Your support is helping expand Progressive Christianity. We are one of the largest sources for progressive theological perspectives, as well as our thousands of resources. It is hard to overstate their value – every time you donate it expands our ability to do all those essential offerings even better. DONATE NOW!

It’s the Money, Honey

 
Ancient Persians had a saying that if something was impossible it was easier for an elephant to go through the eye of a needle. There being no elephants in Israel, the Jews spoke of camels, as did Jesus. A rich young man came to Jesus and asked what he must do to be a whole, happy person. Jesus answered that he must obey the Torah and love God and his neighbor as himself. The man responded that he had followed the Torah law perfectly, to which Jesus responded, “then sell all you have, give to the poor, and come, follow me.” The man, we are told, went away very sad because he was very rich. And Jesus said, “Truly it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” Elsewhere Jesus is quoted saying “you cannot serve both mammon and God”. Mammon is money.

 Modern neuroscience has discovered that money is a drug. The brain’s pleasure center, activated by the neurotransmitter dopamine, is in turn activated by a stimulus, such as cocaine, sex, gambling, eating, and…money.
Accumulation of wealth, and the accompanying power and admiration that comes with it, is addictive. And, as with chemical addiction, the stimulant needs to be bigger the next time in order to create the same high. Making your first billion dollars incentivizes you to make your next two billion. Greed is the result of the money drug: you want more pleasure and need an ever-increasing influx of money to feel it. For the extremely wealthy, it becomes something of a game among equals. Elon Musk just sent a silver statue to Jeff Bezos, because he, Bezos, is now only the second richest person in the world. What a shame.

Without going into details, satisfying the addiction impacts one’s life with a multitude of changes, all of which are destructive. Rich people lose a sense of empathy with others. Their capacity for compassion is diminished. They develop an attitude of entitlement. They come to believe that they worked hard for what they have, should be admired for their success, and deserve to keep what they have. A simple experiment had two players at a game of Monopoly. One player knowingly was given twice as much money to start, collected double for passing Go, and, of course, won. And, of course, cheered himself for being the better player, even though the outcome was inevitable. Beside a self congratulatory attitude, also integral to the aura of entitlement is the feeling that you are above the law, that laws really don’t apply to you. You run the red light, do not give way to a pedestrian, and believe that you could shoot a person on New York’s Fifth Ave and get away with it. Except for the last, experiments have shown all of the above to be the case.

This self perception creates a mindset that sees society as the place to make money, enjoy what money can buy, …and nothing more. Since there is no empathy and compassion for the poor, they are seen as pawns in the money making game. If they are useful workers, pay them as little as possible. If they are expendable, take away as much societal support [read “my money”] as possible, including health care and social security. Offer only as much education as is required to do the job. And, needless to say, use all means possible to make money along the way. Move funding away from public schools into charters, where profit becomes possible. Move social security funds into investment banks, where profit becomes possible. Kill the postal service and move the business to private enterprise, where profit becomes possible. A group of right wing medical supply companies have conspired to denigrate covid vaccine and instead promote the hydroxychloroquine and horse worm medicine that they produce and control, making profit at the expense of human life. Copy and sell the medical records of veterans, enabling big pharma to target customers. The list is endless, the process the same: serve mammon any way possible, even if it necessitates the dying of thousands of innocent people, the impoverishment of tens of millions, the destruction of democracy, and setting the stage for the non-habitability of planet earth. It’s hard to know which is worse, although the destruction of human civilization and the planet seem to take the cake.

Of course, none of this is possible without the aid and assistance of the politicians, especially what is still called the Republican party, which is in fact a beast with a split personality, comprised on the one hand of the business-minded rich and powerful who stick to “principles”, and on the other hand the rabid personalities that Trump led out of the cage. They are all in it for the money, but with different strategies. It was interesting last week when Betsy DeVos, business billionaire, told Republicans at Mackinaw that the party was one of principles and not personalities. Read: those who don’t want to rock the boat while it’s still bringing in the bacon [“principles”], and Trump, whose success relies on creating chaos and inciting the mob [“personality”]. Mobs are not good for business unless your business is fleecing the mob, which has always been profitable. 

Getting money out of the hands of poor people requires that one first get them all riled up. Trump is making piles of money encouraging supporters to contribute to his Big Lie. Facebook has developed IT to develop fleecing expertise, algorhythmically determining what creates anger and feeding into it to increase readership. Fox News has the same strategy. Not to be outdone, a group of white, fundamentalist men in suits, cheer one another on as they announce on the air that Jesus has not returned because their listeners are too stingy with their donations and need to send more money, while their Cadillacs stand ready to take them to their private jets. One can only assume that the onslaught of the rich and powerful, manifest at every level of society, has so debilitated and impoverished those who have become the mob, that they are easy prey, willing to part with meagre resources in order to fight the imaginary enemy and thereby regain some level of dignity. 

All of this is not a new story, and it is deady relevant to understanding why Jesus said what he did about money and the camel. Scholars use all sorts of tools to understand the Christian Writings in the context of the first century. Analyze manuscripts, compare sources, review the forms that stories took, determine the intent of editors. Additionally, comparative analyses of societies show what life was like in Jesus’ time and place. It is time now to apply modern neuroscientific, psychological awareness to help us understand what happened to the Jesus movement. The long and short of it is that that time, like ours, indeed, like most times, was controlled by the wealthy. 

It was the rich and powerful who had Jesus killed. His brand of socialism was not good for business or politics. To their chagrin, his death did not end the movement he had begun. In fact, it spread. In a counter offensive, they infiltrated the leadership of the church and called for obedience to all authority, religious and political. The New Testament is full of such demand, and it makes plain the extent to which the strategy of wealth was successful. They also managed to so weaken Jesus’ message of change, that the revolutionary impulse was almost completely overcome. [see my articles about the Subversion of Jesus by the Rich and Powerful in www.progressivechristianity.org]

Almost, but not totally. The Way lived on, as is evident, for example, in the writing of James, and in the lives of those who died in the struggle, just as it continues to do so today. As we learn more and more about the psychological sickness created by wealth, we will better understand how to more steadily approach the vision of Jesus, a vision of caring and sharing that includes everyone.

Then there is the personal question. How does one define rich? By the millions or billions, or thousands? Am I rich? The answer here is not a matter of counting money, but of courting love. Are we empathetic and compassionate? Do we have a feeling of entitlement? Do we relate to others with justice and equality? Are we greedy? Do we love mammon more than we love our fellow pilgrims? The rich young man fulfilled the letter of the law, but was not happy and whole. His wealth blocked the way. It need not be so.
 
About the Author
 

Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith, and The Void and the Vision. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife, Margaret, in Norwich, VT.

Review & Commentary