Did Jesus believe in saving money?

David Cameron likes to describe people who work hard and save money as those who ‘do the right thing’. Cameron is a self-professed Christian and I would be fascinated to hear where he finds support for this approach in the teachings of Jesus.Upside-Down Bible

The gospels are pretty negative about saving money.

Take the ‘parable of the rich fool’, which you can find at Luke 12, 13-21. A rich man replaces his barns with bigger ones in order to store ‘all my grain and all my goods’. He then relaxes, knowing he has plenty of possessions on which to rely. God appears and calls him a fool, saying his life will be taken that very night. ‘And the things you have prepared, where will they be?’

Many Christians insist that it was not the man’s wealth that was the problem but his attachment to it. But the question at the end seems to be mocking the efforts he has made to accumulate it. Just afterwards, Jesus urges his disciples not to worry about what they will eat and wear. ‘Consider the ravens,’ he says. ‘They have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.’

Elsewhere, Jesus urges his listeners not ‘to store up treasure on earth’ but treasure in heaven. He told a wealthy man to give all he had to the poor. Urging people not to boast about their generosity, he encouraged them not to let their left hand know what their right hand was doing. It is difficult to imagine Jesus entering his daily income and expenditure on a spreadsheet.

Jesus was acting in a strong biblical tradition. When the Israelites fled Egypt – where food was stored in barns for the elite – they had to rely on ‘manna’, food sent by God on a daily basis that went rotten if kept until the next day.

I have recently been showing Jesus’ teachings to non-Christians who were new to the Bible (as research for my new book, The Upside-Down Bible). I was not surprised that some of them regarded them as over-the-top. Dunyazade, a Muslim, contrasted Jesus’ ‘extreme’ encouragement to give away everything with the apparently more realistic Muslim requirement to give a percentage of your income away. Carl, a left-wing activist, approved of Jesus’ words on the grounds that they support ‘the ideals of socialism’. Sally, a charity fundraiser, saw Jesus reflecting the reality that it is often some of the poor who give the most to charity.

The gospels imply that at least some of Jesus’ disciples lived in community, sharing a common purse. This may have removed day-to-day fears about having enough to eat while making things very uncertain and precarious in the longer term. This style of living was itself a radical witness to the Kingdom of God, contrasted with the kingdoms and values of this world.

I recently heard a politician suggest that financial advisers should be stationed in food banks, to help their users to manage money. Perhaps he thinks the sharp rise in food banks has been caused by an outbreak of financial mismanagement. True, charities provide a valuable service in advising people on looking after their finances, but this is different to seeing such matters as the cause of the problem. I have always been baffled by the common middle-class belief that the act of entering numbers in columns generates food.

The idea of saving money and looking after it is so venerated in today’s society that any rejection of it seems extreme. Perhaps it’s time for Christians to acknowledge that this is what Jesus’ teachings are: extremist.

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My new book is The Upside-down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, which was published by DLT on 26th November in paperback and eBook, priced £9.99. The above post appeared originally on the DLT Books Blog as part of a series of five posts looking at Jesus’ parables in the light of my research for the book.

Trident: What is security?

What is security?

If your family is going hungry because your benefits have been cut, security might mean knowing that you have enough to eat. But David Cameron wants to make you secure by renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system at a cost of £100bn.

If you’re waiting for hours in pain in A&E as the Tories sell off the NHS, security might mean knowing you can be treated in an emergency. The government says security is about Trident and the cost of it is unavoidable.

If you’re suffering the humiliation of going to a food bank because of the delays in processing your benefits, you might feel more secure if you knew your claim would be processed quickly and you would be looked after by the welfare state for which you have paid your taxes. The government prefers to use your taxes to fund the sixth highest military budget in the world.

If you have given up the idea of going to university because you’re frightened of a massive debt, security might mean a right to a free education. Both Cameron and Miliband want to make you secure with a set of weapons that can only ever work by killing millions of people.

If you’ve lost your job after working hard for decades, you might think security lies in meaningful work, a guaranteed income and respect from others. Philip Hammond prefers to talk about jobs in the arms industry, not mentioning that the numbers are falling as arms companies move production overseas.

If society disables you by excluding you due to a mental health problem or a physical impairment, and a biased assessment declares you fit for work, you might feel that security depends on equality and dignity. MPs are keeping you safe by putting millions into atomic weapons research.

If you’re frightened that runaway climate change will drive up poverty, disease and destruction, you could feel more secure by real investments in alternatives to fossil fuels. The government offers to “deter” devastation with bombs, tanks and men in uniform.

If you can’t pay the rent because of the bedroom tax, if you’re shivering in your flat because you can’t afford the heating, if you’re trying to explain to your children that there’s less to eat in the weeks when your zero-hours contract produces no hours, you might not feel secure. Don’t worry: the government’s looking after you with four nuclear submarines.

They say that Trident is necessary, to save us all from being invaded by a foreign power. After all, invaders might introduce a government that would treat us really badly.

Reflections on Greenbelt

Having got back from the Greenbelt festival a few days ago, I’ve mostly (but not completely) caught up on sleep. I’ve also had time to reflect on the festival.

If you would like to read my thoughts on this year’s Greenbelt, I had two articles about it published yesterday.

The first was in the Morning Star. This is a short article aimed at a mostly non-Christian audience (and I didn’t choose the headline myself!). The second, which goes into more detail, forms my latest column on the Ekklesia website.

Misreading the parable of the talents

There are few passages in the Bible that I feel more strongly about than the parable of the talents. This is partly because it is so often interpreted in a way that means it can be used to justify ideas that are contrary to Jesus’ teachings and to much of the Bible. I am convinced we have been reading the parable “upside down”.

If you’re unfamiliar with the parable, or can’t remember it all, you can find it in Matthew 25,14-30 and in a slightly different form in Luke 19,11-27. The gist of the story is that a rich man goes on a journey and leaves his servants to look after his money (Matthew uses the term “talents”, which was a unit of currency). On his return, he finds that two of them have invested the money and gained interest. He rewards them.

The third servant has hidden the money, gaining no interest. He tells the rich man that he was afraid of him because “you are a harsh man, you take what you did not deposit”. He gives him back his money. The rich man throws him out and, in Luke’s version, follows this by having his enemies killed in front of him.

Christians usually suggest that the rich man represents God. Nineteenth century clergy said it showed God will reward those who invest money well. Now it’s more common to be told that it means we will be rewarded if we put our skills to good use (this is helped by the convenient double meaning in English of the word “talents”).

Try reading this story to someone who is unfamiliar with it, without commenting, and ask them with which character they most identify. When I have done this, the response has been “the third servant”. He seems to be treated appallingly harshly and yet he has the bravery to speak truth to power – “you take what you did not deposit”.

Why are we so keen to equate the rich man with God? What does it say about our theology if we assume that a rich and tyrannical figure must represent God?

Jesus constantly sided with the poor and marginalised, extending his love to all and making clear that repentance for the rich meant a change in the way they used their money. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a first century Jewish teacher such as Jesus would have promoted usury.

What if Jesus intended the third servant to be the hero of the story? He tells the rich man the truth about himself and refuses to collude with his unrighteous moneymaking.

The parable thus becomes a comment on the sins of inequality: “to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away”.

It seems that this interpretation is becoming more common among biblical scholars, although I have sadly never heard it preached in church. For a more thorough examination of the parable from this perspective, I recommend Lloyd Pietersen’s book, Reading the Bible After Christendom (Paternoster, 2011).

I am not suggesting that there can be only one meaning of this (or any other) parable. If Jesus had wanted only to issue straightforward instructions, he would not have told parables. They are meant to make us think. My point here is about what attitudes and assumptions we bring to the reading of the Bible. Do we expect to see God identified with the powerful or the powerless?

The “traditional” interpretation of this parable is positively harmful. Christian investment banker Jeremy Marshall uses it to argue that “banking is a biblical principle”. We cannot know just how much financial exploitation has been defended on the basis of this misread parable, but it’s certainly played a part.

Gates is wrong: We need more cuts to military spending

My radio alarm clock woke me this morning with the news that the USA’s former defence secretary, Robert Gates, has criticised the cuts that are being made to military spending in the UK.

If a minister, let alone a former minister, from within the European Union had criticised cuts to social security, the right-wing media would be shaking with simulated outrage about “Europe” interfering in British politics.

However, those on the right who object to “Europe” are often happy for the UK to slavishly follow the US, particularly on foreign policy and military issues. Gates said the cuts could weaken US-UK ties. Such ties are based on the UK government following where the US government leads. They are a wilful abrogation of the British people’s freedom to determine their own policies.

There are people who back welfare cuts on the grounds of cutting the deficit but who take a different view when it comes to military spending (or “defence spending” as it’s euphemistically called). Many right-wing commentators cheer as the government snatches the livelihoods from thousands of disabled people, massively increases homelessness and prices working class people out of higher education, but they insist that it is essential that the UK maintains one of the highest military budgets in the world, despite containing less than one percent of the world’s population.

The rarely-mentioned reality is that the UK’s “defence” cuts are much smaller than most other cuts that the coalition government is making. If ministers were serious about cutting the deficit, they might start with the £100bn that will be spent renewing the Trident nuclear weapons systems, which can work only by killing millions of innocent people.

After planned cuts to military spending, the UK government will still have a massive military out of all proportion to the country’s size or to its other expenditure. A country’s influence no longer rests on the size of its army but Robert Gates, Liam Fox and even David Cameron seem to be living in the nineteenth century.

Very little of the “defence” budget is spent on anything that meaningfully defends the people living within the UK. People being thrown on the streets as a a result of the bedroom tax are unlikely to feel well defended. The reality is that the British people are under attack by British ministers and by the rich and powerful whose interests they promote. We need to defend ourselves from our own government.

“Bongo Bongo Land” controversy: Cut arms, not aid

Last year, I visited the Judean desert and met with people who used a water pipe
funded by UK aid money. Before the pipe was fitted, the villagers often had to go ten days without a bath. Now they can bathe every three days. They are also better able to water their vegetables and feed their livestock. The aid money has thus made them more independent, not less.

Despite this, the money is not solving their core problems. These once nomadic people are now largely static, prevented from moving about the desert by the Israeli armed forces, who use the area for training exercises. They live on the eastern side of Palestine, near the Jordanian border.

The UK government had helped them by funding a water pipe, but is failing to help them by speaking out firmly against the behaviour of Israel’s government and army, which might do more to change the underlying situation. British ministers are happy to keep selling weapons to Israel.

I’ve been thinking about this complexity today, following the scandal surrounding UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom, who referred to countries that receive UK aid as “Bongo Bongo Land”.

Yesterday, he was said to have “apologised”. Looking at the wording of his statement, I think the word “apology” is stretching it a bit:

“I understand from UKIP party chairman Steve Crowther and leader Nigel Farage that I must not use the terminology in the future, nor will I and sincerely regret any genuine offence which might have been caused or embarrassment to my colleagues.”

So not an apology but a “regret”. And no acceptance that his term is racist, but only a recognition that his party leaders have told him not to use it.

When initially challenged over his “Bongo Bongo Land” comments, Bloom said “It’s sad how anybody can be offended by a reference to a country that doesn’t exist.”

But of course, the countries that receive UK aid do exist and it these countries that Bloom has named “Bongo Bongo Land”. Also, as Zoe Williams points out in an excellent article today, the term has long been used as a derogatory reference to former British colonies.

I am tempted to get sidetracked and focus on Bloom’s other bigoted views (not long after his election, he said that “no self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of child-bearing age”). He is a reminder that UKIP is the latest face of the British far-right. But instead, I would rather challenge his views on UK aid.

His opinions on aid are shared by a number of Tory MPs and newspapers. The front page of today’s Daily Mail trails an article by Stephen Glover declaring that Bloom “spoke for Britain on foreign aid”.

The government’s policy is that aid should amount to 0.7% of public spending. That’s 0.7%. Just to be clear, that’s less than a penny in every pound. That’s seven pence out of a tenner. It is not a large proportion.

There are many things that can be said in defence of aid spending – that we live in an interconnected world, that we have a responsibility to each other, that many of the countries receiving UK aid are still suffering from the effects of the transatlantic slave trade and other injustices handed out by the rulers of the British Empire.

All of these are true. But although I am a strong supporter of aid spending, and of the 0.7% commitment, I don’t want to respond to Bloom’s comments by making an uncritical defence of the government’s aid plans.

For one thing, certain ministers are happy to look for ways of observing the letter but not the spirit of this commitment. The government has written off unjust debt and then counted this as aid money – even when the debt in question stood no chance of being repaid. David Cameron has even suggested that part of the aid budget could go towards military spending while still being counted as aid.

For aid to be really effective, it needs to work alongside other, more basic measures that will have a longer-lasting effect. Debt jubilees, new structures for international trade and a new financial system will have much more effect than aid alone.

As I saw in the Judean desert last year, aid spending can be helpful while also being undermined by the UK government’s other activities. For all David Cameron’s talk, aid spending is still vastly smaller than military spending. UKIP not only want to cut aid spending, they want to increase military spending (or “defence spending” as it’s euphemistically called) by a wapping 40%.

If we really want to cut the deficit at the same time as building a more just world, it’s arms we need to cut, not aid.

CofE and same-sex marriage: Serving society or protecting privilege?

The Church of England have today issued their formal response to the government’s consultation on same-sex marriage. They had a great opportunity to acknowledge the diversity of views within their own ranks and to move on from the defensive tone that characterises so many Christian contributions to debates over sexuality.

It is an opportunity that they have completely missed.

There is very little sign of originality or creative thinking in the CofE’s statement. It relies heavily on old, and largely discredited, arguments, to push its opposition to government plans to allow legally recognised civil marriage ceremonies in England and Wales.

The CofE’s central argument is the same one used by most other opponents of marriage equality – and it is equally unconvincing. This is the claim that the government is “redefining” marriage, which has been “always and exclusively between a man and a woman”.

Marriage has meant many different things in many different cultures. Very few British Christians would now argue for arranged marriage, let alone forced marriage or marriage while still of childhood age. Yet all these practices have been normal for Christians in certain times and places. When the Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1882, critics claimed that it was an attack on the sanctity of marriage. Similar claims were made when laws were introduced to protect women from domestic violence and rape (indeed, Stephen Green of the right-wing fundamentalist group Christian Voice still claims that marriage has been undermined by the law that bans men from raping their wives). As a friend of mine put it more bluntly recently, “The fact that you can’t sell your daughter for three goats and a cow suggests that we have already redefined marriage”.

The reality is that on many occasions marriage has been about money. As David Graeber points out in his recent history of money and debt, this has worked in several ways. “Brideprice” has involved a man making a payment to his new wife’s father. The opposite system is that of dowries in which the father makes a payment to the groom. In the UK today, money-based approaches to marriage are still strong. They are preserved symbolically in the appalling practice of the bride being “given away”. More alarmingly, they are very visible through the hugely profitable wedding industry. The average cost of a wedding in the UK is now roughly equivalent to the average annual income.

Thankfully, marriage has never been solely about money. Jesus shocked his listeners with his comments on marriage. In a time when only men could initiate divorce – often throwing their wives into social disgrace and even poverty – he criticised casual divorce. In a culture that blamed women for giving men lustful thoughts, he encouraged people to take responsibility for how they dealt with their own thoughts, and be aware of what they did in their hearts.

In other words, Jesus challenged relationships based on power and money in favour of relationships based on love, equality and self-control. It might be said that he redefined marriage.

The second major argument in today’s statement is the claim that men and women are fundamentally different. It speaks of the “biological complentarity” of men and women. Marriage, it argues, “embodies the… distinctiveness of men and women”. It states, “To argue that this [difference] is of no social value is to assert that men and women are simply interchangeable individuals”.

The Church of England leadership do not seem to have noticed the reality, diversity and uniqueness of the human beings they are called to serve. Of course, the writers of this document may well have major problems with transgender and genderqueer people. Disgracefully, the document doesn’t even mention the government’s proposal to scrap the outrageous practice by which a married person who transitions gender automatically has their marriage dissolved. But no-one can deny the reality of intersex people – those who are born without a clearly identifiable biological sex. This includes people whose genitalia do not “fit” with social categories, as well as those whose chromosomes do not “match” their genitals. About one in every 2,500 people are born intersex. Has the Church of England nothing to say about them, let alone to them?

As the theologian Susannah Cornwall points out, the significance of intersex goes beyond its statistical frequency. It disrupts any attempt to fit men and women into simplistic binary categories.

In the past, people argued against mixed-race marriage on the grounds that people of different races are fundamentally different. The vast majority of people in this country would now find such a claim to be morally and intellectually abhorrent. I hope the time will come when we are just as appalled when the claim is applied to people of different genders.

The CofE’s statement includes more scaremongering about the possibility of churches facing legal action for not carrying out same-sex weddings. This is extremely unlikely (not least because almost everyone campaigning for marriage equality respects the right of faith groups to make their own decisions on it). Further, it is only an issue because the Church of England is an established church. This position gives it both privileges and legal responsibilities. If top Anglicans want to have more freedoms, they need to give up their privileges.

Nonetheless, I’m more than ready to agree that one the CofE have a point in one aspect of their response. They suggest that the government’s plans, and the discussion around them, have given the impression that the law recognises two forms of marriage, “civil” and “religious”. In reality, this refers only to a type of ceremony, not to the legal status of the relationship.

Unfortunately, the CofE’s statement does not offer a solution to this confusion other than to try to keep things as they are. But marriage laws are already complicated, confusing and easily misunderstood. It is not proposals for same-sex marriage that are mixing things up. Not only do same-sex couples have different legal rights to mixed-sex couples, but different religious groups have different entitlements when it comes to the authority to perform legally recognised weddings. For example, the law that allows Quakers to carry out their own weddings dates back to the Marriage Act of 1753. It has barely been updated since. The Quakers are one of the groups now seeking the right to carry out same-sex marriages. The government plans to deny them this right, which they will restrict to civil ceremonies, thus making the system even more complicated and discriminatory.

To deal with all this, we need a thorough overhaul of marriage law to recognise the diversity of beliefs and relationships in a plural society. A government consultation aimed at such an overhaul would be a courageous and welcome step indeed.

At the Ekklesia thinktank, we have long argued that celebrating marriage and making commitments should be separated from the (arguably less important) process of gaining legal recognition. This would mean that people could carry out ceremonies with personal, social and – if important to them – religious significance, with legal registration being a separate process. This would allow supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage to act on their beliefs, to promote them, to publicise them and to seek to persuade others, without being able to use the law to enforce their views on those who disagree.

The CofE’s statement makes the frankly offensive claim that “almost all other churches” regard marriage as a union of a man and a woman. It might have been more accurate to say “most”. In the UK, churches that recognise same-sex marriage now include the Metropolitan Community Church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. The United Reformed Church will be discussing the issue at their General Assembly next month. There are calls amongst Baptists for each church and minister to be allowed to make up their own mind on the subject. There is significant support for same-sex marriage within the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and indeed within the Church of England itself, as well as from smaller numbers in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The statement makes no acknowledgement of the range of views within the Church of England’s own ranks. In talking about what “churches” believe, rather than what Christians believe, it seeks to uphold the authority of a privileged establishment, rather than to recognise the Holy Spirit’s movements amongst millions of believers – and unbelievers. While some church leaders are determined to resist change, other Christians seek, however imperfectly, to be at the forefront of it. Thankfully, we don’t need to rely on hierarchies. In the Church as well as in society, change comes from below, not from above.

Cameron tries to blackmail the Greeks

David Cameron and Kenneth Clarke yesterday tried to blackmail the people of Greece. Along with other European politicians, they have threatened the Greeks with all sorts of dire consequences if they elect a left-wing government. 

Clarke said the Greeks should not elect “a hopeless lot of cranky extremists”. This is presumably a reference to parties such as Syriza, the Radical Left Coalition, who are leading in the polls ahead of Greece’s election re-run on 17 June. Cameron demanded that Greece “meet their commitments” by implementing austerity measures in return for handouts from the Eurozone.

These “commitments” have not been made by the Greek people. They have been made by Greek politicians in the parties now being punished by voters: the right-wing New Democracy party and Pasok, the “Socialist” Party. The measures these politicians cravenly accepted include cuts to the minimum wage and massive privatisation, contributing to a rapid growth in extreme poverty in Greece.

What’s happening in Greece is only the most extreme example of what’s happening all over Europe. The rich have gambled with the wealth of others, been bailed out, and everyone else has to pay for it. The idea that unemployed people and minimum-wage workers in Greece are responsible for the country’s problems is as ludicrous as the argument that they have a moral obligation to pay for them. 

It is largely assumed by commentators and the media that if Greece refuse to “meet their commitments”, they will have to pull out of the Euro and there will be economic disaster. Thankfully, progressive economists are pointing out that the Greek people may be better off in the long run if they repudiate this unjust debt, citing the example of Argentina in 2001. If it’s managed relatively well, then they may even have some hope of being better off in the short term.

Whether or not this prediction is accurate, there is still a good reason for Greece to refuse the bailout package. Merkel and Cameron are seeking to bribe, bully and blackmail the Greeks into voting in parties that will betray them into the hands of bankers. Merkel and Cameron tell the Greeks that they have to face extreme pain – and then promise to alleviate the pain slightly if they do what they’re told. This is not democracy. 

The bailouts offered to this unjustly indebted nation are nothing more than crumbs from the cake of the capitalists who caused the financial crisis. Like millions of other working class and lower middle class people across Europe, I am fed up of this blackmail. We don’t want the crumbs from the cake. We want the cake.