Freedom Versus Money
When I was younger, I chose freedom over money. This meant I could control my life and my time. To earn a living, we must make sacrifices, but forty years ago, those sacrifices were not egregious. I could make ends meet by working part-time at a minimum-wage job. I had plenty of opportunity for rest, creativity, and friendships.
These days, supporting myself is harder. I’m grateful that I was able to finish seminary and become a chaplain, for now I enjoy my work and make a decent salary, but it takes more time than work used to.
Money and Work
Not everyone, though, has the means to go to school, nor does everyone love her work. Somebody has do the dismal and distressing jobs that have sprung up since the Industrial Revolution. Even now, many of us work in crowded settings, doing mundane, tedious, or dangerous jobs for pay that barely covers our rent. If those in charge cared less about their own profit and more about the people for whom they were responsible, perhaps working conditions would improve and salaries would increase. No matter how much money we have, though, we think we need more, so the wealthy scramble for profits, even as the poor despair.
In spite of how unfair our economic systems are, a plethora of self-help articles and books encourage us explore the issues we have with money so we can learn how to get more of it. How can we heal our sense of unworthiness, for instance, so we can bring wealth into our lives? What negative self-talk gets in the way of us having all the money we deserve? Can we imagine our way to riches? The prosperity gurus would have us think so.
Money as a Choice
All of this assumes that how much money we have is a choice. If we pray hard enough or say enough affirmations or praise God enough, we’ll be okay. If we work hard, we’re smart, and we develop a marketable skill, we’ll get ahead. But it’s not that simple. The United States is not the meritocracy we like to think it is.
Indeed, in the United States, we are less likely than people in comparable countries to move from poverty to wealth, or wealth to poverty.  The greatest determinants of how much money we’ll earn as adults is how much money our parents made, whether they got divorced, and where they lived.  This is not something we get to choose.
Additionally, corporations in our country depend on cheap labor to increase their profits. Given that, the majority of people must work in low-paying jobs or not work at all.
Living on the Edge
Gregory Boyle, a priest who ministers to gang-affected men and women in Los Angeles, speaks about the challenges faced by those who live in poverty. He complains, for instance, about the maxim “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Although he simplifies Richard Carlson’s message, which is really about letting go of that which is not important and focusing instead of love and relationships, the point Boyle makes is germane. He says, “What the privileged consider small stuff are precisely the trips and traps that foil the folks at the bottom.” 
For those who live on the edge, what is no big deal to the well-off, can be a disaster. When the refrigerator breaks down, or the kid gets sick, or the car won’t start, or a check bounces, assuming the family can even open a bank account, they might end up losing a job or spending the rent money to fix the problem. Nerves get frayed, fights erupt over nothing, and families fall apart, just because of some little thing a wealthier person would barely notice.
Those of us with resources to draw on when times are tough may not understand that just because you live from crisis to crisis doesn’t mean you’re disorganized or incompetent. The poor must constantly juggle, hurry, and wait. If you’re always “one straw away from calamity and catastrophe,” as Boyle writes, you’re going to get tired and sad and things will sometimes fall apart. “Homies who have now chosen to play by the rules,” Boyle continues, “often find themselves stuck in what I call a forced-choice economy: having to choose between, say, feeding their kids or paying their rent; doing without heat and electricity or putting gas in the car.” 
In the Face of Poverty
In the face of such entrenched and destructive poverty, it seems disrespectful to speak of improving our relationship with money so we can have more of it. I’m reminded of what Irving Greenberg said about children killed during the Holocaust: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” 
In a similar way, no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of overwhelming poverty, stress, racism, and entrenched income inequality. What statement can we make when, year after year, impoverished people deal with stultifying and embarrassing setbacks and still maintain their integrity. This is impressive, especially when we think about those wealthy people who use their money to buy advantages, to cheat others, and to hide their lies and abuses. Even when the poor lie to survive, steal to eat, sell what they can, or beg for coins, are they as corrupt as the well-off who are trapped by their own greed?
The Illusion of Independence
Somehow we persist in thinking so. Perhaps that’s because, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we in the United States continue to believe that to get ahead, all you need is some intelligence, a little skill, and plenty of hard work. As Eric Lonergan states, the wealthy have “naive sense of independence.”  They believe that they are responsible for what they have, and they’re certain they can make it on their own. What they don’t take into account is that their money gives them this illusion of independence. Without it, they would be as dependent as the most impoverished among us.
They would also have to work as hard as the poor do. Many people think of the poor as lazy, but it takes incredible effort to survive when you’re poor. To get oneself out of poverty is even harder, requiring determination and constant effort. Studies reveal that students who are the first in their families to go to college are heavier and have higher blood pressure than their peers. Their stress hormones are elevated. Sure, it’s possible to rise from deep poverty to at least some level of financial independence, but it takes a great toll. For the poor, success can kill. 
Given all this, what theology of money can be spoken in the face of such poverty?
The Feel-Good Mantra of Abundance
It’s not the feel-good mantra of self-help blogs that push positive thinking and reinforce our myth of control. These are written to those of us in the middle class, who grew up thinking that we aren’t good enough, or that wealth is somehow dirty, or that we’re not smart or savvy or skilled. Changing those negative stories can be helpful. But they assume a world that is equal for everyone. This simply is not so.
Maybe it would be helpful to embrace the idea of abundance. If we give up “scarcity” thinking, we may find there’s enough to go around. We can stop being afraid of losing what we have and instead can give generously. Of course, the corollary is that we receive generously, as well. Abundance should flow both ways.
Unfortunately, this is too much like the prosperity gospel to suit me. Praising God and tithing ten percent is no guarantee that we will be rewarded. Neither are resources endless. We want to believe that we can imagine an endless flow of material blessings and thus make it so, but life is not that simple.
The Quaker educator, Parker Palmer, talks about abundance, but he’s not talking about lots and lots of money. He starts by explaining that greed is the belief that we can never have enough. If we get stuck in the lure of wealth, if abundance means an endless supply of things, we will never be satisfied. What a miserable way to live.
“But what we’re really looking for,” he continues, “is the kind of abundance that comes from knowing that we are willing to feed one another.” 
We are not as independent as we like to think. True wealth comes when we have strong relationships of reciprocity, caring, and love. When our hearts are open, our spirits glad of the companionship of others, our egos humble and kind, we need not worry, but not because God will magically provide for us or our affirmations will work wonders.
Perhaps there is a god who gives us gifts and blessings, but I think if so, she does it through other people. We will experience difficulties and stress, no matter how much money we make. The truly rich among us, though, will be able to reach out to those who will gladly help us.
Boyle describes times when homies asked friends to help them get through a tight spot or begged money from him to tide them over. They may have been financially strapped, but they were not alone in their poverty, and they did not have poverty of the heart.
The Treasure Within
Once upon a time, there was a Jewish tailor who was terribly poor. He and his wife would sometimes go to bed hungry. Then he started having a strange dream. Night after night, he was told of a treasure buried beneath a bridge in Vienna. Finally, he had to go find that treasure, so he packed a small shovel, a few provisions, and took off on foot.
When he found the bridge, he stood there for a while wondering where to start digging. A guard asked him what he was doing, so the tailor told him about his dream.
“Hah!” snorted the guard. “You think dreams mean anything? I myself have a dream each night that there’s a treasure buried in the floor under the stove inside a little hovel in the country.” He described the tailor’s very house. “But you don’t see me running off to find some treasure that doesn’t exist. Go on home, or I’ll put you in jail.”
So the tailor rushed back home. Pushing the stove out of the way, he dug into the earth of the floor. It wasn’t long before he found a box that contained many coins and jewels.
We Are Clothed in Love
We think we must go all over the world to find our treasure, but it is within us all the time. Like the pearl of great price that Jesus spoke of, this treasure is not to be taken literally. The kindom of God is like the perfect pearl, that jewel that a wise merchant was willing to sell everything he had to buy. The treasure is not something we can dig up with a shovel, but something that lives within.
As Rumi says, “You are the secret Treasure-bearer.”
This treasure, though, is not gold, and it is not jewels, and it is not enough wealth to live alone behind walls that make you feel safe and special. The treasure is spirit self, our inner goodness, and our godness. It is also our community, those people who will help us through loss and damage and scrapes and unfairness. Without money, we must depend on our own wit, but even more on our ability to care for others and nurture relationships. In some ways, perhaps, the poor have it better than the rich, for at least they cannot pretend to be independent.
Abundance as Community
If the lure of money distracts us from relationships, if it seduces us into betraying laws and loved ones, then we need to consider what emptiness exists within us that makes us so vulnerable to hurting ourselves and those around us. Are our hearts empty or full? Do we imagine the glitter of gold consoles us for our loneliness? Does wealth replace love in our lives?
A theology of money that can be spoken in the face of dire poverty must affirm the grit, resilience, and intelligence of those who can survive on almost nothing. It must recognize that relationships are more important than money. It must remind us that treasure is something we find within. When we live with integrity, offer support to our friends in need, and accept help humbly, we are more wealthy than those who believe in the myth of independence.
In faith and fondness,
- “Socioeconomic Mobility in the United States,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socioeconomic_mobility_in_the_United_States, accessed 3/16/19.
- Griswold, Alison, “Here’s the Startling Degree to Which Your Parents Determine Your Success,” Business Insider, January 24, 2014,
https://www.businessinsider.com/parents-determine-child-success-income-inequality-2014-1 , accessed 3/16/19.
- Boyle, Gregory, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, Simon & Schuster Audio, 2017, Chapter 3, 2:09:30.
- Greenberg, Irving, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust,” Eva Fleischer, ed. Auschwitz, Beginning of a New Era?, New York: Ktav Pub., 1974, 23.
- Lonergan, Eric, Money, New York: Routledge, 2014, 47.
- Miller, Gregory E., Edith Chen, and Gene H. Brody, “Can Upward Mobility Cost You Your Health?,” Opinion Pages, New York Times, January 4, 2014, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/04/can-upward-mobility-cost-you-your-health/, accessed 3/16/19.
- Palmer, Parker, “Repossessing Virtue: Economic Crisis, Morality, and Meaning” Krista Tippet, On Being, December 11, 2008, https://onbeing.org/programs/parker-palmer-repossessing-virtue-economic-crisis-morality-meaning/, accessed 3/6/18.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved