On abandoning money or giving it with your whole living - a meditation on the British MPs expenses debacle

This week money and, particularly, its role in public life has been much to the fore and for reasons too obvious to rehearse here. (For non-UK readers please click on this link). There is much one might say on this matter and, for the most part, many of things sounded to me either hopelessly moralistic or simply tautologous. But not all. One thing that does need to be said is that we are all part of the culture which has allowed such a situation to develop and so, today, rather than point and rail against individuals, it seems more fruitful to consider something that might have practical personal use for those of us gathered here today so we can, ourselves, contribute to a real and sustained process of reform.

It is about setting an example (a model) before ourselves believing that in the long run, by adopting and living it, we may help to share this example with others. The normative model of the religious tradition to which I belong is, of course, Jesus.

Musing upon this matter during the week a pertinent phrase of Henry David Thoreau's came back to me. In the opening chapter of "Walden" (p. 119), as he reflects on giving money to the poor, he notes "If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them."

With the obvious exception of the good sense one shows in abandoning our money to a violent mugger if it can help us get away - this seems to be capable of extension to all other normal, non-coercive, financial exchanges.

We must remember as we consider this that money and its exchange is always a highly contextual and relational activity and that the exchange itself (regardless of any obvious monetary value involved) will, depending on a variety of factors, always have a certain kind of *intrinsic* positive or negative value. However, because the language of value in our popular culture has become so tied to coin we can sometimes find it quite hard to tease out the difference between monetary value (the cash-value of X) on the one hand and the value that is expressed in the relations of exchange on the other.

It is this latter value - the value of the relations involved in exchange - that I wish to concentrate upon today.

In Cambridge the most recent example of the value of relations in exchange and its devaluation that I have seen is found in the town-centre Sainsbury's store. They used to have a 'baskets-only' set of tills, about six of them, at which the queues move a little quicker than those at the normal tills. Never buying huge amounts at one time Susanna and I generally used these baskets-only tills. A couple of months ago - during the Easter vac when the students were away and the store was less busy than during term time - they put in six automated tills. The argument being that they would be more efficient at peak times (whatever that word means in their minds). But one of the things I value about any kind of shopping is the human encounter involved. I'm not pretending that through this encounter I get to know the check-out staff as friends but our acknowledgements of each other have become deeper and more meaningful over the years. A real human connection is made and, as when see each other about town we acknowledge each as individual, valued people. That is how societies form, develop and deepen – we are creating and sustaining society. In that personal encounter shopping I feel I am not merely abandoning money to Sainsbury's and, in return, they are not merely abandoning goods to me. Those wretched tills feel to me like symbols of abandonment - I just abandon my money to this noisy flashing box and this noisy flashing box abandons goods to me. Sod that - I now queue for silly amounts of time because I insist on spending myself in some way as I part with my money and I insist on a reciprocal spending from Sainsburys in the form of an engagement with one of their representatives - namely the check-out staff.

Now it seems to me that this thought relates to the recent expense scandal in at least two ways. Firstly, a system had been allowed to develop which allowed public money essentially to be abandoned to MPs. Secondly, some MPs who have been caught taking inappropriate advantage of this laissez faire machinery are being allowed to abandon the same money back to this system. In many cases there seems to be no real deep apology or regret shown in the exchange – it is simply abandoning ill-gotten money back to the system in the hope that this meaningless act will be sufficient penance to ‘balance the books.’

In a way the system of expenses resembles the noisy flashing boxes in Sainsbury's - because there is no obvious human engagement in the process of exchange. Whenever you can persuade yourself that nothing of moral human value is at risk, i.e. there is just indifferent abandonment going on, then it is quite disturbing to discover what many human beings will allow themselves to do.

But the possibility for these kinds of impersonal and indifferent exchanges are disturbingly common in our culture and so it should come as little or no surprise to us that it has effected those in Parliament. As a way of exploring what we might do about this, in a moment, I'm going to cite a story about Jesus but, as I wrote this, I realise that such a move can, itself, sometimes be an example of abandonment. I have noticed that in many Christian contexts - liberal and conservative - citing Jesus and the demands Christian religion (as understood by that church) can really be an excuse not to do anything about the situation oneself – the preacher simply abandons the story to his or her hearers in the hope that that is sufficient! Soren Kierkegaard, that fierce and often admirable Christian philosopher (though, overall, I have to say that I think Kierkegaard’s huge either/or moments are false dichotomies. Anyway . . .) once uncomfortably reminded his hearers:

"When Christianity came into the world, it did not need to call attention (even though it did so) to the fact that it was contrary to human nature and human understanding, for the world discovered that easily enough. But now that we are on intimate terms with Christianity, we must awaken the collision. The possibility of offence must again be preached to life. Only the possibility of offence (the antidote to the apologists’ sleeping potion) is able to waken those who have fallen asleep, is able to break the spell so that Christianity is itself again.
Woe to him, therefore, who preaches Christianity without the possibility of offence. Woe to the person who smoothly, flirtatiously, commendingly, convincingly preaches some soft, sweet something which is supposed to be Christianity!" (Works of Love: Some Christian Reflections in the Form of Discourses, trans. Howard and Edna Hong, preface R. Gregor Smith. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library. New York: Harper & Row, 1962, pp. 199–200).

No, in the example we are about to hear there is no abandonment and it is not at all a mere ‘soft, sweet something.’ In the Gospel according to Mark is found the brief but powerful story of the widows mite (Mark 12:41-44 NRSV):

"And [Jesus] he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, "Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living."

Her whole way of being in the world– her whole living – should, indeed, offend our easy, self-satisfied expense driven culture. This is a tough story to contemplate even when this "whole living" is simply understood (it’s usual interpretation) to be equivalent to "all her money" - i.e. not just a small percentage of her savings like the rich. However, taken in the context of the whole Gospel, it really seems that Jesus is alerting us to how this woman really is engaged in giving her whole life in this act and that, therefore, it is not really a matter of percentage of wealth given in this (or any other) exchange that counts but instead something to do with the particular attitude held in the giving; this is the gift which Jesus accepts. The widow was, to use Thoreau's phrase, truly "spending herself" with the money she gave; in no sense was she abandoning anything - her money or herself.
The challenge we have in this modern society is how we (you and me) might reconnect our moral and ethical selves with our money see anew that our money's value is always tied up in how it is used. If we continue to separate our moral and ethical selves from money it is inevitable something like the present scandal will occur again and again. Money, on its own (though there is, of course, no such thing for money only makes sense in a society), has never been the problem even though it has been cited as the root of all evil. But remember what was actually said by St Paul:

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains" (I Timothy 6:10).

St Paul goes on to call upon people to "shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness." Money can be an agent for this kind of life but only when it is not abandoned – i.e. when it forms part of the positive relation building enterprise we seek to participate in as members of a church such as this.

So, as we try our best to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness at all times, right now, this is particularly worth practising whenever we open our purses, cheque-books or use our credit/debit cards, and especially at the end of each month when we have to file our own expenses claims.


Yewtree said…
I have always thought that the exchange of money for goods is a way of saying that the relationship of mutual obligation is at an end.

For instance, if I do a small service for a friend, that friend is socially obliged at some point in the future to return it, or pass it on to someone else (as in "what goes around comes around"). If someone pays me for the service, then the obligation is discharged. I guess in Christian thinking, one should not expect a favour to be returned, but I think that misses the fact that people don't exactly count the cost, but do notice if there is an imbalance.

I have written a bit about the ethics of charging (for training, rituals and the like - generally regarded as unacceptable by Pagans) and the implications for community.

I also prefer interaction with a real human being - partly because I chat to them but also because they're much more intelligent than the machine.

This whole discussion also reminds me of a joke. An old monk and a young monk are walking down the road, and pass a beggar. The old monk gives the beggar 50p.
  "What did you do that for?" asks the young monk, "He'll only spend it on drink!"
  "Well that's what I was going to spend it on," replies the older one.

It also reminds me of the stanzas by John Keats about the effect of buying non-fair-trade goods:

With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt,
Enriched from ancestral merchandize,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quiver'd loins did melt
In blood from stinging whip;--with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.

For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush'd blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half-ignorant, they turn'd an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.

Why were they proud? Because their marble founts
Gush'd with more pride than do a wretch's tears?--
Why were they proud? Because fair orange-mounts
Were of more soft ascent than lazar stairs?--
Why were they proud? Because red-lin'd accounts
Were richer than the songs of Grecian years?--
Why were they proud? again we ask aloud,
Why in the name of Glory were they proud?

(from Isabella and the Pot of Basil)