Religious teaching and practice have always been one of the primary motivations in both philanthropy and the pursuit of a more just economic system. Whether it is Muslim practice of Zakat (giving to charity) or the biblically-inspired Jubilee 2000 campaign that sought to write off the excessive debts of the developing world, religious beliefs form how people interact with money and how they think it should be distributed.
But religious ideas are present in economics at an even more primary level. The language we use to talk about money is suffused with religious ideas. We talk of wealth creation and of fiat money (referring to the divine word of creation in the Latin Bible). We speak of debt redemption and of the need for people to make financial sacrifices. The word credit comes from the Latin credo meaning “I believe”. Some people argue that money even originated in the religious context of the Mesopotamian Temples over 5000 years ago when silver bars were used by Temple bureaucrats to keep track of the resources used in the sacrificial cult.
Some have viewed these theological associations as reflecting the irreligious quality of money as an idol. As the monetary system spread across Europe in the second half of the twelfth century, Francis of Assisi described money as horse manure and forbade his brothers from possessing it. But others have recognised the social value of the money system in bringing about a more interconnected world where human beings flourish. Adam Smith saw “the invisible hand of God” in markets that liberated people from poverty through trade and commerce.
In our own age, drawing the languages of God and money together might not be as incongruous as it first seems. Recognising that money is a faith-based system that expresses and shapes relationships in society, religious ideas can continue to help us create a better money system and use money in better ways. LSE alumnus and Christian theologian William Stringfellow spoke of using money in such a way as makes it a sacrament, a means of God’s grace. Religious principles of generosity, empathy, communion and debt forgiveness provide a powerful moral lens through which the language of money could tell a different story.
Redeeming Money: the Quest for an Economy of Generosity
Just Share Lecture at St Mary-le-Bow, 29 June 2016
St Paul’s Institute blog:
Talking about money in church
The meaning of austerity: theological perspectives