Thursday, February 11, 2010

Money and Maddness

First Timothy 6:10 famously declares that "the love of money is the root off all kinds of evil."  In Mark 10 Jesus confronts a rich man who wants to "inherit eternal life."  When Jesus recommended he sell all he had, give the money to the poor and accrue treasure in heaven, he went away grieving "because he had many possessions."  The posession of money seems to produce a kind of madness.  Otherwise prudent, grounded people seem to lose their moral compasses when their financial well being is at stake.  There is more than one story of the owners of slave ships who were troubled by the ghastly activity of buy and selling human beings.  But the profit was so enormous that they quieted their consciences and sailed for Africa year after year.  Slave owners in the south were frequently God-fearing people, but they were making so much money that they crushed moral resistance to slavery whenever it arose within themselve or others.  Their love of money produced moral madness.

Money, of course, represents security for many people.  It represents freedom, pleasure, and independence.  It represents the respect and even awe of others.  In the United States a person with money is considered a superior being.  To be weatlthy is to have "made it", to be in on the secret of success.  Years ago Bill Clinton knew what he was saying when he declared "It's the economy stupid."  Threaten anything, but don't threaten our bank accounts.  What makes this strange is that although the banking high-fliers and weathly financiers took unconscionable risks, Americans don't seems to be all that angry with them.  With a few execptions we are not clamoring for stronger controls on greed and avarice.  I think we aren't all that angry because we are living with the illusion that someday we will be as rich as they are and we wouldn't want anyone taking "our" money away.  We may scorn the Bernie Madoffs of the world, but when someone comes along offering unreasonable rates of return we want to be able to invest.  There is a part of us that doesn't want any limits on greed and avarice even if it nealry brings down the financial system.  This is also a kind of madness.

I wonder if any number of perplexing American attitudes are explained by our love of money.  Univerisal health care seems to me an obvious good.  It could even be considered a pro-life issue.  Why wouldn't Americans want to see the children of the working poor provided with good health care?  I am not convinced what we are getting out of Washington so far will reduce medical costs and provide appropriate coverage for Americans without healthcare.  I am not arguing for the current legislation.  But I do think heathcare for everyone is a good thing.  I am quite willing to pay higher taxes to make that happen.  In saying this I am not making a claim for sainthood.  I suffer from greed and avarice like everyone else.  But I do wonder if our objections to universal healthcare have less to to with government intervention, "socialism", and the like and more to do with our desire to hold onto our money, our security and our pleasures? 

We can obvioulsy be generous and compassionate people.  Americans have given freely to disaster relief--most recently in Haiti.  But such giving is on our own terms and for people who live at a distance.  In the end such giving does not unduly threaten our financial well-being.  I must say that Jesus' words to the rich man haunt me.  They haunt me becuase by the standards of the wider world I am a rich man.  Most Americans are.  By what standard will I be judged.  By what standard will you be judged?  For a Christian to pay no attention to this is madness.


  1. I think you are right on. The resistance to health care is more about paying for someone else's health care via higher taxes than it it about big government.

  2. I absolutely agree, Jay, when you said "I think we aren't all that angry because we are living with the illusion that someday we will be as rich as they are and we wouldn't want anyone taking "our" money away." This also applies to tax cuts. A tax cut for 95% of the population should pass with overwhelming approval. But because the 95% hope to one day be part of the top 5% and when they arrive there, they will want their taxes cut too, they say such a cut is unfair. Fascinating!