Dethroning Mammon by Justin Welby

Making money serve grace

Published for the Lent address of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the Spring of 2017, ‘Dethroning Mammon’ is a powerful and provocative read on the vast differences between ‘mammon’ and ‘manna’.

Welby introduces the former – the economy of ‘mammon’ – by talking about exchange and equivalence. He contrasts this viewpoint of base-level ‘scarcity’ with the ‘abundance’ of a gift economy, formed around generosity. ‘Mammon’ is the ruling force behind the powerful market dynamics of sophisticated economies. Yet as Christians, do we want to support and up-hold these whole-heartedly? If not, how can we work and operate in these spheres?

Welby notes how Mammon has a powerful, persuasive, and evocative hold over our imaginations. In a world of complexity, a system of control is immensely valuable. Mammon leads us to believe that we can plan carefully, act rationally, work off calculations of risk and return, and live by logics of exchange and equivalence.  

Chapters

In his list of the logics of Mammon, Welby draws attention to five particular traits;

·       What we see we value                          [Perception is reality. Markets claim sovereignty]

·       What we measure controls us              [What is not measurable may be valuable beyond]

·       What we have we hold                         [It is easy to live daily by Mammon, seeing=believing]

·       What we receive we treat as ours         [Money and power are closely related. This is potent]

·       What we give we gain                           [Life is abundance/generosity not exchange/equiv.]

Welby has both profound professional experience and also a firm belief in the ‘revolutionary’ (p.129) power of the gospel. Indeed, he believes the gospel is the revolution that revolutionises all revolutions.

Whilst Mammon (money) preaches an economy of exchange and equivalence, Welby introduces us to another economy. This is God’s economy – an economy built around grace – or the gift freely given. The economy of God works on abundance and generosity, not exchange and equivalence.

‘Abundance and grace call us to be generous and trusting, in a way that builds links and relationships. Trust in the economy of God leads us to seek to give because to do so is to gain. The gain may be less tangible than our money was, and the revolution in our thinking that is required is enormous. We start with small steps, and will find that Mammon first shudders, then falls from the throne. No longer will his reign be supported by our own wrongful attitudes and the structures that dominate how we measure value and importance in our world’ (p.129).

The publisher of Welby’s Lent thoughts for 2017 write; ‘Justin Welby looks at the subject of money and materialism – he reflects on the impact of our own attitudes and of the pressures that surround us, on how we handle the power of money (Mammon). Who will be on the throne of our lives? Who will direct our actions and attitudes? Is it Jesus Christ, who brings truth, hope and freedom? Or is it Mammon, so attractive, so clear, but leading us into paths that tangle, trip and deceive?’.

The contrast he draws could not be starker.

Drawing on the story of Mary and Jesus in the gospels, from John 12, Welby us how the ‘master of our lives’ and the ‘dark influence on our lives’ of the economy of Mammon is revealed to us ‘in the bright flash of the reality of Jesus as God himself’ (p.70). As Mary pours perfume on the feet of Christ, worth the equivalent of a year’s worth of salary (or around £25,000 GBP today in the UK), Judas is quick to criticize and say this is a poor ‘allocation’ of resources, and wasteful, and could be better used to serve the poor. Welby commentates; ‘Judas represents the economy of Mammon…[he] sees people and objects in material terms according to their monetary value, whereas Mary sees people and objects as precious gifts from God, thus to be cherished’ (p.71).

In this comparison, Mary represents the economy of God, or the economy of Manna. Whist Judas is living within the worldview of ‘an economy of scarcity’ (ibid.), leading to a disposition of fear, anxiety, and control, Mary, right beside him, acts from a place of abundance, in an ‘economy of generosity’. She is decidedly out of control, and is certainly ‘not concerned with efficiency, or thrift, or measurement, or appearances’ (p.71).

Key Themes

What are some of the strongest arguments in the book?

Let me draw out two key themes. The first Is on the characteristics of Mammon. Welby encourages, firmly, that Mammon be studiously examined. He writes cautiously on the ‘loud, attractive, and persuasive’ (p.46) voice of Mammon that is so good at convincing us that my money is truly my money – to do with as I please. The characteristics of Mammon are to be well considered. Welby suggests that Mammon is deceptive, insidious, subtle, pervasive, and complex, and yet marketed to us with a voice of power and attraction, of loud persuasion.

Welby writes that ‘we often disproportionately value the things we can readily measure’ (p.35). Thus, if it is easy to ascribe a value, a number, or a measure to something, we are more likely to value it highly. This can easily lead us to a precarious place; we know the price of everything, and yet the value of nothing. In an economy of scarcity – where exchange and equivalence rule – Welby challenges us to try ‘arguing that less is better’ (p.46).

Courage, in the eyes of Welby, is stepping out and willing to be defined by that which cannot be measured. He describes this as the leap of faith. Welby writes; ‘Dethroning requires the dramatic leap of faith of being defined by what we do not measure – cannot measure – because it is the infinitely valuable, utterly cosmos-transforming love of God in Jesus Christ…these are the moments of resolution that open our lives and our world to new possibilities, that set free the hope of humanity to be fully what it was created to be’ (p.57).

A second significant theme is on the act of dethroning. How do we truly dethrone mammon? Dethroning surely also involves an equal and opposite act of enthroning? Welby warns that ‘the problem is not…even the materialism. It is that the voice of money and Mammon is so much louder than the things we don’t measure – including the things of ultimate value, such as the word of God’ (p.48). As such, we are to push back against Mammon – by acts of dethroning – with an equal commitment to pulling towards Christ – in acts of enthroning – that remind us who the true master is, and thus who we should truly be serving.

These acts of ‘enthroning Christ’ work in small, yet significant ways. Welby is enthused by the possibility of transformation. He writes; ‘We start with small steps, and will find that Mammon first shudders, then falls from the throne. No longer will his reign be supported by our own wrongful attitudes and the structures that dominate how we measure value and importance in our world’ (p.129).

Biblical Texts

Welby also charges us to think through – in radical ways – the biblical texts on money – both in making money, serving grace, and giving money away well, as well. Some of these include

-        Proverbs 10: ‘lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth’

-        1 Thessalonians 4: ‘work…so that you will not be dependent on anybody’

-        Ephesians 3: ‘I have been given the privilege of serving Him’

-        Acts 20: ‘remember it is more blessed to give than to receive’

-        Proverbs 11: ‘the world of the generous gets larger and larger’ (MSG)

-        Ecc. 11: ‘whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds won’t reap’

-        Proverbs 22: ‘the rich and poor have this in common, the LORD is maker of all’

Ratings

**** Readability (4/5): widely accessible language and very clear, concise arguments

***** Application (5/5): we all deal with money, it affects us all!

**** General Appeal (4/5): highly recommended as an introduction to ‘mammon’

** Commitment (2/5): Weekend read or major commitment? Short and readable

*** Challenge (3/5): a good read, though not excessively intellectually challenging

**** Recommendation (4/5): certainly, likely to pass it on to a friend & recommend too

Samuel JohnsComment