On Mammon and Manna
In the heat of mid-summer 2004, delegates to the 24th General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches met in Accra, Ghana. Several hundred of us visited the slave castles of the Ghana coast, which for centuries served as a hub for the traffic of human souls to the Americas. At Elmina Castle, we witnessed a profound spiritual condemnation written in the stone and wood of the fortress’s architecture: the Dutch Governor, merchants, and soldiers lived on the upper level, while the people regarded only as merchandise lay in chains in the dungeons below.
Money changed hands and fortunes grew with each person who passed under Elmina’s floors. For more than two centuries, the wealthy Christians conducted their daily business on that upper level. Every step that they took was a footfall on the heads of the unseen population below. They entered the room used as the Reformed Church under an inscription of privilege—”For the Lord has chosen Zion” (Ps 138)—where the worship hall floor on which they knelt was built on a literal foundation of human misery.
At Accra, delegates descended from slavers and delegates descended from the enslaved recognized together that today’s global economy resembles Elmina Castle, with the wealth of the few built on the afflicted heads of the many. In its most active period, Elmina trafficked 30,000 slaves per year, with a staggering death rate among the imprisoned. In 2004, tens of thousands of people die every day from hunger and malnutrition. The imprisonment of poverty today is no less binding than the imprisonment at Elmina, for all that contemporary chains are crafted from economic forces instead of cold iron. The invisibility of the enslavement, the intercontinental spread of the bindings, only makes the evil more insidious, harder to name.
Yet name it the Accra General Council did, in a letter to Reformed churches worldwide, witnessing to the dominion of our Lord Jesus Christ over all—including the economic systems that leave so many so desperate. “How can we say that we believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord over all life,” the letter asks, “and not stand against all that denies the promise of fullness of life to the world?” The claim is simple: because we belong to Christ, we belong to one another.
The Accra letter condemns the excesses built into the capitalist system. It does not indicate, however, the many concrete steps that should be taken. It would be far tamer if it did. All too often, it seems the church engages in politics as if God’s coming kingdom could be achieved through an actionable, ten-step plan. The Accra letter does not pretend that global economic injustices will be undone through calls to action, because the letter is not about what the church should do. It is about whom the church serves, whose the church is, and who the church ought to be. If we claim Christ, then the church’s prophetic voice must rail against an economic fortress where the rich few live and dine and worship directly over the death and starvation and worship of many. Accra or no Accra, the rich will continue in unseeing piety on the upper level; those of us who take Accra’s call seriously, however, can no longer join them.
What social programs will emerge from this? What denominational relief agencies take flight? Such questions, striving for the political, miss the spiritual point. Christians in wealthy nations have confused Mammon with manna eternal, idol with the Lord. We have been deceived by consumerism, have eaten the food of endless hunger instead of the bread of never-ending fullness. The sins emerging from this deception cannot be categorized and erased via legislation or social action—we must each work out our own.
For my part, I have only begun to struggle with what Christian faithfulness means as a rich Christian in a world filled with hunger and grinding poverty, but it is clear that this is a spiritual discipline from which I cannot escape. In Accra, I was part of a bible study group with sisters and brothers from the poorest corners of the earth. The abstract economic conditions that I decry are the realities to which they returned from the conference. And, while it is relatively hard to remember in the United States that the New Jerusalem is not a free-market economy, in the poverty-stricken lands of my Bible Study companions, it is impossible to forget.
Acts tells us that when Paul and Silas lay imprisoned in the fortress at Philippi, their jailer did not see that he had men of God under his watch. He had secured them in the innermost cell, with stocks on their feet. But God’s will was freedom for the captives. As Paul and Silas sang hymns and prayed, and the prisoners listened to them, the Lord shook the foundations of the prison so that the doors flew open. The jailer, who imagined himself the master of all those imprisoned, begged mercy from those who had only just been under his authority:
“What must I do to be saved?”
That very night the jailer took Paul and Silas into his own home. He washed their wounds. He gave them sustenance. He offered them refuge. Yet there is no doubt from the Biblical witness that it was Paul and Silas who blessed the jailer, not the other way round.
Jesus has shaken the foundations of the world. At his witness, the prison doors rattle from their hinges. If we want to know what to do, let us ask the brethren who sit in the prison of our guard:
What must we do to be saved?
The answer was then, is now, and forever will be, “believe in the Lord Jesus.” We are all left to work that belief out in our lives, our politics, our work. Let those who have ears to hear, listen.
I’m going to start.
Tyler Stevenson contributed to this article.
The Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick ‘68 M.Div. has served as Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA since 1996. In July 2004, he was voted President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Before assuming this position, he served as director of the Worldwide Ministries and Global Mission Ministry Unit of the Presbyterian Church.