I just finished reading Money and Power by Jacques Ellul, the late French sociologist and Christian theologian. Although you can see Ellul’s sociological prowess in the background of his work, I appreciate that throughout the work he thinks primarily from Scripture, with copious quotation of and reflection on biblical texts.
I find Ellul to have a very refreshing and challenging perspective on money. Even though I didn’t always find myself in agreement with his conclusions and argumentation, I consider many of his opinions at least loosely in line with Scripture as a whole, the early church as seen in the New Testament, and the Church Fathers and Mothers.
In the first chapter, Ellul discusses the contemporary monetary and economic paradigms and considers how to approach them from a Christian perspective.
Ellul (writing in the 1950s) sees all the economic systems, the -isms, as problematic. The main issue is that they abstract the money problem. For him, the problem is a matter of the human heart in relation to money. When we abstract money into a global economic system, we lost sight of personal relationship and responsibility.
On one hand, this allows a person to participate in gross systemic evil with no obvious personal implications. I think this can be seen in the grossly impersonal mass incarceration and execution of the bourgeoisie in the USSR, which could be seen as perfectly just because it was what “the system” required. It can also be seen in the heinous white-collar crimes committed by large businesses in the West, in which it is often unclear exactly which individuals to charge with the crime. Furthermore, at least in my opinion, these crimes often go severely under-punished.
As Ellul puts it, on one hand the system turns workers’ “hatred into passion for justice; their covetousness, into a revolutionary spirit,” and on the other hand the capitalists’ vice is “justified by the system. Their use of money turns into a desire for freedom; their greed, into a legitimate vocation” (16). The system justifies our vices and makes them into “virtues.”
The system—whether capitalist, socialist, communist, or whatever—emancipates us from coming to terms with who we ourselves are. It liberates us from coming to terms with the lust for money and wealth that exists within all of us.
The system in its material reductionism implies that this personal self-accounting is not an issue. Rather, the only issue is the distribution of money and services. It therefore allows us not to involve ourselves in the problem. The problem is extrinsic to human nature, and therefore only external solutions are necessary. Join the right party and support it. Give it your time and money (in money-dominated systems—which they all are today—time is money). Then you are just. The system will solve the problem without you ever having to account for your own lust for money.
What then is the Christian relationship to the system? Ellul makes two intriguing points. First, inactivity can be virtuous. Refusing to give oneself to an existing system in the pursuit of justice can often be perceived as perpetrating an injustice. However, Ellul sees in-activism as a refusal to play with a stacked deck. Dissociating yourself from the capitalist, socialist, communist, etc., program is a virtuous act for Ellul.
Second, this inactivity is not passivity, and individual actions are not enough. Of course, we must continue to work towards more just theories and laws. “But this must be secondary and, in any case, should take place only after we have come to understand the spiritual reality of forces or of institutions. This also means after we have individually confronted the problem that originally triggered our involvement” (19). Both capitalism and socialism reduce “human life to work, to economic activity,” i.e. to production (21).
To summarize, Ellul does not see the solution to the world’s money problems in any of the major economic systems because none of them attempt to solve the primary problem, which is the unavoidable temptation of money towards greed in the human heart. Our attachment to money is the primary issue. The fight for detachment must also be a detachment from the systems and their false promises. Only from this vantage point can we hope to work out of love for the justice of our neighbor.