Capitalistic Idolatry Vs. Christianity

Capitalistic Idolatry Vs. Christianity March 17, 2011

In capitalistic societies, wealth is deemed as the ultimate good which we should seek to possess. Wealth clearly has been made into an idol, and people are willing to sacrifice many things to attain it (including the livelihood of other people). Is it any surprise, therefore, that Mammon is confused for God? Indeed, many who claim to be Christian, and are Christian through baptism, have turned their back on the true nature of God – a loving God whose heart is with and for the poor—and turned instead to Mammon, saying what they find in Mammon represents God’s true nature.  Since wealth is the ultimate good, if one is to attain God, it follows one will be wealthy. Thus, wealth is seen as a proof of holiness, of one being in God’s good graces.  If you are poor, you have not given yourself over to God enough. Your sins make you poor, and so you deserve all that happens to you.

This notion, of course, clearly contradicts the teachings of the saints. If anything, they think the opposite of this, that those who find themselves impoverished are closer to the heart of God. It is not, of course, that being poor is itself a blessing, but rather those who are poor and impoverished are embraced by God; his heart is for them; he wants us to seek them out, to help them, to raise them up, following his own example where he became a poor man like us to raise us out of the debt of sin.  Riches bring all kinds of trials and temptations to them, making it difficult for those who have them to find salvation. St. Anthony of Padua, a Doctor of the Church, makes this point quite clear:

They have slept their sleep:
and all the men of riches have found nothing in their hands.

[Ps 75.6]

It says ‘men of riches’ rather than ‘riches of men’, because they are slaves to money! When the clouds gather, it is a sign of stormy weather. When worldly glory lifts you up, it is a sign of your damnation! St Augustine says, ‘There is no surer sign of eternal damnation than to have worldly wealth at your beck and call!’ When the clouds roll away it means fair weather, the perfection referred to in the text, If you would be perfect [Mt 19.21].

A cloud looks big. Someone established in worldly glory looks more important than he is, just like a balloon full of wind looks big; but the pin-prick of death will show how insignificant he is. [1]

Those people who claim their riches as proof of their holiness are prideful, demonstrating of course, how far they are from such holiness. Indeed, St Anthony says this is why it is harder for the rich to be saved than for a camel to go through the eye of the needle:

Literally, the ‘needle’s eye’ was a certain gate in Jerusalem. The camel is taught by nature to stoop down when passing through a low place, and to walk on its knees. That is why it has padded knees, so as not to hurt them when it walks on them. It is easier, then, for a camel to pass through, because a camel can lower itself by nature, whereas a rich man can do so only by grace.[2]

Notice: St. Anthony is not saying the rich are going to be damned, that being rich is necessarily evil. He is saying, however, that the association of wealth with greatness creates a haughty nature, the kind which is difficult to overcome. But there is hope. The rich, like all of us, can be saved in and through grace. Many of the rich have been saved and deemed saintly – because of grace. However, cooperation with that grace requires humility, and riches, especially in a society like ours, makes it difficult for people to be humble. If they are attached to wealth, if they think wealth is evidence of their superiority in any way, they have a long way to go; they might even need to give all their wealth away like the rich young man in the Gospels if they want to attain salvation. If they are naturally humble, if they have suffered greatly in life, despite their riches, if they have a heart for the poor and needy, and they live out their lives in service to the poor (instead of being parasites living on the poor), there is hope for them, not only of being saved, but of attaining a holy way of life and becoming a saint.  The Church does not condemn wealth, but its abuse, either in its idolization, or with those who support its unjust distribution, an injustice which ruins the lives of the weak and the poor, causing them to needlessly suffer.

Saint Basil exhorts us to follow a life in holiness; it is found in the acquisition of virtue, not wealth:

In anticipation, therefore, prepare yourself for your own burial. Works of piety are an excellent burial garment. Make your departure dressed in the full regalia of your good deeds; convert your wealth into a truly inseparable adornment; keep everything with you when you go! Be persuaded to this by Christ, the Good Counselor who loves you. He became poor for us so that He might make us rich through His poverty, and ‘gave Himself a ransom for all.’ [3]

We should beautify our soul, and make for it a garment worthy of heaven.  If we have been given wealth, we have been given it to be its steward, to help in the distribution of wealth so that all get what is needed. We convert our wealth by using it for the common good. We must remember, whatever wealth we have been given is not really ours, but God’s. To try to take it and assume absolute authority over it is to claim to be like God. As Christians, let us make sure we are not be seduced by that tree, by that fruit, ever again.

[1] St. Anthony of Padua, Sermons for Sundays and Festivals. Volume II. trans. Paul Spilsbury (Padua: Edizioni Messaggero Padova, 2007), 301.  “The life of the just man is like the morning star in the midst of a cloud, that is, in the midst of worldly vanity. When cloud covers the ground, we fear thieves. When it disperses, the sun shines with renewed brightness. When you touch it, you feel nothing […]

When this cloud disperses, when the empty show of the world is despised, the sun of grace shines most brightly”  ibid., 300. This comes from a discussion of Ecclus 50.1, 6-8, 10-11.

[2] Ibid., 287-8.

[3] St Basil, “To the Rich” in On Social Justice. Trans. C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 57.

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