Well. You best sit down before you read this one. The internet introduced me to Kevin, and I am so grateful. One day he will write a book that with all of his Irish humor still manages to make us bleed. Besides being smart and theological, Kevin and his wife are the goods. They sent me and my husband a care package--complete with Irish Tea, Irish poetry, and a handwritten letter filled with quotes from the Pope. I know! This post gets to the very heart of the matter, I believe. It's so easy to make downward mobility a game of sorts-- all about material possessions, what I have done for God, see what a difference I have made with my second hand clothes! And sometimes people like myself need to be smacked in the face in regards to what is actually going on: how God longs for those living under the oppression of wealth to be set free. Because he loves us too. And he has been trying to free us for a long, long time.
Guest post by Kevin Hargaden
I’m totally behind the downward mobility movement. Quite literally. My wife and I are downwardly mobile. We’ve swapped prosperity in a beautiful university town on the edge of a bustling EU capital city for a life on the wrong side of the tracks in a provincial town on the edge of a region most famous for a legendary, mysterious sea monster called Nessie. We are from Dublin, where we have lived our whole life. My wife had a fantastic and rewarding job. We had a large circle of friends. My family were minutes away. Everything was familiar and wonderful. We love our hometown with a passion.
Now we live in Aberdeen, which is a grey city on the coast of the North Sea, buffeted on one side by Arctic winds and surrounded on the other by the mountains that rise into the Scottish Highlands. We have been here six weeks. My wife’s fulltime pursuit has been job-searching. Today she got word of her first interview, for a temporary role, in a low level administration position, at about 40% less than her last salary rate. The reason we are here, in a city more northerly than Moscow that has less than six hours of daylight in winter, is for my PhD. Ironically, as we quickly accelerate downwards towards destitution, I will be researching a theology of wealth.
While today the circumstances press in on me hard and as I feel the pressure I paint a particularly dim picture of what we’re doing, the reality is that we are involved in a grand adventure. We have never lived abroad before. We have never started again before. We are doing a hard thing but it is exceptionally cool.
So we probably meet whatever requirements can be imagined to classify a couple as part of this radical downward mobility movement. And presumably if you check back in on us in three months we will have stories about how it has liberated us. And I suspect that our life will always be indented by the experience of profound freedom that came from unburdening ourselves of all the possessions that we had accumulated over years of mimicking Western-world middle class comfort. We were possessed by them.
But it is exactly at this point, when I reflect on how our (relative but very real) wealth warped our view of the world that I begin to part company with the largely brilliant conversation about downward mobility.
I am haunted by the words of Jesus. My life has been transformed by reflecting on his parables, which I think are the greatest stories ever told. They are simply divine.
In Matthew 12 we find an image that we could spend our lives reflecting on. In context, Jesus is disputing with Pharisees who are accusing him of being in league with Beelzebul. He answers them (29): “how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.”
In these two sentences, Jesus gives us a peek at his entire intention. As Jesus sees it, the world is held captive. The New Testament gives us a range of different words to describe the captor. At base the captivity is at the hands of a personal force, referred to often as “the Satan”.
Jesus very clearly loved the world he inhabited. He loved the terrain of his homeland and he loved the seasons of the farms and he loved the fruit of the vine and the culture of the cities. But his perspective was that this world was echoing a glory that had been smothered by a force that held it captive. He came to bind up the strong man who was claiming this world as his own. On Good Friday he goes into battle with the strong man and at dawn on Easter Sunday he comes up triumphant. The strong man is bound so that bound Creation can go free.
This is not the only way to think of God’s Gospel, but it is one of the ways we find in the gospels that describe it. There is a false power that held the world captive under its hollow authority. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God overthrew this fake potentate and now we, the church, join him in this non-violent liberation.
Paul takes up this way of seeing things in Ephesians. At the end of that letter he summarises the kind of battle that Christians are called to engage in. He is clear that the battle is not a violent one of war and fighting. Instead, “our struggle is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
I want to propose that one of the powers of this darkened world that Paul is describing here has been named by Jesus. He called it Mammon. He seemed to use that word to describe an impersonal force that controlled the affections of people by making them love money. Adam Smith, the great father of modern economics spoke about the market as an “invisible hand”. His words, which are a gospel to capitalism, have a dark hue when heard against Jesus’ warnings about Mammon.
So here is what I have argued:
- Jesus saw the world as held captive by a darkness that had to be subverted.
- Paul says that this darkness manifests itself in forces, “powers and principalities” that rule the world.
- Jesus names one of these powers as Mammon.
And here is my tentative proposal:
- To be wealthy is to be under the realm of Mammon.
Which leads me to my conclusion, which makes me sound like quite the crackpot:
- To be wealthy is to be captive to Satan.
If I am right, then the judgement of God is upon those of us who are wealthy. And everyone who has access to a web browser with an internet connection and the literacy skills to read my convoluted prose is bound to be wealthy.
There are smaller problems with downward mobility. For one, it seems self-defeating since only the wealthy can imagine a scenario where they could relinquish their wealth. For another, intentional poverty has a long tradition in the church but it is fraught and complex. There are technical problems in that individual acts of solidarity and solitary acts of divestment alone make absolutely no difference to the justice, politics or material conditions of our unfair world.
But the biggest problem with downward mobility is that it underestimates the problem.
If we, the wealthy, are to be pitied as those held captive by a force that although defeated, retains residual strength, then we cannot possibly hope to be freed from by our own action. If my theological hunch is true, and we the wealthy are blinded from reality by the warping effects of having so many things at our disposal, then the only hope for us is an intervention by someone strong enough to bind up the strong man.
Being less consumerist or more frugal, moving in with the poor and the dispossessed, spending our life in advocacy and agitation for environmental justice or economic transformation or political revolution – we may be called to all of these things but none of these things will suffice.
Since camels don’t fit through the eyes of needles, we, the rich men, are screwed. With man, it is impossible for us to get to heaven. But in uttering these awesome and rarely reflected upon words, Jesus says with God, all things are possible.
The problem with downward mobility is that it imagines we can decide which direction we should go. In our downward mobility we seek to disposses ourselves of privilege and power, wealth and influence. But that dispossession is always an illusion if it is true that the wealth we are seeking to let go of is imposed on us by Mammon. The dispossession we are all called to is to be dispossessed of our delusion that we can set our own course or define our own destiny.
If we pursue downward mobility for downward mobility’s sake, we pursue nothing to nowhere. We are just caught up in another endless maze of self-justification that Mammon erects to distract us from the returning King.
We must wrestle with the fact that the inequality in our world is an injustice. But if we are to undo that injustice, we have to first see the gangster at the top tied up. The strong man must be bound for the captives to be set free. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ seems to involve the claim that the rich are cursed.
We are cursed.
Unless we can be set free.
Kevin was born and bred in the Dublin suburbs. He has an Irish aversion to writing bio-pieces since they invariably sound cocky. He is training to be a minister with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, but is studying for that at Aberdeen University. He can't sing but he does lisp. He loves the Simpsons, the parables and making lists but perhaps not in that order. He blogs at www.hargaden.com/kevin about faith in contemporary Ireland and he can be found on twitter.
For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.