Mammon — Guest Post by Kevin Hargaden

Well. You best sit down before you read this one. The internet introduced me to Kevin, and I am so grateful. One day he will write a book that with all of his Irish humor still manages to make us bleed. Besides being smart and theological, Kevin and his wife are the goods. They sent me and my husband a care package–complete with Irish Tea, Irish poetry, and a handwritten letter filled with quotes from the Pope. I know! 

This post gets to the very heart of the matter, I believe. It’s so easy to make downward mobility a game of sorts– all about material possessions, what I have done for God, see what a difference I have made with my second hand clothes! And sometimes people like myself need to be smacked in the face in regards to what is actually going on: how God longs for those living under the oppression of wealth to be set free. Because he loves us too. And he has been trying to free us for a long, long time.

 

 

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art by Banksy

 

Mammon

Guest post by Kevin Hargaden

 

 

I’m totally behind the downward mobility movement. Quite literally. My wife and I are downwardly mobile. We’ve swapped prosperity in a beautiful university town on the edge of a bustling EU capital city for a life on the wrong side of the tracks in a provincial town on the edge of a region most famous for a legendary, mysterious sea monster called Nessie. We are from Dublin, where we have lived our whole life. My wife had a fantastic and rewarding job. We had a large circle of friends. My family were minutes away. Everything was familiar and wonderful. We love our hometown with a passion.

Now we live in Aberdeen, which is a grey city on the coast of the North Sea, buffeted on one side by Arctic winds and surrounded on the other by the mountains that rise into the Scottish Highlands. We have been here six weeks. My wife’s fulltime pursuit has been job-searching. Today she got word of her first interview, for a temporary role, in a low level administration position, at about 40% less than her last salary rate. The reason we are here, in a city more northerly than Moscow that has less than six hours of daylight in winter, is for my PhD. Ironically, as we quickly accelerate downwards towards destitution, I will be researching a theology of wealth.

While today the circumstances press in on me hard and as I feel the pressure I paint a particularly dim picture of what we’re doing, the reality is that we are involved in a grand adventure. We have never lived abroad before. We have never started again before. We are doing a hard thing but it is exceptionally cool.

So we probably meet whatever requirements can be imagined to classify a couple as part of this radical downward mobility movement. And presumably if you check back in on us in three months we will have stories about how it has liberated us. And I suspect that our life will always be indented by the experience of profound freedom that came from unburdening ourselves of all the possessions that we had accumulated over years of mimicking Western-world middle class comfort. We were possessed by them.

But it is exactly at this point, when I reflect on how our (relative but very real) wealth warped our view of the world that I begin to part company with the largely brilliant conversation about downward mobility.

***

I am haunted by the words of Jesus. My life has been transformed by reflecting on his parables, which I think are the greatest stories ever told. They are simply divine.

In Matthew 12 we find an image that we could spend our lives reflecting on. In context, Jesus is disputing with Pharisees who are accusing him of being in league with Beelzebul. He answers them (29): “how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.”

In these two sentences, Jesus gives us a peek at his entire intention. As Jesus sees it, the world is held captive. The New Testament gives us a range of different words to describe the captor. At base the captivity is at the hands of a personal force, referred to often as “the Satan”.

Jesus very clearly loved the world he inhabited. He loved the terrain of his homeland and he loved the seasons of the farms and he loved the fruit of the vine and the culture of the cities. But his perspective was that this world was echoing a glory that had been smothered by a force that held it captive. He came to bind up the strong man who was claiming this world as his own. On Good Friday he goes into battle with the strong man and at dawn on Easter Sunday he comes up triumphant. The strong man is bound so that bound Creation can go free.

This is not the only way to think of God’s Gospel, but it is one of the ways we find in the gospels that describe it. There is a false power that held the world captive under its hollow authority. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God overthrew this fake potentate and now we, the church, join him in this non-violent liberation.

***

Paul takes up this way of seeing things in Ephesians. At the end of that letter he summarises the kind of battle that Christians are called to engage in. He is clear that the battle is not a violent one of war and fighting. Instead, “our struggle is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

I want to propose that one of the powers of this darkened world that Paul is describing here has been named by Jesus. He called it Mammon. He seemed to use that word to describe an impersonal force that controlled the affections of people by making them love money. Adam Smith, the great father of modern economics spoke about the market as an “invisible hand”. His words, which are a gospel to capitalism, have a dark hue when heard against Jesus’ warnings about Mammon.

***

So here is what I have argued:

  1. Jesus saw the world as held captive by a darkness that had to be subverted.
  2. Paul says that this darkness manifests itself in forces, “powers and principalities” that rule the world.
  3. Jesus names one of these powers as Mammon.

And here is my tentative proposal:

  1. To be wealthy is to be under the realm of Mammon.

Which leads me to my conclusion, which makes me sound like quite the crackpot:

  1. To be wealthy is to be captive to Satan.

***

If I am right, then the judgement of God is upon those of us who are wealthy. And everyone who has access to a web browser with an internet connection and the literacy skills to read my convoluted prose is bound to be wealthy.

There are smaller problems with downward mobility. For one, it seems self-defeating since only the wealthy can imagine a scenario where they could relinquish their wealth. For another, intentional poverty has a long tradition in the church but it is fraught and complex. There are technical problems in that individual acts of solidarity and solitary acts of divestment alone make absolutely no difference to the justice, politics or material conditions of our unfair world.

But the biggest problem with downward mobility is that it underestimates the problem.

***

If we, the wealthy, are to be pitied as those held captive by a force that although defeated, retains residual strength, then we cannot possibly hope to be freed from by our own action. If my theological hunch is true, and we the wealthy are blinded from reality by the warping effects of having so many things at our disposal, then the only hope for us is an intervention by someone strong enough to bind up the strong man.

Being less consumerist or more frugal, moving in with the poor and the dispossessed, spending our life in advocacy and agitation for environmental justice or economic transformation or political revolution – we may be called to all of these things but none of these things will suffice.

Since camels don’t fit through the eyes of needles, we, the rich men, are screwed. With man, it is impossible for us to get to heaven. But in uttering these awesome and rarely reflected upon words, Jesus says with God, all things are possible.

The problem with downward mobility is that it imagines we can decide which direction we should go. In our downward mobility we seek to disposses ourselves of privilege and power, wealth and influence. But that dispossession is always an illusion if it is true that the wealth we are seeking to let go of is imposed on us by Mammon. The dispossession we are all called to is to be dispossessed of our delusion that we can set our own course or define our own destiny.

***

If we pursue downward mobility for downward mobility’s sake, we pursue nothing to nowhere. We are just caught up in another endless maze of self-justification that Mammon erects to distract us from the returning King.

We must wrestle with the fact that the inequality in our world is an injustice. But if we are to undo that injustice, we have to first see the gangster at the top tied up. The strong man must be bound for the captives to be set free. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ seems to involve the claim that the rich are cursed.

We are cursed.

Unless we can be set free.

 

 

 

 

SONY DSCKevin was born and bred in the Dublin suburbs. He has an Irish
aversion to writing bio-pieces since they invariably sound cocky. He
is training to be a minister with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland,
but is studying for that at Aberdeen University. He can’t sing but he
does lisp. He loves the Simpsons, the parables and making lists but
perhaps not in that order. He blogs at www.hargaden.com/kevin about
faith in contemporary Ireland and he can be found on twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

 

 

 

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14 thoughts on “Mammon — Guest Post by Kevin Hargaden

  1. The downward mobility movement reminds me of the incarnational missions movement of 20 years ago, and raises the same concerns for me. I am grateful for Kevin’s final paragraphs, especially this line: “The dispossession we are all called to is to be dispossessed of our delusion that we can set our own course or define our own destiny.”

    Some of the problems with incarnational missions were that 1) it was not the only lifestyle portrayed for people of integrity in the Bible (the saints seem to be from every social level from beggars to prime ministers, and Paul whipped out his Roman passport on occasion — but not always); 2) it was clearly a case of “a burden too great to bear,” in that missionary candidates were pressed to live at the level of the people to whom they ministered, and then left to struggle constantly with their consciences about every single privilege available to them as middle-class expats; 3) many of the people marketing the idea were not living it themselves; 4) it was largely a temporary illusion, set aside when the missionary went home on furlough, to the capital for conferences, to the hospital to deal with their child’s illness, etc.

    At the same time, the incarnational model was very valuable in urging a Christlike mind and life, just as the downward mobility movement is valuable in countering the spirit of Mammon, as Kevin has indicated. It is a powerful witness against the modern church’s idolatry of prosperity and captivity to debt and consumerism.

  2. Eva says:

    Thank you for this challenging and thought-provoking post. However, after reading this, I am still stuck with the question: what is wrong with wealthy people being generous with their money to the poor? Lots of wealthy people (not all of them, of course), contribute to the society in so many ways, creating more jobs for the others, is just one of those. Bill Gates is so wealthy. But he is giving millions to the poor. So – this is my dilemma!

  3. Sometimes one wishes money would never have been created. A few ideas for the times we are living in: Significant monetary reform-take away the power from privately owned central banks (Federal Reserve, European Central Bank etc) and establish government-run banking institutions as a public service (see publicbankinginstitute.org)., establish a worldwide maximum wage of $5 million for one, two, three, or more years, eliminate off-shore tax havens (see icij.org-International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) where any person or corporation with considerable amounts of wealth have avoided taxes for decades.
    Thank you,
    Jerry

  4. pastordt says:

    So . . . I find myself in a quandary with this outline. If I agree with it, then by rights, I am indeed in bondage to Mammon, because of where my husband and I land on the economic scale. If I disagree with it – I am, by your definition even more clearly in bondage to Mammon. This feels like an impossible Catch-22 to me, one that makes me both sad and anxious. After beginning our married lives with little money and serving overseas for two years for a very small salary (but a much nicer house than we could afford in the States, courtesy of the Zambian government), we came home to do the very traditional, husband goes to work and wife stays home with the babies. Turned out my husband was gifted (and I mean GIFTED) with making money grow. (Which Jesus does not ever seem to condemn, actually. . . parable of the talents to name one, the caring ministry of wealthy women to name another).

    We didn’t plan it, we didn’t even really choose it. But we got it. And we’ve used it in all kinds of ways to minister to others, from our own family to friends in mission work, etc.

    So . . . should we divest and move downward now, at ages 68 and 71, with aging moms to support and children and grandchildren and missionaries and non-profits that need help? I have such admiration for the downward mobility movement. But this post somehow feels a lot like the time I sat in my first seminary class and heard a professor whom I admired lambasting ‘the wealthy’ Americans and their selfishness and blindness to the needs of others. I ended the class session in tears because I knew that I would never have been in seminary at all, WITHOUT said wealth, primarily because I had been raised to believe that the woman in the family should never, ever ask anyone else to sacrifice a thing for their own advancement . . . Do you get my drift? Sometimes, wealth provides a pathway to service. Is there room in this analysis for this possibility? Much as I admire Danielle and you and your wife for the hard choices you have made to be where you are, there are some pretty sweeping generalizations being made here that are painful to read.

    • Hi Diana. I just want to say that I am sorry for the anxious feelings this produced–I am all to familiar with those feelings, and they aren’t fun. I will speak for myself and say I know Kevin is not advocating for “Downward Mobility” only (in fact, I don’t think he is the biggest fan of it ever!). The reason I liked this post so much is becuase I think it gets to the spiritual element of how money can oppress–which is actually much more freeing than just “all money is bad”. Yesterday I prayed against the spirit of mammon at my job, which is with very poor people. But they still feel the pull, can be bound up by the pursuit of wealth. I feel it all the time. Putting it on a spiritual plane helps me to pray, and gives me new eyes to see. It actually helped make it less black and white for me, which is interesting.

      I only know you on the internets, but I get the sense that you chose Jesus a long long time ago. And we all know you can’t serve two masters.

      • pastordt says:

        Thanks for your kindness, Danielle. I stayed up too late and probably should not have posted my knee-jerk reaction to this. I really do try hard not to be reactive! It struck a nerve, which means I probably need to pay attention to this! I actually “get” your prayer for your neighbors – because when you’re poor, Mammon can become an idol in ways some wealthy folks would be surprised about. It is indeed a spiritual battle. I guess I just want there to be room at the table for people at all different places on the economic scale. (Which really sounds pathetic as I read it! But you know what? I have lived/worked/ministered in one of the wealthiest communities in the world – in direct obedience to a very clear call from God to both my husband and me – and I see all kinds of brokenness and loss. Despite every economic advantage imaginable, many of the world’s wealthiest are among the world’s unhappiest. Once you get beyond meeting the basic living needs of people, wealth has very little to do with joy, it seems to me.)

    • Jim Fisher says:

      Diana – I am actually thankful you posted this, knee-jerk and all. I really struggle with this. My wife and I are wealthy, by any measure, American or otherwise. We owe no one anything. We have no mortgage on our 1300 square foot home, no charge-card debt, no car payments. Yet, our cars are both over 15 years old and I put more miles on my bicycle each year than on my car. We have a budget category called “Charitable Other” that has a balance in excess of $10,000 (which is about 25% of our annual income).

      God knows that we hold that money loosely. It will fall through our fingers easily to anyone in need. And yet, we are finding it hard to find homes for our resources. I am an IT guy. I can’t even give away my talents to my friends. They would rather spent two hours on the phone with customer support than call me to support them for free. WUWT?

      I have friends who disparately need what we have to offer, but assume that what we intend as a no-strings-attached gift is really a just a pretty wrapping around an obligation. It’s a gift, dang it. I don’t want it back. Gift it forward to someone else if you must.

      Being in a position to drench our neighbors with extravagant, sacrificial love has its own challenges. They expect us to be “of this world” when we try so hard not to be.

      All we can do is continue to be faithful in our sacrificial giving. Pray for people to cross our path and be blessed by what we have to offer. The Abrahamic promise is that we are blessed to be a blessing. I just wish that the “be a blessing” part wasn’t so difficult.

      • Angela says:

        Just a quick thought – my mom was very blessed by some friends who “hold their money loosely” as you put it. She has many medical needs that we her family simply cannot pay for. But we don’t feel any strings attached – because we don’t know exactly who it was who gave.

        A “group” of anonymous people worked through her church to give her the money. She doesn’t know exactly who, nor do I. It has made it so much easier, as poorer Christians to receive their gifts, because she is receiving through her church rather than knowing the giver directly. As much as we don’t wish to sin by resenting a gift – that can be hard for poorer people.

  5. I too appreciated Diana’s honest comment, and your response Danielle. I think there are ways for Mammon to oppress/capture both the poor and the wealthy but I also think there are ways for money to be used as worship for both the poor and the wealthy.

  6. khargaden says:

    Thank you for your comments, especially Pastordt.

    It is a most rewarding thing when one’s writing provokes such thoughtful and honest push-back. I only wish that my piece had not been a painful thing for you to read. In the light of that strong emotion, thank you for the respect and sincerity with which you have shaped your critique.

    I wrote this piece in one sitting two evenings ago. Myself and Ms. Mayfield were discussing a piece I had originally prepared that sought to crack open the problems with the Downward Mobility movement by considering the downward movement of Jesus exposed in Philippians 2:5-11. That piece left too much wriggle room. If, in throwing this together, I was careless and sweeping in my assertions, I apologise.

    I realise this is a blog and I am allowed to be casual, but nonetheless, I was alarmed when I saw that reading this was a painful experience for you. That was not my intention.

    However, I would like to respectfully and gently suggest to the commentators that something might be absent in their reading.

    The take that I present in this piece may be wrong-headed, or blunt or plain wrong. But the issue that we are approaching is absolutely central. Jesus has about 40 parables, depending on how you count them. Half of them deal with money. While Diane cites the classic example of the talents parable (which I don’t think is primarily or even secondarily about money), the overwhelming nature of Jesus’ words about wealth can be summed up by the German word: “ACHTUNG!”

    I do not think that the church at large is paying enough attention to that warning. I feel perhaps the comments betray an engagement with how this piece made people feel, as opposed to what the argument presented actually claimed. My point my be weak or wrong and it is certainly too brusque if it leads people to feeling hurt, but I have proposed a big argument that: that Christians ought to understand wealth as a realm of the Powers and Principalities. That argument, if worthy of attention, would re-configure our attitudes to wealth such that we would not be so quick to lament how difficult it is to be a blessing or console ourselves with how sometimes wealth can be used positively.

    The question is not whether we accept we are in bondage to Mammon. The question is whether we are in bondage to Mammon. That is a subtle but *crucial* distinction. It is a question the downward mobility folks (of which I am not a member) need to wrestle with and it is a question that the stewardship folks (if I can group Rachel, Jim and Diane into a makeshift category!) need to wrestle with. After all, from Plato’s cave onwards, there are lots of stories we can draw on of people who are enslaved but don’t recognise it.

    So, I have suggested the downward mobility folks have underestimated how fraught a problem wealth is. I think my natural grouping (the stewardship group) are also underestimating it.

    The Australian scholar Brian Rosner wrote last year: “In the OT it’s not that the rich inevitably abandon God, but becoming wealthy raises the possibility. With riches comes the temptation to trust in oneself rather than God. The rich sometimes feel that they have no need of God; they have made other arrangements.”

    What I am trying to suggest in this piece is that as with every other ethical sphere, the New Testament heightens and intensifies the calling placed on the people of God. The New Testament sees wealth as a curse (think of the rich young ruler) but one that we can be liberated from (think of Zaccheus) and one that can be turned to good (think of the ministry of the wealthy women in the early church that your reference) but Mammon remains a Power and it is this that should be at the foreground of our thinking, our action and most pressingly, our affection.

    • pastordt says:

      Thank you for this good clarification, Kevin. And I’m sorry I didn’t read your original post carefully enough to discern this. I agree that we don’t generally think of Mammon as a power/principality. It’s a painful place to be, whether you have a lot of money or you don’t. So I will continue to wrestle with your ideas and look forward to any future work you do on this whole topic. I greatly appreciate the Rosner quote – that trusting in oneself thing, yeah that’s a biggie. I appreciate your kind response to my reactive comment.

  7. dianeemiller says:

    I think engagement & dialogue over this subject is critical… the tension is good, in that we need to feel comfortable listening & learning from each perspective. It also seems in this conversation that the poverty of the under resourced is obvious & the poverty of the wealthy, not so much. Bryant Meiers lays concepts out in “Walking with the Poor”, of either having a heritage of celebration or suffering with your identity and how it effects your lifestyle & faith perspective. Many don’t understand their marred identity with a celebration heritage and how it effects their worldview & current lifestyle. It is much easier for those of us with a celebration heritage to choose downward mobility, simply because we have grown up without being impoverished.(i.e.- my mom grew up in poverty.. her & dad gave us a great middle-class upbringing.. but, it is hard for her to come to our socio-economic blended neighborhood.. the “bad” part of it reminds her too much of her childhood poverty.)

    I have also lived in socio-economic & cultural blended community long enough to begin thinking we need to market new holistic lifestyle model options for everyday Christians to ponder. How else do you promote not choosing to live in homogenous stacked wealth as the ultimate comfortable dream? Poverty is a lack of connections and blended community models can give connections, mentoring & hope. They also help prevent a stacked wealth marred identity ~ when you always have the poor near, you cannot forget them and you can begin to see unjust systems in society.

    Mobility in lifestyle needs to be addressed as well. Most don’t concentrate life in any geographic base any longer with our destination “travel-to” communities.(i.e.- driving to work, school, church). So, prosperous Westerners are exhausted, with little time margin, because of their “going & doing”, along with managing all the “consumerism stuff” they accumulate. I’m thinking a true defining movement will also take a major shift with a staying lifestyle to give people back a sense of belonging to a piece of land… if that’s even possible in this day and age?

  8. Fred says:

    But what is described in this essay is just the inevitabe extension of what is pictured and described here:
    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~spanmod/mural/panel13.html
    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~spanmod/mural/panel21.html
    http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/cruelty.html
    Plus the world-wide applied politics of cruelty dramatised so that self-oblivious American’s could continue to shop – meaning of course that the American way of life is not-negotiable
    http://www.logosjournal.com/hammer_kellner
    Further details are described in The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
    Plus of course these references
    1. Columbus and Other Cannibals by Jack Forbes
    2. American Holocaust by David Stannard
    3. Britain’s Empire by Ricard Gott

thoughts?

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