Common questions about Plundering Egypt.
1. Q: Why Plundering Egypt? What's the significance of the title?
A: The title comes from the book of Exodus. In the Exodus the Hebrews plunder the Egyptians, the women asking other women for their precious metal valuables. This could have been a blessing to the Hebrews in their new lives, as they were going to inhabit a land they did not build, so they wouldn't be starting from nothing. But we know what happens with this gold, it gets melted into the golden calf. In the end, the plunder of Egypt subverts the Hebrews. They not only brought the valuables of Egypt with them, they brought the values. The same has largely been true in the Christian church. Instead of "making friends by means of unrighteous wealth" Christians have tried to serve two masters: God and money. This book looks at how the gospel of reconciliation subverts the values of Egypt, of money. In this way the Christian's task is to plunder Egypt, not by acquiring its wealth, but by reconciling its people to God and so devaluing its wealth.
2. Q: How does your book help us understand the good news of the gospel?
A: Jesus says many statements that are as clear as possible. God and money are irreconcilable masters. One can take one's pick of masters, but will be devoted to that one to the neglect of the other. The gospel of Jesus Christ is reconciliation with God and with each other. This book argues that the very need of economics does not and cannot come from God, but is a human invention, a human belief system, that is created only after the Fall. If economics is fruit of the Fall, then it follows that reconciliation would have dramatic implications for economics. Therefore, investigating the economic relationship helps us understand what estrangement from God looks like. Clarifying sin always clarifies the good news. Christ liberates people from the necessity of economic relations, and this book looks at some ethical implications of this.
3. Q: I know what economics is, and the economy, but what is the economic relationship that you talk about?
A: Economics as a social science is a relatively recent innovation, and many of the founding stories that modern economists have told about human history and the market, have no supporting evidence from anthropology. So if the marketplace is not what unifies humanity, and humans are not by nature prone to "truck and barter" as Adam Smith argued, what is it that all the economic expressions of human history have in common? They are a kind of relationship between people and their gods, the earth, each other, and strangers. The economic relationship is about mediation. What comes between people, what mediates their relationships, tends to imprint its image on that relationship. We know how mobile phones and social media have transformed human interactions, especially when compared to the practice of letter writing. The same is true of economics. When our relationships are mediated through material things, the material things transform relationships. But if our relationships are mediated by a relationship with God first, then that relationship will transform how we see and interact with other people, the earth, and God himself.
4. Q: What is the significance of economics in theology that you would choose to explain your theology through that lens?
A: Many people have asked me a similar question. Economics and theology seem to have nothing in common whatever. Interestingly, economic reasoning has formed human religious expressions in many ways. Sacrifice, for example, is an economic relationship with the gods. That people imagine the gods or God stands in need or want of anything so that a sacrifice would be inviting enough to change their course of action seems ludicrous. Many Christians cannot explain the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ without reference to economic language. Even the concept of justice is deeply rooted in economic reasoning, and justice is at the heart of many versions of the gospel. So, economics is actually profoundly related to theology, and a major task that I still see ahead is coming to terms with how deeply economic reasoning is embedded in our theologies. In a sense I did not have to choose to write a theology through the lens of economics, that choice has been made through many millennia of thinking about the divine.
5. Q: Why did you choose to engage with an anthropological history of economics instead of a more mainline version?
A: Mainline, or Neoclassical, economics is a social science of a very different sort to theology. We are accustomed to think of economics as primarily a mathematical field. Because we can apply mathematical models to human social interactions, we tend to convince ourselves that the model is reality, and that people actually are rationally self–interested. But this is a very problematic perspective. It dehumanizes people, destroys traditional societies, transforms the world into a warehouse of raw materials for exploitation, and places sin at the very heart of our relationships. By looking at ancient Greece and anthropological accounts of premonetary peoples we can see that mainline economics is a story that we have all told ourselves. It is a cosmology that we believe with all our hearts, but it is not reality. It is only a story, but a story with the power to transform the whole world in some very disturbing ways.
Furthermore, in order to understand the economic language we find in the Bible, we need to look at the economics of the authors and original audiences of the Bible. They did not believe in rational self–interest, and most in the Hebrew Scriptures lived long before money was ever invented. This is profoundly significant. Anthropology and sociology of religion are also social sciences and modern innovations. They are also just stories. But they have the benefit of having done actual research into ancient economic relations, whereas mainline economics has created a myth and stuck by it in spite of quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. All sciences rest on founding myths we need to tell, but modern mainline economics is exceptionally guilty of lacking self–criticism.
6. Q: You put a lot of stake into narrative and telling genealogical stories. Why do you feel the need to provide a narrative solution to such a practical field as economics?
A: Our world is a story, and the stories we tell form the world we live in. The kinds of stories we tell each other has almost incomprehensible consequences. Economics is, first and foremost, a story. Theology is a story also. Once upon a time theology was not all that complicated. It was also an eminently practical thing that people did. Everyone in classical Greece knew what piety was and was not. It was common sense. Socrates dared ask the question, "What is piety?" and got himself killed for being impious and corrupting the youth with such questioning. But the stories that lie behind popular piety are more complicated. And the stories that lie behind popular economic behavior are more complicated. Stories create what we understand to be reality. I believe it is the task of Christians to tell an alternative story. Indeed, this is what the Bible itself is. This story is critical of the stories of economics. It is possible to trace the origin of the idea of enlightened self–interest, and its source is not in research into human nature, but in an intentional modification of Augustine's vision of original sin as self–love. The core conception of modern mainline economics is based in a secularization of Augustinian original sin. This is not an innocent story, because it takes the nasty concept of sin as self–love and sanitizes it, removing the relational aspect of this self–love, and helping create a modern society that bases its core values of individual rights and liberties in this secularized sin. I cannot help but tell these stories, because they are very disturbing, and it is my hope that telling these stories will go some way to delegitimizing these commonsensical notions like the sovereignty of the individual, a notion based in a deep perversion of the biblical narrative.
7. Q: You claim that all economic relationships are fruit of an estranged relationship from God. But if our reality is full of economics on a daily basis isn't this too idealistic? One has to make money to eat. This seems totally impractical.
A: Certainly all of this story telling seems like an academic exercise. Essentially I am saying that the Bible is an alternative account to any economic system conceivable. The ethical implications are literally world–changing. So what is the average Christian supposed to do? Here is where the power of stories comes in again. One need not be the most astute scholar to have one's life transformed by the renewing of the mind. One only need hear, tell, and live an alternative story. The gospel of reconciliation is deeply subversive to economic stories, because it demands that Christians follow Jesus in his taking the initiative of reconciliation. He suffered injustice instead of demanding justice, and he bid his disciples to do likewise. All the Christian needs to do is look for opportunities to love their neighbors and enemies by giving up grandiose and completely idealistic ideas of justice. Let me explain that further. Justice is an economic concept, which is why, when we want to represent it in an image, we portray it as balanced scales. Scales are a marketplace image, and we think that there are many ways to balance a wrongdoing. We make murder commensurable with money. We make rape commensurable with time spent in a prison that we know will do nothing to reform the offender. We tell ourselves economic stories of justice that are themselves extraordinarily idealistic. So I do not think a gospel of loving one's enemies to show the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ is really all that idealistic.
We cannot build the kingdom of God, because the only means to increase it is through reconciliation. No amount of violence or political pressure can create reconciliation. Nor can we escape the world and live non–economic lives. Jesus is very clear that reconciliation must be passed on, or one has not really received it. So living in between these two options means we can love our enemies, and bring them to reconciliation with God in Christ. I think this is eminently practical and have seen it at work in the pastorate.
8. Q: Are you an ascetic?
A: Not really. Although living an alternative life means taking up one's cross daily, and although the cost of discipleship is total, this does not mean the body is evil. In this book I look a little into mysticism and how it, too, is related to economic reasoning through metaphysics. My theology is all about interpersonal, face–to–face relationships, and love. This is not a love for humanity that characterizes ascetics like Nietzsche's Zarathustra, a love that is actually a veiled hatred. This is a love for people, not universal concepts of humanity. There is, again, a literal world of difference between these two kinds of love.
9. Q: What's so bad about the common good?
A: Throughout Plundering Egypt, I am deeply critical of the concept of the common good, or the commonwealth. This latter word reveals the deep connection of the common good with economic reasoning. The common good is problematic for the Christian because it assumes that there is a good that can be known apart from knowing God. What is the common ground a Christian has with others of the same society? Economic realities. While there's nothing inherently wrong with not starving, the common good is a story we tell, a story that purposefully does not need to reference the triune God of Jesus Christ. What that ultimately means is that the common good is the death of the church. If the church's function is to support the common good, it essentially looks for ways to baptize the world, to have God affirm the world's vision of the good. This is nothing but justifying sin instead of the sinner. Instead we need to be deeply critical of the common good because it seeks the good without God. I argue in Plundering Egypt that the sin of Adam and Eve was exactly this seeking of the good without reference to God. And, in one way, this is the very definition of the economic relationship, because if we do not mediate questions of goodness through our relationship with God, we must mediate it through the material world without reference to God. Being against the common good isn't the same as supporting evil, of course. One major theme of this book is that we have to get beyond the false dichotomy of good and evil. The only good for the Christian is reconciliation with God, which then leads to loving neighbors, enemies, and God's creation as a result.
10. Q: Theology has been heavily invested in the field of metaphysics, but you are quite critical of this. Why is that? What is problematic in your understanding with metaphysics?
A: In Plundering Egypt, I draw on the work of Richard Seaford, a scholar in the Classics from Exeter. He argues rather convincingly in Money and the Early Greek Mind (Cambridge, 2004) that the invention of coinage is the most important of a number of influences that led to the creation of metaphysics. I summarize some of his findings related to a number of Greek philosophers and I personally can see a strong connection between money and metaphysics. Seaford explains that the coin is the first human invention that has value by what it represents and not by what it is. Nothing in nature is that way. He calls this fiduciarity. Essentially, the coin is the first thing that would raise the question of the universal and particular. Nevertheless, metaphysics is no less a projection than the personalized gods of the premonetary people were. Metaphysics is, in many ways, the imposition of the nature of coined money onto the universe. The notion of "universe" itself is fruit of this. Theology of the kind most academics are accustomed to has its roots in classical Greece and its philosophy. Unsurprisingly, then, much Christian theology has continued to use economic realities to explain divine realities. That God, or the mind of God, is the font of all universals is one clear example of pure metaphysical thinking. But the Hebrew Scriptures were written before coinage was invented. Its authors were systematically incapable of thinking metaphysically. When God tells Moses that his name is "I AM" we naturally think of ontology, that God is eternal, that he is simple, etc. But if we consider the kind of society that would have written and received this text, such an interpretation is anachronistic. Rather, "I AM" is equally well translated "I will be whom I will be," which in context with the rest of the Pentateuch is a way of God saying that he is faithful, that if he is going to swear he must swear by himself. Interpreting such texts in a relational and non–metaphysical way makes far more sense of the biblical narrative, and seems to me far closer to the shape of the texts themselves. After all, the major genre of the biblical revelation is narrative. This is not accidental. The whole purpose of the revelation of God is to show that God chooses to take the initiative in reconciliation with people, not forcing them, or mediating through systems. God is at work through people in the language they speak, in the religious forms they have, to show he is faithful and he will be reconciled, if they are willing. This is a far better gospel than the metaphysical gospel of deification, mysticism, or crusading imperialism. It's not about participating in the nature or essence of God, but being loved by him as we are, and drawing us out of our rebelliously constructed worlds.