On October 18, an Anglican Church of Canada task force released “On The Theology of Money,” a report calling the faithful to embrace a “vision of ‘enough'” when it comes to material wealth.
Many Christians in the 21st century are torn between their faith, which teaches that hoarding wealth is wrong and that Christians should support each other, and an economic system that values individualism, limitless growth, and commodification, says the Rev. Maggie Helwig, a priest in the diocese of Toronto and member of the task force.
Using Biblical texts, early church teachings, contemporary theology and political theory, Helwig’s essay, Non nobis, Domine (Not to us, Lord) provides the main substance of the report, a result of two years of research, reflection and study.
Helwig makes the case that the current economic system and the value it places on money are antithetical to authentic Christianity, and should be seen as a kind of “structural sin.”
The essay takes its title from Psalm 115, which attacks the idolatrous worship of images made of silver and gold, “the work of human hands,” and argues that the money economy, as it is currently practiced today, is a similar form of idolatry.
Citing stories like God’s feeding of the children of Israel with manna in Exodus 16, to the early church practice of holding goods in common described in Acts 2, Helwig points out that the Bible consistently teaches that Christians are called to be satisfied with what they need, and to share with those who have less-an argument she believes is backed up by the Bible’s frequent denunciations of lending money on interest.
She notes, however, “This vision of ‘enough’ is not only very different from the ever-spiralling growth of the money economy, it is actually hostile to it. If we are satisfied with simple, basic human lives of good work and mutual care, we will ‘fail’ according to the terms of our economy.”
Furthermore, Helwig argues that, because the capitalist economic system sees no intrinsic value in human life, it is completely indifferent to the suffering of those who find themselves unable to succeed on its terms.
“The inability of the market alone to ensure adequate human lives for the majority of the population is increasingly clear, as the gap between rich and poor, both globally and within nations, increases,” she says, quoting a report from Oxfam, an international confederation of groups working to fight poverty, that shows inequality as having grown dramatically over the past 30 years.
“These statistics speak of human lives stripped down to the voracious needs of an economic system’s implacable internal logic,” she adds.
Helwig’s essay acknowledges, however, that living outside the market is not feasible.
This is not only because, in a globalized world, the market “restricts the agency of persons and societies who may wish to live differently,” but also because the money economy has fundamentally shaped the way people think about themselves and the world around them.
As Helwig puts it, “We are embedded in a global money economy from which we simply cannot remove ourselves…nor are we able to create major rapid change to this system.”
The Rev. Maggie Helwig is the rector of the Anglican Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, in the diocese of Toronto. Photo: André Forget
Instead of trying to escape the world, Helwig argues that Christians should instead attempt to embrace “the healing and reordering of desire” and “return to a fuller understanding and practice of the ‘works of mercy.'”
Practically, this can be done through small actions, like living less wasteful lives and being satisfied with fewer possessions, and more systemic changes, like “declining to participate in interest-based investment profits, or at least investing in credit unions that support community initiatives.”
Helwig also believes Christians should have a voice in the political arena, pushing for more redistributive economic policies and resisting trade agreements that “have been proven to limit the ability of persons and societies to make choices for the local common good.”
Finally, Helwig encourages Anglicans to see the salvation offered by Christ as also being salvation from the collective sin caused by participating in the market.
“We believe that we are saved from this matrix of sin,” she writes. “We believe that we are transformed by an act of free offering on the part of god, an act that entirely defies all the principles underlying the modern economy.”
The origins of the report go back to the 2010-2013 triennium, when the Occupy Wall Street movement drew attention to rising economic equality in Western nations. General Synod, the church’s governing body, asked the faith, worship and ministry committee to find a way to engage with the questions raised by the Occupy movement, and specifically to reflect on “the meaning of money.”
A task force, chaired by the Rev. Jeff Metcalfe, of the diocese of Quebec, was set up to discuss what a Christian approach to money might look like.
In addition to Metcalfe and Helwig, members included Joshua Paetkau, of the diocese of Rupert’s Land, Bishop Michael Oulton, of the diocese of Ontario, Monica Patten, then-director of General Synod’s Resources for Mission, the Rev. Jeff Pym, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada’s Eastern Synod, and Elin Goulden,in the diocese of Toronto.
The report also includes extensive supplementary materials, including a discussion guide that outlines how clergy and lay leaders might help their parishes engage and respond to the work of the task force, and a collection of liturgical resources for those who wish to meditate on the task force’s findings as part of their regular worship.