Covetousness, Idolatry, and Neighborly Economics

Covetousness, Idolatry, and Neighborly Economics September 27, 2016

Walter Brueggemann sums up the Bible’s perspective on Money and Possessions in six propositions: Money is a gift from God. Wealth is a reward for obedience. Possessions belong to God and are held in trust. Money can be a source of social injustice. Possessions are to be used and shared in a neighborly way, for the common good and not selfishly. Money can seduce us toward idolatry.

These six are the pillars of what Brueggemann calls “neighborly” economics.

Most of these are, for Christians, obvious, though the last may be controversial. Brueggemann explains that “possessions are not inanimate objects. They are rather forces of desire that evoke lust and ‘love’ in a way that compels devotion and eventually servitude. The Bible asserts that such commodities, notably silver and gold, are not innocent but are in fact addictive and compel loyalty that rivals loyalty to god.”

He supports this by retelling of the early books of the Bible as a long cautionary tale about covetousness. Before Eve ate the fruit, she desired it, and at Sinai the Ten Words culminate in the prohibition of coveting. Brueggemann writes, “The commandment suggests that it is the stuff that the neighbor has (wife, house, anything) that evokes the seductive energy of desire. It requires, moreover, no great imagination to see that our current consumer society is much propelled by such desire that is in part natural but also is in some great part manufactured.”

Coveting doesn’t refer merely to desire, but to action: “it concerns, like the other nine commandments, actual behavior. The prohibition concerns the acquiring of what belongs to another. The combination of wanting (desiring) and seizing (acquiring) produces an acquisitive system of money and possessions that is self-propelled until it becomes an addiction that skews viable social relationships so that no one is safe from predatory eagerness.”

The Tenth is the most neighborly of the commandments, using the word “neighbor” three times, the only times the word is used in the Decalogue. Brueggemann speculates that it is “as though this is the originary statement of a faith perspective that finally concerns the well-being of the neighbor.” The prohibition of covetousness is the foundation of ancient Israelite society, since “acknowledgment of the neighbor, the neighbor’s presence, and the neighbor’s property is indispensable for a viable social order.” The commandment that curbs desire for our neighbor’s things is one of the cornerstones of neighborly economics.

As obvious as they may be to believers, the assumptions Brueggemann articulates are not obvious in our world. Rather, “each of these theses in fact voices a clear contradiction to the conventional wisdom of the ancient world and that in our own time each of them contradicts the uncriticized wisdom of market ideology.”

The notion that money and possessions are gifts “contradicts market ideology in which there are no gifts, no free lunches; there are only payouts for adequate performance and production.” There is an analogy in secular economics to the biblical notion that money is a reward, the notion that the market allocates rewards to productive actors. But Brueggemann argues that this “results in the unproductive (the poor, the old, etc.) being excluded and left behind without merit or voice.” The claim that money is held in trust “contradicts the pretension of market ideology that imagines, not unlike Pharaoh with his Nile, that ‘my money is my own.’”

At other points, Brueggemann’s contrasts don’t work so well. He claims that “To view money and possessions as a source of injustice is to contradict the easy assumption of the market that autonomous wealth is not connected to the community and so is not located in a venue where issues of social justice can even surface.” But surely only the most narrowly ideological capitalists believe that the market is autonomous and that economics can safely ignore the interests of communities. Similarly, he goes too far in saying that the market assumes that “there are no neighbors; there are only rivals, competitors, and threats.”

Brueggemann is able to make such stark contrasts in part because he’s comparing apples and oranges. Brueggemann’s neighborly economy operates at a microeconomic level, where producers and sellers meet customers; he’s not talking about structures and institutions, but about behavior at the ground level. At that level, economics often looks more neighborly than it might in a corporate boardroom or a stock exchange.

That’s not to say Brueggemann’s sketch of an economics of love is pointless. Microeconomic behavior can be distorted by macro theory; or, as Brueggemann emphasizes, idolatry can intrude into the narrowest nooks of our economic life. This is the fundamental difference between biblical and secular economics, and Brueggemann is exactly right to point to the religious overtones of modern economic life: “To view money and possessions as seductions that lead to idolatry contradicts the market view that money and possessions are inert and innocent neutral objects. The thesis might invite us to reconsider the quasireligious passion of a consumer economy that is propelled by insatiable desire, in which we never have enough money or enough of the possessions that money makes possible.” (For historical perspective, see Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Consumerism.) The desires that things awaken may exceed “mere” covetousness and turn into something very close to worship.

Here is another cornerstone of neighborly economics: It is based not only on the prohibition of covetousness, but on the first commandment. It is an economics of “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,” which is an economics of “Thou shalt love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.”

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