I’ve fallen badly out of the habit of writing here. I have many fine ideas to share. Of course I do, since I spend much of my life reading the ideas of damn fine thinkers. But when the evening comes in here in Aberdeen (which usually happens about 12 minutes after the sun rises), I never quite have the energy to batter away at this keyboard for my dozen faithful readers.
What can I say?
IDK. Totes soz.
As a result of the PhD programme, I have many new friends who are Americans. Although they’ve all cottoned on by now to the fact that I’m a no good peacenik, they still graciously tolerate my company. One of their number was telling me about a pastor in America who was spending $1.7 million on a house (but due to tax efficiencies and other methods he might be paying only $400,000). While that is small change compared to the shenanigans German bishops get up to, this is pretty astounding. Someone managed to find Stanley Hauerwas for a comment and he called it “an offense to the Gospel.”
Christianity Today, the publication of record for English-speaking Protestantism weighed in on this conversation.
It is an almost definitive example of the most reasonable contemporary Christian thinking on wealth. The author confesses she is rich. She feels a need to describe what that means.
I haven’t ever needed to worry about how we would pay for groceries or keep the electricity from being shut off. When one of our children outgrows a bicycle, we buy a new one. When a school fee is due, we write a check. When the co-pay for one of our children’s surgeries registers $200, I don’t decide what necessity we’ll temporarily live without.
There’s more. About seven more lines dedicated to the comfort she and her family
endures enjoys. She goes on to draw on the ideas about power advanced in a popular Christian book and concludes that while we need to re-focus our understanding of money, there is a crucial “Biblical” observation we cannot neglect:
Of course, for this to happen we will need to make the important biblical distinction between the moral neutrality of having money and the sin of loving money (1 Tim. 6:10)
The Bible citation there might make you think she is making a point in reference to that text, at the end of Paul’s 1st letter to his apprentice Timothy. But neither that verse, nor the surrounding passage give any grounds to speak of the “important Biblical distinction” that is drawn. In fact, the passage is morally anxious about money. Not a hint of “neutrality” can be found in the verse or those surrounding it:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.
We came into the world with nothing and leave with nothing. Maybe you can take from that that the stuff that passes through our hands in the interim is neutral, but a clearer reading is that such stuff is irrelevant.
This is supported by the fact that the very basic rudiments of life are described as the ingredients for contentment. Food and clothing. Not bicycles, private schooling or even medical care. The desire to get rich plunges “people into ruin and destruction”. He goes so far as to say that people eager for money have lost their way from God, “have wandered from the faith”. What is Paul’s “important Biblical teaching” on our attitude to money? FLEE FROM ALL THIS.
The article descends into a conversation about a thing called “privilege”, which I think is a (well-meaning) intellectual and moral vortex. I don’t need to engage in any further recapping. I am sincere when I say that this is a most reasonable example of Christian thinking on this issue. Apart from a contradiction over whether apologies are needed for being wealthy, it is clearly written. If we weren’t Christian, the points would make perfect sense. But that this extreme evasion is reasonable shows how serious our predicament is.
What I need to do now is to ask you what the hell we think we are saying when we describe something as morally neutral?
What’s the reality backing up the idea of things as morally neutral depending on whether they are used for positive or negative ends? Is that a reality that we discover in Scripture? Even if it is, how do we decide whether the morally neutral thing is used for good or bad? By what metric do we measure? Is it intention? Is it consequence? Is it maximisation? Is it tradition and the status quo?
My supervisor is fond of reminding me that obedience to God’s call on our life is never abstract. It never takes place “in our heart”. It always happens in space and time, with a person or a place or a thing as its object. We cannot be obedient to God in intention without action. We cannot hear God’s invitation and mentally assent. We can’t hide from the Kingdom of God by making these metaphysical hedges. If you play ontological poker with Creation, it will win. Money is a thing we have invented. It has no substance apart from its use. There are two ways you can cut it: either it has no neutrality because it is always in use, in transit, doing what it does and that has moral weight -OR- it is always passive but is perpetually in use by you and me. It does nothing. We do everything.
So either money is always morally weighty or the moral implication of money is just an extension of the moral weight of our actions.
At no point do we get to wash our hands and talk in the way we wish we could.
Because when it comes right down to it, we’re Christians. For God’s sake, may we start taking some of what that means seriously and stop speaking like Warren Buffet’s moralistic do-gooding nephews and nieces.
Your Correspondent, He would like to be Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who learns that poetry is just another way to rap.