There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. That act is giving.

Jacques Ellul, Money and Power, p.110 (PDF)

I found this in, of all places, a Christian self-help book. ‘Margin’, by Richard A. Swenson. It was on the shelf at the AirBnB place I’m staying at in Bushwick, and so I read it.

While it’d be easy to take it apart in several ways, I am bored of facile criticism. It’s unproductive. As I get older I want, more and more, to read in ‘good faith’, to seek to see the author’s intended nuance; to give the benefit of the doubt, and to assess that argument – the best one that could possibly have been made. What might I find in that?

In ‘Margin’, a more radical than expected theology of contentment through simplicity, balance, meekness. It’s deeply critical of affluence, advertising – in fact, capitalism. I like how it challenges me with unfamiliar concepts – I particularly like how faith provides a deep challenge to individualism. Swenson talks about the importance of service, an injunction to share: “Things are to be used, and people are to be served. To not allow someone to use something we own places more importance on the thing than on the person.” It’s radical because other-centric.

I think we lack a vocabulary to talk about these things outside of theology, and this means in modern secular society we’re not talking about these kind of ideas as much or as seriously as we might. (I like the seriousness of this kind of theology, its insistence that life is moral and our decisions do matter.) Maybe us urban moderns can still talk about it through Buddhist theology – detachment, impermanence, mindfulness and so on. That’s allowed a kind of intellectual legitimacy in our contemporary milieu that Christian theology really is not. It’s funny how these very old ideas have to be exoticised to be allowed to sneak in the door.


‘Margin’ builds on the ideas of Jacques Ellul, who I quote at the top of this post. He’s pretty interesting. I’d heard his name with regard to ‘The Technological Society’ (1964), a precursor to Evgeny Morozov, Jaron Lanier and so on which argues that modern technology makes efficiency a necessity, to which the natural world and humanity are subjugated.

I hadn’t realised he was also a Christian anarchist.

(I hadn’t been aware that Christian anarchy is a thing. Yes, he’s using the term ‘anarchy’ in a different way to that you might be familiar with. Recall what I said above about reading in ‘good faith’.)

Anyway. I really like these ideas about the radical potential of the gift, and about profanation – having myself come from anthropological debates about whether there’s any such thing as a free gift, having come from having read a little Agamben. This feels like an origin-point, a provocation, I’m not sure – something deeply challenging and thus exciting.

The easiest way to discuss this is through an extended quote from Money And Power

The ultimate expression of this Christian attitude toward the power of money is what we will call profanation. […]This profanation, then, means uprooting the sacred character, destroying the element of power. We must bring money back to its simple role as a material instrument. When money is no more than an object, when it has lost its seductiveness, its supreme value, its superhuman splendor, then we can use it like any other of our belongings, like any machine. (p.109-110)

“Giving to God introduces the useless into the world of efficiency, and this is an essential witness to faith in today’s world (John 12:1-8). But obviously giving to human beings also "desacralizes” money. We do not need to show the necessity of such giving, which is on the one hand an expression of charity (that is, of love) and on the other a spiritual act. It is the act by which man glorifies God and proclaims grace to other men.“ (p.112)

"This gift of money can never be anonymous; it cannot be a duty which a person discharges. It is, on the contrary, an act that is closely linked with personal life. It is not the act of a person who is unacquainted with money, but rather of a person who knows how much he depends on money, how often money has been able to attack and possess him. This gift is made then in full consciousness of the power of money, not in ignorance of it. And that is why, ultimately, the gift of money presupposes and signifies the gift of oneself.” (p.113)

Really a lot of social theory comes back to god in some way or another. Giorgio Agamben, Karmen MacKendrick (I adore her), our good friend Žižek… There is a reason for this. It’s a vast disservice to reduce it to mere vocabulary, but for me that’s what stands out as so distinctive – new tools with which to think by. The sacred, service, charity, grace – the profane. Suffering, meekness, submission. Theology imbues those words with a huge weight and depth of reference. This makes them theoretically interesting.

(via hautepop)