Incredibly Shrinking Camels And Zen Moons: Wealth In The Eyes Of World Religions

[The following is an excerpt from Daniele Bolelli’s new book Create Your Own Religion: A How-To Book without Instructions.]

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz. — Janis Joplin

God and Gold

Nothing in the world can excite the minds of men quite like the two G’s—God and Gold. (The third G that boys dream about—Girls—ranks much higher than either of those on my personal priority list, but it has nothing to do with the subject of this chapter, so I’ll try to keep my hormones in check and not get sidetracked.) If it is certainly true that religion is one of the most powerful forces driving our collective psyche, cold, hard cash is not far behind. God and gold are the objects of worship most revered by humanity. Countless people obsess about them, want them, crave them, and center their lives around them. For them, we fight, cry, and struggle. In the hope that they’ll grant us their favors, we sacrifice on their altars unspeakable amounts of time and energy.

In the minds of some people, it may appear strange to discuss economic issues within the context of religion. But the relationship between religion and wealth is a complicated but meaningful one. Sometimes, they are bitter enemies competing for the hearts of human beings. Other times, they shamelessly flirt with each other. Religion would seem irrelevant if it were silent about such a key human concern; likewise, the quest for wealth is very much affected by religious attitudes.

The nitty-gritty reality of survival forces everyone to make choices about wealth. How much is enough for us to be happy? What do we want it for? What are we willing or unwilling to sacrifice for it? How much of our time will we devote to chasing it? The answers to these questions influence most other aspects of our lives, since any discussion of wealth is intertwined with the choice of what we’ll do for a living. And inevitably, what you end up doing seven, eight, or nine hours a day will affect the person you become. Whether we like it or not, our job becomes one of our priorities. So it’s naïve to expect religions to have nothing to say about such an important topic. Speaking of purely “spiritual” values without ever addressing economic issues means relegating spirituality to a corner, removed from day-to-day events. This is why most religions throughout his­tory have expressed very strong opinions about money and wealth.

Incredibly Shrinking Camels and Zen Moons: Wealth in the Eyes of World Religions

Despite their enduring rivalry, when it comes to their attitudes about wealth, Judaism and Islam can lay down swords, Uzis, and atomic weapons, and find something they can all agree on. Both religions, in fact, advocate similar positions. Both stress the importance of charity. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy we find passages commanding Jewish people to give away as a religious obligation a percentage of their wealth to the poor. Along the same lines, Islam elevates charity as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. To varying degrees, they both frown on charging high interest rates for loans, and they make clear that the pursuit of wealth is subordinate to religious duties. Other than that, they see nothing wrong with wealth in and of itself.

On the other hand, Christianity—the middle child in the Middle Eastern monotheistic family—forcefully establishes its own identity by adopting a very different stance from its siblings. Over and over, the New Testament attacks the desire for wealth as fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. Jesus himself clearly forces his followers to choose between God and wealth. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus tells us unambiguously, “for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye can’t serve God and Mammon.” Reinforcing the same concept, Matthew 6:19–21 reads:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Still not convinced? Try this then: “Woe to you that are rich! For ye have received your consolation.” And just to make sure there are no misunderstandings, other parts of the New Testament spell it out for us:

For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

Nowhere, however, does Jesus get any more radical about wealth than in Matthew 19:23–24. Communists are wimps compared to Jesus, who takes his attack against the love of money to new heights: “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

One thing is for sure; good old Jesus could deliver a flowery speech. Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven? Wow. No one can accuse him of lacking imagination. But besides being funny, his metaphor is unequivocal in its meaning. Jesus’ statement would make even Karl Marx blush. Read the last quote again and then consider how readily most Christians chase wealth. Tell me you see no contradictions. In regards to wealth, the majority of Christianity today seems to have conveniently edited Jesus’ words out of their theology.

Baloo, the bear from The Jungle Book, embodies Jesus’ spirit much better than popes or preachers. Baloo happily sings his anti­capitalist tune, inviting us to work less, not worry about the future, and enjoy the bare necessities of life that will fall in our laps when we stop struggling so much. This is the Sermon on the Mount sung by a furry animal coming to you courtesy of Disney. In one part of his most famous speech, in fact, Jesus preaches the exact same concept. Look at the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field, he says. They make no plans for the future. They don’t stress about food and clothing, and yet they have more than they need. Learn from them and quit worrying. Can you think of anything more contrary to the spirit of capitalism than this?

Jesus is in good company though. Besides Baloo, he can also find a kindred spirit in Lao Tzu, the mythological author of the Tao Te Ching. Much like Jesus, Lao Tzu had no inclination to mince his words. He writes, “There is no greater curse than the lack of contentment. No greater sin than the desire for possession.” “To be proud with wealth and honor,” we find in another passage, “is to sow the seeds of one’s own downfall.” Statements like these pop up all over the Tao Te Ching. Neither Jesus nor Lao Tzu is interested in winning a popularity contest, and that’s why they say exactly what’s on their minds without concern of pleasing the powers that be. Most rulers, according to Lao Tzu, being the greedy bastards that they are, overtax their people and let them starve in an effort to accumulate more wealth than they know what to do with. This is what pushes Lao Tzu, long before Robin Hood, to argue, “It is the Way of Heaven to take away from those that have too much and give to those that have not enough.”

Similarly, the pursuit of wealth is also no friend of Buddha, who gave up his position as heir to the throne and kissed goodbye to a life of luxury in order to become a wondering monk. The otherwise easygoing Buddha condemned any job profiting from suffering—selling weapons, slavery, butchering animals, selling poisons and intoxicants—as being unequivocally contrary to a Buddhist path. But even more radically—just like Jesus and Lao Tzu—Buddha viewed attachment to wealth as fundamentally misguided. His problem was not with wealth itself, but with the attachment and the never-ending desires that usually accompany it. If one could enjoy wealth while remaining completely unattached to it, then wealth is no obstacle. But according to Buddha, most people are incapable of this; they become dependent on wealth as the source of their happiness, and this attachment is the root of much misery.

It’s this basic realization that pushed Zen monk Ryokan to exclaim “Alone with one robe, one bowl—the life of a Zen monk is truly the most free!” In another occasion, being the funny guy that he was, Ryokan offered his clothes to a thief who had come to rob him but found nothing valuable to steal. After the thief left, Ryokan sat naked, staring at the full moon. Feeling sorry for the thief, trapped as he was to live and die for material gain, Ryokan commented, “Poor fellow. I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

This same theme echoes across time and space, among religious figures as much as philosophers. We find it in Diogenes (“To own nothing is the beginning of happiness”), Heraclitus (“May you have plenty of wealth, you men of Ephesus, in order that you may be punished for your evil ways”), Thoreau (“the laboring man . . . has no time to be anything but a machine. . . . Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”), and plenty others.

Why are all these guys so vehemently opposed to seeking wealth? What’s wrong with good old-fashioned cash? Jesus, Buddha, and Thoreau all considered attachment to material goods as the doorway to self-inflicted pain. According to them, the thirst for wealth is never fulfilled. It breeds dissatisfaction. The more you earn, the more you want. In true addict fashion, you constantly crave more and can never have enough to be able to relax and enjoy life. Once hooked on this drug, people become the slaves of their possessions and get trapped in a struggle that will never end.

This is why Jesus, Buddha, and many other famous figures in the history of religions embraced voluntary poverty: none of them wanted to trade the time and energy needed to make money. Quite ironic, considering that many of their followers despair of never finding happiness unless they achieve a certain level of material wealth.

In Gold We Trust: The Invention of a Capitalist Christianity

The profit-seeking, money-dreaming capitalist in you need not worry, though. Despite religion’s nearly unanimous opposition to striving after wealth, some religions have reinvented themselves to justify it—and in some cases even glorify it.

Christianity offers the most dramatic example of this. In a perfect case of hypocrisy, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church officially condemned greed for centuries while amassing huge fortunes at the same time. But as sociologist Max Weber famously pointed out, it was only with the development of certain branches of Protestantism that vast numbers of Christians found a way to openly justify having both God and gold.

According to Protestants, a virtuous existence in no way guarantees an admission ticket to heaven. Their gloomy outlook on life held that human beings are horrible sinners undeserving of salvation, and only through faith and divine grace can anyone get their unworthy ass into Paradise. This means that no one could ever be sure of being saved. Since self-esteem boosting seminars were not available back then, early Protestants found relief from their anxieties in the idea that success in the world was a sign of divine favor. God intervenes in human affairs, they reasoned, so achieving success means being the recipient of God’s blessing. Private property, as Martin Luther pointed out, is what separates humans from beasts, so the more of it you have, the more advanced you are. If you are poor, on the other hand, it’s because you are barely better than animals, and God probably hates your guts. The pursuit of wealth, then, became valuable not for its own sake but in order to prove one’s standing in God’s eyes. The door for the accumulation of wealth without any sense of guilt was finally open.

This marriage between Christianity and capitalism continues to be celebrated today by countless preachers arguing that God wants good Christians to be rich and successful. Fundamentalist leader Rod Parsley, for example, regularly condemns laws limiting un­checked capitalism, and famously stated, “one of the first reasons for poverty is a lack of knowledge of God and His Word.” Others, such as Reverend Robert Schuller, are even more blunt: “You have a God-ordained right to be wealthy. You’re a steward of the goods, the golds, the gifts that God has allowed to come into your hands. Hav­ing riches is no sin, wealth is no crime. Christ did not praise poverty. The profit motive is not necessarily unchristian.” Needless to say, this message has been enthusiastically received.

As these examples demonstrate, it turns out that if you push hard enough, the camel can go through the eye of the needle after all. If you ever wanted proof that most people make up their own religions as they go, the Christian contortionists bending the Bible to say what they want it to say offer it to you on a golden plate. I can think of good arguments to defend both the accumulation of wealth as well as Jesus’ radical critique of it. I have no problem with people choosing to be Christian or capitalists; but embracing both at the same time while claiming to follow the Bible literally is only possible if you shamelessly edit scriptures to justify your own self-interest.

Excerpted from Create Your Own Religion: A How-To Book without Instructions, Copyright © 2013 Daniele Bolelli. Reprinted with permission from Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. Available wherever books or ebooks are sold or from www.redwheelweiser.com.

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  • godozo

    I’m surprised you hadn’t mentioned The Parable of The Talents. In it (as you probably well know) The man given five talents (the rich man) proves himself worthy and is rewarded well, the man given two talents (middle class man) proves himself and is praised, and the man given one talent (the poor man) hides it, is found out and is punished – with his preserved talent given to the rich man.

    I personally believe that this is probably the best known parable in American Protestant Christianity, and the center point of the belief today.

    • Jin The Ninja

      i think the parable you cite, is far too problematic to use as a concrete example- the parable changes from the hebrew bible to matthew to luke, and between matthew and luke could not have a more different moral value.

      • godozo

        I agree, on the face of it. Plus, many commentators have historically taken the parable figuratively, using the term “talents” for gifts from god and other things.

        However, in much of America the version in Luke is barely mentioned (never mind the version in the Gospel of the Nazarines, wherein the man with five talents wastes the talents and is enjailed, whereas the man with one talent is merely talked down to and lives to be given a second chance); the Gospel of Matthew version is the one that’s plastered into believer’s heads and is often given a financial focus (both heard in Church and read in books and websites).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=742104313 Adam Goodwin

    “To varying degrees, they both (Islam and Judaism) frown on charging high interest rates for loans”

    Actually, the Quran condemns usury (riba). And usury is not just ‘charging high interest rates for loans’, it’s any activity that makes money from money without any labor done by the party holding the money–this includes charging monthly rent when leasing one’s real estate. It’s parasitic and anti-social. But those are just the social consequences of usury.

    There are physical consequences that the writers of holy books never could have imagined–namely, charging any amount of interest on a loan results in more wealth than the capital being returned to the creditor. This implies that this new invented (conjured up from nothing) wealth in the form of interest has to come from the real world, and on a finite planet, you’re eventually gonna hit a physical wall with the amount of wealth you can gather. So, interest basically flaunts the First Law of Thermodynamics.

    But back to the social component, usury answers a lot of questions social philosophy has been puzzling over for a while. For example, depending on the influence of your creditor, you’re probably gonna have to do things you probably wouldn’t normally have done to get that little extra bit of wealth so you can square up with your creditor. Enter the so-called ‘profit motive’. We think we’re terrible, materialistic creatures sinfully pursuing our own interest (pun intended), when all along it’s been the interest of our creditors we’ve been working hard to get. That’s actually a really fucking altruistic thing to do. Work hard for other people, and do shit you wouldn’t normally do–like steal, go to war, conquer, colonize, rape the biosphere etc.

    And here we were thinking all this time that it was our ‘nature’ to be brutal, mindless fucks, when it was the money changers all along. What a cruel joke. No one divides and conquers like the money changers. You know you’re an asshole when the all-loving, all-peaceful son of god overturns your shit and uses a whip on your ass.

    Someone needs to go fucking biblical on the money changers today.

    • Jin The Ninja

      totally agree.

    • Ittabena

      Well said.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=742104313 Adam Goodwin

    “To varying degrees, they both (Islam and Judaism) frown on charging high interest rates for loans”

    Actually, the Quran condemns usury (riba). And usury is not just ‘charging high interest rates for loans’, it’s any activity that makes money from money without any labor done by the party holding the money–this includes charging monthly rent when leasing one’s real estate. It’s parasitic and anti-social. But those are just the social consequences of usury.

    There are physical consequences that the writers of holy books never could have imagined–namely, charging any amount of interest on a loan results in more wealth than the capital being returned to the creditor. This implies that this new invented (conjured up from nothing) wealth in the form of interest has to come from the real world, and on a finite planet, you’re eventually gonna hit a physical wall with the amount of wealth you can gather. So, interest basically flaunts the First Law of Thermodynamics.

    But back to the social component, usury answers a lot of questions social philosophy has been puzzling over for a while. For example, depending on the influence of your creditor, you’re probably gonna have to do things you probably wouldn’t normally have done to get that little extra bit of wealth so you can square up with your creditor. Enter the so-called ‘profit motive’. We think we’re terrible, materialistic creatures sinfully pursuing our own interest (pun intended), when all along it’s been the interest of our creditors we’ve been working hard to get. That’s actually a really fucking altruistic thing to do. Work hard for other people, and do shit you wouldn’t normally do–like steal, go to war, conquer, colonize, rape the biosphere etc.

    And here we were thinking all this time that it was our ‘nature’ to be brutal, mindless fucks, when it was the money changers all along. What a cruel joke. No one divides and conquers like the money changers. You know you’re an asshole when the all-loving, all-peaceful son of god overturns your shit and uses a whip on your ass.

    Someone needs to go fucking biblical on the money changers today.

  • emperorreagan

    I’m excited to read this book. April is going to be a good month for reading, with this and Disassembly Required by Geoff Mann coming out.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lincoln.nielson Lincoln Nielson

    So rich Chtristians aren’t real Christians. . . . makes sense to me.

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