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The Christian problem with wealth

From a theological perspective, according to Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice theologian Kevin Hargaden in his recently published book, Theological ethics in a neoliberal age, wealth is a problem. In the Gospels, wealth is always depicted as “a master, or a lord, or an idol whose quiet power can surreptitiously claim our allegiance”. Against this the words of Christ confront us with a different Lord, a different object of worship, and a different form of wealth.

The point of Hargaden’s book is to put flesh on the bones of this apparently trite and pious reflection, mainly through a close reading of Karl Barth’s theology on Christ’s parables and a detailed examination of Ireland’s boom-and-bust experience since the 1990s. “Ireland,” Hargaden writes, “is as consumed with the pursuit of wealth in its bust as it was in its boom. The need for a theological analysis is as pertinent as ever.”

This theme was taken up by Peter McVerry SJ when he launched the book at an event in Gardiner Street Church on Monday 26 November. Neoliberal capitalism, Fr McVerry noted, has had such a total hold on Irish “mindsets and imaginations” that people didn’t even protest at the crass mismanagement that followed the crash in 2008.

Fr McVerry further remarked on Hargaden’s observation that “any divergent voices from the consensus of how economic growth is generated and sustained were effectively marginalized”. “The Irish people could not imagine an economic alternative to neoliberal capitalism,” he said. He concurred with Hargaden’s judgement that “Ireland’s dilemma, after the Celtic tiger and the 2008 crash, is how to go on being wealthy”, and his conclusion that the perceived solution of Irish society to the problem of re-establishing economic stability and securing future economic growth is “renewed commitment to neoliberalism”.

In Theological ethics, Hargaden adds that “the problem for Irish Christians is how to be faithful to Jesus as wealthy people, when he has so thoroughly questioned that possibility”. He eschews the supposition that Christians must repudiate wealth or find non-economic ways of living together. Instead he considers various forms of resistance , not necessarily as full-blown alternatives but as clear means of articulating a “Christian distinctiveness” in the face of injustice through expressing a different vision, providing critical insight, or disrupting the calculative logic of the neoliberal system. His survey casts a eye on the Working Men’s Colleges, the guild socialist movement, distributism, the Christian Socialist movement, and other phenomena which historically have brought into question the instrumentalist and dehumanising impulses of capitalist economies.

In his striking final chapter, Hargaden couches the dilemma posed to the Christian by wealth in terms of worship. Christian worship stands in absolute opposition to the idolatry of money. To call wealthy Christians to worship is not, however, a call to “pious withdrawal”, but instead is “the form of action which flows from God’s ongoing intervention in our cracked, stumbling, floundering and prosperous lives”.

“We cannot escape capitalism,” Hargaden says; “We cannot escape the judgement that falls on us as a result of the injustices… required for us to have what we have… Yet hope persists because the Word of God intrudes on this apparent settled state of affairs and does that which would be impossible among mere mortals but is possible for God… To say that worship is the appropriate response is to say that we are responsible to bear witness to what God has done in our midst. To say that worship is the appropriate response is to say that our view of reality is brought into focus by encounter with God. To say that worship is the appropriate response is to say that the only way out of idolatry to mammon is conversion to Jesus.

Theological ethics in a neoliberal age: Confronting the Christian problem with wealth by Kevin Hargaden (foreword by William T. Cavanaugh) may be bought directly from the publishers », Cascade Books (imprint of Wipf and Stock), or from Amazon ».