One of the most central things ever said by Christ — and arguably the most ignored — was: “No servant can serve two masters. For either he will hate the first and love the second, or he will be devoted to the first and despise the second. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” These words are from the Sermon on the Mount [Mathew, 6, 4]. They seem especially relevant at this moment when the financial structure, and the banking system locked into it, have come to collapse. A mildly right of centre politician in England once spoke of “the unacceptable face of capitalism.” The economic collapse that is now affecting the entire world, and threatening the ‘real economy’ not just the abstract phantasy realm of speculative money, is the unacceptable face of capitalism with a vengeance!
With a few honourable exceptions, most comment about the current ‘melt down’ and ‘credit crunch’, as it is styled here, keeps to technical lingo, in order to avoid having to face the obvious truth that capitalism, particularly in its neo-conservative [Reagonite and Thatcherite], or so-called ‘neo-liberal’, form, does not work, and cannot ever be allowed again to just let rip. The problem with capitalism, especially unregulated capitalism, is not technical, a question of fixing a flaw in the structure. Rather, it is a moral problem. It is a moral failure on the part of ‘money people’ that has brought everyone to this current perilous state.
So, let’s stop dissembling about this, and call a spade a spade. We need to use words that name what happened, who is responsible, and what it means. Deeds that long ago lost any moral compass, becoming amoral at best and immoral at worst, have brought us to this calamity. If only those whose moral failure engineered the current crisis would pay for it, things would not be so bad. But those most responsible will get off lightly, while those who did nothing but go through the hard grind of working 9 to 5 will bear the brunt. Already thousands of ordinary people, middle class and working class, are cast out of their jobs, thanks to a few greed crazed ‘big money’ people. Sure, you can rationalize this by talking of it purely technically: there was ‘too much liquidity’ in the system, and this encouraged get richer even quicker in the already rich… Fine, but this is really about greed, and all that such greed really implies: a radical selfishness, a willingness to seize one’s own happiness at the cost of the misery of others.
Capitalism corrupts the human beings who think they profit from it. The more they profit from it, the more corrupted by it they are. In fact ‘greed’ is not strong enough a term for what is spawned in people, particularly those at the top of the pile, in capitalism. The word we need is the old English ‘avarice.’ Capitalism spawns avarice as a kind of sickness of devouring, a vampire-like frenzy of blood sucking, in all those it infects.
Avarice is much more than simple greed. This is because avarice is a ‘worship’ of money, and its power, that makes money the ruling ‘god’ of this world. Mammon does not refer simply to a mistake, an error, a lapse, but rather to an entire system of values and living rooted in a false religion. Capitalism, as Mammon, is spiritually deceptive and destructive of all the humans it gobbles up. Those advantaged by it [the few] are emptied of their humanity, whilst those disadvantaged by it [the many] are harmed in their very human condition. But everyone touched by this contagion is adversely affected. In the West, Capitalism has destroyed community, and ravaged the earth; our prosperity has come at a very high price. In the end, neither human beings nor the planet will be able to afford this price.
We need some very old fashioned straight talking. Some home truths need to be faced up to.
Christ did not speak Hebrew, but a local vernacular of ‘Aramaic’; this dialect was a member of a family of ancient Middle Eastern Semitic languages stretching from Mesopotamia to the Eastern Mediterranean. Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Person Empire that overthrew Babylon in 500 BC. It is still spoken by Eastern [Syrian] Christians living in Iraq. The Aramaic word ‘mamona’ is quite close to the Latin mammon, the Greek mamonas, and the Mishnaic Hebrew mamon. Middle English settled on Mammon — a word that would be instantly recognizable to Arabs, Jews, Greeks, and Latins.
It is the connotations, and nuances, of this word that are so significant.
In Aramaic ‘mamona’ refers literally to ‘riches’, so mammon is about worshipping riches, seeking a lot of money as the chief purpose for being in the world. In the ancient world, mammon in fact signified the evil influence of money, particularly big concentrations of money in stupendous wealth. Monetary wealth has an evil influence because it abandons human values and human concerns, and puts in their place a crass aim of ‘worldly gain.’ It was of this Christ was speaking when he said it would not profit any of us to gain the whole world and lose our soul.
What he termed ‘worldly gain’ is seeming gain, but in actuality, it is human loss. Worldly gain produces despair in those who seek and really pursue it; these are the people who come to the conclusion, after a life devoted to chasing trash that glittered as gold, that existence is ‘full of sound and fury signifying nothing’ [Macbeth], or that ‘everything is vanity’ [Old Testament]. The reward for the worldly gain that sacrifices everything more human, and more humanly good, is the loss of all soul: the loss of all meaning in living, and the loss of all warm connection to anybody or anything outside you. You gain the world, but as a human being you are entirely defunct.
The Jews were not ‘other worldly.’ The Jewish religion is the least other worldly religion in the history of the world [though Shamanism runs it a close second in some respects]. The Jews believed in justice, honesty, truth, governing all the dealings of the world, including business dealings. In the ultimate, they awaited the Messiah who would redeem ‘this world’ of time, space, and matter, not remove humans to a different, better, and inherently dematerialized higher world. Yet the Bible also castigates ‘worldliness.’ What is the difference between redeeming the world process and becoming worldly? The difference is heaven come to earth vs. allowing the earth increasingly to become a kind of hell.
Worldliness is what happens to time, space, and matter when not redeemed; or to put it another way, worldliness is using this world for false purposes that harm its potential to be made sacred, and even to be divinized. Worldliness is making the world the worst it can be, as distinct from the best it might become, if its possibility were worked with, and sacrificed for. The Bible makes a similar distinction between ‘flesh’ versus ‘body’; the body houses the spirit, but the flesh eliminates the spirit.
There is a spark in everything, and if you learn how to live you ignite it; this spark’s ignition makes all the difference, not just to the deep and serious things, but equally to the everyday and ordinary things. When the spark goes out, what your soul yearns for and your heart seeks is lost; you go out as a living flame when the spark in things dies.
Worldliness is therefore deadness and hollowness, but covered over by glamour and status. For the worldly, death is going to be a mere formality; they died in their humanity long ago. To stay truly alive in this world is therefore a challenge, and by no means straightforward. The zombies and vampires predominate… A person truly alive needs a touch of ‘gentle as doves’ and a big dollop of ‘cunning as serpents’ to keep their flame going, and to become a liberator of the spark in all things.
Worldly gain — gaining the world in its worldliness, but caring nothing for redeeming the world nor growing in genuinely human qualities — is not only about acquiring ‘riches beyond the dreams of avarice.’ It is also about ambition, and power. It is a whole ‘complex’ of attitudes and motives and skills. This complex has governed human beings in the West increasingly since the Renaissance and through the Reformation, but obtained its biggest boost during the period of the European Enlightenment, from the 1700s until today.
Seeking worldly gain as the only reason for being in the world, and the only thing to do with one’s life, has gone into and totally marked the Western personality over the past 500 years; speaking psycho-dynamically, we can call it the modern Western ‘ego complex.’ Our entire sense of identity, of competence and success, is educated for and geared to worldly gain. Soul and heart disappear, and the ego allies with mind and will. We are highly organized and controlled, but for what? We are monomaniacally pointed in one direction and keep to it, but for what? We are organized to be able to get ahead; we are goal obsessed to be able to get ahead. We think in abstract and cold concepts, the better to ‘calculate’ and ‘figure out’ the best way to harden ourselves for the demands of getting on in the world and gaining the world’s prize.
Jung rightly saw the soul as lost to the ego complex by which modern people are taught, even forced, to live. Existentialism sees the heart as obscured by this same ego complex. Here is the modern personality: uni-dimensional, semi alive only above the neck, coldly ambitious, disconnected from all contact but rationalizing this as being independent, shallow but rationalizing this as mastery over the world. Craziness and criminality keep escalating, and we are unaware one of the major causes is the dehumanized world we are creating in the West. I hear commentators, and politicians, rhetorically and bombastically going on about our ‘values.’ I think, what values? What are the real values of the West nowadays? Freedom? Tolerance? The only freedom we tolerate is that needed for worldly gain, which means making money, exercising the ambition which is worldly, and acquiring power.
Worldly gain needs ambition, and wants power.