There’s nothing like money troubles—ours or someone else’s—to get our attention and hold it. To keep us up at night. To preoccupy our days and overtake all our social interactions. In fact, if you want to break the ice with a new acquaintance or fill that awkward silence with a stranger in a waiting room, on the bus, wherever—just bring up the near-collapse of the world’s financial markets. You’ll get a knowing gaze, a sympathetic nod.
It is telling that the current crisis on Wall Street has captivated our attention like nothing else in recent weeks (Sarah Palin notwithstanding). Millions have suffered and died in Darfur, and continue to do so; Haiti has been all but decimated as a country; the physical, psychological, and spiritual toll of war in Iraq is now near incalculable.
But when the banks start going under, well, that is serious business, indeed. When the god of mammon comes calling, demanding deference, snapping us to attention, it seems we can’t bow down quickly enough. No wonder Jesus warned that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. Our hearts aren’t really in Darfur or Haiti or Iraq (or with the strung-out addict across town) because we so readily give our hearts, minds, and attention to something called “financial security”—America’s and our own.
In his letter to the Philippians Paul lays out a different economic plan. It is the lordship of Christ and the divine economy of salvation that preoccupies Paul—that keeps him up at night, happily, in his Roman prison cell.
In his marvelous commentary on Philippians, Steve Fowl (EP endorser and great guy) contends that in encouraging the Christians at Philippi and in describing his own immediate circumstances, Paul is presenting a pattern of perception that should characterize all those who are in Christ. He is urging Christians to “see” the world and themselves differently; to manifest in their life together a common pattern of thinking and acting that will set them apart and allow them the grace to live and flourish by a different rule, a different economic logic.
What reads like the playbook for getting ahead in the world of corporate finance—selfish ambition, looking to your own interests—must be abandoned, says Paul, in favor of a common life grounded in humility and in looking out for the interests of others (2:3-4). And this common life draws on, mimics, and participates in the divine economy by which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in a mutual relation of ceaseless caritas. This economy turns the logic of free-market capitalism on its head, for in the divine economy there is no lack, there is only, as Steve puts it, “an uncoerced circulation of gifts flowing from a super-abundance of love.”
The Church, too, is to live by the logic of abundance, not scarcity; of shared love, not mutual suspicion. It is wrong to posit the Church as a spiritual reality and politics or economics or the free market as material realities. The Church is fully social, political, and economic—a materially-embodied (re)ordering of relationships, desire, and the making and spending of our money.
And, finally, lest we be swept up this week in the beauty and eloquence of Paul’s prose (“at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”), we should remember that Philippi was a Roman military colony, an outpost of Empire, where the clash between economies—the love of power and the power of love—was as palpable as it is in our own time. For the Philippian Christians to cast their lot with the fledgling Jesus movement was to surrender any social standing or political clout they might have had; it was to give up economic security to follow a crucified and risen Lord who demanded they do strange things with their finances and their possessions—things like, sell all you have and give it to the poor.
For us, similarly, to confess with our lips that Jesus Christ—not Caesar and not Wall Street—is Lord, is to begin to learn what it means to put our money where our mouth is.