Is money evil? This was a straight up question. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to write about it on my own. I know that my biases on the question are strong. Strong enough for me to respect that others may not care to hear them. But, I was asked, so…
TLDR: Is money evil? Like, inherently evil? No. And, I still don’t trust it as far as I can throw an unfolded dollar bill.
I don’t hate money, or fear it. I just don’t trust it.
No important decision I’ve ever seen handled was made any less fraught with confusion and conflict once a lot of money was added to the conversation. Even when a lack of money seems to be the problem at hand, getting the money to seemingly solve a problem always brings next order complications – or obligations – of its own. Sometimes the outcome is worth the added complexity. Sometimes it’s not.
Life is the same. Money doesn’t make it any less complicated. Money just changes the nature and scale of life’s complications – and the scale and consequences of mistakes.
Here’s a “Brief (and fascinating) History of Money” from shells to bitcoin by the folks at Britannica. It’s a pretty simple version of the story. It pretty much focuses on the question of how long stuff has been used as money to symbolize, and simplify, the exchange of value. This version doesn’t cover any of the parts about how money is a primary way of concentrating social power and control. It also doesn’t tell how money is a primary tool for exerting concentrated power over longer and longer distances. Those were necessary tools for early empires to become larger and more oppressive.
It’s not that money DID any of that. It’s just that none of it could’ve been done as efficiently without money as it was with it. Is money evil? No. But, it is always a tool under the control of the most powerful in any society.
There isn’t really a point in history that any of us can point to when people in power ever looked out for people with no power as much as they looked after themselves and their own interests (like keeping power…). Given that history, I don’t really trust power or most positions that wield it. Since I don’t really trust power, and money is an essential, primary tool of the powerful – well, you can see where that goes.
“Not All Money…”
Yeah, I know. The counter arguments to my gloomy retrospective on the history of money’s sordid roles in corruptive power are fairly obvious. Money also facilitates the efficient organization and distribution of resources for lots and lots of good. That’s all true too.
There is a fairly well oiled not-for-profit machinery that does its dead level best to use as much money as it can to do as much good as it can around the world. I used to be part of it. For several years I carried around a laptop and an electronic fob that would generate randomized access codes. I could log into a system that would let me transfer millions of dollars to any bank account in the world with fewer than four or five clicks and ten or twenty keystrokes. In seconds.
Most of it was money I helped manage in endowments for this or that good cause. For a couple decades I routinely drove around on back roads from visits with interesting people with $10,000, $50,000, $100,000, and – a few times – $1,000,000+ checks to take back to a business office and recorded as gifts to whatever organization I happened to be working for. The last $1 Million run I got to make was on my motorcycle through the North Georgia mountains. It was a beautiful day that marked the final gift of two beautiful lives.
Over time, I’ve seen a LOT of money do a LOT of good. All of those counter arguments about the “good” that money makes possible are all valid. So, there’s no need to recite them all.
Yeah, but most money…
Even though it’s true that it often takes a lot of money to do a lot of good things, and that people who do good can usually do more good with more money, I still don’t trust it as far as I can throw the paper kind. Being able to get money and do good things with money, even LOTS of it, is NOT the same thing as CONTROLLING money.
No no, stay with me. I’m not being conspiratorial. Money is controlled. That’s not a weird theory of deep, dark secrets, it’s just a description of the fact that money has rules. It’s not just free to roam out in the wild all willy-nilly, and people aren’t just free to use money any old way they please.
Wait? Who controls money…?
It’s all pretty much out in the open. First, laws regulate how we use money in every day life. Then, financial institutions of various kinds manage all the money. Of course, all of those institutions have various requirements for who can access their services.
See? There’s no wild theory. It’s just true that there are controls on money, who has access to it, and how it gets used. Even if the controls are mostly normalized in our day to day experiences, the fact that we don’t necessarily feel it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
In a sense, that means we all control money. I mean, to whatever degree you give our currently configured Democracy any credit for successfully putting the hands of the people on the actual levers of power. You could say “we” control money about that much too. So, probably not much…
In the long run, those who scramble to get as much money as possible to do as much good as possible are not controlling money. We’re just using money, but it’s not ours. How you use a thing you are not in charge of can be changed on you at any time. If you are dependent on that thing, that can be catastrophic.
I know, I know. “Due process, yada, yada.” “The rules can’t change that fast…” Really? C’mon. The rules change in the dark hours of the morning in the halls of Congress and corporate board rooms all the time. Tell me I’m wrong…
So, no. I don’t trust money. I don’t hate it, or fear it, but I don’t trust it.
Well, is money evil or not?
No. Money isn’t evil, it’s just a tool. However, it IS a favorite tool of the powerful and their empires which have, in the long arc of history, been consistent purveyors of all manner of evil. Usually against those with the least money and power to resist.
Let me be clear. I’m NOT suggesting we’d be any better off if all of the do-gooders who USE money were suddenly in CONTROL of money. I’ve never been in the camp of those who would like to see the establishment of a Christian Empire.
One of my most important windows of understanding on the Christian Gospel is that it proclaims the ideal of abandoning the empire way of trying to organize ourselves in the world. It never proclaims the goal of establishing an earthly Christian version of empire. I’m not saying we, the Church, haven’t bent things that way routinely throughout our history – but it’s not what the Gospel proclaims.
Insofar as money is a favorite tool wholly owned by the powers of empires, and insofar as I am opposed to the empire way of living in the world as matter of faithfulness to what I understand to be the Jesus way of living in the world, I am not able to be a fan of money. While money may not be inherently evil, it sure is wrapped tight at the core of most all the evil I’ve ever known anything about. I’m surely not able to call it good in any essential way.
Dismantling Systems of Injustice
So, what do we do with money? Well, as much good as possible as often as possible. There are several attributions for a favorite old quote from a preacher who was questioned about whether or not they had any moral qualms accepting money that had been put in the plate by bootleggers, gamblers, and other presumed scoundrels. In reply the preacher said, “Not at all. The Devil’s had that money long enough. If they’ll give to me I’ll do some good with it.” Another powerful saying says you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. I think they might both be right.
Other Gospel stories come to mind. Walter Wink’s reflections on Jesus’ teachings on responding to evil have rearticulated among another generation of peace activists the previously accumulated wisdom of forerunners like Bayard Rustin and Ghandi who also taught non-violence.
Wink observes this third way in Jesus’ teachings to turn the other cheek to force a second strike to expose the injustice of the abuser, or to strip naked to shame a creditor who actually has the gall to demand your cloak to cover a loan you can’t pay. He calls it a third way of non-violent resistance. I call it economic jujitsu.
Even though the tools aren’t ours, folx probably should use any power or money that comes our way to accomplish as much good as we can. Of course, that’s not a vague wish. It’s important to be clear about what it might look like.
If the systems of power and finance in which we live bear down most weightily upon, are are least available to the powerless, then what sorts of economic jujitsu can shift that leverage? How can people who have historically had the least ownership of the money they use have more power over their own economic resources? It’s not easy, but there are things that can be done.
People with money can:
- Invest in helping renters own the homes and property where they live (you could literally just buy a house and sell it so someone who can’t afford a mortgage. Yeah, there are things to think about, but you could figure all that out and just do it…).
- Deposit that money in banks owned by communities typically underserved by commercial financial services.
- Lend money on generous terms to people who are starting a small business. There are lots of large, easy options: Accion International, Kiva.org, Grameen America, and Oikocredit.
- Give money outright to people working for legislative and policy changes. Same for any other work that empowers people without ready access to the levers of power – or money.
This is barely an ample illustrative list. With a little effort, you may also find good local community develop investment options that focus on helping more people own some of the money they use. Let’s not kid ourselves though. None of these things is going to dismantle the powers and forces of the empires. They still own the lion’s share of the money and make the rules for its use. That’s OK, we’re not trying to take over and replace the empires. We just need to keep them unbalanced.
Spread It Around
If part of what gives money so much of its potential for evil is the way it concentrates power, then that’s part of what has to be undone. There’s an old joke about money being like manure. (Note: you can also tell this joke about Baptist preachers.) “If you spread it (them) around enough, it (they) can do a lot of good. If you pile enough of it (them) up in one place though, it (they) can stink to high heavens.” There’s no lie here.
“Good” people aren’t in a competition with “evil” people to see who can get the most money. If we consider the Third Way of economic jujitsu, our Way lies in NOT using money the same ways empires do. Let’s not pile it up in ever bigger piles just to use it to earn more money.
We can figure out ways to spread it around wider and wider and over and over again. Yes, I know that investing in the stock of any average business indirectly creates jobs and that’s also the classic way of thinking about spreading the wealth around. Left to their own devices though, I don’t trust markets to offer those jobs in reliably humane ways. I’m talking about spreading more of our money around in ways that let more people own more of the money they use. Ways like the illustrative mentions above – and whatever other creatively generous ways you come up with to give people a little more leverage amongst the empires as they try to keep their balance.
Is money evil? Probably… I mean, no. No, money isn’t inherently evil.
However, it does have a devilishly consistent history of being on the scene when evil happens.
I still don’t trust it as far as I can throw an unfolded dollar bill.