Take control of your money . . .
How to invest with confidence . . .
Four distinctive habits of wealthy people . . .
If you want to retire in 10 years, do these five things . . .
These are just a few of the money-related headlines screaming off my computer screen. OK, I admit I didn’t click on them all, so no way did I read all the articles. But I’m willing to bet the following sentiment is the gist of most of them:
You have the power to make more, spend less, and save more. All you have to do is learn these few simple tips. Follow them and your life will change forever. Think about how delightful life would be if you made more, spent less, and saved more. You can do it. You should do it. Do it.
The overwhelming message of hundreds of financial advice magazines, books, and websites emphasizes confidence in one’s own ability to bring about change. Over and over again, we’re told that we can find financial freedom—if we just do things right. We simply need to claim our agency, add self-control, and presto: all our money problems disappear.
Sounds simple enough. But emphasizing personal empowerment in this way can actually disempower systemic critique. If we wholeheartedly embrace narratives that highlight personal financial autonomy, might we fall into the trap of believing that self-worth is measured by net worth? And can we really be financially “healthy” as individuals if the systems that sustain our personal financial security undermine the economic opportunity and stability of others? When we become obsessed with constantly checking our personal bank balance, we risk overlooking the many ways in which the economic world is off-balance.
The danger of stewardship
Thankfully, the biblical notion of stewardship counters and challenges financial narratives that emphasize individual gain. Without rejecting the value of genuine personal agency, stewardship thinking reframes how we view our money, materials, and possessions. Actually, “reframe” isn’t quite the right word; it may be a bit too gentle. As Douglas John Hall puts it, stewardship, rightly understood, constitutes a “direct confrontation” to the prideful notion that life is about mastering things that supposedly belong to us.
“Because we belong to God,” writes Rolf Jacobson, “everything about us belongs to God: our selves, our bodies, our families, our time, our relationships—even our possessions.” Of course, this is not radical new thinking from a theological perspective. “Yes, yes,” you’ll say, “of course everything we have comes from and ultimately belongs to God. I get it.”
But Jacobson invites us to dig a little deeper into the classic “praise God from whom all blessings flow” theology of Christianity, so that we recognize that part of the “confrontation” to which Hall refers emerges out of a tension between simple personal agency—the idea that I make choices, good or bad, about how to use my wealth—and a more complex systemic empowerment. This is the idea that the choices any one of us is able to make unfold across a broad matrix of economic and social power that limits the agency of very many people and enhances the agency of (a much smaller set of) others.
In other words, we’re only as empowered to use our agency as the system in which we’re situated allows us to be. This means that my individual financial choices are never merely mine alone. Rather, they are shaped by the choices of many other people . . . and they impact the choices of many more. When I set my individual choices within a theological frame—within a matrix of divine power centered on the loving and just distribution of God’s gifts—things must change.
As is often quoted, Martin Luther observed that there are three conversions of Christian discipleship: “The conversion of the heart, the mind, and the purse.” He added, “the conversion of the purse is the most difficult.” Now, I haven’t met with my financial advisor in a long while, but I wonder what he’d say if I started the conversation like this: “Chris, great to see you. Just so you know, I’d like to avoid language of my money, my assets, my retirement, my income, my savings, and my net worth. It’s not mine, it’s God’s. So, let’s get to it: how are we going to steward God’s resources that I have the temporary responsibility of managing?”
I imagine I’d receive a more-than-quizzical look in return.
Tweak and . . . critique
Here’s the challenge: life doesn’t get any easier when we stop thinking of money and possessions as ours. And life doesn’t become any simpler when we cease making our personal choices the center of everything to do with money. In fact, such shifts may actually make life harder. Why? Because by zeroing in on the so-called “personal wealth” that our financial system makes for us, we miss critiquing the injustice inherent in the system itself. If we feel as though we don’t have enough money, we figure it must be our fault; we’re not doing something right. If we do have money, we attribute it to the brilliant decisions we made, rather than education, public services, privilege (of race, religion, class, geography), or, heck, even the benefits of certain genes. When we focus upon our own actions, we tend to pay less attention to the structural difficulties that cause suffering in the world. When we shift the focus away from ourselves, we are forced to confront the systemic problems that surround us.
I recently saw The Big Short, a movie nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture. Written by Adam McKay, the movie entertains (surprisingly, perhaps) as it tells the story of the housing collapse and great recession. Spoiler alert: Wall Street comes out looking pretty sleazy.
Based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, the film, as Brad Pitt puts it, “Tries to explain to people how they got screwed.” It leaves the viewer with the impression that the financial collapse was an enormous con job orchestrated by millionaires under the nose of doltish regulators and fraudulent lenders.
My favorite moment in the film comes near the end, when the narrator says, “In the years that followed [the financial crisis], hundreds of bankers and ratings agency executives went to jail. The SEC was completely overhauled. And Congress had no choice but to break up the big banks and regulate the mortgage and derivatives industries.”
Then there’s a slight pause.
“Just kidding,” the narrator says flatly.
He then goes on, explaining that in reality, “The banks took the money the American people gave them and used it to lobby the Congress to kill big reform. And then America blamed immigrants and poor people. And this time, even teachers.”
Though I doubt Pitt would quite put it this way, at its heart the film is about stewardship. The Big Short asks how we steward trust, uncertainty, relationships, houses and the housing market, and, most of all, money. While the film’s protagonists get filthy rich, its wiser characters remain aware of the consequences of the financial collapse. As one money man begins celebrating the deal of his career, his partner admonishes him: “These aren’t just numbers. For every point unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die. Did you know that?”
Another character, who sniffed out the crisis early and bet against the housing market, hesitated to sell, even knowing his fund stood to make a billion dollars. He feared that making money off of people’s losses would morally implicate him: “Once we sell we’re just like all the rest,” he lamented.
So, finally, let’s go back to Douglas John Hall and his broader, theological notion of stewardship. Here he paints in broad, demanding strokes that make me shudder even as they inspire:
Stewardship is not therefore the gaining of influence, power, property . . . but rather the care and nurture of life, the healing of the one who fell amongst thieves, the feeding of the hungry and freeing of the oppressed, the befriending of the friendless, the equitable distribution of earth’s bounty, the passion for justice and peace, and dialogue with all who hunger and thirst for authenticity.
Such a call for the kind of systemic economic empowerment that offers all of the children of God genuine agency does not fit into a pithy how-to-make-money-quick top ten tip list. And thank God for that.