when there was no money. The economy was something like we have today except with no money…Surely people must have invented it for the sake of efficiency.…
This imaginary exercise is repeated in almost every textbook on economics: (see Begg, Fischer & Dornbuch Economics 2005: ‘Imagine a barter economy…’; Parkin & King Economics 1995: ‘Imagine you have roosters but you want roses.’ Etc.).
The problem is one…(!) When you look at the actual evidence – which is enormous by the way – of cultural anthropology, this fantasy world of barter has never been discovered. The definitive anthropological work on barter by Caroline Humphrey of Cambridge University could not be more definitive:
“No example of a barter economy…has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there has never been such a thing.”
This is not to suggest that barter did not exist: but the evidence suggests that it would only ever be employed with those whom you were not in relationship, with those whom you otherwise could kill. As the phrase suggests, to ‘truck and barter’ means trying to trick, to bamboozle or rip off. In fact, says Graeber (2011:37), there is good evidence to suggest that barter is a relatively recent phenomenon, and only occurred between people who were already familiar with the concept and use of money but for whatever reason do not have a lot of it around. ‘Elaborate barter systems often crop up in the wake of the collapse of national economies: most recently in Russia in the 90’s or Argentina around 2002, when rubles and dollars effectively disappeared.” Europe ‘reverted to barter’ after the collapse of the Roman Empire: people kept accounts in the old imperial currency even if they no longer had coins. They abandoned cash, but not money.
So to try to summarize how money arose: before money, people used a wide variety of systems of credit and mutual obligation that for the most part drew people into a deeper relationship with one another. Everyone always owed something to everyone else and because that ‘debt’ was never fully paid, it was in the interest of everyone to remain in good relationships with one another. At no time would there be a precise calculation of debt: e.g. one cow equals 32 chickens. This only happened once the logic and use of money became common. Money turned obligation into debt proper: the exact calculation of what you owed.
Money is often described as a token of exchange, store of value and unit of account. Graeber asserts that this arose probably as a result of conquering emperors who wanted some way of extracting the wealth from the conquered people. Units of metal etc. were distributed among soldiers, and locals had to exchange food and services (usually sex or labour) for these units, which then had to be used to pay an annual poll tax or census. Money was also part and parcel of the ancient temple system of maintaining the political and economic hegemony of the ruling classes by absorbing the wealth from the surrounding area and centralizing the wealth in the temple itself. In effect, money depersonalized transactions, created competition, broke down community and ensured the flow of wealth from the conquered peasants to the wealthy rulers. MONEY, MARKETS AND THE CREATION OF STATES ARE ALL INTIMATELY CONNECTED.
The modern economists who moan about state interference in the market have got it exactly backwards: without the state, markets could not exist, and vice versa. To my mind, therefore, money is not simply a medium of exchange. Its origins are rooted in violence, competition and the creation of scarcity. There is a spiritual dynamic to money, in my opinion, and it is quite dark and destructive. Of course, money is fundamentally a product of human agreement, and so if we agree to reshape and redefine money, it may be possible to allow it to become sacred. But let’s first ask the question…
No. 1 Wealth Accumulates to the Top
Thomas Piketty’s very recent book Capital in the 21st Century is based on exhaustive research on 200-300 years of capitalism. He says that the rate of wealth accumulation from capital (r) grows on average between 4-5%. The growth of the real economy is between 2-3%. He shows what we all know already: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and no matter how hard you work, you will always lose out to the rich. That is how the system is built. In addition, those will large wealth almost always end up owning the political classes. In other words, in our so called democracies it is not the people who decide, it’s the wealthy who make the laws that protect the wealth of the wealthy. We have seen this most recently in the bailout of reckless banksters while the poor pay the price. In other words we have a nanny sate for the rich, and free market austerity for the poor.
Consequence No. 2
The way money is created today is through the creation of interest bearing debt. In other words, the amount of debt is always higher than the amount of money in circulation. So while some people may eventually pay their debt (i.e. the principal plus interest) the system requires an ever expanding state of indebtedness. This means that there will always be people who are insecure and desperate, ready to cut down the last forest, catch the last fish, liquidate whatever cultural, natural or spiritual asset they have in order to repay the debt. Just to service debt and to live, either you must take existing wealth from someone else (hence competition) or create ‘new’ wealth by drawing on the commons.
Richard Seaford comments that the power of money resembles the power of death. “Indeed,” says Eisenstein (2011:79 edited),
…when every forest has been converted into board feet, when every ecosystem has been paved over, when every human relationship has been replaced by a service, the very processes of planetary and social life will cease. All that will be left is cold, dead money, as forewarned by the myth of King Midas…We will be dead – but very, very rich.
Consequence No. 3
Strip Mining of the Commons
We have to introduce at this point the concept of usury or interest bearing money, which, says Eisenstein, is the ‘corpse of the commons…”
Eisenstein suggests that what we all used to own in common is now being privatized and sold off at an unprecedented rate. In fact the logic of the market economy demands to conversion of ever-greater chunks of the commons into money. Eisenstein talks about the current ‘strip mining of the social commons.’ Social capital refers to our relationships, skills and the ‘services’ people once provided for themselves and one another for free; cooking, child care, health care, hospitality, looking after the elderly and infirm, entertainment, advice giving, growing food, making clothes and building houses. As recently as one generation ago, he says, these functions were far less commoditized as they are today (2011:76). Technology in its current forms tends to exacerbate the problem: the stories and music we once played, learned and shared with one another are now turned into intellectual property, reshaped and sold back to the people to whom it belongs. Money is implicated in this process. Take two distinct forests, turn them into money and you cannot tell the difference any more.
The same applies to culture. Personal relationships between neighbours and church members for that matter are less and less important because what we need can now be paid for from strangers. This flier dropped through my door yesterday says, “The Industry Standard Leaders…” It was an advert for home care for the elderly. Our parents and aunts and uncles are no longer unique individuals: they are an industry. This commoditization of relationships means we have nothing left to do but to earn and consume, earn and consume, all facilitated by the use of money. And every time we use money, we depersonalize the other and ourselves that little bit more, and the owners of capital become economically richer and richer while we become economically, culturally and spiritually poorer and poorer.
Consequence No. 4
God Becomes Money
Eisenstein even suggests that the Western concept of God itself has been influenced by the nature of money (see Money and the Ancient Greek Mind by professor Richard Seaford): it is both concrete and abstract, it is homogeneous, impersonal, both a universal aim and a universal means, and it is unlimited. It is the underlying unity that gives birth to all things. It is that from which all things arise and to which all things return. All things come from money/God; all things return to money/God.
Consequence No. 5
Revolution / Softening the Effects of Money
For the last 5000 years the losers in this rigged game have tended to respond in several ways to this situation in the past: revolution, and the first thing always to be destroyed are the tablets and records of debt in the temples. Another response is the prohibition of usury as in Ancient Palestine or Middle Ages Catholic Europe institutionalize. There has been the institutionalizing of debt cancellation such as Jubilee every 7/49 years. There has been laws protecting debtors, such as laws around bankruptcy. Today, those laws are being reversed in order to protect creditors!!! But all of these take for granted the system of money, markets and state. Our last section deals with some hints about how Jesus dealt with exactly these same problems under the political and economic burden of Roman rule.
What alternative does Jesus Offer?
So we have come this far already without actually saying what money is. The definition that it is a medium of exchange, store of value and unit of account describes what money does, not what money is. Money is merely a social agreement, a story that assigns meaning and roles. Nevertheless, it is a powerful magic indeed, this story. the very way we see things has been utterly informed by the existence of money and our use of it. This makes seeing alternatives very tough.
I’d like to read an extended quote (edited) from Charles Eisenstein’s book A more beautiful world our hearts know is possible:
Even as the old world comes apart around us, or even as we leave it in disgust, still we carry its conditioning. We have been colonized through and through by the old Story of the World. We are born into its logic, acculturated to its worldview, and imbued with its habits. And all of this is so pervasive as to be nearly invisible… we take for granted the very things that are at the root of the crisis, helplessly replicating them in all we do. (Thus we) must deal with an environment that enforces the old habits, not only through economic and social means, but through a relentless barrage of subtle messaging that takes for granted the very things we are seeking to change.
So Let’s turn to one scripture to see how Jesus dealt with the issue of money: The Temple cleansing… Here are some potential interpretations…
Matthew 22 15:22
15 The Pharisees went out. They made plans to trap Jesus with his own words. 16 They sent their followers to him. They sent the Herodians with them.
“Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of honor. You teach the way of God truthfully. You don’t let others tell you what to do or say. You don’t care how important they are. 17 Tell us then, what do you think? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus knew their evil plans. He said, “You pretenders! Why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin people use for paying the tax.”
They brought him a silver coin.
20 He asked them, “Whose picture is this? And whose words?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And give to God what belongs to God.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
- Who has the coins: Jesus or his detractors?
- Why should religious Jews not have been carrying coins?
- What was the trap?
- What belongs to Caesar?
- What today belongs to ‘Caesar’?
- Can you think of alternatives?