Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Money, it's a Crime: Jesus and the Banks

It must have gotten pretty bad out there.

For folks to begin invoking Jesus as a solution to the world of finance, the end of the world itself must have arrived.

Recent posts on Facebook and images of street-theater in the finance district of London U.K. have depicted Jesus casting out the traders and money changers from the temple. The surface message is that Jesus does not like investment banks and derivatives, but to get Jesus in on the act really suggests something quite a bit more serious.

It is a hint of a very profound disillusion with the world of financial speculation, and a shaking that goes to the foundations even of profit-driven capitalism itself.

If you check Jesus in the gospels he does not talk of reform of money or wealth. Rather he's about a root and branch stripping away of these things as principles of human organization. He replaces "get" with "give", and a worldview of scarcity with a lifeworld of abundance. "If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return....Give and and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put in your lap." (Luke 6:34-38)

Bringing Jesus into the discussion on the banks is like setting a camp fire in the built-up California canyons during the Santa Ana winds. You're asking to burn the whole place down.

People's willingness to mention Jesus in this connection, therefore, does seem like sign of the end of the world, or at least of a world. It is one of those "stars falling from the skies" things, a portent of the imminent breakdown of the established order as such.

The whole history of Christendom (actual Christian culture) is a series of unhappy compromises between the radicalism of Jesus and the actual way human beings do business and wish to continue doing. This is evidently true in regard to the issue of violence, but it's also the case in respect of money.

The latest and perhaps most effective compromise in connection to money involves a theme of personal election, whereby enormous wealth is given to a few by a form of divine decree. This can be expressed as economic dogma: the rich must be allowed to be rich for they are the only true generators of wealth. Or, it can come in Christian terms for Christian voters: a version of Calvinist election mixes with prosperity gospel to supply a God-given right to unconditioned wealth.

And then, by a perverse but watertight logic, the wealthy truly are entitled, while those who depend on Social Security have a false "entitlement" attitude. The first have the purity of divine right behind them, and the second only sinful human resentment.

But there is a crucial piece missing from the whole discussion, a piece that changes the entire perspective by which we judge wealth. And once again we have the epoch-making insights of René Girard to thank. He has given us the concept of mimesis which tells us that we value things according to the eyes of the other. It tells us our desire is mediated. (And his insights have recently received clamorous backing from the discoveries by neural science of "mirror neurons.")

If wealth was in any way simply objective, like a mountain of twenty thousand feet, or a river ten feet deep, then we'd be able to draw a measure and say yes, that is wealth. But there is an intrinsically comparative element in wealth. People with houses in the Hamptons or the D.C. suburbs probably look pretty wealthy to the rest of us. But living in those places they always have their own differentials: the size of the frontage, the number of rooms, the yacht, the private jet. And then, for the people with all those things, there remains the truly astonishingly rich. The ones who can book rooms in Dubai at $25,000 a night, who have art collections with Van Goghs and Renoirs, who can purchase newspapers, T.V. stations, private islands, football teams, and much more, more than we can imagine!

Definitely all these things have a material elements--you can't play without marbles--but they exist within a framework of being seen by others, of a shared desire that gives them their final and truest value. Even the most exclusive private yacht visited by a handful of privileged guests is seen and desired by them, and behind them stands all the lesser yachts seen by everyone else. Those billions of glances of desire are implied in the glances of the privileged few who have also shared those other glances, and carry them with them, and so say on behalf of everyone "this really is the best possible yacht in the world." Through them the eyes of all the world are trained on the most private, privileged of possessions, giving it its worth.

If this is in fact the case then it is humanly impossible--anthropologically impossible--to claim that wealth is individual and not shared. Everything is shared; it's simply in my hand not yours! But neurally and humanly it's in both our hands!

This anthropology of the mirroring of wealth then becomes the reason why a certain brand of theology has to be called in service to create a fiction that wealth is really individual. "God" is in people's minds the only unaccountable, incomparable, unmediated being. And so to give wealth its rights it has to have the backing of such an incomparable entity.

But apart from the fact that this is Greek essentialist theology and not a Trinitarian God, it is fundamentally not human. It does not respect, it does not look to, humanity.

Because here's the thing: if wealth is shared neurally or psychically between us, it means that in a fundamental human sense it belongs to everyone. That's where it's meaning comes from, from everyone. It is a common good! You can't have wealth without the other person, and without all the other persons. Wealth is something we create together and thus by its internal human logic we have to dispose of together. We can dispose of it using Greek theologies of election (i.e. the rich must stay rich) which necessarily involve endless rivalry, struggle and, in the end, plain insanity. Or we can dispose of it by a New Testament gospel of gift, something which changes the inner dynamic of mimesis from rivalry to love.

How this plays out in practical detail is a matter for actual politics. But the principle is clear and can only have clear results. We live in a shared universe. We can make that a matter of constant absurd rivalry, always seeking to expropriate what can never be expropriated. Or we can come into the space of God's intention, having created such a shared world in the first place. We can come into the space of Jubilee, the Israelite institution whereby all debts were rendered null on a systematic periodic basis (every fifty years). We can come into the area of the Lord's prayer where the same action is a condition of the prayer itself, and in a permanent present tense: "Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors..."

We can come into the space of a compassionately shared world, rather than a violently shared one. At least, that would seem to be the case once you bring Jesus into the picture!

Tony Bartlett, Theologian in Residence

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