Talking About Money in Church
by The Revd Dr James Walters
Posted: 30 Aug 2016
When did you last hear money talked about in church? I'm willing to bet it was when the church wanted some of yours. Most clergy find that difficult enough to talk about. But a wider conversation about how Christians might understand money and the role it should play in our daily discipleship is very rare. Christian thinking about money is usually held back by unhelpful underlying assumptions about what money is. I want to set out three ways Christians can think about money, the first two being the most common and the third of which will, I hope, offer a more constructive approach to engaging with this powerful and ubiquitous presence in our lives.
1. Money as pollution
Perhaps the most enduring Christian view of money is to think of it as a dirty substance that contaminates Christian life. We find an extreme take on this in the thinking of Francis of Assisi. He had total contempt for money, not merely as a system of exchange but in its very physical form. He forbade his brothers from possessing or even begging for coins, calling them "horse manure!" The Thirteenth Century in which Francis lived was a time of great expansion in trade across Europe and the increased circulation of currency. He could perhaps see how money was beginning to shape people's lives as never before. But his visceral association of money with something as unhygienic as excrement is well documented by psychoanalysts.
The demonization of money, however, is as pointless and unhelpful as its idolization. Even the next generation of Franciscan Friars had to rethink their approach to money in order to create a sustainable lifestyle for the Order. Monks needed religious houses and libraries, all of which required money to construct and run. So St Francis' successor St Bonventure took the view that money could be received from donors without it polluting the life of the community. Getting caught up with money was something that could not be avoided. We all find ourselves similarly immersed in our need of money and indeed very conscious of its benefits.
2. Money as a tool
Christians advocating a more constructive approach tend to think of money as a tool. Money is a means to an end. It is a means to pay the Common Fund to the diocese or fix the roof. Money is viewed as a tool to do things and we therefore put it into the category of morally neutral instruments. When somebody quotes 1 Timothy in saying "Money is the root of all evil" people are rightly quick to correct that and say that the text is in fact "The love of money is the root of all evil". Implicit in that correction is a sense that money is essentially benign. Money merely enables processes in the real world. Thinking of money in this way is perhaps an expression of a wider dualism between the material and the spiritual. Money is just a tool of the physical world, so loving it (or even thinking about it too much) is wrong because it is to be inadequately spiritual.
But does this instrumental approach do justice to the full complexities of an age when money is not merely the enabler of exchange but, through deregulated financial services, the main driver of our economies? Just saying "money is irrelevant to Christian life unless you get too attached to it" seems to ignore a lot of the issues.
3. Money as a language
My preferred approach is to think of money as a language. Languages generate meaning and connection. They bind people and divide people. Immanuel Kant recognized these capacities in money, describing it as "the greatest and most useable of all the Means of human intercommunication through Things" (The Philosophy of Law). It is a unique language, spoken by most societies in history and facilitating exchanges and interactions across the globe.
To give an example, the problems now besetting the Euro reveal the fact that this project of a single European currency has always been about more than economic exchange. It was introduced to countries ill prepared to participate in it because it was seen as a fundamental expression of relationships within the European Union, a sign of who we want to take responsibility for and how we understand ourselves. It was intended as a kind of common language as much as a means of trade.
This was an aspiration toward money as a unitive language. But most commonly, money is a language of power. It narrates relationships between 'haves' and 'have nots' and very commonly today between creditors and debtors. Money is a language of what people owe to one another. Thinking in this way enables us to begin imagining what it might mean to re-narrate our relationships such that money becomes redemptive. We can start to explore how our financial relationships might express the redistribution of power implicit in the Lord's Prayer's: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Processes such as quantitative easing show us that money is not as rigid a system as we are inclined to think. It is a social technology that can be reconfigured for the common good. Debt forgiveness, redistribution and just wages can all be part of the ways we use money to re-narrate our obligations to one another.
To do so would be to express money as a language that the American theologian William Stringfellow even described as sacramental. Stringfellow believed that money became a sacrament when it was used in ways that give life to the world, an expression of God's eternal giving of life in Christ. The church should be exploring the practical ways we can do that in our own habits of generosity and in the wider money system itself. The Church shouldn't just ask for money, we should be thinking about how we can use it as a sacramental language for the common good.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.