Serving Mammon

October 8th, 2019

“You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Matthew 6:24

Money has a personality. Money has a character and motivation. It has thoughts, feelings, words, and aspirations.

If you don’t believe me, listen to reporters describe the stock market: “The market reacted to news of tariffs today,” they say, or “The market was confident this week.” The market has moods: skittish, hopeful, indecisive. It reacts and responds. Its two dominant moods are fearful and bold, but be careful: You don’t want to make the market angry.

Now, you may say this is only a metaphor. The market isn’t really a living, conscious thing. We only use those words to describe the overall moods of investors. But the market isn’t the only instance in which we describe money as a person.

Wealth inequality is in the news more and more. Occasionally, someone brings up the fact that super-wealthy people who make most of their income from investments pay lower taxes (capital gains) than the rest of us who have to labor for our income (income tax). This fair-minded person will say, “We should raise the capital gains tax. Why should the richest one percent of the population pay lower taxes than the rest of us?”

“Not so fast,” comes the response. “The government has already taxed that money. It isn’t fair to tax it again.”

See? Money has rights. Poor money! It has already been taxed, and now people want to tax it again. It isn’t fair to the money.

Again, you may say this is simply a shell game played with language. We do not really tax money, you could argue; we actually tax people.

If only!

Our language about money is slippery because money uses language to defend itself. Like all living things, it wants to grow and reproduce. It certainly does not want to be taxed. It distracts our moral imagination by insisting we talk about what is fair to money or best for investors rather than what is fair to all human beings. This is one of several reasons we often speak of money as a god: It inspires the faithful to defend it.

It is like the idols in ancient pantheons which, though they were made by human hands, could “see” out of their marble eyes and “hear” with their carved ears. Disrespect or honor shown to the idol was disrespect or honor to the god itself. Isaiah made fun of this kind of idol, pointing out that after an artist carved a god from wood, the shavings could be burned to keep warm. “What kind of god is that?” Isaiah asked. (Isaiah 44:12-17).

Money stops being alive, of course, when the people handling it are poor. Then it becomes merely a tool, like an axe or a hoe. The non-wealthy use money to get what they want: groceries, clothes, medicine, education. There’s never enough of it, of course, because instead of “trickling down” from the wealthy to the poor, it actually floods in rivers up to where it can be hoarded in great quantities by the wealthy. Only then can it become conscious and grow without direct human labor, simply by being loaned and paid back with interest again and again and again, rewarding behavior that helps it grow, extracting energy from our living planet like a tumor sucking nutrients from our bodies.

In the hands of the poor, money stops being a person with rights recognized by law. For example, your car can be pulled over by police and, if they claim the envelope full of cash you carry was earned by selling drugs, they can simply take it without proving you are guilty. Although it sounds literally like highway robbery, you should know that this practice is called “civil asset forfeiture.” If you are poor, you will likely be unable to hire a lawyer and prove, in a court of law, that your money is innocent. The police department can keep your money and use it to buy more crime-fighting equipment, even if you never go to court or confess to a crime.

“Wait a minute,” you might say. “A person is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. I shouldn’t have to prove my innocence in order to keep my own money.”

Well, according to current legal language in the United States, while you may be innocent until proven guilty, your money is not. Your money has no such freedom, because it is not a person with legal protection.

When it suits.

See how this works? In the hands of the wealthy, sufficient quantities of money gain consciousness, character, will, emotions, and rights. In the hands of the poor, it is simply a tool. In the hands of the wealthy, money shouldn’t be taxed more than once, because that would be unfair to the money. In the hands of the poor, fairness doesn’t even matter, because money has no rights. Unless you can afford a lawyer.

I used to teach Dave Ramsey’s money management course in my church. Dave says many useful things. One of the things he says repeatedly is that money is not evil; it is morally neutral. It is like a brick, which can be used to build a house or can be thrown through a window. The brick itself has no moral qualities. It is all in how we use it, to build or to destroy.

I used to agree with this analogy, but now I think that it is untrue. Money is certainly a tool in the hands of the poor, but in sufficient quantities in the hands of the powerful, it becomes a god. All you have to do is examine the way we actually talk about it and treat it, and in what context.

Our modern Christian trend has been to translate the Aramaic loan-word “mammon” as a synonym for wealth. Etymonline says the word was “regarded mistakenly by medieval Christians as the name of a demon who leads men to covetousness.” For this reason, the King James Version leaves the word untranslated, but contemporary translations go with the word “wealth.”

But I’ve often appreciated Walter Wink’s social-spiritual approach to naming the powers and principalities that exert demonic control on our lives. While money may be a social convention invented by humans, it is naive to say that it is morally neutral or “just a tool.” Just as our law recognizes that a corporation can own property and have certain rights as a “virtual person,” markets and funds that exist to make money also possess a “virtual consciousness” — they feel, think, and act in order to grow and reproduce, like any living thing.

One more example of how differently money functions in different contexts: In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission that “money is speech,” so it is not fair to restrict how it is used in political campaigns. This ruling means that those with more money get to have more speech. Amazingly, thanks to Political Action Committees and campaign finance law, this “speech” can exist independent of an identifiable speaker. A donor can remain anonymous, move a large amount of money around in the darkness, and influence an election without ever revealing who is doing the “speaking.” Who else speaks from cloud and thick darkness, unseen by mortal eyes? Who, besides the Word of God, can be both a spoken word and a person?

Make no mistake: these are god-like powers. A voice coming from the void, demanding to remain invisible, asserting the rights of a person (when it is convenient) yet denying any human responsibility, acting in its own interest — is this not a living being?

The god Mammon is real, and he is demanding. He does not care about the poor or the planet. The biggest difference, of course, between Mammon and Christ is that Christ gives himself in love for the world. Mammon demands the world for himself.

We, the church, need to put Mammon in its place. Too many of us have been apologists for Mammon and the systems he controls. We need to demand that society treat money consistently. If it is speech, then we should be able to identify the speaker, and everyone’s speech should count equally. If it is a person, then it should be taxed for its labor like everyone else when it belongs to rich people, and it should be innocent until proven guilty when it belongs to poor people.

We have to choose which God we will serve, and which one will serve us.

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