The title of this book made me suspect it would simply advocate an anti-capitalist theology and present a vision of Jesus as a socialist. God knows we need to challenge the diabolical hash Christian fundamentalism makes of its professed faith and question the nervous habit even less conservative Christians have of piously insisting Jesus is apolitical whenever the gospels threaten the sanctity of capital. But in effect, Jesus and the Politics of Mammon by Hollis Phelps, does something a little different than simply presenting a socialist Christ.
I am reminded that it is often said Marx did not create a blueprint for how socialism would work while being nonetheless staunchly in favour of it. Phelps’s book presents a Jesus who similarly presents us with no programmatic outline of how the kingdom of God is to come about, while being nonetheless uncompromising in his stand for that kingdom and against mammon (wealth regarded as an evil influence or false object of worship and devotion).
But who or what is mammon? It is not simply money and wealth, which:
[D]o not exist in isolation; they are irretrievably connected to the institutions of work and the family. We see this in Jesus’ thought, as I suggest throughout, in the way in which the disjunction between God and mammon repeats itself in work and family. I use the term “mammon” throughout this book in a much broader sense, then: it certainly refers to wealth and money, but also to related institutions, such as work and the family. For this reason, the disjunction between God and mammon becomes an organizing principle, or perhaps an incitement for refashioning the world, which for Jesus takes the name of the kingdom of heaven or God.
According to Phelps, Jesus’ rejection of mammon is no mere bland, apolitical piety about how the individual must make choices to prioritize God over material wealth; where the latter is seen as quite acceptable if kept in its place, and where one can be rich as long as one gives to the poor and is not overly attached to money or what it can buy. Instead, Jesus preaches an absolute incommensurability of God and mammon.
Consider: money, says Phelps, “creates the world in its own image.”
But the world it creates is a divided world. Money shapes who we are and mediates social relationships, that is, the other, for us (and, we could add, non-human relationships as well), but it does not do so evenly.
But exchange, Phelps continues, is not the “neutral medium” it is assumed to be in abstraction. This assumption claims that “legally amassed wealth” is generally “fair game: it is the natural result of competition for scarce resources” (56). This competition seems to be the “restricted economy” which Jesus rejects in favour of a “general economy,” which is perhaps best typified in Matthew 6: 28, 29: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (101). And since we do not come to the market as abstractions, we are “embodied, laden with particularities and histories, which to a large extent determine in advance one’s position in exchange, at least initially. Exchange, in this sense, entails inequality which, when combined with the power of money results in differentiating wealth” (56).
So it is not wealth per se that is the problem, but differentiating wealth, which Phelps discusses especially in connection with liberation theologian Jose Porfirio Miranda. It seems that differentiating wealth is the kind of wealth we have in this world. The wealth of some seems always to be based on the poverty of others. Especially with the nature of money and how it works, the rich do not ethically (according to Miranda’s reading of the Bible) acquire their wealth, they do so at the expense of the poor.
In Phelps’s analysis then, Jesus does not reject wealth as such, though it seems that under the reign of mammon wealth cannot be innocent; nor does Jesus champion poverty as such, even though those who truly follow him seem destined to experience it. But neither is Jesus advocating an otherworldly asceticism. So where does this leave us? If Jesus has no place at all for mammon, who, as Phelps points out, seems to run this world, what are we to do?
The disjunction between God and mammon, that is, is real, and if anything is to be taken literally in the Bible, this should be it. The immediate objection to such a reading, which I also mark similarly in relation to work and family, is that the upshot is not only impractical but impossible. It certainly is, but that is really the whole point: the apparent impossibility of what Jesus suggests is the very means through which he incites us to think otherwise. Attenuating the force of Jesus’ words and deeds to make them more palatable is, really, a means of denying them. By doing so, we miss out on the possibilities that they contain for a radical re-envisioning of thought, practice, and relationality. It is left up to us to put the disjunction to use, but to do that, we must take the full force of it seriously, no matter how inconceivable it might first appear.
It should be pointed out that Phelps says his argument “is not a theological argument, one that would assume the absolute inviolability of Jesus’ claims simply because of the dogmatic identification of him as the Son of God” (160). But one can see how, if one were to take Jesus as the Son of God and his claims as inviolable, Phelps’s understanding of what he is saying would cause a problem. Is Christ indeed commanding us to do the impossible? But what Phelps seems to be implying is that if we face up to the “apparent impossibility” (emphasis added) we will perhaps see that our path to finding the way is not impossible after all.
I am reminded of Ursula LeGuin’s outstanding short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, where people living in a utopian community based on a terrible injustice against one person—and having no way to right that injustice without causing widespread catastrophe—take a seemingly irrational step into the unknown, beyond the range of the reader’s or narrator’s sight or imagination. In such a way, perhaps decision and action sometimes precede the understanding that could not have come first.
And so perhaps it is, with Christianity, which is by no means impractical, but certainly not guilty of the leaden-faced dullness of pragmatism: for Christianity insists always on its encounter with what appears absurd or impossible.
Jesus and the Politics of Mammon is a sound read, both intelligent and accessible, and it makes no attempt to force scripture to form a clear and comprehensible map between the fallen and the divine where it does not do so.
J.W. Horton is a sessional instructor at the University of Manitoba in the Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media. He is also an essayist and fiction writer. Visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.