Greed

Whom Do You Serve?

Why does money have such control over us? Before I read French theologian and social critic Jacques Ellul’s Money and Power, I thought money had little or no influence on me. I had grown up with just enough to have all I needed without getting spoiled by superfluous luxuries. Since college my life has since been filled with a passion for the hungry. Surely money wasn’t a problem for me?

But it was—and is. Ellul’s writing made it clear that we all make some kind of a god out of money. Perhaps we have too much of it and therefore hoard it. If we have too little of it, we no doubt covet it. Or—and this is the stickler—we have the right amount and are such good stewards of it that we are not generous.

That was my problem—and one of the three might be yours. Money sneaks its way into our thoughts and desires and takes over more of our time and attention (or affection) than it ought to have. There is no such thing as another god beside the one true God (1 Corinthians 8:4), the apostle Paul insists, but he also admits that “in fact there are many gods and many lords” (8:5), and money easily becomes one of those gods in our lives.

So why does money have such control over us that it becomes one of our gods? And how does our faith in Christ overcome money’s grip on us?

Principalities and Powers. Even before the time of Jesus, some philosophers recognized that wealth poses a grave danger to its possessor. Jesus used the Aramaic word “mammon” in warning against a preoccupation with money (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:11, 13). As a re­sult of those warnings, however, most Christians have thought that money was neutral and became a problem only if people thought about it inordinately or acted to gain it immorally.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2008
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A Culture of Debt

Another day older and deeper in debt.” In the old country song, that’s what you got after you loaded “16 tons of number nine coal.” That was back in the day when a hard-working man could still die singing, “I owe my soul to the company store.”

Today’s information-age proletarian may owe his or her soul to Wal-Mart or Citigroup, instead of the “company store,” but the effect is the same. Today the personal debt of the working class is, as it always has been, a favorite economic management tool of the owning class.

And debt has become a way of life for many middle-class American families. As far back as 2004, the average American household carried a credit card debt of $9,312. In 2007, the number of Americans filing for bankruptcy increased by 40 percent. The number of home foreclosures last year was 79 percent higher than in 2006. And every forecast says that those numbers will only get worse in the next couple of years.

How did this happen? Well, one small part of the answer is human nature. We see a shiny toy or a McMansion on the hill, and we want it. And there’s always some creature of serpentine descent ready to say, “Sign right here, and it’s yours.”

But that is only part of the story. We also have the levels of consumer debt that we do because they are beneficial to the overall U.S. economy. Just like the debt of those old-time mineworkers, ours serves to keep us on the job, productive, and, most of all, consuming.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2008
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