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    PloughCast 61: A Tale of Camels and Needles

    Money, Part 1

    By Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    May 31, 2023
    • Michael Nacrelli

      I have to question who was helped by this couple becoming welfare dependents in Jerusalem. I'm not so sure that's wise stewardship.

    • Thomas Nabors

      At the end of the podcast, Susannah said, "And there are ways to do Christian community that are less whole hog than the Bruderhof. And I think that we should be thinking about how to do those." I sure hope in the rest of the podcasts on this subject, you will be getting into "how to do those", whatever "those" are. Thank you.

    About This Episode

    Why an issue on money? What is money for? Peter and Susannah discuss.

    They begin with the story of Pinianus and Melania, two married Roman patricians who gave away their enormous fortune in obedience to Christ’s commands. What was the world of the early church that would have made this seem like an appropriate thing to do?

    And what did Saint Augustine say about it? They discuss his complex role in Christianity’s changing attitude to wealth. That attitude evolved to the point that eventually Max Weber could claim that Protestantism had been a major support in the development of capitalism itself.

    How can we understand this teaching about wealth, and what is its relationship to our new status as sons and daughters of the King? They tease these ideas and some of the upcoming pieces and episodes.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief at Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough.

    One night in Rome about AD 404, the fabulously rich twenty-year-old heiress, Melania, and her twenty-four-year-old husband Pinianus both had the same dream. “We saw ourselves, both of us, passing through a very narrow place in a wall,” Melania would later recount. “We were totally discomposed in the narrowness so that all remained was to give up our souls. When we came through that pain with great suffering, we found abundant great relief and ineffable joy. God manifested this to us, comforting our faintness of spirit so that we might be brave concerning the future repose that we would receive after such suffering.”

    Pete, welcome to your own podcast.

    Peter Mommsen: Oh, it’s great to be here and be here with you, Susannah, talking about money, the theme of our new issue of Plough and of our next series of podcasts. And thanks for just reading from Melania, not Melania Trump, but Melania in Rome, at the end of the Roman Empire, that amazing dream she has of passing through this cramped space with great pain and then coming to ineffable joy, which sounds like a good place to land.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We will get back to what that dream led her and her husband to do.

    Peter Mommsen: I do think we need to let our listeners know, so what it led them to do was to give up all their money, their absolutely fabulous wealth, just an immense fortune of a level that the historian Peter Brown says would not be amassed again until the Industrial Revolution. So they had this dream, they gave up all their money and we’re going to talk about them soon. But that leads us into this theme of money and what is money for, right?

    Susannah Black Roberts: That is the question.

    Peter Mommsen: And that is what we want to talk about today, dear listeners.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So we’ve done an issue on money. Pete, why did we do this issue? What were we thinking?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, there’s a bunch of things that have been happening in the last few months and years that we’ve been noticing and to use a bit of shorthand, you could call it the collapse of neoliberalism, the collapse of this consensus that the market is going to be the solution to everything that was pretty dominant both on the left, sort of center left of President Clinton, of Tony Blair and their analogs all around the world. And also on the right, which has typically been identified as the pro business party. You’re seeing this interesting change in a kind of consensus that has been around since at least the 1970s, but of course, more fundamentally, because money is just one of those big issues in human life. Karl Marx calls it the god among commodities. There’s something divine about money and its power over us and it seemed like a really interesting and relevant-to-everyone topic to dive into a bit.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So you mentioned the critique of neoliberalism, the growing sort of critique of neoliberalism or even collapse of neoliberalism. What are we talking about here?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, let me let me borrow from an article that Eric Levitz wrote in New York Magazine just a couple of weeks ago where the headline is “The Biden Administration Just Declared the Death of Neoliberalism.” An advisor to the Biden administration just gave a speech earlier this year in Washington where he announced a new Washington consensus replacing the old Washington consensus, which he sort of identified with neoliberalism without using the word. And he gives the definition of three flawed assumptions in this old neoliberal model. One is that markets always allocate capital productively and efficiently, so trust the markets. Another flawed assumption is that all growth is good growth and the third is that economic integration would make nations more responsible and open and make the global order more peaceful and cooperative. And I guess it’s plain to see looking around the world, the conflict with China, war in the Ukraine, all kinds of conflicts that we don’t talk about as much elsewhere in the world. The global order is not growing more peaceful and cooperative as prosperity increases as was the dream in the nineties.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And you’re seeing this kind of critique or this noticing of a collapsing consensus on both left and right, so the National Conservatism Movement, which has various conferences around the world and other sort of movements on the right, including people like Tucker Carlson and, hypothetically, people like Josh Hawley have called into question things that under the Reaganite vision of the Republican Party would have been totally unthinkable to question. So the idea that free markets actually might not be good for the American national community. The idea that free markets might actually be destructive of the kinds of values that Republicans, otherwise, at least hypothetically, hold in terms of promoting strong families.

    The idea that free markets actually might be a destructive force on society, on individual lives and that people maybe need to be protected from markets rather than markets being set free as this semi-magical force to help raise up people out of poverty, out of oppression, et cetera. And we should say, markets have done some wonderful things in terms of raising the standard of living at least to a certain degree across the world. So we are not denying that. However, there is a kind of generalized sense that the promise of markets and the promise, essentially, of even money and prosperity as the things that will make your life make sense are increasingly maybe even in the face of prosperity and especially prosperity that is not widely spread across society.

    It seems like there have been a lot of promises made having to do with markets and money that we are finding are not being kept.

    Peter Mommsen: So that’s the wider situation and the state of the public discussion that was influencing us when we started to think about money. But of course being Plough, we want to dive a little bit more deeper into what money really is and also what role it plays in our lives personally, not just sort of talk macroeconomic theory or policy, although we’re going to do some of that in upcoming interviews in this series. And there’s two things that crystallized to me why it’s important to talk about this right now. One was the collapse of the cryptocurrency bubble earlier this year. We are now reading about preparations for the trial of Sam Bankman-Fried, formerly head of FTX, the major cryptocurrency exchange.

    And there’s obviously all kinds of things about that story that are specific to crypto. But one part of it that was interesting to me is it highlighted the artificiality of money. That money, although it has a power of life and death in a very real way, especially for poor people, is also something that can just melt down so fast, so dramatically and it could be manipulated so much. And in the case of FTX, while things are going good, can appear to be so well intentioned and so high-minded in FTX’s case because they were identified with effective altruism and with a whole bunch of projects around the world that were supposedly making the world a better place. So that was one story, right?

    Moral: money is artificial. Another story that was occupying us as we put this issue together and as we thought about this series of podcasts was a really troubling survey that the Wall Street Journal and NORC at the University of Chicago did earlier this year actually came out in March and it was marketed as “the American values survey.” And they looked at how Americans, and apologies to non-American listeners, but I imagine that similar is happening elsewhere, over the last twenty five years have changed their core values. They asked a bunch of questions about what things are very important to you and it was very noticeable which things went down and which things went up. So which things went down? Community involvement, twenty-five years ago, was very important to 47 percent of people – now 27 percent. Having children, from 59 percent to 30 percent, patriotism, from 70 percent to 38 percent and religion, from 62 percent to 39 percent.

    Now what went up? You got it. Money. That went up from being very important to 31 percent of people to 43 percent. And of course we can’t prove causation and you can speculate on the reasons for these changes. It is very striking though, to me, just big picture here, that as things like community involvement, patriotism, religion, having children, all these sort of human relationship, community-ish things, have become less important to people, money goes up and that kind of jives with a insight in the New Testament that money is something not to trust, “don’t serve God and Mammon,” is what Jesus said. And we’ll get into that. That’s also what Pinianus and Melania’s story, again teasing that, helps illustrate.

    One other study that I’ve had a long time interest in is the so-called Grant Study that Harvard University’s done since the 1930s, a longitudinal study looking at how a select group of 238 Harvard undergraduates that they picked way back then and tracked them throughout their lives, how they did. And one of the big takeaways from that study, according to George Vaillant, the man who oversaw the study for over three decades is that relationships are what make a successful and happy life and money is not so important. So again, these are some of the things that made us want to do this issue and made us want to look very specifically at the place of money in Christianity.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So one of the things that I think is really helpful in starting out in this slightly sociological or phenomenological mode – a lot of Christianity has perhaps not as much trouble with money as it really ought to, but the parts of Christianity that do reflect the New Testament’s perception of money as a somewhat sinister force. Those sorts of Christianity can make it seem as though what you need to do is be miserable or be ascetic and caring about money is something that is a sort of happy thing to do and would ideally help you thrive. But we are beyond thriving. We don’t really need to thrive because we have Jesus. And that is actually not at all what either the sociological or the theological picture is.

    You actually do need enough money to survive. But after you have a kind of enough to live on, money can crowd out, money can just shoulder out the things that actually do make you happy and the things that actually do help you to thrive as a human being truly and phenomenologically. You will experience this. If you give your life to making a lot of money, you will probably find that you are not as effective at giving your life to the kingdom of God, to your friends, to your family, to your neighbors, to making beautiful things in the world.

    And you will find that you are fundamentally less happy and less yourself and less human. And that is what the New Testament describes. It’s exactly what the New Testament describes. So obviously there is a moralistic “should” here – yes you should not worship mammon. There’s also just the phenomenological thing of if you do this, you’re going to have a worse life and you’ll probably potentially have a worse afterlife. But this is not something that is alien to human experience. This matches human experience.

    Peter Mommsen: It did surprise me, this Wall Street Journal study, because my impression would’ve been that, especially younger generations born since the 2008 Great Recession, we’ve seen the rise of Bernie Sanders in 2016, a bit of a socialist moment back then. You read plenty of studies about how younger workers want fulfillment from their jobs, not income. And yet that hasn’t seemed to go along with a greater skepticism about the value of money. Has that struck you, Susannah? I don’t know. We don’t need to solve that right now. I’m just kind of flagging it that, and Naomi Klein actually talks about this, there is actually right from the beginning of modern capitalism, there has been something new-agey about capitalism. There has been a bit of a spiritual aura to it. That’s why Fortune 500 companies are kind of big into new-agey wellness stuff. And so just because you have a spiritual vibe, maybe even particularly if you do have a bit of a spiritual vibe, that is not the opposite of mammon. In fact, it can be playing into it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, actually we are going to have an interview later on in this series with Tara Isabella Burton, who’s just come out with a book called Self-Made, which includes a fantastic chapter on gilded age capitalism and sort of self-help, the New Thought movement, and the way that certain kinds of spiritual language, even some Christian language, was appropriated to make money seem like almost a sacrament, making money as a kind of expression of human will, of the commanding of the powers of the universe in a kind of impersonal sort of way. And yeah, I absolutely think that there’s no contradiction between spirituality and money making. It’s just a question of what spirit. And I was surprised by the numbers in the Wall Street Journal study because like you, I’d kind of thought that you also have all these studies about how people are incredibly lonely and they don’t have human connection.

    Peter Mommsen: The Surgeon General just recently gave a speech about how one out of two Americans report feeling loneliness. Which is not the sign of a healthy society.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So I do wonder whether one of the ways to put these two things together, which I don’t know if it’s true or not, and I kind of do suspect the Wall Street Journal numbers a little bit because they seem so bizarre to me. But one of the things, the ways to put this together is that people have dialed down their commitment to the good things, having children and patriotism and community involvement, patriotism obviously can go badly. Of course everything can go badly, whatever. People have dialed down their commitment to those good things and their desire for those good things to a much greater degree than they’ve dialed up their desire for money.

    So the uptick in money is only about half from what I can tell of the downtick in desire for other things. And I wonder whether it might be the case that people are lonely because they don’t desire or value those things that actually get you through, that are counters to loneliness. But they don’t really understand that those things are counters to loneliness. So all they have is the experience of loneliness and they don’t really understand that community involvement or having children might be a counter to loneliness, that might be a solution. So I mean that’s one way of reading this all. It just seems it is very puzzling and I was surprised.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping: don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of our conversation with Peter after the break.

    Peter Mommsen: So maybe that takes us back to where we began with Melania, the heiress in Rome and her path to happiness, which is a deeply Christian story, a deeply strange story from a society in many ways, very different than ours, and in some ways very similar. I was absolutely fascinated and intrigued by this story as you can tell, because it figures pretty prominently in the editorial I wrote for the issue. And so hat tip to Peter Brown, who’s wonderful book Through the Eye of a Needle I drew on heavily and which is just a great entry into this topic. It’s looking at Christianity’s changing relation to money just as the Roman Empire was drawing to an end.

    But let’s focus on this individual couple, not on the whole Roman Empire. So they are just incredibly rich. They have a palace on the Caelian Hill in Rome. They have estates all over the Roman Empire, from North Africa to Spain, Britain, and of course all over Sicily and Italy.

    Melania later tells her a story to a monk called Gerontius. This is toward the end of her life and it’s the main source. It was actually only discovered in the nineteenth century, this autobiography or biography, but a lot of it’s in her own voice and just this fascinating look into somebody who made some extremely radical decisions. So her husband Pinianus – they were both heirs to huge fortunes. They were both in the senatorial class of Rome. Pinianus’s cash income alone was 120,000 gold soldi a year, I realize people can’t really figure out what that is. But as best that I can tell, that’s the equivalent of the annual wage at that time for 30,000 ordinary laborers. And that was just one spouse. When they decided after their dream to give all their money away, all their money away, just clearing up and selling their estates right around Rome, they started off by freeing 8,000 slaves.

    And that wasn’t all of them because a whole bunch of the rest of them actually revolted and refused to be freed because they felt they would have a more secure life if they stayed with the estate and negotiated their own sale at a cut rate to Melania’s brother. Kind of interesting digression there, but suffice it to say these people belonged to the billionaire class of their day. They’d grown up Christian, but something about their wealth made it intolerable to them to keep it. And she mentions that great suffering, that great pain, this sense of going through this claustrophobic cleft of enormous pressure and then emerging on the other side to that inevitable bliss, huge relief.

    Peter Brown, the historian, posits that that passage that they went through. if you look at the Christian preaching at that time, was almost definitely a reference to a well-known saying of Jesus. And that’s in all three synoptic gospels. A rich young man or a rich young ruler in Luke comes to Jesus and asks, “teacher, what do I need to do to gain eternal life?” And Jesus asks him, “do you know the Ten Commandments?” And he kind of lists a version of the Ten Commandments: Don’t commit adultery, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t covet. The rich young man says, I’ve done all of those since my youth. And Jesus said, one thing remains, sell all you have, give to the poor and come follow me. And the young man becomes very sad because he has great wealth and walks away.

    And then Jesus says “How hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom.” And so this passage through which Pinianus and Melania felt themselves going in Peter Brown’s account: that impossible passage of the camel through the eye of the needle.

    And what did that involve? It involved, in their case, completely liquidating these enormous assets. And there’s reports of them right away sort of authorizing agents all over the empire, just they had no sensible way of giving away money back then just kind of handing gold coins, ten thousand to this person and twenty to that person and just sending them on their way, go to this region and give away money to the poor. An absolutely astonishing and exhilarating tale, but I want to get to the end.

    They both land up as paupers in the city of Jerusalem. The Holy City. Pinianus who earlier was apparently a bit of a bon vivant, really loved his nice clothes, is known for wearing only a robe of woven straw. They’re enrolled in the list of the city’s poor. And they’re extremely happy. Melania dies very happy according to her biographer Gerontius who describes how she “tranquilly and placidly passed in gladness and rejoicing surrounded by a community, surrounded by her sisters.” Actually she had, after Pinianus died, she joined a monastery. She has bought not only treasure in heaven, which we don’t know what it means, but Jesus promises. But she had bought with her money, she’d exchanged it for a life, very rich in relationships and community. And we’re talking about her still today. She absolutely left a legacy. She’s a saint in both the Eastern and Western Catholic churches.

    And so her story seemed to me to be kind of like an answer to this Wall Street Journal study. She did the exact opposite of striving for money and giving up on relationships. She did the other thing. And there is, of course, Jesus promises that, right? In the gospels he says, whoever leaves fields and homes and possessions shall receive in this life a hundred fold. And then comes the promise of what happens in the afterlife, which is even better. But even in this life, you receive a hundred fold back, which was definitely the case for these two young people, making this really, really tough decision that their families hated.

    And that was actually politically destabilizing in Rome because the amount of wealth was so huge, they were too big to fail. And the Roman Senate actually attempted to step in and preemptively confiscate their estates to prevent them from giving them away because too many freed slaves, this is what Peter Brown speculates, too many freed slaves were kind of roaming around Rome and the other senators didn’t like that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, I think that Pinianus and Melania’s story, as well as kind of other similar stories and just the general tenor of the New Testament, including that specific passage from our Lord that you mentioned Peter, really kind of do point to something that I really want to hammer a lot in this series of podcasts. And I think we’ve covered pretty extensively in the issue, which is that this is a question of kingdom building. And this is a question of what you do with the energies of your life. And the teaching against money is not fundamentally a joyless or ascetic or tamped down teaching. Your response to this should be exhilaration.

    It’s exhilarating to be able to live like this. It’s exhilarating to be able to actually store your money where it will live, store your wealth and your energy where it will live forever as opposed to where it’s going to just eventually die away.

    Well, you’re going to die, but no matter what you do, your bank account is going to eventually either just sit there or it’ll get chipped away by taxes or whatever. But what you can do with your life and your energy that will last and that will give you actual community in this life and will be something that will stay forever in the next life is the kind of generous, magnanimous, magnificent life of giving and of building something other than a big bank account for yourself, something that is in fact the kingdom of God.

    So that that’s the decision, that’s the sort of either or. Are you going to build something that is just for you or are you going to build something that is with others for the kingdom?

    Peter Mommsen: And that decision that you’re talking about, Susannah is obviously not something that you or I came up with. This is directly from the Sermon in the Mount, the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus says, you cannot serve God and Mammon, Mammon being the God of wealth. You’ll either serve one and hate the other or the other way around. That kind of either/or teaching about money is baked solidly and one of the most climactic passages of the New Testament. But having said that, I totally agree with that. And that’s one of the big reasons we wanted to do this issue on money.

    I’m going to be the devil’s advocate now because that is not the normal view of what Christianity teaches about money.

    In fact, there’s a very famous book by Max Weber, the German sociologist: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And we tend to think of Christianity as being one of the forces of the establishment, of property, of law and order, of private property rights, of actually a Christian spirit of hard work and orderliness and enterprise being integral to the success of capitalism in the modern age. And you just said something about teaching against money, which sounds like the opposite of that.

    And is there a Christian teaching against money? What are we missing here? Or what happened in Christianity to get it to where as for instance, Eugene McCarraher, professor at Villanova, who we’re going to interview in an upcoming episode in the series, writes in The Enchantments of Mammon, Christianity actually became the handmaiden of the capitalist system and then quite specifically of neoliberalism in the last couple of decades. So what’s going on? Which one is it?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Great question. Well, I mean, one should kind of peg the fact that there are, in the book of Proverbs and elsewhere, there is a sort of countersignal to a certain degree, even in the texts of the Bible, which perhaps we will get into as at some point. But the overwhelming kind of general tenor of the New Testament is this sort of fairly radical teaching about money. And so how did we get from Pinianus and Melania understanding that if they wanted to seriously follow Jesus and seriously be Christian, this is giving up all of their money, is something that would be a definite sort of good step to, I don’t know, the sort of sensible bourgeois approach and/or belief that, as Weber at least claimed, wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and  election and that that was a fairly uncomplicated thing. Let’s talk about Augustine of Hippo.

    Peter Mommsen: A friend of Pinianus and Melania by the way and one of the recipients of their wealth.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. And friend of the pod, I would say.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, he’s definitely a friend of the pod.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: So this is not an anti-Augustine episode.

    Susannah Black Roberts: No, it’s not.

    Peter Mommsen: Anyone who’s worried. But I think it’s one of these places where Augustine plays a complex role.

    So if you look at the teaching of the Ante-Nicene church fathers, so before the Council of Nicaea of the first few centuries, when Christianity is still a persecuted religion, the themes that are emphasized by people like Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, not all of these are Ante-Nicene, of course. Climate of Alexandria, Tertullian, The Shepherd of Hermas. They pick up very strongly on a theme in the teachings of Jesus and the Gospels and also throughout the rest of the New Testament that I would characterize as pretty directly anti-wealth.

    In addition to some of the passages we’ve already talked about, there’s the famous parable of Dives and Lazarus that Jesus tells. Dives is the rich man who feasts daily, at his gate lies Lazarus, the poor man covered in sores, the dogs lick his sores, they both die. And Lazarus is brought by the angels to Abraham’s bosom, to a place of blessedness. And the rich man finds himself in hell and he begs for a drink of water from the flames. And the patriarch Abraham answers him quite coldly: “You had good things in your life and Lazarus had bad things and now it’s the other way around.”

    And this parable just resounded through the early Christian preaching. If anybody wants to kind of look at how that happened, there’s a great study put together by a priest called Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching published by Orbis back in the eighties, but it’s just a great sort of source book and it’s pretty overwhelming how strong the teaching on wealth was. The warnings to rich Christians were, if anything, completely over the top. And it was, interestingly enough, this parable of Dives and Lazarus that inspired the first super rich Christian, that we know of, who gave away all his wealth, a man called Paulinus of Nola. He gave away all his wealth, which was, if anything, even bigger than Pinianus and Melania’s, a few years before they did.

    So he was also a friend of Augustine, which is where we started. And Augustine welcomed this. Augustine embraced the same message himself. So Augustine, when he comes to Hippo after his conversion, comes back from Italy where he’s been studying under Ambrose of Milan, another of these thundering anti-wealth preachers. I’m going to say it that way. Apologies to everyone who wants more nuance. Augustine, too, renounces all his wealth, gives everything away. And he founds a community. Actually, the first Augustinian monastery, he writes precepts for them, which is today the rule of Saint Augustine used by many religious orders like the Dominicans. And he refers, in that rule, one of the first things apart from love each other is have no private possessions, absolutely no private property, share everything in common, take care of each other – from each according to his ability to each according to his need.

    That line that sounds so Marxist because it is Marxist, but really it comes from the early church in Acts Two and Four where the church at the first Pentecost, the believers famously were of one heart and one soul and had everything in common and laid their possessions at the feet of the apostles. So Augustine believed this stuff and he was very happy when Pinianus and Melania did what they did. Same with Paulinus of Nola. And he preached plenty of sermons on these topics as well. However, he was in an interesting point in time when it was a couple generations after Christianity had been legalized and more and more wealthy Christians were showing up in church.

    And he was the bishop. He was not only the leader of this Acts two and four commune, Christian commune, he was also the bishop of a pretty diverse congregation. And I don’t know how deeply into the weeds we want to get here, but partly out of a fear of the kind of legalistic rigorism that he associated with heresy.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Specifically with Pelagianism.

    Peter Mommsen: Specifically Pelagianism. He modified his teaching on wealth and kind of laid the groundwork for some later developments in Christianity that as an Anabaptist I think were bad. But we can’t blame Augustine. He couldn’t have foreseen how his words would be appropriated in later centuries. But he kind of did two things. One was he defined a way the hard sayings of Jesus on wealth as counsels of perfection. So evangelical counsels, they’re called in a sort of contemporary Roman Catholic theology. There was a sense in which, over time, whatever Augustine himself precisely meant by that, Jesus sayings, for instance in Luke 14 where he tells sort of all his disciples, if you hang on to any of your possessions, you can’t follow me, that was reinterpreted as being just for a spiritual elite with a special calling. And your sort of rank and file Christians, don’t worry about that.

    Don’t commit adultery, be like the rich young man, don’t do the really bad sins. But that second step of selling all your possessions and giving to the poor and following me, that’s just for what would later become monastics or people with a special religious vocation. And the other thing that Augustine kind of pioneered, and this is drawing from Peter Brown’s book where he gets into this much more precisely, so I’m just generalizing here, but Augustine kind of redefined wealth and the distribution of wealth and the unequal distribution of wealth as providential. So just like some people are born with athletic ability or smarts or beauty, so some people are born with wealth and others are not. And that’s one of those gifts of God that you should use for his glory. Not selfishly, absolutely not.

    And you should use it, according to Augustine, with generous self-sacrificial alms giving. So it’s not like you can just sit on your wealth, but it’s kind of okay that you have your wealth and somebody else doesn’t because that’s providential, that’s God’s mysterious will that some should be rich and others poor. That was kind of new in Christianity and that was Augustine reacting to a pretty complex moment and trying to minister to a very diverse, not fully discipled congregation in North Africa in the fifth century. So what happens then is to me what’s interesting, you can easily see how those two ideas that Jesus’s hard sayings, his economic radicalism are only for special people. And this idea that inequality of wealth somehow comes from God’s hand, how over the centuries that would become a very comfortable message for those who are wealthy.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I do think we should point out though that it’s gotten worse. Because the idea of providential distribution of wealth and such that you don’t really need to question it, such that you can just say, well, this is where God has put me and I don’t need to maybe ask what I might owe in terms of actually changing things, that’s at least not as bad in my view, at least, as the idea of meritocracy and the change in the notion of wealth when it went from something that you just kind of received and inherited to something that you earned and thus deserved. That seems to me to be one step kind of darker in a way.

    Peter Mommsen: That sure is. I mean, we’re not going to be able to cover this whole history here. I would strongly recommend on this Eugene McCarraher’s book, The Enchantments of Mammon that we will drop a link to. But I think just tl; dr, the Protestant Reformation, we Protestants have something to answer for here because in Catholic social teaching to this day, the idea of common ownership survives. There’s this mouthful term, universal destination of goods that basically the goods of this world are made for the common good. And that private ownership, to the extent it exists, is kind of conditional on contributing to that common good, that survives in Catholic teaching. It’s a pretty watered down form of what an Ambrose or even an Augustine would’ve taught, but it’s still there. The Protestant Reformation is where this idea that God prospers his own really takes off. And we probably just need to own that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, also I do have to say as the one magisterial Protestant involved in, well, I guess Caitrin and Joy are is well, anyway, not all Protestants, not all magisterial Protestants, not entirely. Nevertheless, it wasn’t great.

    Peter Mommsen: No, no, no, no. Not all anybody, right? However, there’s a reason that Max Weber identified Protestantism with the spirit of capitalism, and we’re not going to rehash that set of arguments or their validity either. But if you focus on the United States of America, and McCarraher goes over this history in his books, there is looking at the various Protestant sects and sort of post Protestant sects like the Mormons, there is absolutely a sort of development toward what today you see most dramatically with the prosperity gospel, the televangelist promising earthly blessings to God’s elect. And there’s a bunch of ways in which the Protestant move enabled that, even if not deliberately.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I feel like I want to end, as we kind of draw to a close on this episode, and there’s so much more, and we don’t even have time to talk about the whole issue, which we maybe should have, but there are a lot of fantastic pieces in this issue that look at this from all different kinds of angles. The one thing I do really think we need to really keep at the front of our minds is that there’s a kind of twofold movement in Melania and Pinianus’ life and in the teaching of Christ and in the description of the early church that we have in acts two and four, where it’s not just you give up your money, it’s you give up your money, you lay your wealth at the feet of the apostles and you enter into, and in many cases, start a community.

    So it’s not primarily a negative thing, it’s primarily you’re giving up your money or you’re doing something different with your money in order to enable you to live a new kind of life. And primarily the way that they would’ve thought of this is throwing your lot in with a new city or a new family. So the old city and the old family, which you do still have loyalty to, your family is still your family.

    But at the same time, what you primarily are now is a member of a new polis, a new nation, a new nation, a new kingdom, a new family. . . .

    Peter Mommsen: A royal priesthood.

    Susannah Black Roberts: A royal priesthood, and this is the royal family of God. And in order to enter into this royal family of God, which is living together in one way or another on earth in various kinds of Christian communities. And there are ways to do Christian community that are less whole hog than the Bruderhof. And I think that we should be thinking about how to do those. But in one way or another, you’re living on earth with this new royal family and your attitude towards kind of your old money is a reflection of your attitude primarily towards this treasure. This pearl of great price, this treasure hidden in a field, this new status as a royal son or daughter of God with your brothers and sisters. And you cannot understand anything about the teaching on money without understanding that.

    Peter Mommsen: In Jesus words, make friends for yourself with a Mammon of unrighteousness. So it has a use. And that’s what Pinianus and Melania found, and countless Christians and non-Christians have found throughout the ages. What is money for, I guess just to tease our answer here, it’s for reckless giving, for the sake of that new family. And I’m really looking forward to the series of episodes, Susannah, where we’re going to look at all different kinds of aspects of this with a bunch of great guests.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So now thank you guys for listening and brace yourselves. It’s going to be a wild ride, and please write us, follow us on Twitter, whatever. We would love to hear from you. And we are excited to be on this ride together. Bye guys.

    Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: On our next episode, I’ll be talking with Eugene McCarraher, about mammon and its enchantments.

    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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