Jesus and The Politics of Mammon

About five years ago I set out to write a book on money and Christianity. I wrote a number of chapters, I researched what I could for the depth of the audience I was intending to hit and tried to lay out a plan for how to best approach it. Everything I knew about church, the Christian faith, theology and religious individuals was trapped in the invisible and powerful ideology of money. Of all the things that Jesus spoke about and lived into, his message about money and our relationship to those who had none was spoken about with the most clarity, passion and the most often.

2020 is the first year in the last five that I didn’t add finishing that book onto my new year’s goals. I lost interest and my energy has been consumed elsewhere and so I’ve decided to let it go.

Which is why, this interview with Hollis Phelps by Dan Oudshoorn about his book “Jesus and the Politics of Mammon” could not have landed at a better time. I don’t need to write any books on this when there is something so succinct and on point to this exact topic. I loved this interview, I know I will love Hollis’ book and I’m grateful that someone has taken the time to lay out the complexity of Mammon and Jesus. I encourage you to go read the interview and if it interest’s you to pick up the book. Enjoy!

Therefore, over against centuries of Christian interpretation, Phelps argues that “the problem of mammon cannot be reduced to a matter of the heart” (23). The issue is not how each individual approaches wealth, property, and desires, but is with how wealth qua wealth separates a person from God and from participation within God’s political economy (24-33). Here, it is important to understand that what people claim to believe about money, whatever attitude they claim to have towards it, is less important than how they actually use money and the role money has in their lives. As Phelps states, “belief lies in practice, in what we actually do” (37). In other words, making certain claims about oneself is frequently a branding exercise that is deployed in other to make one feel good about oneself, even while one continues to participate within the very structures from which one desires to distance oneself. Thus, regardless of claims one makes about being detached from money, the fact that one’s life still revolves around money (making money, spending money) reveals the lie inherent to those claims.

Dan Oudshoorn

One of my constant frustrations is the various interpretative moves that allow us to ignore the often-straightforward claims made in the biblical texts, whether these are positive or negative. By “straightforward” here, I don’t mean “naïve” and “simple,” as if interpretation requires no critical knowledge or apparatuses. That’s not my point. My point, rather, is faith-based patterns of interpretation often require fitting the texts with certain presuppositions, because the text is considered scripture. In other words, we make the texts say something easier, something in line with what we already think, rather than taking it at its word. We’d rather blunt the force of a text—again, whether that force is positive or negative—than simply disagree with it or call its author wrong.

When applied to Jesus this strategy has everything to do with making him, what he says and does, relatable. Jesus, in other words, has to be brought into the sphere of our desires (many of the early theologians talk about Jesus in this way, as God reaching down to our level so that we can grasp matters at our level). It’s a theological move that ultimately constructs Jesus in our own image by blunting the force of his speech and actions, by making him palatable: Jesus functions as a sort of moral check on our desires, but the scope of the morality in play is determined in advance according to our desires. So, as you say and as I discuss in the book, Jesus is very clear that you can’t serve God and Mammon, and he expresses the disjunction between the two and their corresponding modes of being in various ways. That’s a tall order, though—and I think most of us like to think of our lives as somehow validated in the things we find important for whatever reason, such as religious texts. So, with Jesus, we’d rather downplay the severity of his claims about money, not to mention other matters, as a way to ease our conscience and justify our lives rather than own up to the fact that we don’t like what he says, that we disagree with what he says, that we think what he says is ludicrous and impossible. To be fair, we’re theologically primed against the latter option—Jesus’ divinity and perfect humanity rule out such responses, so we make him say something else, something a bit easier. The irony, of course, is that Jesus knows what he says is unpalatable, disagreeable, and ludicrous—that’s the whole point of the Parable of the Rich Young Ruler, whose upshot is “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (Luke 18:27). Otherwise put, we make what Jesus says possible for us when he clearly says it isn’t; in doing so, we fail to wrestle with what impossibility for us and possibility for God might mean for reorienting and reorganizing our lives against Mammon. I think that leaves most Christians in the position of the rich young ruler, which is not only a missed opportunity; it’s also a choice to serve Mammon which, as we know, has its own difficulties, its own oppressions. As André Gorz argues, we’ve been sold the promise of comfort, convenience, and security for that subservience, though perhaps we’re now seeing the breakdown of that promise, which is why it’s a propitious time to start thinking otherwise.

Another way to put it is that, as you mention, I think the opposition between God and Mammon is the core of what Jesus teaches. So, we—me, you, Christians, even everyone, if we think there’s some universality to what he says—have to make a choice. Most of us have chosen wrongly, though as I discuss in the book this choice is “forced” in various ways, so I don’t mean it in some individualizing, moralizing way that would ascribe sin or guilt to individuals who are subjected to and often oppressed by an inherently unjust economic system. Downplaying Mammon’s opposition to God (“being good stewards,” as you say) is just a way to serve Mammon. If we want to be on the right side of what Jesus says, then, we have to give allegiance to “God” but that means also acting expressly against Mammon. What that looks like concretely and in action may, of course, vary, and I don’t really spell out solutions in the book. Jesus doesn’t offer us a program but, rather, incites us to think and act differently—taking the opposition between God and Mammon seriously, as real, is the first step in doing the latter.

Holis Phelps

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