We Must Oppose Any Injustices Promoted By Capitalism

The Worship of MammonWould that gold – the cursed craving of which the Poet spoke – could be removed completely from human life, for all decent people have reviled it, as taught by the example of Crates the Theban. According to St. Jerome Against Jovinian (though Laertius gives a different version), Crates threw a great weight of gold into the sea and said: Sink, evil desires; I will drown you and not be drowned by you. What he did was right, surely, for gold usually leads even good people astray, let alone the wicked. How much happier human life would be, then, if it was goods that were exchanged, as Homer says they used to be in the days of Troy — Polydore Vergil [1]

The ancients understood that the economic system of the world was not always the same as it had become. Once, goods and services were traded without need for money or wealth; people were able to live and thrive cooperating and working with each other. True, there was no utopia on earth, but the desire to take great advantage over each other developed later. They believed that the natural state of humanity, the ideal state before a decline in civilization, had no need for money or the like.[2]  Coinage was invented as a tool to help keep goods and services equitable, but soon it became something more, something valued in its own right, collected and hoarded, keeping the goods and services associated with such wealth locked up as well. What Homer indicated, Christians believe Scripture proposed as well:

You men squirrel away gold and silver and quantities of soft and superfluous clothes and glittering jewels and similar items that bear the stamp of war and dissension and the first acts of rebellion, and then in their folly arch their brows and refuse to show compassion towards the unfortunate among their kinsmen. They are neither willing to help them with basic necessities out of their superfluity – what perversity! what stupidity!  — nor do they reflect, if on nothing else, at least on the fact that poverty, wealth, what we call freedom, slavery, and such kinds of terms were introduced into human history at a later stage and stormed upon the scene like many epidemics, a the companions of evil, whose brainchildren they in fact are. But, as Scripture says, from the beginning it was not so. [3]

The capitalistic world, with no spiritual goals, no higher virtues in mind, has set up the material acquisition of wealth as the highest good. Those who are wealthy prove their worth, while those who are not are seen to be somehow inferior, not worthy of human dignity. The system in place is based upon the love of money (and what money can gain); the ethics of the modern world is the ethics of money. Its acquisition is good, and justice is seen as the promotion of and defense of those who already have money. This is why the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, the outcast, and all who stand with them, are seen as criminals whose rights are being constantly undermined by capitalistic societies. Those who have the wealth make the rules, and justify the rules by their profits: profit is the goal of life, and all business, all activity should be focused on profit, not on the common good. Justice has become warped as the private good of the wealthy is seen to override the common good, and this is said to be natural; in the end, many say that we all should seek after our own personal, individual advantage over everyone else, because this is how it always has been and as it always should be.

Justice has been undermined. The structures of evil have long had a place in society, it is true; but those who fight for justice seek not their permanence but their removal, while those who benefit from them argue for their permeance.  Evil is not justified because everyone does it; rather, if everyone does it, this proves how far we are from true justice and how much more we need to work against the grain and fight for what is good. When the love of money serves as the foundation for society, then injustice prevails, and what St. Augustine said about such a state of being is true:

In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized brigandage? For, what are bands of brigands but petty kingdoms? They are also groups of men, under rule of a leader bound together by a common agreement, dividing their booty according to a settled principle. If this band of criminals, by recruiting more criminals, acquires enough power to occupy regions, to capture cities, and to subdue whole populations, then it can with fuller right assume the title of kingdom, which in the public estimation is conferred upon it, not by the renunciation of greed, but by the increase of impunity.[4]

Neither mere power, either from the force of arms or from money, makes for justice. Those who rule by them, justifying their rejection of the common good, are justly called brigands, worthy of condemnation. Unjust laws they put in place to solidify their power are to be overturned and ignored until that happens.  What they promote is not natural; it is not good. It is greed, and like all sins, corrupts the nature of those who embrace it.  Nature, as St. Ambrose indicated, promotes the common good, with a bounty for all:

Next they considered it consonant with justice that one should treat common, that is, public property as public, and private as private. But this is not even in accord with nature, for nature has poured forth all things for all men for common use. God has ordered all things to be produced, so that there should be food in common to all, and that the earth should be a common possession for all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for a few.[5]

Wealth, in our capitalistic system, is used to give those who possess it strength and power over those who do not; those who have it, therefore, have been using it to keep a hold of what they have gained and keep those who do not have it away from it through the imposition of unjust laws. Government, which is meant to be used for the common good, has become subverted when their way of life rules. Throughout history this has been the case, so that St. Gregory the Theologian could lament how it has been reinforced in the legal system of his day and age, which was mild in comparison to the corruption before us today:

But ever since then, there have been jealousies and dissension and the deceitful tyranny of the serpent, which constantly seduces us with lewd pleasures and incites the more audacious against the weaker; and our human family has been so fragmented that we are now alienated from one another with a variety of labels, and greed has hacked away at the nobility of our nature to the point of arrogating even the legal process, the right arm of the power of government. [6]

While greed has long infected humanity, capitalism has raised it as the greatest good. Many of the evils of the modern world come from the exploitation justified by greed. While we have seen the power of wealth influence governments before, capitalism as a system centers itself and government on such greed.  We need to look to the modern world, the exploitation going on before us by those who live in luxury, to see the proof of St. Paul’s words when he said:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs (1Tim. 6:9-10 RSV).

Greed has people collect the wealth and hoard it up, preventing its free distribution to those in need. When they come in possession of it, they find their every desire can be fulfilled by its use. Wealth is used to justify evil, and indeed, capitalistic societies encourage such use of money as consumers. The more someone has, the more temptations they have, and the more likely they will find themselves excusing their actions because they believe whatever they can do with their wealth is justified. They become addicted to the pleasures which they pursue, requiring them to acquire more wealth to satisfy their addictions. However, instead of doing so justly, because of how difficult it is, they use what resources they have to make the wealth off of others so that they have more time and energy to enjoy the illicit fruit of their wealth. Wealth becomes, as it were, the god which they worship; they are willing to sacrifice others for the sake of wealth, and in the end, when they do so they receive the benefit of their god, the pleasure which they seek. Greed, therefore, becomes idolatry, as mammon is followed and the true God denied. Referencing Colossians 3:5, St Peter Damian indicated that what was done by those who were greedy amounted to the worship of demons:

Therefore, after simply enumerating all these crimes, but calling only greed the service of idols, he clearly stated that the avaricious man is not a worshiper of God but of money, and by that token is practicing the cult of demons.[7]

St. Isidore of Seville, following this line, said the rich became possessed by their greed:

Someone who either uses his own property improperly, or takes the property of another, possesses wrongly. He possesses lawfully who is not ensnared by greed. But who ever is held by greed is the possessed, not the possessor.[8]

How are great fortunes accumulated? Through just gain? Not so, according to the Fathers; either one inherited an unjustly gained wealth, or one deviously found a way to accumulate wealth at the expense of others:

Tell me, then, whence are you rich? From whom did you receive it, and from whom he who transmitted it to you? From his father and his grandfather. But can you, ascending through many generations, show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice. Why? Because God in the beginning made not one man rich, and another poor. Nor did He afterwards take and show to one treasures of gold, and deny to the other the right of searching for it: but He left the earth free to all alike. Why then, if it is common, have you so many acres of land, while your neighbor has not a portion of it?[9]

Thus, there are those who have a lot of money, have gained it directly or indirectly through some sort of injustice; but as long as they hold on to it, diverting it away from the common good, the injustice remains theirs. The more wealth is segregated from the public, the more the public at large will suffer with the loss of their dignity. As the capitalistic system remains justified, the more injustice will grow, leading to greater and greater pain and suffering for the poor and destitute. Instead of gaining sympathy, those who lack will become seen as worthy of condemnation; they will be seen as dirty unhealthy, less than human. They will be, as St. Gregory the Theologian indicated, hated for their misfortune, which will then justify any mistreatment they suffer:

The pitiful plight of other people is due to one thing alone, a lack of material resources, a condition that might perhaps be corrected by time, or hard work, or a friend, or a relative, or a change in circumstances. But for these people, what is no less pitiful, indeed, even more so, is that in addition, they are deprived of the opportunity to work and help themselves acquire the necessities of life; and the fear of their illness ever outweighs any hope in their mind for well-being. As a result, hope, the only antidote for victims of misfortune, can be of little help to them. Besides poverty, they are afflicted with a second evil, disease, indeed, the most abhorrent and oppressive evil of all and the one that the majority of the people are especially ready to label a curse. And third, there is the fact that most people cannot stand to be near them, or even look at them, but avoid them, are nauseated by them, and regard them as abominations, so to speak. It is this that preys on them even more than their ailment: they sense that they are actually hated for their misfortune. [10]

Proper justice is seen in providence, where God provides the goods of the earth for all. We are expected to share them in common, use them in common, and make sure all within our community is shown dignity and respect. We must stop disputing over “mine” against “thine” when dealing with the necessities of life. We must look to the good of humanity as a whole and realize we suffer when one of us suffers unjustly. As technology increases, the goods it produces should be used for all, not to a select few. This is especially necessary as technology makes sure less workers are needed; as jobs are reduced, the gain from the technology will be given to fewer and fewer people unless there is a just distribution of the wealth which is creates. Our society should be ashamed when it seeks to give material benefit to a few at the expense of the majority; Christians, likewise, should feel the shame more due to their beliefs in the universal benevolence of God:

Mark the wise dispensation of God. That He might put mankind to shame, He has made certain things common, as the sun, air, earth, and water, the heaven, the sea, the light, the stars; whose benefits are dispensed equally to all as brethren. We are all formed with the same eyes, the same body, the same soul, the same structure in all respects, all things from the earth, all men from one man, and all in the same habitation. But these are not enough to shame us. Other things then (as we have said) He has made common, as baths, cities, market-places, walks. And observe, that concerning things that are common there is no contention, but all is peaceable. But when one attempts to possess himself of anything, to make it his own, then contention is introduced, as if nature herself were indignant, that when God brings us together in every way, we are eager to divide and separate ourselves by appropriating things, and by using those cold words “mine and yours.” Then there is contention and uneasiness. But where this is not, no strife or contention is bred. This state therefore is rather our inheritance, and more agreeable to nature. Why is it, that there is never a dispute about a market-place? Is it not because it is common to all? But about a house, and about property, men are always disputing. Things necessary are set before us in common; but even in the least things we do not observe a community. Yet those greater things He has opened freely to all, that we might thence be instructed to have these inferior things in common. Yet for all this, we are not instructed.[11]

We need to return to living out and seeking justice. We need to keep our mind in place so that the common good is enforced. Capitalism, when it places justice only on the plane of the private good, lifting it up above the common good, must be seen as a demonic economic system. It is not natural. It is unnatural concupiscence which promotes such injustice; we must not confuse the structure of sin placed over society as nature, but rather, we must see it for the unnatural perversion of the good it is and dismantle it.  What we define as wealth, itself, is unnatural and part of the co-opting of the natural good. The true Christian, indeed, the true human response to it all is found in the words of St. Maximus of Turin:

Let avarice cease and your gold be earth; let your overweening desire be removed and your solidi will be filth. For your gold and silver are vile and worthless stuff. But where human concupiscence has grown, there ambition has also joined up with these objects. For nature did not cause gold and silver to be precious, but human willing made it so.[12]

Christians who do need heed this have been warned by Jesus that they might find their spiritual life strangled, their salvation in jeopardy: “And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful”  (Mark 4:18- 19 RSV). Christians who seek riches of the world for their own gain have gained their reward; when it is left behind, what else will they have? Even when they justify themselves by saying they need to set things aside for possible tragedy in the future, St. Basil warned them, that need is not certain, but what is to come from their evil is: “Yet, while it is uncertain whether you will have need of this buried gold, the losses you incur from your inhuman behavior are not at all uncertain.” [13]

Let us take heed before it is too late.


[Image=The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] Polydore Vergil, On Discovery. Trans. Brian P. Copenhaver (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 319.

[2] See Martin Hengel, Property and Riches in the Early Church. Trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 4.

[3] St. Gregory Nazianzus, Select Orations. Trans. Martha Vinson (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2003), 58.

[4] St. Augustine, City of God. Trans. Demetrius B. Zema, SJ and Gerald G. Walsh, SJ (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1950), 195 [IV-4].

[5] St. Ambrose, On the Duties of Clergy in NPNF2(10): 23.

[6] St. Gregory Nazianzus, Select Orations, 58-9.

[7] St. Peter Damian, Letter 165 in The Letters of Peter Damian 151-180. Trans. Owen J. Blum, OFM and Irven M. Resnick (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2005), 177.

[8] St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologies. Trans. Stephen A. Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 121.

[9] St. John Chrysostom, Homily XII on First Timothy in NPNF1(13): 447.

[10] St. Gregory Nazianzus, Select Orations, 44-5.

[11] St. John Chrysostom, Homily XII on First Timothy,  444,

[12] St, Maximus of Turin, The Sermons of St. Maximus of Turin. Trans. Boniface Ramsey, OP (New York: Newman Press, 1989), 175.

[13] St. Basil the Great, “To the Rich” in On Social Justice. Trans. C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press,2009), 45.

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