Christianity and Mammon
Poverty of Spirit
I grew up in a religion that preached “poverty of spirit.” It was a high-church Christian religion with lots of rituals, pomp, icons, and incense. As a child and an adolescent, I was told that poverty existed on a higher, more spiritual plain than wealth because, if I were poor, I would not be distracted by the material world.
I was taught, in no uncertain terms, that just as it would be impossible for a camel to thread its way through the eye of a needle, that it would be a cold day in hell before a wealthy person would ever enjoy eternal bliss. From that small kernel of a moral presumption, I learned to be suspicious of wealth and to pursue “higher,” more spiritual goals. I saw no contradiction between the poverty message and the comfortable, sometimes extravagant lives of the male messengers.
On the other hand, I was supposed to be comforted by the “lilies of the field” scriptural quote that suggested that God would provide for my basic needs. Not to worry.
WASPs, Liberation Theology, Glenn Beck
In college, I learned about the WASP tradition in American culture. It was a tradition that believed that financial success was a sign from God that one was truly a member of the elect. Many WASPs also believed that they had invented the work ethic, at least the ethic that allowed them to prosper in the corporate or political world. WASPs were also pillars in their communities and saw no disparity between economic success and a confident commitment to their churches.
When I wandered into adulthood, I began to read about liberation theology, a social-justice theology that started in the fifties and became very popular in South America. The most haunting example of that theology mesmerized me when I discovered that a Catholic Archbishop from San Salvador, Oscar Romero, had been assassinated for his strong critiques against economic injustice and poverty (Ironically, San Salvador has just publicly acknowledged his importance to its history. The country is finally allowing him out of the closet of historical anonymity).
Several years ago, Glenn Beck created some controversy over his comments about social-justice issues, issues, in Beck’s world, that have no place in church pulpits. To Beck, any organized religion’s assertions of economic injustice are dangerously left wing and socialistic. In Leonard Pitt’s quick rebuttal, Pitts rightfully suggested that Beck wants blacks to live in the world of the “sweet by and by,” that cauldron of gentleness and slave-like deference that does not rebel, does not ask for a decent wage, does not complain, does not speak in public forums about the continuing inequities in American society.
Beck appears to have been quite ignorant of the fact that socialism was a nineteenth-century antidote to the capitalist model that led to the horrors of child labor, life-threatening working environments, and pitifully low wages. Out of the socialist movement of that era came so many labor laws, the eight- hour work day, the five-day work week, to name the more obvious. And I will continue to remind Beck and his Tea Party compatriots that socialism had strong support from many of the Christian leaders of that time (they did not have to quibble about what Christ would have really done).
Joyce Meyer, Assets-Building Christianity
Just when I thought I was finished with the variations of Christianity’s colorful reactions to poverty and wealth, I came across a utube video of Joyce Meyer, one of the gurus of television evangelism and a Christian motivational speaker.
Watching her glide across the stage with Bible in hand, I was struck by the absolute confidence she exuded. I also discovered that she is a strong advocate of a debt-free life, believing that debt weighs on the freedom to live a truly Christian life. Interestingly, she does not rail against the financial corporations for charging such exorbitant interest rates as much as gently scolding the consumer for failing to resist being seduced by credit—a failure of will rather than a version of “the devil may me do it.”
Aside from her public statements– “I want to go shopping and eat out”; “I don’t want to make my clothes, I want to buy them”; “I want to sit down in a restaurant and have somebody wait on me,” I was also struck by Meyer’s publicly-known-and-google-accessible assets—a couple of homes, a private jet, expensive clothes, among other luxurious accoutrements, as the French would say. When asked about all of her assets and wealth, Meyer justified her acquisitions by saying that she was “blessed” (implying here an economic benefit to having been “anointed.”)
In researching the assets of some other well-known television evangelists and Christian motivational speakers, it became increasingly apparent to me that Christ’s message can be quite lucrative (in occasional dark moments of my own financial insecurity, by the way, I sometimes am tempted by the thought of opening up my own tax-sheltered, not-for-profit church).
Well, now, here’s my dilemma. Even though I am now a non-theist following my own spiritual journey, I was taught by my childhood Christian church to believe that being poor is close to godliness. And then I discovered how much expensive art work the Vatican owns and that many priests, bishops, and monsignors have more-than-adequate assets and/or pensions while the nuns did not.
I then discovered that some Christians equated wealth with spiritual success, the old WASP version of Christianity. And when I am wandering around the internet, I find a host of Christian motivational speakers who look remarkably well-groomed and manicured only to discover that many of them are part of Christian, non-taxed church organizations that look remarkably like profit making corporations with television stations, gyms, jets, spacious offices, and lots of real-estate holdings.
Is Wealth a Distraction to Spiritual Growth?
I must say that my own bias and background has always tilted me towards the belief that not being wealthy had a certain spiritual edge that would enable me to concentrate on the more transcendent and spiritual realities. I could focus on the meaning-of-life issues, my behavior, my relationships, my ethical treatment of others without being distracted by a second mortgage, a sail boat, a private jet, a summer home, or another trip to the Bahamas.
I have to admit that I am still somewhat of a vestigial Manichean and platonist often attached to the belief that the material world is merely an illusion, if not a downright nuisance invading my free time. However, the sensualist in me is coming to appreciate the joy of the physical and sometimes erotic beauty of the bounty that I am daily presented with.
It is that part of the repressed and inhibiting Manichean world that I am gradually learning to be free of.
However, I still hold on to the notion that material wealth is more apt to make us gated-community hoarders and acquirers separating us from the rest of humanity on many levels. I also believe that wealth acquired with obsession can too often deceive us into believing that we’re the only ones really working hard for what we have while the rest of humanity is nothing more than a group of co-dependent, lazy, welfare-seeking leeches.
There is always a danger that with our wealth, we can end up sitting in our moral, hierarchical castles believing that those of value have made it and those who are poor probably got there because of their own lack of will and laziness. This is a very dangerous assumption given the arbitrary nature of biology and environment (Attitudes about wealth and poverty, in the end, do have a strong moral component, no matter how we may think, like Glenn Beck, they have no place in a church).
In addition, my social-justice instincts rail out against that small part of our acquisitive society that desperately wants to hold on to the majority of wealth, often at the expense of others (I am constantly reminded of a local entrepreneur who has made it impossible for moderate-income business people to afford the rent he exorbitantly charges for space in his buildings).
And I have been known to become moderately apoplectic over how many conservative Christian radio stations control the airwaves with their vast financial reservoirs when equally passionate, but alternative and progressive Christian views are never given a chance to be part of the conversation. In the end, it is all about what one politician called, “filthy lucre.” And the money, apparently, keeps rolling in.
Just some thoughts. Share your own below, if you care to.
So it goes.