Faith and Reason: Spiritual content in the shopping trolley: Our series on the story of Dives and Lazarus is continued by Stephen Cherry, who this week examines the ways in which we all exert economic power when we go out to spend money.
Saturday 25 July 1992
The psychology of shopping is a study in its own right. While some people find it almost intolerably stressful, others go shopping to cheer themselves up. For some, buying almost anything is a matter of guilt, whereas others find excitement or even catharsis in a purchase. Some are thrilled by a bargain in a second-hand shop, others are only aroused by spending money they do not have.
This is complicated enough, but we fail morally and religiously when we let the emotionality of shopping occlude the fact that it is a political matter. When we hand over some coins, write a cheque or pass the plastic we are participating in the processes which help to make the world more or less just. There is no escape from this. We confess as we consume. People reveal their souls at least as much in front of cash registers as they do in conversations with counsellors or confessors or friends. We are more accurately judged by the contents of our shopping trolleys than the weight of our consciences.
But shopping is but one of the things which we might do with our money. Every coin in our pocket or unit in our account could be used in a variety of ways. We could spend it, lend it, gamble it, save it, invest it, or pay it in tax. We could keep it to ourselves or we could spend it on someone who matters to us. On the other hand there is a radical rhetoric in Christianity which says that money is something with which the righteous should have nothing to do, it being the root of all evil. Perhaps we should give it all away.
It is a small step from the text which reads 'You can not serve God and money' to the idea that money is a false god which exacts worship and servitude. I don't buy that idea. Money can be, but is not necessarily, an idol. Money is inevitable and morally neutral, there is nothing special or magical or for that matter dirty or profane about it. But money is always more than itself. It seems to be emotionally, spiritually and politically unladen; to be simply a vehicle of exchange. But this very neutrality means that it rapidly becomes problematic.
Shopping ought to be straightforward, but it clearly is not. Paying tax should be an unarguably clear process, as should claiming benefits; but both can be nightmares. Being wealthy should be quite nice, but stories of great financial success are not characterised by happy endings. Poverty should be such a manifest evil that we all do what we can to eradicate it. And yet we do not. Things are not right, but the problem lies not in the money but in the hearts of those who handle it.
We need an anatomy of avarice. A way of discerning and describing the way in which people and communities get drawn into the value systems which perpetuate and increase the gulf between the rich and the poor. At the heart of such an anatomy would be some of the basic beliefs held by those who, whatever the state of their bank balance, are in financial bondage. Here are two of them.
First is the conviction that I am poor and vulnerable and that my happiness and well-being depends on being relatively well off. People fear poverty like hell. Literally, they fear it as medieval people feared an eternal furnace. Poverty in Britain now means social isolation and therefore personal misery, whether in cardboard city or in a damp flat in the wrong housing estate.
The problem is not the love of money but fear of the kind of desperate poverty which we know others suffer. This fear can be overcome by faith and hope, but these need theological and spiritual nourishment. The tradition of holy poverty, and the beatitude of happy poverty, can be daily bread when they are perceived as a total critique of the kind of national and global politics which produce an underclass. Christianity has the resources to initiate the social, political and economic reconstruction of poverty. It must strive to make poverty less like hell and more like heaven so that life free of enslavement to money might be possible for all.
Second is the belief that the most fundamental relationship between human beings is that of competition. This pervasive and alienating attitude is not part of the Christian vision. When Christians pray 'Our Father' they imply a universal human solidarity. But this is often mere rhetoric. Like married couples with separate accounts we strive to keep our financial distance from those who are intimately bound up with us. That is why the debt crisis is not being resolved, and why 500,000 children die a year as a result of it. We do not believe that they are our brothers and sisters.
While the Beatles were right to sing 'money can't buy me love', George Bernard Shaw was almost right when he said that it is the most important thing in the world. There is a level of value in human relations which utterly transcends the financial, but there are also real values and goods which money can buy. Everyone knows that without it stomachs remain empty and homes unbuilt. And yet other people's poverty does not impinge on those who view other people as competitors.
The Christian profession is love for our nameless neighbours and endless enemies. It denies both that poverty is to be feared and that people are primarily competitors. It calls avarice and greed deadly sins. It perceives that shopping and giving and tax-paying and investing are more than emotionally laden; it prophesies that they, like the way in which we love and fear, are matters of justice and judgement.
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