The Church Doesn’t Talk Much About Greed. Malcolm Foley Says That’s Weird | Sojourners

The Church Doesn’t Talk Much About Greed. Malcolm Foley Says That’s Weird

Malcolm Foley. Graphic by Candace Sanders/Sojourners.

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

I was in high school, visiting my grandparents’ church in Peru, Ind., and the theme for the Sunday school class was “money.” The teacher was quick to bring up a verse that has always sounded like it would be a better fit in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack than the Bible. “The love of money is the root of all evil,” the teacher said, summarizing and abbreviating 1 Timothy 6:10. “It’s not that money itself is evil. Objects, in and of themselves, cannot be evil,” he explained. “It’s a matter of the heart.” That logic sat weirdly with me and so I raised my hand to respond. “Don’t we believe that idols are objects and that they are evil? Also, doesn’t the Bible teach us to resist temptation? So wouldn’t it make sense to resist the temptation of money to avoid all the evil that comes with it?”

And here, friends, is the part where I let you think that I lack wealth because I have been resisting temptation ever since that day.

All kidding aside, despite my lack of wealth, I spend a great deal of time thinking about my relationship to money and what the Bible has to say about money. From my perspective, the Bible and Jesus present a stark challenge to our society’s capitalistic notion that private property and accumulating wealth are good things. Because of this, I often find myself spiraling into a line of existential questioning that eventually veers into the absurd: Should I have a savings account? Should I have a checking account? Should I have money at all, or is that more of a rich people thing?

Malcolm Foley is a scholar and pastor who has also spent a great deal of time thinking about the gospel and money. In his forthcoming book, The Anti-Greed Gospel, set to be released in February 2025, Foley addresses money from a micro and macro perspective. As a pastor at Mosaic Waco in Texas, he has a special interest in addressing practical questions about money and Christianity. Because he is a scholar adept in theology and the Black radical tradition, he is also interested in critiquing our capitalist society which is built on the exploitation of people — especially Black and brown workers. Foley and I spoke about his book and the difficulties of being a Christian in this economy.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: Who are you and what do you do?

Malcolm Foley: My day job is in Baylor [University’s] senior administration as special advisor to Baylor’s president for equity and campus engagement. I also co-pastor a church, Mosaic Waco, an intentionally multicultural, nondenominational church that we planted about five years ago.

Tell me about your forthcoming book The Anti-Greed Gospel.

The full title is going to be The Anti-Greed Gospel: Why the Love of Money Is the Root of Racism and How the Church Can Create a New Way Forward.

The idea for this actually started back in 2020. I was going through a journey of rethinking race. I was finishing up my dissertation, which was on Black Protestant responses to lynching in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The responses ranged from folks telling their congregations, “If we pray enough, we’ll be delivered from the lyncher,” all the way to armed self-defense, and everything in between. I was preaching at the church and doing all this stuff that fit under the umbrella of racial reconciliation work.

But then, I was preparing for a talk that I was going to do at Eastern Nazarene College for MLK Day. I was looking through my Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stuff and rereading Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Looking at the triple evils of white supremacy, economic exploitation, and war, [I was struck by] the fact that he said that you can’t deal with one without dealing with all three.

I’d read it before, but I read it again and I was like, “Wait that’s just right. How have I not fully integrated this in the way that I think about race?” That same month, I read Jonathan Tran’s Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism and I read Antonio González’s God’s Reign and the End of Empires. It all came together. When Brazos asked again about the book, I was like, “Oh, now I actually have something that I want to say.”

Fundamentally: When we’re talking about race, what we’re talking about is a demonic cycle of self-interest — which is what some call “racial capitalism.” It’s what King called the triple evils. I’m just narrating it with a few different images. But the demonic cycle of self-interest is political domination and economic exploitation, requiring violence in order to enforce it. And then race plays the role of both justifying and mystifying that cycle. If that’s the case, then what’s necessary is for Christian communities to function in such a way that directly resists each of those three evils.

So, I’m arguing that Christian communities necessarily have to be communities of deep economic solidarity, creative anti-violence, and prophetic truth. I’m drawing from a number of the Greek church fathers, as well as the Black radical tradition, and some other stuff.

Why do you think Christians have such a difficult time understanding the interconnected nature of militarism and racism, of the economy and racism?

So, one, I think there are still some of us who think we ought to be in power. And I think there are some of us who also think we ought to have a lot of money. I think greed is the queen of the vices.

I’ll repeat the point that some have made, especially Anabaptists, [which is that] with Constantine comes a fall. When the church starts to think that political power is an option, it then starts to create ideological justifications for why it ought to have that power. As opposed to thinking about power in the way that Christ called us to, which is not as a source of domination, but fundamentally seeking to give that up to care.

Greed is remarkably under-theorized in a number of churches. When I told my congregation that I was going to preach about greed a lot more, there were a number of folks who came up to me and were like, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon in church about greed before.” That’s weird.

Why not just name the book something like “The Generous Gospel”? Why does it have to be “anti-greed”?

Generosity can manifest itself as paternalism. When we think about philanthropy broadly, there’s a way of thinking about giving that allows the giver to remain in the seemingly superior position and the receiver remains in a seemingly inferior position. I want to call people to understand that deep solidarity looks like walking alongside people who recognize I have things you need, and you have things I need. We need to be working together, because equality is not just a state; it’s an active relationship.

When I look through the scriptures, greed is all over them as something that keeps us out of the kingdom. When Jesus said that you can’t serve two masters, he could’ve picked any other thing as that other master, [but] he names riches. I think it’s interesting that Jesus would do that, and then we would have church traditions that attempt to say, “We’re going to find ways to serve both.”

One of the things that I was often told in the church was that the love of money is the root of all evil. Not money itself.

One of my favorite sermons of all time is in the Popular Patristics Series volume of Basil of Caesarea’s On Social Justice. And it’s a sermon to the rich and here, he reflects on Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler.

I draw this contrast between the way that Basil treats that passage and the way that Clement of Alexandria — and a lot of the Western church — does. They [believe that] this guy didn’t actually do anything wrong, he just needs to think about his wealth differently. Basil’s point is, “No, actually, this guy’s failure is a failure to love his neighbor as himself, because the very act of his accumulation is theft.” Insofar as he has so much extra when there are people around him who don’t have what they need, that is a failure of love. So even the very possession of excess shows you have failed to wisely distribute what the Lord has given to you. We don’t properly “earn” anything. All these things are gifts from God. And [God] wants us to steward and distribute, not hoard for ourselves.

That’s a different way of thinking about any of the resources that we have, but also one that deeply undercuts the assumptions of neoliberal capitalism.

When it comes to the practical point here, leading your congregation through this idea that all gifts are from God and excess is to be redistributed, how do you talk with people in the church about that?

This is going to be the journey of this congregation — this is a culture that needs to be shaped. And it’s happening. Right now, we’re preaching through the Sermon on the Mount. I told the congregation, it’s going to take us probably about 10 months to get through it, even though it’s only three chapters. One of the main reasons for that is to really work through it [practically] as a community.

I’ve emphasized that this is pushing us to deeper levels of vulnerability. If everyone thinks about their needs in the context of what they can do to meet their own needs, then everyone is going to be frustrated. But if you’re building up a community that, as Paul says in Philippians 2, looks to one another’s interest as opposed to their own, then you actually have a community where people’s needs can be met.

Part of our work over the course of the last few years has been starting to build that community. Part of it is by getting folks to see, “Hey, look this is actually the way that the scriptures call us to live. It’s not just me making it up.” Jesus is saying, “This is the way my people are supposed to operate. This is the very particular way they bear witness to the world, this is actually a redemptive alternative.”

For me, part of the distinctive element of Christian community is its economic makeup, the way the people of God view and distribute resources.

A bad faith interpretation of what you’re saying might be that all Christians are supposed to live this ascetic lifestyle. That said, I think some very legitimate questions are: Do I pay war taxes? Do I have a savings account? How do you approach those questions in a way that’s faithful to Jesus but also realistic?

This is something that I’m also actively thinking through. Some of those things I would frame, given our current economy, as actual needs. This is not to begrudge the people of God of the things that we need to survive, but we spend too little time actually discerning: What are the things I actually need, and what are the things I just really want?

Even with the tax point, I think back to Christ telling us to pay our tax. Essentially telling people to pay their taxes to the Roman Empire, which is also a war machine. And I admire my brothers and sisters who go the tax-denying route. But for me, there’s also the fact that this comes into kind of a deeper understanding of the Christian and the state. There’s an institutional distinction between the church and the state. The church and the state are going to operate by different logics. I’m not going to expect the state to operate by the logic of the kingdom of God. My responsibility within any state is to, as Paul says in the First or Second Timothy, pray for our leaders so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life.

That’s the primary extent to which I need to think about it. But if Jesus could tell the disciples to pay taxes to the Roman Empire, with all the deeply problematic things and sinful things that the Roman Empire was involved in, my conscience can still be entirely antiwar and anti-“logic of empire” and still [pay taxes].

Anyone who starts to speak about the economy in a negative way gets accused of being a Marxist. I don’t get the impression you are trying to make a Marxist appeal, correct?

Yeah, that’s not my intent. But there’s the fact — Cedric Robinson [explains] this in An Anthropology of Marxism — that Marxism does not have a monopoly on socialism or communalistic economies. He actually argues it starts with Christians.

Some are going to say, “He’s just a Marxist.” And I’ll say, “Look, there are some things that Marx as an economist is just right about.” There are things that are just true about the way the world works. We need to be “resensitized” to exploitation. And if Marx does it for you, cool. The scriptures ought to do it for you, but whatever it takes to resensitize us to exploitation, that’s what the people need.

I learn a lot from Marx. But ultimately, the body of Christ is called to be [like] the way that the Acts community operated. One of the most profound elements in Acts 4 is when Luke says that God’s grace was so powerfully at work among them that there were no needy people among them — that’s not because they kept the poor out, it’s because when people had needs, the community gathered around to meet that need.

In Deuteronomy, [God] tells them, “If you do all the things, if you operate in the way that I called you to operate, there won’t be any needy people among you, because I’m building a system that actively cares for the poor and the foreigner and the marginalized; you are supposed to be the types of people that operate in a deeply open handed way.”

How do you hope that Christian theology can help reconstruct our identities as human beings?

I want those who are united to Christ to understand what amazing power lies at their fingertips. What joy, peace, and lasting power lies right there. When Paul says that you have been set free from sin, that’s a massive deal.

That freedom then allows you to build communities of deep economic solidarity, where you don’t have to be bound by the fear that capitalism uses to discipline you.

One of the ways in which [fear] is combatted is by deep communities of solidarity. They’re also communities where you can be creative about your anti-violence. [We’re] in a world that tells us that the only way that you get things done is by killing the people who are stopping you from doing whatever it is that you want or need to do. We have a different account of the world. The truth is actually much more life-giving.

[Christian theology] ultimately points back to Jesus as the truest human to ever live. That doesn’t set him apart from us, [but rather it] shows us what we are. [God is saying,] “This is not only what you can be, but also what I want you to be and what I’m going to equip you, by my Holy Spirit, to be.” And that’s what continues to push me forward to do this work. My hope is not in any kind of particular political system.

I think about when W.E.B. Du Bois and King approached the ends of their lives and looked at how slow progress was and bouts of depression, and all those things set in. People have asked me, when I was doing my research on lynching, “How did you stay sane?” My thing is, I’m 110 percent sure that redemption is coming. And as a matter of fact, it’s already begun. My only role is to be an agent of [God’s] liberation.

I may not see all of the effects of it. But ultimately, I’m not the one who’s ultimately doing it. The Lord has done it, is doing it, and has promised to finish it. And that’s what gives me the hope and stamina to continue.