Money and power

This is my second response to my own challenge to apply the ‘Honey and Thistles’ approach more widely, in this case to finance and economics and offers some biblical reflections on the relationship between money and power.

“If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Paul’s immediate concern here was with certain members of the Thessalonian church who were idling about, mere dossers, interfering with other people’s affairs and living off the earnings and generosity of their brethren. But the statement could be construed more widely, as inveighing against any way of living without working.

Making money without work, living without labour, is ‘unnatural’! This might include sponging, as the Thessalonian idlers were doing. But the quintessential form of ‘living without labour’ and, hence, the most ‘unnatural’, is surely usury. Reflecting this perception, in The Divine Comedy, Dante has usurers appear in the inner ring of the seventh circle of hell. When the poet asks Virgil, his interlocutor, why this is, Virgil replies: “if thou recall to mind Creation’s holy book, from the beginning were the right source of life and excellence to human kind.  But in another path the usurer walks; and Nature in herself and in her follower thus he sets at nought, placing elsewhere his hope” (Dante Alighieri, tr H F Cary).

In Dante’s (and Paul’s) time, any lending with interest would have been understood as usury, as per the OT understanding. Today, however, as most of us participate in an economy built on borrowing and lending, on interest and debt, we prefer to think of usury as lending at excessive or abusive interest!

Either way, the problem with usury is that it turns money into something other than a “socially contracted abstract mechanism” (McIntosh, 1998) to facilitate transactions, ie a device for advancing mutually beneficial social relationships. Instead, usury makes money an end in itself, and facilitates not mutuality, but exploitation and oppression – “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you?” (James 2: 6).

In contrast, economic institutions based on mutual benefit, like building societies, as originally conceived, or credit unions, or micro-banking, aim to even out social inequalities and advance the common good. Many Christians see these, and similar institutions, as reflecting Biblical values and Kingdom principles, and Christians have been and are at forefront of many such initiatives.

It all comes down to power, and the way money configures power and relationships. Maybe the problem with usury is not so much that it is ‘unnatural’, but that it distorts relationships and opens the door to to the abuse of power. Indeed, the test of any economic model, instrument or institution must be the way in which it configures relationships and power.

The one place above anywhere else where one might expect to see money being used to advance mutually beneficial social relationships and serving the common good, and where its dark side is absent, is in the household of faith, the church, among citizens of the Kingdom of God. In Acts, we see a nascent church having all things in common (Acts 2: 44), among whom “there was not a needy person.. for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4: 34-35).

I have to confess, however, that I have always felt somewhat uneasy about the ‘apostles’ feet’! It is one thing to entrust one’s wealth to those who had such a close relationship with the Lord Jesus in a community genuinely of ‘one heart and soul’ (Acts 4: 32). But I’d feel much less confident placing my money and material possessions in the hands of most of today’s institutional or self-appointed ‘apostles’! Perhaps the test must be: ‘how does the way we interpret and enact this model configure relationships and distribute power?’.

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