Money Can’t Buy Goodness

From the Magazine: “Money Can Buy a Lot of Things, But It Cannot Make You a Law-Abiding Citizen.”

Mockingbird / 8.24.21

Our newest issue of The Mockingbird magazine is now available to order. For a preview of the issue, peruse the opener below, written by the editor himself, CJ Green.

Did you know that the rich steal more than the poor? I don’t mean tax evasion (though probably that too). I mean shoplifting. I mean pilfering coffeemakers from Kmart, the way Andrew Francis Lippi III did in 2019 — just days after he bought an island. Lippi’s story is consistent with the findings of a famous study in the American Journal of Psychology: apparently those who made more than $70,000 per year were 30% more likely to shoplift than those who make $20,000 or less.

Cover illustration by Lehel Kovács.

Psychologists disagree about exactly why this is. Some theorize it’s self-medication — the thief is attempting to numb the pain of a personal crisis with the euphoria of theft. Others suggest that it’s simply easier for the rich to get away with it. Whatever the cause, the result is the same. You should worry less about the poor dude loitering by the door. It’s the guys who drive sports cars that you want to watch out for — at least if you work at Kmart.

Money can buy a lot of things. It can put a roof over your head, for starters, and food in your mouth. It can make you safer, healthier, and, to an extent, even a little bit happier, contrary to the old adage. But money cannot make you a law-abiding citizen. It cannot make you good.

Perhaps this is why Jesus had so little use for it. He lived the life of a drifter, traveling from town to town “with no place to rest his head.” It’s not that he was unconcerned with physical wellbeing. (After all, he healed the sick and fed the hungry.) But first and foremost he set out to forgive sins — to reconcile immoral people to a perfectly moral God.

But none of us, obviously, are Jesus. We desire money for safety, for security, to demonstrate our success — and to feel justified. Money is a measure of our enough-ness, yet somehow we can never have enough. As the reporter Alex Williams once wrote in the New York Times, even “for those at the top, too much is never enough … The rich, unlike the leisured gentry of old, tend to work longer hours and spend less time socializing.” They may be considered “super rich,” or even “post-economic,” but they “derive transcendent meaning from capitalism.”

I wish this were only the case for those people in that class. But for all of us in today’s economy, there is no income level at which the production line stops promising transcendent meaning.

I like the verse in Deuteronomy that says, “Remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (8:18). We may speak of “earning” money, but it doesn’t truly come from us, and we cannot take it with us when we die. In this sense, money is not only a measure: it can also function as a gift. Maybe it’s five dollars tucked into a birthday card. But maybe it’s a life-changing amount, like a decent paycheck that you don’t feel you deserve. Nothing elicits so deep a sigh of relief as a deposit in the bank. And it’s that relief we desire when we desire money. The relief of knowing, for the moment, that you have enough. That you are enough.

In the following pages, you’ll find our best attempts to untangle the complicated knot of money and faith. We examine poverty, aspiration, and middle-class guilt. We have interviews about economic precarity, the theology of capitalism, and the social psychology of possession (material and spiritual). You’ll find writing from stockbrokers, poets, priests, moms, and more. Per usual, we arrive at the gamble of faith from all different places. But the outcome, I think, is right on the money.

You can order The Mockingbird here. Hard copies are shipping this week!

Illustration by Lehel Kovács.