Eberhard Arnold, Plough’s founding editor, wrote the following essay in 1923 in the wake of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. It has been abridged and edited for clarity.
Many people assume that every form of religiosity belongs together in the same category: religion, which stands in contrast to everything nonreligious and secular. This way of dividing up social and personal life is misleading. To be sure, there is a dividing line to be drawn, but it cuts right across the categories of religious and secular. It is the line Jesus drew when he declared: “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matt. 6:24).
Early Christianity keenly recognized that the religiosity of the present world epoch is hostile to God. The new faith’s first witnesses brought the message of God’s “totally other” kingdom (to use Karl Barth’s phrase), of what Nietzsche called the “transvaluation of all values.” The Christians bore witness to this message of the totally different order to come, calling it the message wrapped in mystery, concealed from those who are lost, whose thoughts have been blinded by the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4).
Opposed to the God whose arrival is imminent – the God who will establish the kingdom of Jesus Christ with its justice, unity, and love, the God of the beginning and the end – stands an interim god, the god of this world epoch. This god is the spirit of this world, the “earth spirit” familiar to us from modern literature.1 This god of greed, of murderous possessiveness, of grasping and holding, is the spirit of this world. The first witnesses testified that we have not received the spirit of this world, but the Spirit that searches the depths of God, the Spirit that nobody can know without being known by him (1 Cor. 2:10–12).
No one can serve two masters; you cannot serve God and Mammon. Jesus defined with utmost sharpness the nature of Mammon as a spirit, unmasking the true nature of the religiosity of the propertied classes. He showed how this religiosity worships a spirit of death.
Jesus taught that Satan, the leader of unclean spirits, is also “the murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Mammon kills; its very nature is murder. It is through the spirit of Mammon that wars have broken out and impurity has become an object of commerce. Nor does it only kill through war. Every day that drives hungry children and the unemployed into villages seeking food, only to be chased out again by farmers with their dogs, shows us Mammon’s murderous nature. We have become used to the reality that numberless people are being crushed to death through our affluence, just as one might grab a bug and squash it; we have ceased to give a thought to those who are destroyed because of us. Today even the blindest must see how Mammon’s development means the incessant murder of hundreds and thousands.
Why do these facts remain hidden from us? It is because we ourselves are also under the dominion of the god Mammon, and so lack the strength to rebel against it.
But we are a long way from revolting against this lie. Rich and poor must be – this is the common thinking in pious circles, and even among the working classes. People say things like: “When a man who manages thousands of millions of gold marks is able to give work and a livelihood to a large number of people, we have to accept the situation and be glad that such an energetic personality exists.” But this view completely ignores the fact that it is impossible to amass such a degree of wealth – which at the same time means power – without cheating, depriving, hurting, and even killing one’s fellow human beings along the way. It fails to see that since capital is concentrated in so few hands, the decision of one man can steer hundreds of thousands to ruin through unemployment, as is happening today.
Why do these facts remain hidden from us? How is it possible that our fellow human beings are incessantly cheated of justice and yet we remain blind to this? It is because we ourselves are also under the dominion of the god Mammon, and so lack the strength to rebel against it.
Mammon is money ruling over people, over human life itself, which is made dependent on monetary income and financial circumstances. So long as we rely on money for our own existence and security, we will not be in a position to pull the lever that lifts Mammon’s enslaving rule off its hinges. Even so, we can at least recognize the enmity that exists between money and God.
God or Mammon; spirit or money. Spirit is the deep relationship between living things, the innermost connection between them. Human beings are in constant relationship with one another; no one leads an utterly isolated life. People are interrelated in groups, families, classes, and professions; in nations, states, churches, and all kinds of associations. Above and beyond these connections, they are interrelated in a much deeper way simply through being human, as members of the great, growing fellowship of humankind.
Money objectifies these relationships, changing them from spiritual to material, until it becomes the only value left. Instead of remaining merely a means of exchange, money becomes a commodity in itself. What we have then is money in its essence, money as power.
That is why money and love are mutually exclusive: money is love’s opposite, just as killing people in war, commercializing the sexual defilement of bodies, or lying to the public are all love’s opposites. And that is why, too, everything concerning Mammon is a question of which religion we put our trust in.
Jesus declared war on the spirit of Mammon. He conquered this spirit of weakness by overwhelming and healing victims of sickness and decay with his power. He lived among us human beings in order to take away death’s power – to destroy death, the devil’s work (1 John 3:8). The spirit of life that proceeds from Christ overcomes, too, the death of the inner life, and brings fellowship among all living things; as he exclaimed, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the prince of this world will be cast out” (John 12:31). The Spirit will convince humanity that this prince is defeated (John 16:7–11).
As soon as we side with Jesus, we must be ready to forswear Mammon, overcome it, and declare war on it. When our inner eye has opened to see his light, our eye will stop responding to Mammon’s will (Matt. 6:22–23). We will no longer be able to amass wealth when our hearts are set on the new future, when we have the hope that God will establish a new kingdom. Then we will strive only for this one thing and will turn our backs on everything else. We will live for the future that is humanity’s freedom, humanity’s unity, and humanity’s peace. Then we will be able to fulfill Jesus’ teaching to “make friends for yourselves through unjust Mammon” (Luke 16:9) by giving Mammon away and gaining love in doing so.
Numerous episodes from Jesus’ life illustrate what living free of Mammon looks like. When a rich, pure-minded young man who was not aware of having done anything wrong came to Jesus, Jesus loved him at first sight and asked him whether he loved God and his neighbor. The young man thought he had done everything he needed to do. “Good,” said Jesus. “If this is really the case, then what you need to do now is to make this love real. Go and sell everything, give it to the poor, and come with me” (Matt. 19:16–21).
The god Jesus met when he entered the temple, the sanctuary of Jewish religion, was not his God, but the god Mammon: cattle and cattle dealers, banks and bankers. Jesus made a whip, not to strike people in the face but to forcibly overturn the tables and show his contempt for money by throwing it on the floor. He testified that this house should belong not to Mammon but to God (Matt. 21:12–13). When a spy came and showed him a piece of money, the coin of the emperor, the head of the state, Jesus answered that we should give to Satan what belongs to Satan: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matt. 22:21).
When someone was needed to manage the disciples’ common purse on the long journey, Judas was asked to be the keeper: Judas, who Jesus knew would become the betrayer (John 12:6). The murderer from the beginning was exposed in the very company of Jesus’ disciples. Judas ended where murder must end. He disclosed the secret that Jesus knew he was the Messiah King of the completely different order. Jesus stood his ground when questioned by the political and religious authorities: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Highest?” He answered, “I am; you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven to establish his kingdom” (Mark 14:61–62). They put him to death on the basis of this revolutionary confession. With Jesus eliminated, the spirit-born community he led was seemingly destroyed. The will of Mammon, the will of death, seemed to have triumphed in the end.
Already now we can live in the power of this future, shaping our lives in the presence of the coming God, in accordance with the future kingdom. The kingdom of love, free of Mammon, is approaching this earth.
Yet through the very execution of the leader of this new order, through the grave itself, life won out. Amazingly, from this downtrodden people, the Jews, young men and women met to wait together for something completely new. They waited for the Spirit. They knew that this spirit of love, order, and freedom was the spirit of God’s kingdom. And the Spirit came upon them, bringing about a church community, a fellowship of work and goods in which everything belonged to everyone and all members were active to the full extent of their varied powers and gifts (Acts 2).
Today there are two different ways that both are pledged to the fight against Mammon. One is the way of socialism and communism. The other way is the new way of communal work and fellowship in things spiritual and material.
This second way involves the voluntary, independent gathering together of people who are free of private property and capital. It is the way of the organic growth of the germ cell, the way of the seed that sprouts in a stony field: Here and there a little leaf tip shows through, and after a few days of sun and rain have passed, you can lie on the ground and see a great field of living shoots. Then a few weeks later, you will see a whole field of flourishing life, where even amid weeds and stones the young crop breaks through; what the individual blade of wheat cannot achieve, the whole field can. Then harvest time is here: “Pray that laborers may be sent out into the harvest” (Matt. 9:37–38).
Here we see a great difference between the second way and the first, that of socialism and communism. Before the harvest, the wheat and the weeds are not to be separated, as Jesus warned in his well-known parable (Matt. 13:24–30). When a violent revolution seizes the servants of Mammon and hangs them from lampposts, aiming to leave alive only those who are communal-minded, it violates the spirit of Jesus. As he might have told the revolutionaries of his own day: You should have waited until harvest time! You have torn out much wheat while still leaving weeds standing.
In a violent revolution, Mammon simply passes from the hands of some to those of others. So when today we hear of fellow Christians being shot by the Bolshevik government for giving witness to the unity of humanity, we take our stand with these brothers and sisters. We have no part in armed revolution. Because it sheds blood, it is on the side of the Father of Lies (John 8:44). Our socialist brothers are deceiving themselves if they think they can overcome Mammon by arming themselves, that is, by relying on the same spirit of the abyss as Mammon itself. Poison cannot be cured with poison. Life can only be born of life, love of love, community of the will to community.
Our way to the goal of community is this second way. We walk the communal way of brotherliness and sisterliness, where small groups of people will meet, ready to be merged in the one goal, to belong to the one future.
Already now we can live in the power of this future, shaping our lives in the presence of the coming God, in accordance with the future kingdom. The victory of the Spirit manifests itself through the church community. The kingdom of love, free of Mammon, is approaching this earth. As the Gospel tells us: The kingdom of God has come very close. Change your thinking radically. Change radically so that you will be ready for the coming order of things.
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure during the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. (James 5:1–7)
The full version of this essay appears in the book Salt and Light: Living the Sermon on the Mount.
- The silent film Erdgeist (“Earth Spirit”) was released in the same year Arnold was writing, based on Frank Wedekind’s play of the same title.