Midrash on Money (draft)
He that puts not out his money to interest, nor takes reward against the innocent. He that does these things shall never be moved.
And now, you rich people, listen to me! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches have rotted away, and your clothes have been eaten by moths. Your gold and silver are covered with rust, and this rust will be a witness against you, and eat up your flesh like fire. You have piled up riches in these last days… Your life here on earth has been full of luxury and pleasure. You have made yourselves fat for the day of slaughter.
The detached observer is as much entangled as the active participant.
Introduction: Show me a sign.
It’s what people will say in times of painful indecision.
God, show me a sign.
What do people mean by that?
And does God respond?
And if God does respond, do we always recognize the sign?
It becomes apparent very quickly that this word – sign – may, like Mary Poppins’ handbag, unpack far more than we might believe by outward appearance.
Here’s Google™ on the word “sign:”
• a perceptible indication of something not immediately apparent (as a visible clue that something has happened); “he showed signs of strain”; “they welcomed the signs of spring”
• a public display of a message; “he posted signs in all the shop windows”
• signal: any nonverbal action or gesture that encodes a message; “signals from the boat suddenly stopped”
• mark with one’s signature; write one’s name (on); “She signed the letter and sent it off”; “Please sign here”
• signboard: structure displaying a board on which advertisements can be posted; “the highway was lined with signboards”
• approve and express assent, responsibility, or obligation; “All parties ratified the peace treaty”; “Have you signed your contract yet?”
• sign of the zodiac: (astrology) one of 12 equal areas into which the zodiac is divided
• be engaged by a written agreement; “He signed to play the casino on Dec. 18″; “The soprano signed to sing the new opera”
• (medicine) any objective evidence of the presence of a disorder or disease; “there were no signs of asphyxiation”
• engage by written agreement; “They signed two new pitchers for the next season”
• polarity: having an indicated pole (as the distinction between positive and negative electric charges); “he got the polarity of the battery reversed”; “charges of opposite sign”
• communicate silently and non-verbally by signals or signs; “He signed his disapproval with a dismissive hand gesture”; “The diner signaled the waiters to bring the menu”
• augury: an event that is experienced as indicating important things to come; “he hoped it was an augury”; “it was a sign from God”
• place signs, as along a road; “sign an intersection”; “This road has been signed”
• a gesture that is part of a sign language
No matter what the vast differences between these various definitions of “sign,” what stands out is that these are all media of communication or ideas about media of communication.
Communication… another word pregnant with many offspring. Two separate beings are presumed by the idea of communication; and signs always presume the existence of two subjects. Subjects – unlike objects – do not merely exist. We dwell.
We live in a world that is abuzz with signs and communications; we dwell in a world that is abuzz with signs and communications. We are part of it. In those times when we can grasp that connectedness, we have a sense of embodied transcendence, a moment of dwelling within something that is sacred.
Molecules signal to molecules, like species to like species, unlike species to each other, minerals to other minerals and to animals and vegetables, which also sign to each other, and the lion’s share of our own physical activity (brain and somatic activity, etc.) involved in communication with each other is non-verbal, and even non-linguistic.
We leave traces of ourselves wherever we go, on whatever we touch. One of the odd discoveries made by small boys is that when two pebbles are struck sharply against each other they emit, briefly, a curious smoky odor. The phenomenon fades when the stones are immaculately cleaned, vanishes when they are heated to furnace temperature, and reappears when they are simply touched by the hand again before being struck.
An intelligent dog with a good nose can track a man across open ground by his smell and distinguish that man’s tracks from those of others. More than this, the dog can detect the odor of a light human fingerprint on a glass slide, and he will remember that slide and smell it out from others for as long as six weeks, when the scent fades away. Moreover, this animal can smell the identity of identical twins, and will follow the tracks of one or the other as though they had been made by the same man.
We are marked as self by the chemicals we leave beneath the soles of our shoes, as unmistakably and individually as by the membrane surface antigens detactable in homografs from our tissues.
So begins the chapter entitled “Vibes,” in Lewis Thomas’ fine little book, The Lives of a Cell (Penguin Books, 1974).
In all this activity at every scale of existence, how do we discern the signs that hold together our natural universe, our culture, and what we might call our personhood?
Are we exchanging sings right now?
This is the point-of-view of semiotics. Our talking and especially our writing are but the latest instantiations of sign exchanges, along a continuum from the tiniest microcosm to the most vast macrocosm.
This midrash on money is based on the premise that money – this thing that dominates our lives in so many, often mysterious, ways, is just that: a sign.
At some point I will call money a language. But modern money is much more. Modern money is an extra-linguistic, culturally-and-politically constructed “sign.”
We seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings: above all, we are surely Homo significans - meaning-makers. Distinctively, we make meanings through our creation and interpretation of ’signs’. Indeed… ‘we think only in signs’. Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. ‘Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign’, declares Peirce (Peirce 1931-58, 2.172). Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as ’signifying’ something - referring to or standing for something other than itself. We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions. It is this meaningful use of signs which is at the heart of the concerns of semiotics.
(Daniel Chandler, “Semiotics for Beginners”)
Energy-matter flows constitute the universe. So does the flow of signs. Every atoms signals to its neighbor, every photon carries messages, every being – organic and inorganic – is aware and responsive in some way.
If you observe an urban street scene on Saturday night, the streets are filled with people in motion. Yet without much talking to coordinate their motions – in fact, many people are talking to someone else while they navigate the crowds – these flows of people manage to weave in and out of each other. There are millions of flowing signs being passed among the people in these “rivers” of human foot-traffic, most non-verbal, not linguistic at all. Language is just one aspect of signing. That’s why it is very appropriate for someone to say, when they are faced with a dilemma, “Lord, give me a sign.”
God does communicate with us.
Anthropologist Alf Hornborg, writing about the destruction of Amazonian rain forests by international commercial interests, said that “ecosystems are constituted no less by flows of signs than by flows of matter and energy.”
…nature and society [are] interconnected systems, both of which are simultaneously material and communicative.
Christians will sometimes say things about “dwelling in Christ.” It’s an old notion, dwelling, and one that we understand viscerally – what philosophers call the dimension of experience that is “being-in-the-world.” When children gleefully enclose themselves in big cardboard boxes, in what appears to be an ancient den-making instinct, they are experiencing – and celebrating – their sense of dwelling-ness.
Modern money – global currency, the dollar – is a sign that becomes “hegemonic,” that is, wielding “preponderant influence or authority.”
But what are the effects of this predominance of influence?
One effect we need to emphasize is the effect of general-purpose money on understandings of the Sacred. General-purpose money has the tendency to desacralize (profane, remove from the realm of the Sacred) our relationships with nature and other people. As Hornborg’s own studies in Amazonia showed, money was the sign, the language, the medium, the entitlement… that allowed foreign contractors to mow down vast swathes of rain forest, land that then sprang up with American soft drinks being peddled at stands along the barren landscapes.
“General-purpose money,” said Hornborg, an anthropologist, “is what allows tracts of rain forest to be traded for Coca-Cola.”
Human beings are meaning-makers; and that is how the door is opened between us and God. We are too capable of good to accept an abject servitude to money, or to refuse to take action to direct and limit its flows.
We have learned collectively what “ecology” means in the last few years: the relational, systemic character of biomes. Now we need to get our heads around a less popularized way of knowing: semiotics.
Ecosemiotics can be defined as the semiotics of relationships between nature and culture.
Semiotics… is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood.
“Ecosemiotics” is Hornborg’s way (borrowing the term from W. Noth, 1999) of saying to be aware that Creation is alive and communicating, not the dead thing of the post-Enlightenment. When we see that the universe, the world, is alive, we know how to treat it as sacred. When we treat the world as a dead thing, we profane it.
Money commodifies. Things-for-sale are not seen as sacred.
Creation, whether viewed through scientific inquiry or contemplative retreat, is full of wonder, constantly creating and revealing. One of the reasons Sabbath is such a central notion to our faith tradition is that we need to stop and appreciate that wonder once every seven days without being interrupted by work. Work concentrates our attention on details. Contemplation and open questioning require us to throw open the doors and windows of consciousness and let the breezes blow through.
The itemization of consciousness that is created by the phenomenon of monetary pricing is, likewise, an obstacle to contemplation of wholes; and the attachment of a price to anything profanes it… removes is from the realm of the Sacred. That’s true whether we attach a price to a “nice view” or sell indulgences.
In this midrash we’ll jump from the Book of James to the arcane – to the term “securitized finance”? We are bilingual; we speak past and present.
In the beginning there was money, then money began putting on masks. It puts a mask on itself, and a blindfold on us. It is self-camouflaging.
Money blinds us to the unjust and un-Christian social relations involved in the production of anything. It also blinds us to the fact that money itself is not a constant.
I reach in my wallet and take out a twenty-dollar bill. I give it to the cashier, who bags up my kiwis, my oranges, my stew meat, my bag of sweets.
Neither of us sees the trucks rumbling across a Latin American landscape desiccated by poverty and want, the abattoir or the cruel feedlots, or the broken families of former farmers, or the wreckage of the biome created by the production of high-fructose corn syrup in the sweets. I give the cashier money; the cashier bags up my food. Money puts distance between the consumer and producer; and distance masks reality.
Neither the cashier nor I see the money as anything but routine either. We don’t think about how many times currencies have been drained of value by hyperinflation and economic collapse; and we wouldn’t understand why even if we thought about it. This is not taught in schools, not even to economists.
Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.
- Proverbs 23:4-5
Simple secular math: As of November 2008, the total assets of the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) – the central bank of the United States – were $73.4 billion.
It is difficult to estimate total exchanges in global financial markets; but in the foreign currency exchange market alone, there are almost $2 trillion of exchanges each day. In one day, financial exchanges of currency alone exceed total Fed assets by a factor of 27.
In March of 2009, the Fed announced that it was going to buy $1 trillion in securities, after more than $50 trillion (with a T) had been “wiped out.” We just said that total Fed assets were $73.4 billion. But the Fed is “buying” a trillion dollars of something called “securities.” That is like me buying a $1,000 boat, when my net worth is $73.40.
You sure can’t buy a $50,000 boat with $73.40. And this particular boat is sinking.
This is a stark example of how utterly toothless the Fed – and by inference, the US government – is to salvage a collapsing pyramid of debt built over the last 35 years.
So what are these “securities”? Are they actually secure?
Wikipedia says, “A security is a fungible, negotiable instrument representing financial value.”
Well, that clears everything up.
Let’s try a different tack. Actual, stable wealth is what we call an asset. Cash flow is money that moves into and out of an enterprise. It “flows.” It is not an asset. Securities – composed of odd and impenetrable-sounding things like bonds, equities, investment funds, derivatives, structured finance, and agency securities – have come to be dominated by “instruments” that treat cash flow as an asset which can be sold.
These are paper claims on wealth; but they are not based on real assets. These paper claims have vastly exceeded real wealth. This excess has been usefully called “fictitious capital.”
Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with that income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast one’s eyes on them? The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether eating little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep. I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner, or wealth lost through some misfortune… Naked a person comes from the mother’s womb, and as one comes, so one departs…
- Ecclesiastes 5:10-15
Fictitious capital has far exceeded real wealth through a system ever more dominated by “securitized finance,” the domination of the global economy by speculation in these “instruments.” Securitized finance permits potentially infinite credit, which translates into potentially infinite debt.
This has been accelerating since the Nixon administration; and it has created an inconceivable and unprecedented pyramid of debt… which is now imploding.
You cannot buy a thousand-dollar boat with $73.40. This is not a cyclic problem, but a structural one. The boat that is sinking may cost $100,000.
The problem for us all with this fictitious capital is that it is directly connected to money, while we are all dependent on a social grid, one that is navigable only by money. Our most basic needs, which God provided for with the earth, have been captured by a system dominated by money. We cannot eat without money. We have nowhere to sleep out of the weather without money. We cannot clothe ourselves without money.
The all-pervasiveness of the money-grid, which has literally transformed nearly every available space into a commodity – a thing bought and sold, leaves us no choice to be on the money-grid or off the money-grid. We are on it, captured by it.
The formative story in the Old Testament is that of escape from captivity, and reliance on God’s bounty. The first turning away from that freedom was the worship of a gold idol (raised out of fear for the future).
The only time Rabbi Yeshua, or Jesus of Nazareth, is reported to have displayed physical aggression was when he stampeded livestock through the tables of money-changers at the Temple. He constantly warned his followers that money would make them captives, and that money has the power to alienate us from God and God’s Creation.
Then there are the seeds which were sown among the thorn bushes. These are the people who hear the message, but the worries of this world and the false glamor of riches and all sorts of other ambitions creep in and choke the life out of what they have heard, and it produces no crop in their lives.
- Mark 4:18-19
Money is a claim on the effort and time of others. If I have the money for a meal at a restaurant, the need of others for that money causes them to serve me, to cook the food, to harvest the food, to grow the food, to make the pots and pans and dishes, to air condition and heat the restaurant, etc. etc. I, in turn, have to work to get the money.
Most of us have to work at jobs where we’d rather be someplace else. Our dependency on money holds us captive there. We are captives to our cars to get us to work, and to the clothes we are required to wear at work, and the insincerities we feel are necessary to keep our jobs… and all this is dependency on money. To relieve the stress of work, we “need” things that require money, and so we are again captives of the money-grid.
On the money we use, it says “legal tender.” What that means is that we have to use money to pay our taxes. The state runs on money, too. In fact, without money, the modern nation-state – as an institution – would collapse. Every institution we know is captive of the money-grid.
Tunnel Vision and Totalities
Tell those who are rich in this present world not to be contemptuous of others, and not to rest the weight of their confidence on the transitory power of wealth but on the living God, who generously gives us everything for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in kindly actions, to be ready to give to others and to sympathize with those in distress. Their security should be invested in the life to come, so that they may be sure of holding a share in the life which is real and permanent.
- 1 Timothy 6:17-19
We spoke above about fictitious capital – a concept necessary for us to discern the specificities of our own age. This totalizing perspective, this Big Picture view of the global economy, is not a perspective that is understood by the captains of finance. They are completely focused on what they call their portfolios. That focus made them rich; and that focus acts as set of blinders to the terrible storm approaching. That is why they do not know what to do now. Their “knowledge” is constrained by their standpoint… by the view from where they stand.
They have tunnel-vision. It’s structural.
Those who saw this coming – and they were many – were marginalized, excluded from the inner sanctums of finance and government. People with unrecognizable names like Ellen Hodgson Brown, Michael Hudson, Henry C. K. Liu, Susan Strange, Peter Gowan, Mike Whitney, Loren Goldner – and many, many more – warned about what was about to happen, and explained it in plain language, but that was a language that experts and economists had learned to exclude from their frame of reference.
The captains of Wall Street and all their disciples, however, were too personally invested (no pun intended) in their own orthodoxies, and too focused on an every accelerating cycle of return-on-investment to see the big picture. Ambition, competition, and groupthink blinded them, and continues to blind them.
It blinds us, too, because we are dependent; and because the business class owning the means of production means the business class also owns the means of cultural production (including what and how we “know”).
If we don’t get hold of money fast enough, then we are threatened with homelessness and starvation… or more immediately, with the loss of security for our children – who are hostages of the money-grid.
If we lose the jobs we have, now, at the advent of a long crisis for which we have arrived without any preparation whatsoever, we are more captive than ever to money. We don’t know how to live without it. We might say we are captive to our ignorance.
The first step in overcoming this ignorance is to get the Big Picture. Face the facts. $50 trillion dollars now (and perhaps twice that much at the end of this long road) has disappeared (it never existed, it was a speculatively-raised phantasm); and our plan to replace it via printing press will lead us to something that gives economic historians chills: hyper-inflation.
Too much money circulating against too few goods raises prices. When this happens in periods of closing enterprise and high unemployment, and in the face of crippling household debt, it is a social catastrophe.
The Fed was part of the high-tempo, tunnel-vision sector. The Fed had a singular way of controlling the economy. If inflation was advancing too fast, they raised the prime interest rate to put the brakes on. What this really meant was that they deliberately created an increase in unemployment, in order to lower the going rates for labor.
The Fed treated fictional capital as if it were real, then moved that excess around from one “bubble” to the next. Each time the bubble burst, masses of people were left broken while a small elite feasted: Mexico, East Asia, the dotcom bust, the housing bubble. Each time, Washington made Wall Street whole again.
But when securitized finance blew out this time, the accumulation of vacuity in the system created the ultimate dilemma for the one-trick pony that is the Fed: stagnation combined with inflation – stagflation. Last year, fuel and food prices soared – slamming most people into the financial wall, as the economy – in the oblique metaphorical language of the pundits and economists – “contracted.”
Kenneth Boulding, the Quaker economist and philosopher, said, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
But this is part of that Big Picture that is invisible to economists, professional investors, and to politicians. Against this backdrop of the impossibility of infinite growth, first stagflation hit, then the tsunami of the so-called credit crisis. We were… are… utterly dependent, rich and poor, on this elaborate, global financial architecture; and the great wave slammed into it like it was a grass hut in front of the Great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake.
The one-trick pony, the Fed, tried lowering interest rates to stir some activity; but the last time they’d done that – in the wake of the dotcom bust – mortgages were refinanced at the lower rate… and equity loans were encouraged. Houses became ATMs, and household debt exploded into the whole illusion of infinite growth.
The fictional capital bubble was reflated into the housing market.
The wave hit the edifice of finance.
Interest rates hover now at zero; and the wave keeps coming. The one-trick pony has run out of tricks. So it’s printing more money, even as the global basket of commodities to which it is supposed to correspond has not changed.
We know what happened. Or at least we experienced it. We need to know. Because we have to find our own way out.
This is a totality.
Loss of Faith
The belief that money retains value is an article of religious faith. It is an idolatrous assumption; but there it is, nonetheless.
It’s not like the faith that Jesus mandated for his disciples, to “consider the lilies of the field.” His admonition there was to have no fear (and this was specifically about money).
Have no fear. God’s got your back. Radically trust… God.
The false faith that money retains value – even in the face of historical evidence totally to the contrary – is a false faith born of desperate fear, not radical trust. It is denial. It is collective self-delusion.
Self-delusion corresponds to arrogance; and much arrogance is based on the deepest kind of insecurity, the kind of insecurity that needs the security of accumulation as its balm. This kind of security requires domination and control… of people and Creation. Pride and self-delusion are inseparable twins.
Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
- Proverbs 16:18
It is this self-delusion that led us into this impasse; and now we need to abandon it wholesale. We need to practice the faith that considers the lilies of the field. The faith that God can and will provide when we abandon our captivity, cross the Red Sea, and head into the wilderness of an evermore de-monetizing society.
Give this Vile Idol Back to Caesar
John’s Apocalypse is not a prediction of the future.
Jesus’ encounter with the Herodians and Pharisees is not a call on disciples to pay taxes and obey the government,
And the Parable of the Talents is not Jesus telling disciples to become good investors.
These three heresies – or call them bad scholarship – have become the three-legged milking stool of biblical accommodation to the present worldly order.
To the Heordians and Pharisees, intent on trapping Jesus on the question of paying taxes:
“Whose picture is on that coin?” asked Jesus.
“Well, give it to Ceasar then.”
Rabbi Yeshua knew. The graven image was an idol. The gold was an idol, the very material of the calf-idol constructed by a demoralized people of God who were wandering – disoriented and frightened – out of bondage and into the “wilderness” of freedom.
The very valuation of the gold was idolatrous.
Daily bread. That’s all that’s needed. As a devout and observant Jew, Rabbi Yeshua remembered Proverbs 30:8: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”
It’s there in His prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
It is more than a little interesting that Jesus counter-posed food to money. The Kingdom of God is called a meal, a banquet table. Faith is seen as the ability to walk on water; as the ability to renounce one’s fear of living without money.
The faith of the desperate sees living without money as tantamount to walking on water.
You can’t serve God and money at the same time, Jesus said.
The reaction of the disciples: Rabbi, are you nuts? How would we eat, clothe ourselves, find shelter? You can’t live without money!
And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
- Matthew 6:28-30
Show some trust. God’s got your back. Your fear is lack of faith.
Post-Constantinian Christianity failed to come to terms with this rather obvious and consistent theme in Scripture, Old and New Testament, and especially the teachings of Rabbi Yeshua… a construction worker who had matured and developed in a militarily occupied land seething with rebellions and sectarian bickering, and crushed by Roman enclosure that forced the population into dependency on money.
The moneychangers were in the Temple because Jews were forbidden to use the graven image of Caesar, and so changed Roman money into half-shekels, the only assured-weight silver coinage approved by Jewish religious authorities. The Temple was trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Faith had abandoned that place, driven out by the peculiar character of money that imbricates us into a grid of dependency on the very powers we are commanded to confront.
The powers are not sovereign. God is the only sovereign.
They will wage war against the lamb, but the lamb will conquer them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings. Those who are called, chosen, and faithful are with him.”
- Revelation 17:14
This is not prediction, but prophetic poetry; not prophecy seen as fortune-telling, but prophecy seen as unmasking. “Apocalypse” does not mean “catastrophe.” It means revelation. It reveals.
It says, “That emperor capering down the street is butt naked.”
We non-millenarian Christians should learn to lose our fear of this book that tells us, assertively, that only God is sovereign.
Discernment versus Accommodation
Once the church began making accommodation with power in the 2nd Century – leading to the “conversion” of Constantine, a ruler who slaughtered even his own family members after that so-called conversion, and who profaned the sign of the cross by superimposing it on a sword – that accommodation masqueraded as discernment.
Money is an institution, subordinate to the Powers. What John of Patmos told the so-called “primitive” Christians, a tightly knit and defiant network of believers who proclaimed God sovereign over all, and who shared so thoroughly that none accumulated individual goods, was to hold out in the face of Domitian’s persecutions (Domitian portrayed in Revelation as the re-born Nero).
This gift-economy community was so attractive to many “middle-class” Roman women that they were converting, and giving away their goods to the small, intimate churches spread around the Mediterranean. The “primitive” Christians were not only preaching a gift economy, and the sovereignty of God over the Powers, they were teaching a radical doctrine of spiritual equality between men and women. In Roman ideology, women were not seen as moral subjects. Even in Paul’s most patriarchal epistolary language, the question of moral agency (the test of spiritual fullness, and therefore full humanity) is always implicit in his directions singling out women; and women were co-apostles – apostasy among the Romans.
So while Nero attacked Christians out of political opportunism, Domitian attacked them because they represented an actual political and ideological threat.
With the Constantinianization of the church, however, the discernment of the difference between God’s sovereignty and state sovereignty was effaced, and elaborate scholastic rationalizations were constructed to persuade people that there was a chain-of-command that started with God, passed through the state, and was mediated by the state for the people.
It was inevitable that with the state as mediator, and its money as the solvent that dissolved the bonds of personal relationships and replaced them with dependency on the money-grid of the day, someone would eventually begin selling indulgences.
Perversia optimo est pessima.
The perversion of the best is the worst.
Accommodations were passed off as discernment, the exclusive province of a church authority that no longer structured itself as a human family, but as an authoritarian, patriarchal state.
Acting Our Way into Right Thinking
There is a common saying in 12-step programs: “You can’t think your way into right acting. You have to act your way into right thinking.
It’s counter-intuitive, because we have been taught that actions reflect our thinking, when in actuality the opposite is true.
This is very important for our discernment, and for the practices we choose to live into our faith. What kinds of things do people do that create changes in how they think and feel?
In 1973, Stanford University tried an experiment with college students. They had them play roles, as prisoners and as prison guards. Within days, they had to end the experiment, because the guards had become so utterly sadistic and arbitrary. It was called the Stanford Prison Experiment. Look it up.
The actions implicit in their roles changed their “minds.”
Lived experience is reflected in our consciousness. Experience becomes our frame of intellectual reference, and experience provides us with our stories and metaphors.
First-ness, Second-ness, Third-ness, and so on-ness
To the extent that our lived experience is mediated and abstracted, our perceptions and ideas are mediated and abstracted.
(a) I till the soil. I plant the seed. I tend the garden. I harvest and eat.
(b) I work at the office. I get my weekly paycheck. I drive to the store. I buy something called food.
There is a first-ness to the planter’s consciousness. The experiences are direct, hand-to-ground, hand-to-mouth… unmediated.
There is a third-ness and fourth-ness to the office worker’s experience. Layers of mediation between any possibility of an I-Thou experience, mutual recognition, fusion… communion.
Work gets the money. Money is carried to an institution (a supermarket). Food is sold as a commodity – something created primarily for the purpose of valorizing capital, and only secondarily for its actual use. The food producer doesn’t care if you eat it or throw it away. The producer – a corporation – just cares if you buy it. The exchange takes place between intermediaries, with a cashier who is an alienated worker, working for a manager who bosses for money, performing for a higher boss who holds money over her head… etc. The buyer (you) and the cashier generally don’t know or care about each other. Their relationship is mediated by power and money.
The experience is mediated; so the perceptions and conceptions are mediated, are third-ness and fourth-ness, abstracted and superficial, not first-ness, like the hand in the soil, or the direct gift of the garden’s abundance.
Discernment is the ability to dig down from third-ness and fourth-ness back into first-ness.
The elaboration of rationalizations, that remain in the third-ness and fourth-ness, is accommodation masquerading as discernment, masquerading even to the elaborator.
Economics, for example. Massive, elaborate rationalizations. Book-length riffs on third-ness and fourth-ness.
Money is a sign and an instrument of third-ness and fourth-ness. The fruit of my garden no longer passes from my hand to yours in friendship. The fruit of an “industry” with an absentee-institutional owner is shipped to a chain store, where its exchange is mediated by an abstraction called money.
We need discernment about money; because money – unexamined – locks us into third-ness and fourth-ness, and conceals the first-ness of our own lives and the realities of power.
Money is a universal solvent. It makes everything the same. It replaces the complexity and diversity and richness of Creation with cold simplicity. It dissolves qualities into mere quantity.
This characteristic of money is the most important thing we can know about it. It is why money is so dangerous.
So what is it that we need to understand about money to make good decisions about how we interact with money.
Two Types of Money
Theology concerns itself primarily with our relationship to an original and all-inclusive power. Jesus’ life took on a very political character, which means that Jesus was living into the story and history of a rabbinical Jewish prophetic tradition at a particular time and place in actual human history.
Incarnation means this life – Jesus – was in the world and in history. And He constructed His life to make himself a Rosetta Stone, a translator between the creative God of that prophetic tradition and the actual circumstances of 1st Century Palestine.
The basis of His message was peacemaking – an active verb. The message can only be delivered by someone’s hands… and, not surprisingly, He understood that this message is generally delivered into someone’s stomach.
He identified violence, retribution, and domination as central to the character of the Spirit of Malevolence… the name for this wandering spirit according to Job… is Satan. In Luke 10:1-3, it says:
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.
Jesus commands the most perilous way: provocation with peace. Lambs among wolves. Let your fear fall away, and the temptations of Satan – to violence, domination, and retribution – fall away with it.
I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
And so Jesus provoked authority, again and again, and refused the temptations of power inhering in his own movement; and that approach led him to the cross, “like a lamb among the wolves.”
How he concretely provoked that power, however, was not a template for all time. He did so in the situated context of 1st Century Palestine. He had to discern the details and trends and contexts of that actual place at that actual time.
We live in a different time and place, inside a different emergent reality from the environment where Jesus lived… as a human being.
So we have to understand our own milieu… zeitgeist… moment… conjuncture… world.
I think that Jesus understood money very deeply – epistemologically, sociologically, semiotically… even when thee concepts were not yet formalized into academic sub-disciplines. He had an intuition from his own experience, focused as it was through his empathy for those on the margins.
Money had then, and has now, a two-fold character: commercial and political.
First, it has a commercial character. Commercial money is used to facilitate exchange of unlike items through a desirable like item. It is, therefore, one degree more abstract than straight barter. It can be gold or corn seeds or cowry shells. It can be, and often is, local. As Manuel DeLanda points out (A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History), in prison, cigarettes become local currency.
Second, money that has begun to universalize based on migrations and overlapping social meshworks is subject to political control. This process moves money further away from spontaneity and toward being “planned.” Planned money is both more political and more abstract.
States and empires use planned monetary systems as mechanisms for population control. As a necessity (to pay taxes, or – in our ultra-dependent case – to live at all), money binds us. Yet as a dead thing, an abstracted thing, an apparently unresponsive thing, money is impervious to our grievances; and it presents itself to us without apparent correspondence to real human beings controlling real political systems.
We recognize money uncritically. It’s “just money.”
And so money facilitates the power of elites even as it keeps elites invisible. Money creates the illusion of choice and freedom; and it makes power invisible.
Planned money is not merely a stimulant to trade. It is a social regulation institution.
“Whose image is on that coin?”
We said at the beginning that “money masks.” Now we need to think about how “money talks.”
Money masks; and money talks.
Money homogenizes everything under its banner. It is a cosmic blender.
We know from the Old Testament that unification through homogenization is a problem. We see that in the story of the Tower of Babel.
The disguised name for Babylon is hardly subtle here.
Egypt. Babylon. Rome.
The great city and the empire are inseparable. In fact, the great city is the embryo of empire. Ferdinand Braudel, in Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800, wrote:
[T]owns… represented an enormous expenditure. Their economy was only balanced by outside resources; others had to pay for their luxury. What use were they therefore, in the West, where they sprang up and asserted themselves so powerfully? The answer is that they produced the modern states, an enormous task requiring enormous effort. They produced the national markets, without which the modern state would be a pure fiction.
Empire needs to be defined. It is difficult to do so without veering into polemics, because naming empire is itself a political unmasking.
But empire can be described empirically (which is not quite synonymous with “abstractly”). Empire is the systematic exploitation of the periphery to support the center; and this exploitation has a two-way dynamic. It draws consumables from periphery to center; and it exports waste and disorder to the periphery.
This is actually a thermodynamic process, and so can be described empirically without resort to moral norms. In our day, for example, we can see quite clearly that the US – with 5% of the total world population – consumes more than 25% of the world’s fossil hydrocarbon energy production.
Exploitation of the periphery by the city-center was well understood by Jesus of Nazareth, who – as resident of a highly exploited and marginal area (Galilee) – saw goods flow toward Jerusalem (the city-center of the Herodian colonial surrogate government) and more generally from Palestine to Rome, even as economic, ecologic, and social disorder were exported from the centers back to the margins.
Jesus’ use of the term “repent,” in meeting with John the Baptist in the countryside along the Jordan River, is extremely significant.
“Repent” means “turn around.” The flow of people, of goods, and even of the of the Zealots’ quests to overturn imperial power, were movements from margin to center… in other words, along the imperial current. But Jesus says to “turn around,” whereupon He himself heads not to Jerusalem, but to the wilderness. And His ministry was not to power, not to the center, but to the marginalized.
In the Tower of Babel story, God’s correction involves not only the destruction of the tower to human hubris, but perhaps even more significantly, the division of peoples into separate, local, linguistic communities.
If money is a language, it serenades the top, it speaks to the center, and it curses the margins.
Language to Describe Language
Christians’ discernment of the process of history unfolding around us ought to speak at least two languages for describing our own epoch – (a) the language of Scripture, rendered intelligible by scholarship as a responsibility of discipleship, and (b) the language of the present.
In our modernist idiom, we might describe money using a physiological metaphor.
Money is a solvent that dissolves the connective tissue of community.
But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.”
- Acts 8:20-22
The Magic Ring
In the classic Tolkein trilogy – now also a movie trilogy – a kind, humble, decent protagonist comes into possession of a magic ring that does two things at once: It renders him invisible to everyone around him when he dons it; but by doing so, he becomes directly visible to the malevolent gaze of the uber-demon, Sauron, and his relentless ring wraiths.
Tales involving invisibility are recurring imaginary constants in many cultures. Because we are all subject to the temptations inside this fantasy – of being invisible, we are alert to the correspondence of invisibility with a moral hazard.
We know what we imagine we would do if we could be invisible.
We are broken, and so we can know broken-ness, temptation. If I were invisible for a day, I would ____ (fill in the blank).
Invisibility-as-moral-hazard cuts two ways: Invisibility of power opens the door to power without accountability; and amoral instrumentality in the individual causes “the least among us” to become invisible.
Money plays a key role in both aspects of invisibility. Like Sauron’s magic ring, money contains a dangerous paradox in its very composition and existence.
The exchange of money in the marketplace puts a retail worker and a buyer in contact with each other. The social networks and character of life of the buyer are invisible – and of little interest – to the retail worker, and vice-versa; and behind the retail worker is also a completely monetized network of relationships – instrumental relationships – relations that would not exist except for a monetary (contractual) interest. This deeper network that, in effect, controls the encounter of the retail worker with the buyer, involves vast and unequal relations-of-production; and the built environment itself in which this exchange takes place is the product of money-“making” enterprise.
I drop by the store and buy a gallon of milk. In-and-out in five minutes.
And that’s what I saw. That’s all. The rest is invisible, even though it is manifest in the most basic and profound way. Power invisible is power unaccountable. Money invisiblizes power.
And the single-mindedness that accompanies a single magic key to survival in our actually-structured society – money – bends our personalities to instrumentalism (even with other people) by constant practice. In that process, we learn not to see the casualties. We know who they are: the ones we have to pretend not to see, and thereby do not see.
Time is money, money time. That’s what “they” say.
I don’t know if we can throw money – like the magic ring – back into the fires of Mount Doom. But we can know that the more general-purpose and de-localized the money, the more effective it is as a solvent eating away at the connective tissue of community. We can not simply dismiss the need for a deep critique of money, even if raising the question can seem more perilous than opening Pandora’s infamous box.
More specifically, we need to take a hard look at the currency that dominates the actual world-system economy, and the currency that is at the heart of the economic crisis we are inside of.
In 2002, investment analyst Henry C. K. Liu penned an article for Asia Times entitled “Dollar hegemony has got to go.” In the small circle of people who were then paying attention to the widening contradiction between the financial economy and the real one, Liu’s article popularized his term, “dollar hegemony.”
Dollar hegemony is a description of global economics that describes the impact of the dollar as the recognized, universal, international currency, since the dollar abandoned the gold standard in 1971, then decoupled from the fixed currency exchange rates of the post-World War II Bretton Woods agreements in 1973.
In brief, from Liu:
…World trade is now a game in which the US produces dollars and the rest of the world produces things that dollars can buy. The world’s interlinked economies no longer trade to capture a comparative advantage; they compete in exports to capture needed dollars to service dollar-denominated foreign debts and to accumulate dollar reserves to sustain the exchange value of their domestic currencies. To prevent speculative and manipulative attacks on their currencies, the world’s central banks must acquire and hold dollar reserves in corresponding amounts to their currencies in circulation. The higher the market pressure to devalue a particular currency, the more dollar reserves its central bank must hold. This creates a built-in support for a strong dollar that in turn forces the world’s central banks to acquire and hold more dollar reserves, making it stronger. This phenomenon is known as dollar hegemony, which is created by the geopolitically constructed peculiarity that critical commodities, most notably oil, are denominated in dollars. Everyone accepts dollars because dollars can buy oil. The recycling of petro-dollars is the price the US has extracted from oil-producing countries for US tolerance of the oil-exporting cartel since 1973.
By definition, dollar reserves must be invested in US assets, creating a capital-accounts surplus for the US economy. Even after a year of sharp correction, US stock valuation is still at a 25-year high and trading at a 56 percent premium compared with emerging markets… [This was written in 2002. –SG]
… A strong-dollar policy is in the US national interest because it keeps US inflation low through low-cost imports and it makes US assets expensive for foreign investors. This arrangement, which Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan proudly calls US financial hegemony in congressional testimony, has kept the US economy booming in the face of recurrent financial crises in the rest of the world. It has distorted globalization into a “race to the bottom” process of exploiting the lowest labor costs and the highest environmental abuse worldwide to produce items and produce for export to US markets in a quest for the almighty dollar, which has not been backed by gold since 1971, nor by economic fundamentals for more than a decade. The adverse effect of this type of globalization on the developing economies are obvious. It robs them of the meager fruits of their exports and keeps their domestic economies starved for capital, as all surplus dollars must be reinvested in US treasuries to prevent the collapse of their own domestic currencies.
The adverse effect of this type of globalization on the US economy is also becoming clear. In order to act as consumer of last resort for the whole world, the US economy has been pushed into a debt bubble that thrives on conspicuous consumption and fraudulent accounting. The unsustainable and irrational rise of US equity prices, unsupported by revenue or profit, had merely been a devaluation of the dollar.
And so it came to pass.
The moral of this tale, and this extended quote, is that money has consistently been used as a weapon for imperial power; but that the more abstract, universal, and general-purpose the money is, the more destructive its payload.
I don’t agree with the idea that ignorance is like a closed room. Ignorance is unprotected. Ignorance is not matter; it is space.
We are not hurt by ignorance per se, but ignorance leaves the door unlocked to let the devil in. We need to know as much as we can about money, and be fearless in facing the implications of what we learn.
Money and Scripture
Master, I knew you that you are a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter. I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the earth. Behold, you have what is yours.
A hard man (like the heart of Pharaoh, hard). Rewarding usury. Money-making as virtue. A man who “reaps where he does not sow.”
Many interpretations read this passage as if it were a tract from Murray Rothbard. Usury was a sin among Jews. In Jesus’ story, the virtuous man, who the Master – an absentee landlord, the kind Palestinian peasants knew well as oppressors – throws into the darkness (unlike the merciful God that Jesus represented), takes this money (a talent was an extraordinary amount for a servant) and buries it.
Money allows many to reap where they do not sow. This is the most basic description of material injustice. The appropriation of the work of another.
Jesus was an observant Jew. The law was no usury between Jew and Jew. The law was no interest more than 12% to outsiders. Yet the servant commended by the master in this story – by this absentee landlord “who reaps what he does not sow” – has cashed out at 100%.
A charismatic Jewish renewalist in 30 AD Palestine, preaching to the poor, does not mean – nor his listeners hear – in this tale of the talents, that a despised figure (the exploitative landowner) is a stand-in for God, the bank manager; nor does he use a clearly-understood violation of Jewish law as an example of the virtue of successful usury.
Jesus told his listeners that discipleship is hard. A warning to his own disciples, Jesus – who will be nailed to the cross – lets them know in this parable that following him will lead the world – represented by this absentee landlord – to throw them into the darkness to wail and gnash their teeth.
Discipleship is not cheap or easy, this parable warns. And the question of money emerges again and again in these examples Jesus provides.
This story of the Parable of the Talents is frequently cited today as Christ’s personal blessing, nay, encouragement, of successful monetary return-on-investment schemes; just as Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees and Herodians is portrayed as a call to obey secular authority.
Both of these wrong ideas have great popular currency; and both are clearly based on the evasion of rigorous scholarship.
Confronting these opportunistic (and anachronistic) interpretations of scripture is a critical task in the struggle to reclaim a church with the Beatitudes as its constitution.
Just as important as the kind of contextualizing scholarship that reminds us of what 1st Century Palestine was actually like, the way social relations were actually structured, and the implications of context on text, is discernment of our own age. We have to understand and deal with money in ways that reflect deep discernment and avoid rationalization and simplification.
Paul Tillich described sin in its structural aspect. Social structures can force us all into complicity; and as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove pointed out, when the Bible says “you,” the meaning is “y’all.” Not merely a person, but a people.
Out entanglement in structural sin is a function of dependency; and no dependency is so thoroughgoing as dependency on money.
When I was in the Army, I was trained to use explosives. At least within the ken of the military mindset, there were times when explosives were necessary. But they were used when nothing else would get the job done; and we were taught to use them with great care. The potential for destruction was too high to handle them any other way.
I think we should begin to understand money with the same sense of extreme precaution. Money may be necessary to do some things… now. But our cavalier and undiscerning use of it contributes to massive destruction, so ubiquitous and frequent that we call it part of life, worse… part of God’s plan. We are getting better at naming people who are careless with the lives of others and Creation; but we still haven’t looked deeply into money’s role.
Gun culture is fond of saying that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” True, and a truism. But a partial truth, and an intentionally partial truth, worse than a lie. Put people into bad circumstances and introduce guns and things get a lot worse a lot faster. Guns add that special lethality.
But how often do we pass around money and call it service, and how self-critical do we need to be in light of the deeper dynamics of money, about our advocacy for the poor, for example, when we demand more money instead of more independence from the money-grid and more inter-dependence on the community?
I have lost track of how many times I’ve seen money – funding, it’s called – put service and advocacy organizations into structural antagonism, an economy of scarcity, in which people are talking like Jesus and acting like Hobbes.
Can we at least seek a non-monetary answer first, instead of reaching for the blasting caps and time fuse?
The implications are mind-boggling, because money is so thoroughly imbricated with every aspect of our lives.
I think that Jesus knew this. I think that in the best way it could be said to the peasantry of 1st Century Palestine, He explained it. I think we’ve been running from the implications ever since, because money makes things easier, more convenient… until it doesn’t.
You can’t serve God and money at the same time, He said.
Without the most convoluted rationalizations, how do we explain what he meant? I mean really.
I am not saying that we declare war on the money-form, or that we discontinue giving money to the poor. Jesus told people to do precisely that.
The poor use money for necessities, like a soldier uses explosives when nothing else will do. But do we tell the poor, your salvation (healing) is in a steady income, i.e., money?
I put these thoughts and questions out there to start a conversation. Structural sins may demand structural redemptions.
17 and he came down with them, and stood on a level place, and a great multitude of his disciples, and a great number of the people from all Judaea and Jerusalem, and the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases;
18 and they that were troubled with unclean spirits were healed.
19 And all the multitude sought to touch him; for power came forth from him, and healed them all.
20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed are ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.
22 Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake.
23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy: for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for in the same manner did their fathers unto the prophets.
24 But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.
25 Woe unto you, ye that are full now! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you, ye that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.
26 Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for in the same manner did their fathers to the false prophets.
27 But I say unto you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you,
28 bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.
29 To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and from him that taketh away thy cloak withhold not thy coat also.
30 Give to every one that asketh thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.
31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.
32 And if ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? for even sinners love those that love them.
33 And if ye do good to them that do good to you, what thank have ye? for even sinners do the same.
34 And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? even sinners lend to sinners, to receive again as much.
35 But love your enemies, and do them good, and lend, never despairing; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High: for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil.
36 Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
37 And judge not, and ye shall not be judged: and condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: release, and ye shall be released:
38 give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they give into your bosom. For with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again.
39 And he spake also a parable unto them, Can the blind guide the blind? shall they not both fall into a pit?
40 The disciple is not above his teacher: but every one when he is perfected shall be as his teacher.
41 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
42 Or how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me cast out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.
43 For there is no good tree that bringeth forth corrupt fruit; nor again a corrupt tree that bringeth forth good fruit.
44 For each tree is known by its own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes.
45 The good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth that which is evil: for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.
46 And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?
47 Every one that cometh unto me, and heareth my words, and doeth them, I will show you to whom he is like:
48 he is like a man building a house, who digged and went deep, and laid a foundation upon the rock: and when a flood arose, the stream brake against that house, and could not shake it: because it had been well builded.
49 But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that built a house upon the earth without a foundation; against which the stream brake, and straightway it fell in; and the ruin of that house was great.