This article was originally published in the February 15, 1985 issue of Christianity Today.

Money and Power
Jacques Ellul; foreword by David W. Gill, translated by LaVonne Neff
InterVarsity Press, 1984, 173 pp.

Law student Jacques Ellul was 17 and indigent when he discovered Karl Marx and suddenly thought he understood everything: Why his aristocratic father was perpetually out of work, turned away by every company and factory he called on; why his family was impoverished; why the dock workers in Bordeaux lived in degraded conditions; why injustice thrived.

But when young Ellul contacted other followers of Marx—members of socialist and communistic organizations—he was deeply disappointed. No one seemed devoted to Marx's ideas or the improvement of society. The socialists wanted only to improve their own political position, and the Communists put the party line above the thoughts of Marx. Later, during World War II, Ellul saw Communists involved in the Resistance kill other Resistance groups simply because they were not Communists. "The Communists," Ellul wrote, "no longer had the right to be heard, received, or believed" (Perspectives On Our Age: Jacques Ellul Speaks on His Life and Work ed. by William H. Vanderburg, trans. by, Joachim Neugroschel; Seabury Press, 1981, p. 10).

Ellul hasn't had much use for any party, ideology, or system since.

The making of many books

Since his early brush with communism, Ellul has become a Christian, earned a doctorate, cared for a small Protestant congregation, served on the National Council of the French Reformed Church, participated in politics, taught in the university, agitated for ecological reforms, and become an influential thinker.

He has also written a few books; over 30 have been published in 13 languages. But this is no Louis L'Amour or P. G. Wodehouse supplying his public with an embarrassment of predictable entertainment. In fact, Ellul's writing is rarely entertaining, and his ideas, never predictable.

Recently his 30-year-old essay on Christians and the problems of money has appeared in English as Money and Power. Remarkably, its age is of no consequence. As Ellul writes in his 1979 afterword: "Much has changed in appearance, very little in reality" (p. 165).

The book's reception has not always been overwhelmingly positive, due primarily to two factors. The first is the centrality of money to the way we live. Very few of us spend our days producing the things we need for everyday life or for providing much-needed help to the people we care about. Instead, we make money. Perhaps not much of it. But the goal of our labors is a paycheck, and the trips to the bank and the shopping mall—the climate-controlled temples of Mammon—it makes possible. You can say anything you want about the money and morals of oil tycoons, movie moguls, and the captains of industry without raising my hackles. But watch what you say about my daily dollars or you'll make me bristle.

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No exit

A second factor that may have inhibited the book's reception is Ellul's ruthless, dialectical manner. New College (Berkeley) professor David W. Gill described it this way: "Ellul 'takes everything away' from us. He removes our commonplaces and securities, destroys our idols, crutches, and supports, ruthlessly strips away our justifications, and attacks our conformity to the world and lack of faith in Christ. Both through sociological criticism and through biblical exposition, he leaves us no way out, with the exits sealed off, with no hope" (CT, Sept. 10, 1976, p. 24).

You might say he strips us of both the friends we love and the enemies we cherish, and leaves us naked before the mirrors of Scripture and social science. An approach like that is not calculated to collect votes and cheers. "I'm no great fan of Ellul," Seattle Pacific University anthropologist Miriam Adeney told me recently. Applying another anthropologist's criticism of Claude Levi-Strauss to Ellul, she observed that he exhibits "the tendency to excess of seminal minds."

"But wait!" Professor Gill continues, "Ellul gives it all back with what can only be described as an inspiring vision of hope and freedom. … This approach exemplifies, on the level of contemporary Christian ethical discourse, the pattern of' leaving all, "hating all,' and embarking on the path of radical discipleship to Jesus Christ that is repeatedly given in the Gospels."

Money and Mammon

How does Ellul "take everything away" in Money and Power? Perhaps he strikes his most stunning blow when he takes Jesus' words at face value and personifies money as Mammon, a demigod, a demon, an idol, a power from which we need liberation.

We look at money as just so much limp green paper in the service of which we have dulled our spirits and calloused our hands. Money can be enervating, in our view, but it is necessary and morally neutral—not the least bit negative. We'd like to have more. The problem isn't money, we say. The problem is that we don't have enough. Or that somebody else has too much.

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No, says Ellul. Money is not neutral. "Jesus personifies money and considers it sort of a god. He does not get this idea from his cultural milieu. … This personification of money, this affirmation that we are talking about something that claims divinity . … reveals something exceptional about money, for Jesus did not usually use deifications and personifications" (p. 75).

Ellul explains that in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13 Jesus shows that money is a power, a law unto itself that acts in the material world but with a spiritual orientation. In the Bible, power is never neutral. And it is often personal. Just as Scripture often portrays death as a personal force, so it also portrays money.

Rhetoric and reality

The situation is serious. "We absolutely must not minimize the parallel Jesus draws between God and Mammon. He is not using a rhetorical figure but pointing out a reality. God as a person and Mammon as a person find themselves in conflict. Jesus describes the relation between us and one or the other the same way: it is the relationship between servant and master. Mammon can be a master the same way God is; that is, Mammon can be a personal master" (p. 76).

We may claim to use money, Ellul continues, but in reality money uses us, "makes us servants by bringing us under its law and subordinating us to its aims" (p. 76). We simply are not free.

One of the clearest signs that Mammon is a spiritual power is the way we attribute sacred characteristics to money. In the middle class, we may speak of business in someone's living room, but money itself is a forbidden topic. The social embarrassment is a sign of our sense of money's sacredness. The working class shows its reverence in a different way: "It is the widespread conviction that if the money question is solved, all problems of the working class and of humankind in general will thereby be solved as well. It is also the conviction that everything that does not tend to solve the money problem is only hot air" (p. 77).

Ellul doesn't mention it (perhaps things were different in postwar France), but the resemblance between banks and temples is only too clear-whether it be the pseudo-Greek facades that used to be so popular, the predictable pinstriped vestments of the hierarchy, or the way in which the sacramental symbols are dispensed on marble altars. Indeed, our society seems more committed to rescuing one major bank from failure than it does to saving millions of fetal lives.

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Desecrating money

Did Adeney say Ellul exhibited "the tendency to excess of seminal minds"? Indeed. Ellul thinks Christians can show their freedom from money's power by rejecting the employer-employee relationship, repudiating profit making, and refusing to store up money in rainy-day savings accounts (though he allows saving for a specific project).

Whatever his excesses, Ellul is right when he suggests that we need to practice a little sacrilege against Mammon's rule. The last thing Christians need to do is to genuflect before Mammon's altar. "There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money," Ellul writes, "an act for which money is not made. This act is giving" (p. 110).

Ellul is enthusiastic about giving. "It is … the penetration of grace into the world of competition and selling" (p. 110). He encourages giving to God and giving to people. Gifts made purely to God's glory—the use of money for absolutely no practical value—are the greatest profanation. When we give to people, we must give freely, not letting giving be a way of obligating the receiver, demanding gratitude, or affirming the superiority of the giver over the receiver. "Almsgiving is Mammon's perversion of giving" (p. 112).

Ambiguity and paradox

But wait a minute. If money is so evil, shouldn't we, like the desert fathers, leave society in order to live out an ideal of Christian poverty? Or shouldn't we at least concentrate on living as simply as possible while serving as salt and light in the midst of society? No again, says Ellul, for that places far too much importance on money. Then what shall we do?

Ellul won't tell us. And that's typical. Brethren theologian Vernard Eller explained it this way: "Ellul has little or no interest in conceptualizing the faith, in teaching people to think it correctly and arrange it into a rationally satisfying arrangement of ideas. To make the gospel this would be, for him, to miss its true power, dynamic, life, and excitement. No, Christianity is a matter of lived and living relationships" ("Jacques Ellul, the Polymath Who Knows Only One Thing," Brethren Life and Thought, Spring 1973).

That approach can produce anxiety, suspicion, or disgust in the reader who demands clarity and cannot tolerate ambiguity. On the one hand, Ellul condemns just about everything that has to do with money or economic systems. On the other, he talks about Christians earning money and participating in those necessarily false economic systems, as long as they have their eyes open. As Gill said, Ellul "takes everything away" and then "gives it all back with … an inspiring vision of hope and freedom." Thus, in Ellul's intellectual adventure, there are few answers, but much grace.

This article was originally published in the February 15, 1985 issue of Christianity Today.