Dethroning Mammon

‘The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it’ (Matthew 13:45) 

Making money serve grace.

A powerful statement and a powerful opener. This is the emphatic of Justin Welby – Archbishop of Canterbury in the UK – and this was his message recently for Lent. Money must serve grace.

Welby tells a story of two fictional characters in the financial world – one called Cony and the other called Fin – and helps us, as his readers, to grasp the grip of Mammon. He reminds us that Mammon is described as a ‘master’ in the Biblical texts, not an airy-fairy spirit, but rather a ruling, relentless master. Drawing on his experience as Group Treasurer of an oil company and chair of an NHS trust, Welby is careful to caution that his thoughts are not just the ‘jaundiced meanderings of a priest who wishes he was back in the financial markets making more money’ (p.115). Rather, they are the carefully organized and rigorously systematized thoughts of a priest stroke previous manager who understands the grip of Mammon, particularly in Western economies.

Welby introduces Cony as homo economicus – the ‘invention of modern economics’ (p.113) – and Fin as homo financiarius – the one which ‘wields the greater influence’ (ibid.). He continues: ‘Cony is a person who makes decisions on the basis of a carefully thought-through rational impetus to maximise their own personal advantage’ such that he is ‘addicted to facts and reasons, to logic and calculation… consequentialism rules in all decisions’ (p.113). The problem is that such risk-weighted calculations depend on a world where ‘markets all behaved rationally’, where ‘there [are] no bits of metaphorical grit in the global economic system’, and where all people are perfectly rational economic actors, all the time (p.114). ‘Well, you get the picture’ (ibid.) he concludes.

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Fin is the younger sibling to Cony and came to the fore after the Big Bang in 1986 of financial products and services. Welby is brutally honest here – he writes: ‘Fin is not interested in the actual transfer of goods and services – but operates in the misty and often mythical world of options and futures, of derivative financial instruments, and mathematical calculations’ (p.114). According to some economists, the ratio of financial transactions to real economic transactions are now up to fifty to one (ibid.). This means that in 1980 for every £1 GBP spent on goods and services, financial transactions in the economy were worth £2.70 GBP. By 2010, for every £1 GBP spent, the financial transactions ‘were worth about £14.00 GBP’ (p.114). 

Welby suggests that this is not a healthy ratio to promote. The majority of these financial transactions – which are often highly lucrative for those in FPBS (Financial Professional Business Services) – are ‘confined to transactions between financial companies, banks, and other members of the financial services industry’ (p.115). Further, they are often built around incredibly complex and sophisticated mathematical and legal structures.

He continues to expound the operating mechanisms of Cony and Fin and concludes: ‘Cony is a myth because most of us do not make decisions on transactions for entirely rational purposes’ (p.115). We may get a takeaway out of spontaneity, or tiredness, or buy a present out of love for someone, for instance. Emotion also plays a huge part in even financial transactions. As such, ‘Cony does not exist’ (ibid.). Furthermore, ‘Fin claims to be of value, [whilst actually] adding no value except in book terms and to a tiny number of rich people’ (ibid.). This can drive inequality, social polarisation, and societal unease and tension. Shockingly, a former Chair of the British Bankers Association came to a similar conclusion after the Financial Crisis of 2007, concluding that some ‘financial products are of no real use to humanity’ (p.116).

Sobering thinking. Yet does he propose any alternative?

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Welby suggests that Mammon has a powerful, persuasive, and evocative hold over our imaginations. In a world of complexity, of great change, and of unknown variables, 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 successfully ride the waves of any storm. Yet such a view is firmly entrenched in a frame of scarcity – in a world of precious, scarce resources, I must fight for my rights, fight for my place.

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

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

  2.        What we measure controls us [What is not measurable may be more valuable]

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

  4.        What we receive we treat as ours [Money and power are closely related]

  5.       What we give we gain [Life is abundance/generosity not exchange/equivalence]

The shift in our thinking that is required is nothing short of ‘revolutionary’ (p.129) then. Yet Welby holds on to this. Indeed, he believes the gospel is the revolution that revolutionises all revolutions.

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Mammon vs Grace

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 also adds a line on this tension between the economy of God and economy of Mammon. They 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 tells 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). She goes wildly over the top, she embarrasses herself, and pours perfume on his feet ‘because she lives within an economy of abundance…in the world that God has created [where] there is always enough to go around’ (ibid.).

 
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The Problem with Mammon

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.

Briefly, what of Mammon then, and most specifically, of the making of money itself?

Welby is emphatic on the first. He reminds us, that Mammon (money) is a master. As such, it is to be mastered itself. His emphatic subtitle – ‘making money serve grace’ – reminds us that money is to be mastered, tamed, and to serve another end. Further, 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 studiously considered, then. 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.

On this point, Welby is a helpful guide in the fraught terrain of (post)modern logics. He writes astutely 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). If our lens is one of a zero-sum game, this will never work. He cautions: ‘the problem is that Mammon is not merely very loud and persuasive but also very powerful and attractive’ (p.46). The example he gives is Black Friday – the American import which has started flooding European (and global) markets, recently, in an attempt to drive up ‘consumer spending…in the run-up to Christmas’ (p.47). The deception, here, to Welby, is clear – ‘it drowns out any voice that suggests there should be celebration without huge excess’ (ibid.).

The traits of Mammon can easily infiltrate our lives with subtle discretion, then. Welby writes that the logics of an economy are insidious and pervasive. The hammer of Mammon is gradual and subtle, yet quickly leads us to only ‘value the things we can readily measure’ (p.35). Further, the net of Mammon is far reaching, and almost global in scale, with a wide and fast spreading global currency of exchange and equivalence, comparison and contrast (by such means as social media). Welby is emphatic here: ‘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).

Welby challenges us to a leap of faith.

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Dethroning Mammon

‘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’

Later in the text, he continues. ‘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).

Welby is also enthusiastic, well-balanced, and wise on the second point, that of making money itself. Money-making is not something to be ‘scared of’ or ‘timidly cynical of’, as so many Christians so often are, so much of the time. Though we feel that ‘the effects [of money] are so often bad that there must be something inherently wrong with it’ (p.131), such convictions are often ill-founded and dangerous, and not supported by the Biblical texts. Whilst money can quickly become ‘a worry, or a problem, or a diversion from deeper matters’ (ibid.) we are to remember that ‘from God’s blessing on Abraham’s wealth, through to the generosity of the early apostles, we can clearly see a scripturally positive view of money’ (ibid.). So how are we to make money well? The Archbishop does provide some guidelines, though this is not the heart of his text.

The start of coming to terms with our own relationship with money must be to ask the Lord to show us the ways in which our own hearts are mastered by mammon.

Written by Samuel Johns

Some staggering facts on global wealth and inequality to consider:

The richest 1% of the world, own 50% of global wealth

The top 1% of the world are as wealthy as the bottom 90% combined

Globally, 8 individuals own as much wealth as 3 billion people combined, at polar extremes

In the USA, the 400 wealthiest people have & own more, than 50% (155MM) of all US people

In the UK, the top 10% of people (6MM) own 50% national wealth, five times that of the poorest 50%

Samuel JohnsComment