God Money/Wealth/Mammon: NPTS Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture

North Park Seminary’s Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture this year (September 30th – October 1st) dealt with the “Money and Possessions” in Scripture and Christian Tradition.  It was a challenging time.  Part of the challenge was because, as Hugh William pointed out in his paper, the Scriptures don’t  provide a singular perspective on wealth (money) and Possessions.  Though, perhaps surprisingly common threads are traceable through the textile of the Scriptures.   The being wealthy and having possessions isn’t necessarily condemned, however  the Wealthy are often condemned as those who have often unintentionally gained their wealth and comfort through oppression of others.  Also, consistent is the sense that those of means are to use those means to care for the poor and marginalized, and are not to gain their wealth in exploitative and oppressive ways.  God blesses with wealth and calls the poor blessed.  Generosity and justice are the marks of God’s people.   Money, Mammon, wealth is a power easily can become that which we serve and worship, at times without our realizing it.  Around our possessions, wealth and money we can find ourselves in a place of self-deception believing we can control our wealth possessions, not noticing that our possessions are actually a power that controls us and whom we serve.

To ask about what Scripture and Tradition say about wealth and possessions reinforced for me they ways in which, even for the middle class and poor in this country,  seeking to save money through inexpensive consumer items might be a part of a system of dishonest wealth, ie. wealth dependent upon oppressive and exploitative means. Do we know, do we make ourselves aware of, the conditions under which an item is made and finds its way to us?  Also, those exploited and those who consume the inexpensive consumer products are at times the same people.  Are we aware of the ways in which those with less in this country benefit from the cheap labor in other  countries.   Wealth, exploitation, oppression become a messy question when we begin not only to look at what Scripture says but what those Scriptures mean for us in our context.  And as one begins to probe it is perhaps not so easy to disentangle oneself from the reality that much of our wealth in the US and the West is based on less than just treatment of others, and the exploitation of labor.  This is complicated by the reality that even if one isn’t relatively speaking very wealthy, one to some degree benefits from certain exploitative practices.  But it would seem from scripture that it is less important how much one has, but what one does with it and how one has what one has.

As one who seeks to be knowledgeable of how people are treated in the production and delivery of my goods and services I have to admit that there is much I don’t know.  Living in a New Monastic community I am realizing, thanks to the symposium, that at best I limit my involvement in our system that creates wealth through unjust and “dishonest” means: I have been and continue to be a beneficiary of exploitative processes.  In part because I have bought that debt is the way to prosperity.  I have been tempted and at times in my life bought that “making money” is what is needed to have a living.    I’m coming to see that we have handed over (perhaps it was always in the hands of these powers, I don’t know) our livelihoods and our futures to those whose only purpose is the making of and managing of money.   Unfortunately it seems that we have believed we could control Mammon, and are currently in a situation of being fed up with the god money, but are unwilling to admit that we as a culture and society already bowed down to that God.  Repentance and the sign of repentance in seeking other ways to live without financiers, and speculators and the stock market seems the way forward.  But we are entangled and more entangled than we have yet been willing to acknowledge.   We need to not only attempt to address injustice of the current system but create alternatives that exist within and along side the system of the power of  Mammon.  Ultimately, it is the Kingdom of God that is that alternative.

My “Questions to Occupy America” post in the Priestly Goth Blog is in part a fruit of this symposium.