The Idea A Thing Can Be “Morally Neutral” Is Morally Destructive

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.

Love of money

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.

24 Replies to “The Idea A Thing Can Be “Morally Neutral” Is Morally Destructive”

  1. Can we blame capitalism for the supposed “moral neutrality” of money?

    The presuppositions in the Christianity Today articles are that the way money is earned and accumulated is morally neutral (because the free market is neutral) – unless of course you earn your through some kind of OBVIOUSLY illegitimate means – and that storing up money doesn’t count as using it and is therefore “neutral”.

    But since all money has a history (or a story behind it), the first presupposition doesn’t hold. And since to “have” money is to “use” money (for security etc) then the second presupposition doesn’t hold either.

    As the great theologian of wealth Omar says, “Money ain’t got no owners, only spenders.” We are all spending it on something. In other words, your post is, quite literally, on the money.

  2. I was re-reading ‘Power and Money’ by Jacques Ellul and he was talking about this sort of thing. Not sure if you’ve ever read it, but it might be a book to check out sometime.

  3. Omar says it in one of the early episodes in season 4. He is robbing a poker game when one of the drug dealers says, “That’s mine.” Then comes the classic line.

    Have you finished The Wire yet, or are swamped with less important things?

  4. Perhaps only vaguely related, but I love Kraybill’s “detours” in in The Upside Down Kingdom. I grew up hearing folks refer to “being a good steward,” which always meant saving your money. I appreciate that he points out we’ve either forgotten what a steward is (someone acting on behalf of someone else) or who we are a steward for (a God who sacrificially gave of himself and loves the least of these).

  5. i loved this. loved it. and then i tried to explain it. which came out as “money is always evil, run far far away from it.” which for some reason, seems off-putting to people. what’s a better term for this? simply that money isn’t neutral? i need you to come off your phd high horse and give me a few phrases i can toss out here and there, mmmmkay?

  6. Thanks Dave. Ellul is on the list. One of the guys who runs one of the seminars that I am involved in did his doctorate on old Jacques. I suspect I’ll be involved in long conversations about him in time.

    Declan; I confess to almighty Omar and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault. I am stuck at the end of Series 2. I can’t bring myself to blog, nevermind to watch Wire. (Or Breaking Bad.)

    Mayfielders: I’ve never heard of this Kraybill book. It’s now added to the list. I think your comments on stewarding cannot be made too often Krispin. D.L., I don’t think we can run from money. We can’t go back to Eden and we can’t go back to bartering. I think we just have to start by puncturing the idea of money’s “neutrality”, move on to confronting people with how shallow (and life destroying) our ideas are at the moment and then when we’ve climbed that summit, our view might be clearer.

    And I can guarantee you that I’m only on the high horse with the intention of getting off it again.

  7. I’m with DL -not a clue. Sounds good though! but yeah waaaaay over my head.

    In fact ive noticed that the amount of confusion i have on this blog is directly proportional to the amount of agreement you and dec display in the comments afterwards!

  8. Richie, I make three points:

    Richie:

    1) The idea that anything can be “morally neutral” is supremely dodgy.

    In the key of “neutrality”, only two things can be said:

    2) Either money is neutral because it never stops moving and it is simply impossible to isolate a moment and call a particular instance “positive”, “negative”, “to God’s glory” or whatever idea we are aiming at.

    or

    3) Money is morally neutral and therefore all our human actions are morally weighty. If this is true, it is also redundant and casts no light on the problem of the moral weight of every human action.

    This is preliminary sketch, written after a party, in response to a magazine article. I’m not yet at the point I can offer a theology of wealth. But I think the fact that 2 and 3 can both be true at the same time is especially interesting.

    Does that help?

  9. Kev thanks for the giving me more time.

    I understand 1.

    I’m not sure i agree with 2. (you cant call using money for good “good”?)

    and i dont get 3. What is the “it” in the second sentence.

  10. To understand 2, ask yourself if money has a history? If so, where does it become good? Furthermore, what exactly is “bad”?

    The confused “it” is the claim money is neutral. To whatever extent we can act as if that is true (it is false), we haven’t actually added anything to our conversation.

  11. I’m with Richie, as in ‘this is over my head’. I get #1. #2 I’ve been mulling over and am wondering if this gets at what you are trying to say when we ask where the blurred line is between something that is being used for good or bad… it is certainly not limited to this, but I think it can come down to a heart issue and what it does to you. There is little that we do that isn’t intertwined with our own self-interest: who/what we give our money to, how much, what we do/don’t expect in return, etc. I may give my money to my church (a good place to give my money to), but then I think I’ve done my duty. I can now go buy the new BMW 4 series the advertising gurus have convinced me I need, or another book I ‘might’ get around to reading. I’ve done something with my money that to many might look good, but what I’ve really done is just congratulate and convince myself that I’ve done enough. Conversely, I could give all my money away to my church, to ‘the poor’, to whatever seems most needed/pressing at the moment, and divest myself of any other commitment to these or other areas because I’ve done enough. So while there might be a ‘good’ direction the money is going, the impulse behind it was bad. My actions certainly had moral heft, but the money and what it represented to me also had its own moral heft. Is that overly simplistic? Completely wrong? I think I may be misreading, but I am interested in what you are saying and am wanting to make sure I understand it.

  12. Thanks for the comment Justin.

    I suspect self interest is not the dreadfully bad thing you seem to express it as. I do think you have hit on an important aspect of the conversation when you use the word “enough”. Our stated want is for “enough” but no one can tell you what “enough” is. Why is that?

    I don’t think “heart issues” exist. I dare to suggest, knowing that you as my friend will take me seriously, that you are as close to completely wrong in that understanding as you can be. Motivation is not that interesting to the New Testament. As I said in the post, obedience has to happen in time and space.

    Let me put it to you this way. You and I are pastors together. We’re preaching a series on marriage. Of course we have to foreground the idea that “love is not a feeling, but a verb” and we flesh out this true cliche in lots of illustrations.

    Then someone comes to us and says, “I am unfaithful to my wife. I beat her. I use her. I destroy her self esteem. But in my heart I feel a deep and abiding love for her.” We both know what pastoral assessment we will make in this instance.

    We both know that obedience to New Testament teaching on matrimony demands obedience to God’s call in the actual way we interact with our spouses.

    Now if that is all fully understood, why when it comes to money do we suddenly tolerate spiritualization? I keep hearing “It’s the LOVE of money that’s the root of evil”, as if I have not gotten around to a close reading of the text! But love takes place in time and space. It isn’t merely about consequences either and intention does count but it is utterly broken to say it is a “heart issue”. It isn’t just philosophically or systematically broken. It is broken in a way that directly sustains the status quo of inequality and the spiritual devastation of a surplus of plenty.

    So in summation: In point 3 I am saying that whatever way we construct the case so that it appears as if we can say “money is neutral”, we have made the ground we stand on even more precarious because all we’ve emphasised is the weight of our own glory. Our actions count. The non-existent dollar that we “used” in our actions is neutral only if by that we mean irrelevant.

  13. “Motivation is not that interesting to the New Testament.”

    That’s just not true. And to show that it is not true, here is a selection of proof texts!

    Mat. 15:8 “‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;

    Mat. 15:18-19 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.

    Mat. 18:35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.

    What is Jesus talking about here, if not “heart issues”? Jesus seemed to be an expert in discerning the hidden motivations behind people’s actions. Indeed, he seemed profoundly interested in them.

    The husband who beats his wife but claims to love her in his heart is obviously perverse. But what of the husband who does and says the right things, yet he has no desire for his wife – his outward agape is not coupled with the hidden springs of eros (if I can use these terms in such a reductionist way). Now Kant might say that such a husband is even more ethically praiseworthy than the erotically-charged husband, because he is doing what he does out of pure obedience to duty without him getting anything in return. But can we agree that Kant would be dead wrong – if that is indeed the Kantian position?

    Just as true eros is inseparable from agape, surely agape should be inseparable from eros. The man who delights to please his wife and bring joy to her surely knows something more of true obedience than the man who begrudgingly does what he has been told a good husband is supposed to do, while his heart remains far from his wife. You are denying motivation space-time existence, but I have no idea why.

    While I fully agree with you that visible actions can and do reveal what we desire, I think there must also be room for visible actions concealing our desires and motivations. Humans make for decent actors, with obedience often being a game of charades.

  14. “You are denying motivation space-time existence, but I have no idea why.”

    What I mean is, I don’t know what your rationale is. I couldn’t care less about your motivation πŸ™‚

  15. Justin: LOLZ, as they say.

    Dec: The heart doesn’t mean “motivation”.

    Everywhere that a modern Christian says a Biblical text is about “heart issues”, it’s actually directly addressing action.

    You see this even in your own “proof” texts. What comes out of the heart? Not feelings. Not emotions. Not intentions. Not even dispositions. But actions: “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” and “forgiveness”.

    The widow with her pennies, the woman with bleeding, the Centurion with more faith than anyone in Israel… the classic “motivation”/”heart issue” passages are being brutally warped by our obsession with subjectivity. The New Testament is interested with the entire self that acts, which is what I think “heart” means. It is not interested in a thing called “motivation” separate from the action.

    I hear what you are saying with the husband analogy but I have two responses. First, the idea that a man could love his wife in action and yet never feel desire for her is even more hypothetical than the monstrous figure I drew. It is hypothetical to the extent of being problematic. And secondly, your agape-eros analogy doesn’t seem to jump over into a question of money and wealth. Am I missing something?

    I think you are making the opposite point in your last paragraph and there I wholeheartedly agree with you. Our actions can obscure things.

    Just as a note, I don’t think we can make an isomorphic connection between actions and “heart”. I don’t think I’m falling into works righteousness.

  16. Kev do you think there is a difference between motivation and one’s reasoning for your actions?

    I have to say that this idea that motivation is of no importance and may in fact be a smoke screen for non action is fascinating.

  17. Kevin,

    There is that classic passage from Samuel where it says “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.” Now while I fully agree with you that this does NOT mean that God has no interest in what we do with our bodies, I still maintain that it is an overstatement to say that heart issues don’t exist. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be reducing human actions to the things that are visible in space-time and nothing more. Motivation? Unimportant. Heart issues? Don’t exist.

    But from what I understand, it is impossible to speak of action without taking into account heart issues/motivation, as simple or as complicated as they may me. You could see a man taking a loaf of bread from the cupboard and leaving the kitchen. He may be doing this because he’s hungry. He may be doing this because the new neighbours next door don’t have any bread. Why is he giving them bread? Perhaps he is generous and welcoming. Or perhaps he is attracted to his neighbour’s wife, and wants to make a good impression.

    Seeing the man get the bread from the kitchen doesn’t give that action much intelligibility, unless we then saw him eating the bread in his room. Seeing him giving it to his neighbours gives it more intelligibility. This man has done this before, and we know him to be generous and welcoming for the sake of being generous and welcoming. Yet perhaps we still don’t have the full story. There is a depth that only God sees. We may put different labels to this depth, but “heart” seems like a decent one.

    Maybe I’m reading more into your statements “heart issues don’t exist” and “motivation isn’t very interesting” than I should. If what you mean is “non action doesn’t exist” then I’m fully on board. Humans are always acting in time and space. We can’t NOT act. That is a basic axiom that is often lost on people. To refer back to what you’re specifically talking about, we are always doing something with our money. The question is what? But the question is also why? These two inseparable dimensions of action give content to the phrase “love of money”.

  18. cant post on your post about remembering pins so here i am… i store them in my phone. Who would do that but a fool you say? Well hide them sufficiently and it’ll be fine. I have them all in a line and the first 5/6/7/8/9 numbers are meaningless and then after that its bunches of 4’s all the way. I do tend to forget which bunch of 4 is my credit card and which is my library code but its better than forgetting all of them all of the time.

  19. Hello. I’m not able to speak on the moral neutrality of things, but in the case of money I think this is neither here nor there. Money is a form of social power formalised by a State (which is never morally neutral) and hence holding on to money is a conscious act within a web of complex relations and hence it’s hard to see how having money could ever be morally neutral, in the way that, I don’t know, having bleached eyebrows might be morally neutral. This is not to say that having money is bad: it may in fact be a good thing to have a load of money in your briefcase, if for example you’re going to use it to alleviate other people’s hunger after having previously expropriated it from an arms manufacturer, but I suppose that isn’t really speaking up for having money as such.

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