There are many who believe that religious people, the idealists, the devout, are on one side in this struggle, while materialists, those concerned with outward things, are on the other side. Certainly, this classification appears justified. But it misses the point.
The great struggle takes place in the heart of every person – in every materialist just as much as in every religious person. We cannot say that the good are on one side and the bad on the other, nor is it true that the religious life is good while the materialist life is bad. The important thing is to discern where materialist thinking puts its faith, and where religious life finds its god – where the spirit of each is found and what each values.
In religion as well as in atheism there is an antigod whom we can worship. The early Christians were convinced that there is a god in the world who is not the God of Jesus Christ. There is a god of godless, worldly religion, antagonistic to the life of Jesus; a god of the present era, hostile to God’s future.
The nature of this antigod is work without soul, business without love, machinery without spirit, and lust instead of joy. It craves for possessions without mutual help, destroys competitors, and idolizes private property, obtained through fraud. It is a god of the present age, an interim god. This demonic force is at work even in the most religious places, where devotion wears its most pious mask.
We read in early Christian writings that a god of this world has blinded the minds of those who cannot believe and are perishing (2 Cor. 4:4). It has corrupted their vision so that they are no longer able to see what really matters. Jesus, the leader of the coming age, declared war on this spirit. He spoke of this fight and of certain victory when he said, “You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24).
What Is Mammon?
We would not be able to understand the term mammon unless we knew the other names by which Jesus exposes this spirit. He calls it the “murderer from the beginning” and “the father of lies,” and refers to its emissaries as “unclean spirits” (John 8:44; Matt. 10:1). Mammonism is its nature, murder its trade, lying its character, and impurity its face.
To the moralist, these four traits may seem unrelated, but in truth there is no fundamental difference. Mammonism is the covetous will: to seize, possess, and enjoy. Thus, these apparently different designations – mammon, lying, murder, and immorality – disclose one and the same spirit, one and the same god. The reality around us shows the enormous power this god possesses in the world.
Jesus says: Lay up no treasure for yourself on earth; sell all you have and give to the poor, and come, and go a totally new way with me (Matt. 6:19; Luke 18:22). Wealth works as a curse because it stands in the way of liberation. It is an affliction because it burdens and satiates but cannot fulfill. Private property kills friendship and gives rise to injustice. “Woe to you that are rich, woe to you that are full.” “Blessed are you that are poor” (Luke 6:20, 24).
There has to be a great turning point, when true friendship will be won by giving away property, when fellowship will be found by turning away from injustice. “Make friends for yourselves through unjust mammon” (Luke 16:9). Win hearts by giving away all you own. Go the new way of fellowship and community given by the Spirit; seek the unity that comes from God and penetrates through the soul into material things. Flee from mammon and turn to God!
Commodities and Money
On hearing the word mammon we think of money first of all. And indeed money is the most tangible symbol of mammonism. Mammon means valuing wealth and converting human relationships into material values.
Life is relationship, interaction, giving and receiving, coming and going, and daily working side by side. People are called to fellowship of emotion and will, of knowledge and creative work, of faith and hope. They are called to a fellowship of life.
But here is money – the mightiest power in the present world system – that stifles and obstructs this fellowship. Everything that would otherwise be a living interchange, a service of mutual help, becomes a dead coin, a piece of paper. Money in itself is not evil, but the way it swallows up what is living in the human spirit is evil. This, then, is the satanic nature of money: we have financial relationships that are no longer personal, no longer part of a fellowship of faith and life. People buy and pay for each other. They consume the commodities they have purchased without any care about the people who produced them.
Money contains all the work and effort of people whom we neither know nor care about. It makes people forget the mutual exchange that takes place in work done and services rendered. The spirit of fellowship in our relationships is reified: it is conjured into a thing which is its opposite.
Today it’s impossible for an employer in a gigantic factory to establish a relationship with the workers and to care about them personally, though in terms of money he has a clearly defined relationship to them. For the shareholders in a limited-liability corporation, this is even less likely. The mutual relationship between the investors and those who do the work has been eliminated by the shareholding structure, the board of directors, and the management, all pushed between investor and worker. No one is personally responsible for what happens to the worker. The shareholder can defer to the board of directors, and the board of directors can defer to the shareholders. Profits and balance sheets are the first priorities; the worker counts only as a wage statistic. Wherever and whenever this happens we have fallen prey to mammon – that is, to Satan.
Is Communism the Answer?
This is why in our hyper-capitalistic era we urgently need the counter-symbol of a man like Francis of Assisi, who chose voluntary poverty and rejected money. People often react with indignation to those who, like the saint, refuse to touch money out of love and for the sake of freedom. Yet this very reaction shows how necessary such a symbolic step into economic impossibility actually is in order to destroy the illusion of money’s all-dominating power within mammonism.
In the end, both money and the rejection of money are only symbols for the realities that stand behind them. The god mammon is not identical with money or private property (though the Spirit overcomes both), nor will rejecting money or sharing in common ownership necessarily bring people into God’s kingdom of love (though God’s will is for us to do both). Indeed, mammon is in communism as well as in capitalism. For old-school Marxists, the economic need of the dispossessed – their bread-and-butter requirements for food, clothing, and housing – is the only driving force in human history and society. Accordingly, they believe that in the struggle for existence, the war of the have-nots against the haves must be waged to the end. In this view, our whole life is a material one and arises automatically out of the instincts of self-preservation and reproduction.
This way of thinking is still mammonism. For if we build our mutual relationships only on the requirements of food, clothing, shelter, and sex, then we are basing our lives on a reification of the spirit no less than in capitalism.
All the same, there is a great and deep truth in the protest that arises from Marxism. What motivates this movement for social justice is not primarily dialectic materialism, or the economic interpretation of history, or the theory of surplus value, or the transition from capitalism to a socialist state enterprise via trusts. It is not even the goal of collective ownership. No, the driving force of this movement is faith in the ultimate future of justice, in the victory of a fellowship that will extend to material things, embracing everything. The hidden force behind Marxist materialism is a revolt of the spirit in the name of matter; it is a mass attack on the mammonism of those “spiritual” people who have the spirit on their lips but materialism in their desires.
Conversely, even among wealthy people the reifying of relationships through money can be overcome – often in a patriarchal way, but sometimes in a fraternal one – through the just administration of goods for the benefit of all. Faith in an ultimate future of justice can be alive among capitalists; it can be alive in materialists and socialists; for it can live in the heart that seeks love and believes in a just future. If we feel this, then we can be convinced – like Zoroaster – that there is a power of good, which is stronger, at all times and in all places, than the force of mammonism.
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.
2 Corinthians 4:3–5
This World, This Life
We must get rid of the idea that the kingdom Jesus proclaimed is purely otherworldly, that his intention was to make good someday in heaven all that is bad on earth. If that were so, we would have to become otherworldly people who long above all for the hour of death – people like those monks who lie in their coffins every day to prepare for dying. Death would then be the liberator, giving us the final kiss to freedom from the shackles of this shameful existence and lifting us out of bodily life into a paradise of pure, ethereal joys.
We must reject any such notion energetically. The great division between God and the devil is not the division between life here and life beyond, between matter and spirit, between corporeality and incorporeality – no, it runs right through all spirits and all bodies, through all eternities and all times. In every body, every human being, both powers are at work. Both operate in every age and moment of history, including this one now.
The decisive question is: how will the spirit of life come to rule in each person, in each moment, in each body, and throughout the whole planet Earth? And how will mammon, the demon of covetousness and injustice, be conquered and eliminated?
Brothers and sisters, love the earth. Brothers and sisters, be true to the earth, and do not believe those seducers who look longingly to the world beyond, casting suspicion on this world. Jesus is the greatest friend of the earth – Jesus who again and again, in the original spirit of Judaism, proclaimed love for this earth, love for the soil, love for the land. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall possess the earth.
In Zoroaster’s writing we find the combination of truth, purity, and work on the land as the basic promise for divine life. Jesus, like the Jewish prophets, proclaims that God’s creative rulership will burst in upon this earth, inaugurating a new era. This earth shall become a garden of justice, truth, and purity of mutual relationships. Then the joy of life that God intends will begin on this planet.
Jesus says simply: What you want people to do for you, do for them (Matt. 7:12). Make sure that all others have what you think you need yourself. The distribution of land, work, and goods should be in harmony with the justice of God, who lets the sun shine and the rain fall on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45).
This is not a matter of a future utopia in some far-off place. On the contrary, the certainty of this future is a present power. God is alive today, and his spirit will one day unite all people. The same divine spark lives in every human being. The poet Schiller describes it in his “Ode to Joy” as the brotherly love that embraces all the world’s millions.
However sharp their differences, this is the one thing that should unite all political factions, Christians and non-Christians: the inner certainty that everything must be completely different, that what destroys solidarity and shatters trust will in the end be overcome by joy in life and fellowship in justice. For the faith we hold is in a living God.
Adapted from Salt and Light (Walden, NY: Plough, 2014).
Article edited for length and clarity.