Walter Brueggemann. 2016. Money and Possessions. Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
In August 1991 as we prepared to close on our current house, my wife, Maryam, we had two tots in diapers that she never left in the care of anyone outside the family. I arranged for power of attorney, but the lender refused to allow its use. We appeared at closing with two squirming tots and I found myself reading loan documents with an impatient wife. As I read, I discovered that the documents neglected to include my down payment ($10k) and included an interest rate 50 basis points over what we had agreed to—heaven only knows how many of the fees charged exceeded market norms. I got my down payment listed but failed to secure the agreed interest rate. Under duress, I then held my nose and signed the agreement, knowing that I sat across the table from a bunch of cheats and should have simply walked away.
The Great Recession
We eventually paid off the loan through parsimonious living and committing more time and energy to my career than I ever felt prudent. In the years to follow I worked in financial regulation and observed banking interests lobbying to tighten up federal laws making it hard to declare bankruptcy while offering increasing amounts of credit to borrowers clearly not able to repay the loans. (The lobbyists also worked to prevent regulators from collecting the data necessary to observe how financially fragile banks had become). A subprime loan basically implies that the borrower can only repay the loan under favorable employment and economic assumptions.
For those with unstable income and/or an inability to live parsimoniously, these mortgages proved deadly during the Great Recession (2007-2008 plus the slow recovery until 2017) when millions of home buyers, particularly the poor, immigrants, and minorities lost their homes and life savings. In spite of massive, systemic fraud, no one in Washington or on Wall Street ever suffered indictment.
In his book, Money and Possessions, Walter Brueggemann writes:
“The purpose of this book is to exhibit the rich, recurring, and diverse references to money and possessions that permeate the Bible…My task has been reportage about the texts. I have found, however, that the texts themselves pressed in the direction of advocacy…When that distinctive mantra [God and mammon] on the lips of Jesus is transposed into economic interpretation, the large sweep of the text suggests a critical exposé of an economy of extraction where by concentrated power serves to extract wealth from vulnerable people in order to transfer it to the more powerful. That extraction is accomplished by the predatory if legal means of tax arrangements, credit and loan stipulations, high interest rates, and cheap labor.”(xix-xx)
Brueggemann’s highlighting of the word, mammon, in Matthew 6:24 (KJV) is instructive. Mammon is a transliteration of the Aramaic word that Jesus uses in the Greek, transliterated also in the King James translation but more commonly translated as money (ESV, NIV) or wealth (NRSV). Normally, the New Testament uses Aramaic phrases only when the word is unique in usage and without an adequate translation in Greek, which suggests that Jesus actually coined the phrase himself. In English, mammon is best translated not as money but as the “god of money,” suggesting that money has an inherently idolatrous character. Mammon is therefore an edgy sort of indictment of money matters or, as Brueggemann suggests, an advocacy not always felt to be politically palatable in mixed company.
Brueggmann employs a systematic presentation of money and possessions throughout the biblical witness (Genesis to Revelation), which is a method sometimes referred to as biblical theology, that defies summary or synthesis. In his own synthesis, he offers six theses:
- Money and possessions (M&P) are gifts from God…
- M&P are received as reward for obedience…
- M&P belong to God and are held in trust by human persons in community…stewardship…
- M&P are sources of social injustice…
- M&P are to be shared in a neighborly way…
- M&P are seductions that lead to idolatry.(1-9)
He then goes on to list six contradictions that follow immediately from the above list:
- To view M&P as gifts from God contradicts market ideology in which there are no gifts, no free lunches…
- To view M&P as reward for obedience is too readily transposed into the reward system of the market…
- To view M&P as a trust from God contradicts the pretension of market ideology that imagines…that ‘my money is my own; I earned it and can do with it what I want.’
- To view M&P as a source of injustice is to contradict the easy assumptions of the market that autonomous wealth is not connected to the community…
- To view M&P as resources to be shared in a neighborly way contradicts the market assumption that there are no neighbors; there are only rivals, competitors, and threats…
- To view M&P as seductions that lead to idolatry contradicts the market view that M&P are inert and innocent neutral objects. (9-10)
Clearly, the task of engaging these theses and contradictions is formidable. For his part, Brueggemann sees this study as offering not only substantial “data of biblical teaching,” but also a critique of common thinking on money and possessions (10-11).
Walter Brueggemann’s Money and Possessionsis a groundbreaking recitation and first interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on economic relations where tension exists between the faith community—first in Israel and later in the church—in its relationship with the wider political economy. How much tension should exist is also frequently a source of tension within the faith community itself, leaving the biblical interpreter with a difficult hermeneutical and expository task. As such, Brueggemann’s primary audience is the interpretative community interested in the role of money and possessions in defining an authorial and canonical read, which renders a reader interpretation premature.
In my own view as an economist and a pastor, I found Brueggemann’s exposition fascinating even when I might argue about particular points. Because Israel and the church have seldom been masters of their own economic fate, a theme deserving more investigation is the role that the practice of faith has played in helping believers navigate their economic environment. If Brueggemann is correct, faith and economics are inseparably linked and fundamentally inform one another.
If the results of the Marshmallow test are to be believed, for example, just teaching patience to our young people could dramatically impact their lives. Four-year olds, given a choice between having one marshmallow now or two later, who choose to wait for two are much more likely to graduate from college than their peers, a stunning result (Mischel). In today’s economy in the United States, where downward mobility has replaced upward mobility for about eighty percent of the population, offering godly guidance on money and possessions is a very practical concern.
Mischel, Walter. 2014. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.
Brueggemann’s Bible Follows the Money
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.
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