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Is Money The Enemy?

For most of my life, I have related to money as an enemy. I viewed finances as a necessary evil, a barrier that had to be overcome somehow in order to live a life free from worry and drudgery. Lots of people wish they had more money; I’ve mostly wished that money did not exist at all.

As I grow older and become more settled into stable social and economic relationships, I have begun to question whether this is the healthiest way of thinking about money. Without a doubt, there are good reasons to be skeptical of the financial system we live in. We live in the midst of an economic obscenity, where billions of people live in destitution while a tiny elite controls most of the world’s wealth. Even in a rich country like the United States, our level of income inequality is breathtaking. Clearly, the system is being deliberately gamed by the powerful at the expense of the 99%.

But do these abuses justify my generalized aversion to money and markets per se? Jesus told his followers that we are to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. I think I’ve always been more comfortable with the innocent dove part of that phrase. I tend to desire a life outside of the corrupt systems that we have developed as a society. Rather than compromise with an unjust social order, I’d rather escape altogether.

While being as wise as serpents does not mean that we are to uncritically buy into the world’s way of doing things, it does require that we thoroughly understand these systems, and operate within them in ways that advance the kingdom of God. How can I be part of the kingdom of God – a radically new social order, based in an economy of love – while navigating the framework of human economies that are often based more in greed than in concern for the general welfare?

I’m not sure exactly what form it will take yet, but I’m sensing that I probably need to become a little bit wiser in the ways of the world. For most of my life, I’ve emphasized the dove part of this equation to the point of an unhelpful personal purity. Being all dove and no serpent may make me feel righteous, but it ultimately makes me less effective as an agent of God’s transformation in the world. In my experience, the more I try to opt out of the money system, the more enslaved to it I am liable to become. The things that I refuse to acknowledge and reckon with can pose the greatest threat to my growth as a follower of Jesus.

With all this in mind, I’m calling a truce with money. No longer will I relate to it as an enemy, an aggravating barrier to be circumvented. Instead, I am praying that God will open my eyes to how I can manage finances and do business in ways that bless others, build community and strengthen my ability to be released for the ministry that God is calling me into.

What is your posture towards money? Is it a friend, an enemy, or something in between? How do you personally navigate the moral dilemmas that our economic system poses? What does it mean, in your economic life, to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves?

  • MattHisrich

    Excellent post, Micah – thank you for sharing!

    You recently asked me about my exploration of socially responsible investing. Part of the reason I stopped pursuing the subject with such gusto was because I came to a similar realization as you do above. It sounds fairly simple as a concept (stop funding that with which you disagree), but becomes incredibly complex in practice. As I see it now, the reality is that it is essentially impossible to have a position of complete purity. Let me give three examples from the world of SRI:

    1) Defining socially irresponsibility. Ultimately what you as an individual find most morally compelling or distressing will likely differ from that of your neighbor (this individual v. corporate discernment is something I think you’ve touched on previously). Do you mostly want to oppose war, economic oppression (again, however defined), and environmental degradation, for example, or alcohol, tobacco, and pornography? Do you want to oppose all of the above, but rank your opposition according to some metric? Different funds will emphasize different areas, and unless you are selecting individual stocks you are largely leaving this to someone else’s discretion.

    2) Defining who is the “enemy.” One of the best examples I came across along these lines is CVS. They are widely considered to be a drug store, but they actually earn most of their profits from the sale of alcohol. You have to dig down into their earning reports to figure this out, and you would have to even think to explore this one company in that way to do so. Of course, once you do, deciding what to do with the information is another subject ;). Another example is the manufacture of “war material.” Some companies primarily manufacture bandages for the war effort. If you invest in them, are you supporting war or aiding those wounded by it? Finally, the complex and interconnected nature of corporations may mean that some components of a corporation wither do things you really do appreciate and some not, or vice versa. How do you break down your investment or divestment from such firms?

    3) Defining the method. There is some disagreement in the SRI community (last I checked, anyway) as to whether investment or divestment is a better tactic to achieve moral good. Divestment is a rallying cry on many campuses now, for instance, but groups like The Nature Conservancy have taken the position that they can have greater impact by actually having a seat at the table at Exxon, for example, than by pulling their investments out.

    So again, what is the morally pure position in any of these cases? I am working on a message comparing sin to dust. It is so ever-present that we would be foolish to think we can entirely extricate ourselves from it. Does that mean we simply give up? I don’t think so. As you articulate so well above, I think it means we strive to act with for the good from a position of humility about our own past, present, and future involvement in that which may undermine the good. My sense is that by not coming from a perspective of moral purity we are less likely to fall into the traps Jesus and Paul cautioned against so frequently in the New Testament.

    I would love to discuss all of this further! Thanks again for posting!

    • Thanks, Matt. I appreciate these reflections.

      Socially responsible investing is anything but simple. We live in a world that is so interconnected that it is hard to separate the darkness from the light much of the time, whether in the products we consume, the transportation we use, the places we live or the investments we take on.

      I hope we can continue to explore together how to best do business in a way that glorifies God and blesses others.

  • barbara.hrrsn@gmail.com

    I am an older person with a very limited income, so limited that I am eligible for certain forms of aid. There are no jobs within the distance I am comfortable driving that would pay enough (after deducting job related expenses) to replace the aid I would lose in taking the job; taking such a job would also withhold it from a younger person just starting out who needs a starter job for advancement.
    Why do I bring up work in a thread about money? Because for most of us work is the source of the money we have. It requires real discernment to find ones calling and the means of fulfilling it. Unhappily, many callings do NOT come with jobs that have big money attached and whether or not one is following ones calling one must still have shelter and food which usually require money for their purchase.
    The first thing to consider is whether one is fulfilling the purpose for which God has put one here. I am clear that the injunction that one work if one is to eat does NOT necessitate working for a paycheck. There are quite a few things needing doing which have no paychecks involved. Remember that according to Matthew 25:40 it is by what we have done for the least that we will be judged.

  • Money is a tool. Like other tools, it can be used for good or evil. We need to discern how we properly relate to money. There may be no such thing as purity, but we can seek to free ourselves from the temptation to greed and attempt to apply some moral factors to our use of money. In the church, people should be sharing their struggles with right use of money just as with other aspects of our life. We can learn from and encourage one another.

  • Jay O’Hara

    Micah! I have just started reading “Sacred Economics” and it is blowing my mind. His argument is not that money is inherently evil, but the evil part of the system is actually usury. Usury, he maintains, is the source of the perpetual-growth dilemma and the problem of wealth dispartity. Seems convincing to me. I’d recommend the read!