Friday, August 5, 2016

Is Money a Personal or Systemic Problem?

In his book, Money and Power (translated by LaVonne Neff, 1984), Jacques Ellul introduces the topic with a general discussion of “The Problem of Money” (Chapter 1).

Personal or systemic?
Jacques begins his discussion about money, embarrassingly enough, by observing that “[w]henever we talk about money we tend to look at it through the eyes of the society in which we live” (9). In other words, we generally look at money and all else through the dominant Olympian worldview without even knowing it. Let us strive, as Christians, to increasingly understand our lives from a biblical point of view.

Ages ago, people understood money as a hoard of gold coins. How one gained those coins and used them seemed to exhaust the problem of money. Gradually this problem seemed to become just one small part of the larger question of how best to organize an economy. For decades a battle raged as to whether the economy should be capitalist or communist. Now we are all stuck with a single parasitic Global Technological System (GTS) of lethal proportions.

This GTS seems to have completely removed the problem of money from our responsibility. “No longer is there any real relation between an individual and his money, because money is abstract and impersonal. Consequently, moral problems concerning money no longer seem to exist” (10).
If the rich are getting much richer and many more people are getting poorer and even dying, that’s not our problem as Christians and churches. According to the dominant Olympian worldview, that’s a problem with the GTS. Solving it is the responsibility of American elites. Once they have reformed the GTS, then the distribution of money within it will be more just.
This systemic way of viewing the problem allows us, as Christians and churches, to avoid all responsibility. Since we can’t alter the GTS as a whole, we dismiss all possibilities of personally and locally responding to its challenges. We don’t have to personally respond to poor people. We pay taxes to the government which are used, in part, to fund social welfare programs. It is our government’s responsibility to care for poor people. We invest some money in stocks and give responsibility for distributing its dividends to our local church. In these ways we imagine we have taken care of the problem of money.
If we are Christian progressives, we also tend to excuse the personal irresponsibility of others. So, for example, if a poor man steals food to eat, we imagine “his economic conditions were such that he could do nothing else” (11). If that is our way of thinking, though, we must also forgive “the capitalist who exploits workers…[because he is] involved in impersonal economic conditions which leave [him] no options” (12).
In challenging today’s common assumption that the problem of money is best taken care of by modifying the GTS, Jacques lists problems with money that no change in the GTS will touch. Expecting such changes to do so “amounts to predicting that man will become just and good, that he will know exactly what to do with his money, that he will no longer covet his neighbor’s possessions, that he will no longer steal, that he will give up bribing women and public officials, that he will not be corrupted by his own material good fortune, that he will sympathize with the needy, that he will neither hoard his money nor waste it, that he will no longer dream of ‘upward mobility,’ that he will not use his accumulated wealth to gain power in society, that he will not use his money to humiliate others” (12).
Jacques points out that the GTS is unjust, and every other possible economic system must be unjust, because human nature is not neutral. As human beings, we are not free to choose to be either good or evil.
Instead, we each have two personalities: an Olympian and a Christian one. Our Olympian personality, devoted as it is to the six conventional yet destructive gods of Olympianity, is evil and always constructs evil economic systems or corrupts good ones. Our Christian personality, devoted as it is to Jesus Christ, is good but faces fierce opposition from our own Olympian personality as well as the intensely Olympian GTS that daily energizes it.
We are wrong, then, to imagine that there is no human nature but only a human condition. We err when we imagine that by changing a human’s condition their Olympian personality will disappear.

Historical Christian responses to the problem of money
During the medieval era of Latin Christendom, the Church attempted to construct a Christian economy. It used such means as the “prohibition of interest, exaltation of poverty, regulation of commerce, just-price and fair-wage theories, organized philanthropy, etc.” (28). Its efforts failed, however, because such an economy necessarily became a matter of law rather than of grace. Even well-intentioned Christian leaders had to use power to attain conformity to established means and ends. Their mistake had been to think that their organized economy did not belong to the world which, biblical witnesses insist, remains under the rule of Satan, even a decisively defeated Satan, until Christ’s definitive victory over him.
A different sort of mistake was subsequently made by Lutherans. They knew that the world and its economic systems, of whatever nature, would remain under Satan’s control until his final defeat. Where they erred was in then dividing the world into two realms: one, secular, in which any witness to Jesus was out of place; the other, Church, where discipleship might mean something. With no witness to Jesus in the world, however, it became much worse than otherwise. This is exactly how the GTS grew to become the catastrophic challenge it is.
We Christians generally make two errors today. One, we automatically link wealth with blessing; thus, if a person is wealthy, that wealth automatically indicates they are blessed by God. That is not how the biblical witnesses understand wealth and blessing. Rather, that is the link made by Pluto, god of money, and those devoted to him.
Two, we understand our relationship to money as one of stewardship. We wrongly imagine that Jesus wants us to be in charge of the world’s money because of our superior virtue as Christians. We forget that we too have an Olympian personality. It is this evil personality which expresses itself through our attitude of condescension toward poorer others. It is this personality which imagines it must teach poorer others the valuable lessons of hard work and thrift. When we think this way, however, we forget that “God’s possessions belong to Jesus Christ, and in him to our neighbor, the one who is deprived of what we own” (Mlle. Moussat in Ellul, 31).

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.