The Common Good

Money: The God of This World

Last week Pope Francis spoke out against the cult of money. Here is how Catholic News Service's Carol Glatz summarized his remarks:

Pope Francis called for global financial reform that respects human dignity, helps the poor, promotes the common good and allows states to regulate markets.

"Money has to serve, not to rule," he said in his strongest remarks yet as pope concerning the world's economic and financial crises.

A major reason behind the increase in social and economic woes worldwide "is in our relationship with money and our acceptance of its power over ourselves and our society," he told a group of diplomats May 16.

"We have created new idols" where the "golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal."

His words reminded me of one of the most significant books I've ever read, Protestant French philosopher Jacques Ellul's Money and Power.

First published nearly 60 years ago as L'Homme et l'argent ("Man and Money"), new French-language editions appeared in 1979 and 2007. I translated the English-language edition in 1984 and have been grateful ever since for the opportunity to immerse myself in this paradigm-bending book.

Money, Ellul argued, is not morally neutral. It is "Mammon, a demigod, a demon, an idol, a power from which we need liberation" (I'm quoting from David Neff's review of Money and Power in the February 15, 1985, issue of Christianity Today — and yes, he may have been biased, but damn, his review was good).

The problem isn't money, we say. The problem is that we don't have enough. Or that somebody else has too much.

No, says Ellul. Money is not neutral. "Jesus personifies money and considers it sort of a god. He does not get this idea from his cultural milieu. … This personification of money, this affirmation that we are talking about something that claims divinity . … reveals something exceptional about money, for Jesus did not usually use deifications and personifications" (p. 75).

Ellul explains that in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13 Jesus shows that money is a power, a law unto itself that acts in the material world but with a spiritual orientation. In the Bible, power is never neutral. And it is often personal. Just as Scripture often portrays death as a personal force, so it also portrays money.

In the 60 years since Ellul wrote Money and Power (and even more in the 30 years since I translated it), the love of Money has taken root throughout the world in ways even Ellul might never have imagined. We fight wars to keep it and to gain more of it. We damage the earth, deny social services to the poor, and pay ever smaller wages for ever longer hours, because to do otherwise would be bad for business. We don't enforce safety regulations or we outsource production to places with no regulations, so we can make higher profits on cheaper goods. And we have developed a theology of money in which the "free market" is the giver of every good and perfect gift — never mind the evidence.

Perhaps this is nothing new. It's been 2,000 years since Jesus identified money with Mammon. But whether our love of Money is worse than ever before in the history of the world, or whether it is just business as usual, Pope Francis joins Jacques Ellul in reminding us that Money is a powerful false god.

If you like to get your reminders straight from Scripture, read Revelation 18, a gorgeously dark and dreadful poem about the fall of Babylon, surely Mammon's capital city, for she has deceived "all nations." As Babylon falls, so do the political leaders who "committed fornication with her" and the business tycoons who "have grown rich from the power of her luxury" and the multinational merchants whose ships "grew rich by her wealth."

The good news in Scripture is not that our stock portfolio has doubled or that our taxes have been cut or even that our nation's GDP is in recovery. The good news comes through an unmarried pregnant teenager: The Mighty One:

has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 2:52-53

LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and at The Neff Review.
Image: Golden calf, Genova / Shutterstock.com
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