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Money and the Incarnation
The question we have to ask ourselves all the time is, What am I living for?

Victor Shepherd has taught theology at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto since 1993 and has pastored congregations in both United and Presbyterian churches for 37 years. He is a clear thinker, a learned scholar and a prolific writer (his latest book is Do You Love Me? – And Other Questions Jesus Asks). Faith Today asked writer David Peck to interview him recently, and their conversation turned around questions of money and poverty.

Victor Shepherd is a friend I talk with regularly. We often meet over Earl Grey tea, scones and Devonshire cream. Sometimes we wax poetic and sometimes not so much. We laugh often at ourselves and always wind up talking about serious matters. This conversation grew out of one of those afternoon meetings.

Victor Shepherd

Victor’s past life as a pastor has affected much of his academic work. His 30 years as the leader of a local church congregation has allowed him access to varied, complex and sometimes painful human stories. So he knows how social and spiritual matters like poverty and injustice make contact with reality. You can find out more about him at www.victorshepherd.on.ca.

I am a writer and teacher of film, philosophy and international development at Redeemer University College and Humber College in Ancaster, Ontario. I am currently working on a medical project in Cambodia with Asian Outreach Canada in Toronto and have recently launched SoChange, an organization that works alongside non-governmental organizations. You can learn more about us at www.sochangenow.com.

David Peck (DP): I was recently reading an article on free trade and started wondering what the Bible might have to say about free market capitalism.

Victor Shepherd (VS): The Bible isn’t concerned with the free market. It’s concerned with the reign of God.

DP: So Jesus wouldn’t have been a capitalist or a socialist?

VS: Jesus doesn’t belong to the left or to the right. He’s preoccupied rather with the kingship of God. He’s concerned with upholding the Old Testament, which is full of references to the horror of poverty and the fact that poverty ought not to exist at all among God’s people.

DP: More than 2,300 verses in the Bible is the statistic I’ve heard.

VS: Jesus says very succinctly you can’t worship God and mammon. The New Testament is preoccupied with a cosmic power struggle and money is regarded as, by far, the biggest spiritual threat. Jesus says more about money than about any other single topic.

DP: What about the distinction between money and the love of money?

VS: The Epistles say the love of money is the root of all evil. The problem is, however, how much can you have and not fall in love with it. To hold it, to possess it, is sooner or later to fall in love with it. Holding it can very quickly turn into hoarding it. The only freedom we ever have with money is the freedom to give it away.

DP: You mentioned a “cosmic power struggle.” Can you speak more about that?

VS: I don’t think we can possess extraordinary sums of money and have it all to our liking. On that point I think Karl Marx was right. Once people possess money they start to think very differently. Everybody has heard the popular expression “Money talks.” Money also silences. One of the church’s responsibilities is to determine what it is that money says.

DP: Bill Gates and Warren Buffet clearly know money talks and now, later in life, they are giving a lot of it away.

VS: Never mind Gates and Buffet. Let’s talk about you and me. The issue is never what we’ve given away; the issue is how much we have left over. If Mr. Buffet gives away 20 billion dollars and he has a trillion dollars remaining, it costs him nothing. The issue from a Christian perspective is sacrifice.

DP: Is it fair to say that the injustice is not the poverty but how we in the privileged world react to the injustice?

VS: First of all, there is horrific poverty throughout the world and there ought not to be. We live in a world with severe material and financial imbalances. That fact alone signals an injustice. Secondly, however, indifference to injustice is itself an injustice. And yet the just judge Himself isn’t indifferent to the calcified hearts of those who turn a blind eye to injustice.

DP: God is the just judge who also sent Jesus to take on human form and become our neighbour, as it were.

VS: Yes, He tells us that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. In other words, our Lord lives with a material vulnerability and deprivation at all times.

DP: And so His humanity makes issues like poverty and social injustice matter.

VS: Since the Incarnation is the bedrock for Christian faith, I don’t see how we can uphold the Incarnation and, at the same time, deny the situations that our Lord knew in His early life. The Bible is always aware that every human being is at risk at all times and yet we are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, the human being is graced at all times. To violate the human being, even to violate him by being indifferent to him, is to violate the image of God in that person, which is to say, to violate God Himself.

… the opposite of love is not hatred. The opposite of love is indifference…

DP: I’ve read that the average Canadian gives $330 annually in charitable donations. I don’t want to reduce giving to a mere economic gesture because it’s so much more than that – it’s about volunteerism, advocacy and education. In my experience though, there seem to be a lot of indifferent people out there.

VS: I’m not the searcher of anybody’s heart but, if your minimal financial donation is a way of excusing yourself from any deeper commitment, then I think there is a kind of purchased indifference there. We ought always to remember that in the Scripture the opposite of love is not hatred. The opposite of love is indifference, because the person to whom you’re indifferent you disregard so thoroughly that you can’t even be bothered getting steamed up about him. Indifference means you don’t see the human being in front of you as a human being at all.

DP: What about the busy, overworked mother who doesn’t have time to think about issues on the other side of the world. Would you call that indifference?

VS: Not necessarily because, in the mandate to love our neighbour, the neighbour includes at least our own family. We have neighbours far and we have neighbours near.

DP: Who is my neighbour?

VS: The Scriptures have a great deal to say about the neighbour. I want to point out that in the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus doesn’t answer the question He’s asked. He doesn’t say your neighbour is such-and-such a person. It is never the case that we have neighbours; it’s rather the case that it’s incumbent upon Christians to prove ourselves to be neighbours.

DP: If I have to prove myself as neighbour, where does my responsibility begin and end?

VS: Most people don’t feel responsible for anything. If any Canadian needed blood tonight as a result of an accident, that person would expect the blood to be there and would expect the blood to be free. But all the blood in Canada is donated by three percent of the population. So the fact that most people give away no more than $330 a year of their disposable income is pathetic on the one hand. On the other hand it ought not to surprise us.

DP: Why is it so hard to maintain a vigilant spirit of generosity?

VS: For the simple reason that, just as we have to prove ourselves to our neighbour every day, we have to be newly converted every day. Martin Luther said the Christian life is a daily, lifelong repentance. Every morning we have to be reoriented to the truth and the reality of God. For years I’ve known that the more you have to live for the less you need to live on. The question we have to ask ourselves all the time is, What am I living for? I mean how many zeros on a page do we need?

DP: Sometimes I think part of the argument against generous giving to the Two-Third’s World goes like this: “Listen, I’ve worked pretty hard for all these zeros on the page and so should they.”

VS: On the one hand the so-called fiscal conservative is right – they should work hard. And so should we. On the other hand I think many poor people work frightfully hard but get nowhere. We happen to live in a country that’s rich in natural resources. What if we lived in a country that wasn’t? We mustn’t assume that the starting place is the same for everybody in life. Several years ago my congregation sponsored an affordable housing project. We were at City Hall because another group of citizens was opposing the project. One woman vehemently denounced the whole scheme of social housing. One year later she came to us and asked if she could jump the queue on the waiting list. Overnight things changed – her husband left her and her material world collapsed. All of a sudden she went from being contemptuous to pleading with us for an advantage.

DP: She lacked humility and compassion.

VS: Money talks. When she had it, what was it saying? When she didn’t have it, what was it saying?

DP: I have a quote here from Blaise Pascal: “Man’s sensitivity to the littlest things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a very strange disorder.” In one of your books you talk about “soft-ship.” Does that ring a bell?

VS: Yes, hardship versus soft-ship.

DP: You write: “The superficiality in arrogant self-satisfaction will overtake any of us unless we understand the spiritual threat that surrounds us in our ever growing affluence . . .” It sounds as if you and Pascal agree.

VS: Indeed. In Proverbs 30 the writer pleads with God not to make him rich or poor. If he’s rich he will become intoxicated on his affluence and he’ll disregard God. If he’s poor he will be bent out of shape and become embittered toward God. Hardship is the position of having too little; soft-ship is the position of having too much. Overwhelmingly in North America most of us – not all of us, but most of us – are afflicted with soft-ship.

DP: We’re back to . . .

“Under capitalism people devour people. Under communism it’s the other way around.”

VS: That’s right. We’re back to minor things. The matters that touch people who are materially deprived are huge – food, shelter, clothing, employment, disease, sickness and inadequate opportunity. We ought of course to be sensitive to someone else’s pain. We tend not to be. Instead we’re supersensitive to the most minor irritation or vexation. And people have a wonderful capacity not to feel guilty when it’s going to affect their pocketbooks. This demonstrates once more that we are disordered.

DP: So should I feel guilty or responsible?

VS: You should feel guilty where you are guilty.

DP: And guilt leads to conviction or indifference?

VS: No one can live with guilt for very long. Therefore people are going to protect themselves through rationalization. If people feel guilty they will either rationalize it away or they will repent.

DP: What are the implications of indifference?

VS: Indifference is sooner or later indifference to yourself. This is a form of suicide. Since everyone is made in the image of God, I cannot violate the image of God in my neighbour without violating it in myself. Therefore I cannot mistreat any human being without victimizing myself. In the process I fail to see him or her and I lose perception of myself at the same time. Now a double death has occurred.

DP: Right, because we know ourselves in relation to the other.

VS: Exactly.

DP: Our time is up. Anything you want to add?

VS: You asked me earlier if Jesus was a socialist or if Jesus was a capitalist. My old philosophy mentor, Emil Fackenheim, used to say: “Under capitalism people devour people. Under communism it’s the other way around.” Any dialogue that comes out of a conversation between capitalism and communism still has an entirely naturalistic future. And, as a naturalistic future, it still doesn’t represent the Kingdom of God. Therefore it isn’t the long-term solution to anything.

DP: Thank you again, Victor.

Originally published in Faith Today, July/August, 2008.

 

 

 
 
 
 

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