[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
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.
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.
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.