More Than Money
Issue #13

Provocative Dialogues

Table of Contents

“Dialogue #4: Reflections on Money & Spirit”

Facilitator: Joan Howe.
Participants: Rip, David, and Debbie.

Rip: I grew up in an upper-middle class family; we never wanted for anything but did not live lavishly. As a seminary student I met my wife-to-be, and before getting married we talked about finances. How would we get by while I was in school? She planned on working and-with my part time job-we thought we could get by. She also mentioned that she had some sort of trust fund from her grandfather. She didn't know exactly what was in it, but she knew that if she needed money for school, all she had to do was call a certain man and he'd send her a check. We pretty much left it at that. It wasn't until several years later we discovered that we were very wealthy people. We then began to ask ourselves, "What do we do?" Keep on living and acting as if it isn't there? Spend it? Give it away?

Decades later, as a Lutheran pastor, my job is to assist financially troubled congregations. For me, money is a very spiritual issue. Martin Luther refers to the challenge of idolatry and says that money is "the most common idol on earth." In Luke 12:13 "The Parable of the Rich Fool," Jesus warns people to be on their guard against all kinds of greed-in Greek, "pleonexia", the insatiable desire for more. Jesus spoke often of the impossibility of serving God and mammon [money and possessions] but I see a lot of people trying to do precisely this, myself included. I consider this a powerful spiritual struggle.

On the other hand, I have experienced the wonderful liberation and joy that comes from giving. For instance, we hear of a student coming out of seminary school who is crushed by debt (legitimately, not just caused by poor planning). The school asks if anyone can help him out. And we can.

Twenty dollars wouldn't do it, or even two hundred, but twenty thousand can and we simply write the check. What a blessing! We don't need the student to know who we are. But now as he's graduating, the school can simply say, "By the way, someone took care of your school debt." "What?!" "Yes, it's taken care of." Our wealth makes it possible for us to make such things happen.

David: My father is working class, and my mother's mother has more money than I would know what to do with. I grew up with the Protestant work ethic rammed down my throat, and caused a great deal of disturbance in my family when I elected to "retire" from software engineering and work without pay for the Alternatives to Violence Project in Canada.

Now, at age 33, I live simply, though my income far outstrips the needs of my lifestyle. I am a full-time student of Religion at l'Univeriste d'Ottawa. My questions about spirituality have led me to give up many of the concepts which are at the heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. My practices vary frequently and draw elements from most of the mystical traditions of the world.

Although I had left the Church long before my inheritance began to trickle my way, I felt deeply troubled by the money. The Christian message I had learned about wealth was: there is no hope for you as long as you have money. So I never touched the account, almost as if I were saying to myself, "If you don't use it, it won't keep you out of heaven." I didn't even file taxes. The bottom drawer of my filing cabinet became a hungry ghost that followed me everywhere I moved.

Years later, I have come to better terms with wealth and my heritage. I do not see wealth as a barrier to spiritual development; on the contrary, it has made it easier for me to ask spiritual questions. I have learned that many spiritual disciplines view attachment to money as the spiritual obstacle, not the money itself.

Hinduism and the Bagavad Gita advise the faithful to perceive stone, gold, and their mother's milk all with the same eye. While the simplicity of monastery life may enable Hindu monks to reach union with the Brahman, more easily it is the one who reaches release from dharma while remaining engaged in life that is honored the most highly!

Why? Because society could not function if everybody were to abandon their families and pray in the woods! Although personal spiritual development is considered valuable, it is not held above the needs of society. I find this an eminently civilized viewpoint.

I still feel betrayed by Christianity, and angry that it has offered so little help in reaching this understanding. Although I have found the support I need from other traditions, I still feel a hole from leaving the teachings of my youth.

Debbie: I'm 44, mother to a one-year old. I live with my life partner, a working class man, in a big house in Connecticut. My father was a surgeon and my grandfather had his own law firm. Although I don't have much spare money at the moment, I had a trust fund in the past and will probably inherit much more at some point. I've worked at a variety of jobs, from factory worker to gas station attendant to computer technician to teacher, and until a year ago was in graduate school studying history. I'm a Jew and a leftist.

Being a "rich Jew" has been difficult to come to terms with, but I am much more able to think and talk about it than I used to be. I grew up knowing that Jews have been the targets of hatred, and that rich Jews, being more visible, could be especially targeted. Historically, we were often in terrible intermediary positions such as tax collector between the poor and the really rich. The heritage of persecution has led me and many Jews to spend time and resources in defense of other targeted people whom, we feel, could easily be us.

Biblically, Jews are supposedly God's chosen people, though I don't know if anyone is clear about chosen for what. Many Jews interpret chosenness to mean a having special duty to repair the world. Now the concept of chosenness as applying to a particular group of people seems arrogant to me. I believe we are all chosen! But clearly there are Jewish as well as leftist roots to my sense of interconnectedness with other people in the world, my sense that we sink or swim together. I believe we can change the world so that people don't have to be poor and discriminated against.

For our own souls, we who happen to have wealth need to use the money and our other gifts to change the structure of the world so that no one will be getting rich at other people's expense (that is, from their labor), which I believe is the only way people do get rich.

Rip: David says he is angry with Christianity for offering so little constructive guidance about wealth. I completely agree with him, but I would say it is the church, not Christianity, that has done a miserable job of it. People are urged to give generously to their church, but beyond that, most churches provide no wisdom on the spiritual power of money.

I don't think Jesus hated people who have money. But I think He wanted us to keep critically questioning our relationship to wealth, and to acknowledge that it can be slippery. There is always a temptation to think that whatever choices we make will be the right ones. A temptation to make life easier-nice house, car, clothes-and to make choices uncritically without checking them against the dictates of faith.

The Hebrew word for faith means "tension." I think of this like the pull between a tent and the stake that holds it to the ground: it is the tension that keeps the tent up. I seek to live within that lively sense of tension. This is quite different from guilt. Guilt which doesn't energize and is often a justification for non-action. Enjoying that tension means asking all the time, "What does God want me to be?"

My faith calls me to live in a right relationship with other humans, to look at justice issues in a way that doesn't let me off the hook in facile ways. I can't say, "I'm doing nothing wrong, but of course those really rich folks over there might be." My faith reminds me that I am always a sinner, someone who has one foot obliviously on the banana peel, who needs to ask constantly, "Wait a minute, what am I overlooking?"

This perspective is fun because it keeps me challenged. When I know people well and have built up trust, I challenge them about money and spirituality, and encourage them to challenge me, too. It isn't judgment we're sharing: it's an invitation to look deeper, to find something new within our own motivations. I, too, need help to be healthier, to act with more integrity, to be more integrated with my beliefs. This is what we can offer each other.

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