The Courage to be Counter Cultural
by Melissa Spas
Religious leaders have the responsibility (and opportunity!) to invite people of faith into a soul-deep conversation about money and, perhaps more importantly, about worth. In our broad consumer culture, we don’t often think deeply about the implication of a common, shorthand question: “What is he or she worth?” However, within the context of religious life making meaning around human life, we have a responsibility to interrogate the casual conflation of financial wealth and individual value. Each person is “worth” infinitely more than we could record in a ledger, and our capitulation to the culture’s assignment of value based on assets or account balances is a failure of leadership.
As people of faith, when we are too enculturated to the norms of our society, it is very difficult to imagine doing things differently. Untangling cultural expectations and assumptions from religious beliefs and practices can feel nearly impossible if the message of faith has been shaped by and accommodated to the world, making it palatable and familiar in the day-to-day lives of practitioners. We might have inherited simplistic interpretations of scripture, or find that our own discomfort causes us to avoid difficult questions that arise about responsibility, community, and inequality, feeling powerless to resist the dominant culture that celebrates affluence and blames the poor for their poverty. Reading religious texts with fresh eyes and embracing religious teaching in a spirit of openness to being changed may well lead us away from some of the dominant values of our culture. Specifically, we may find that our culture’s preoccupation with material security, accumulation, and financial wealth are directly incompatible with the messages about money that come from a close reading of scripture or the prophetic messages about human worth embedded in our religious traditions.
Addressing the theology of money shaping our community’s religious life can challenge us to truly examine our individual relationship with money and stuff, and leaders may be surprised by the difficulty of undertaking this examination personally, and particularly when leading around this topic in community. We are talking about something deeply personal when we ask people to engage in a conversation about money, and we will bump against cultural norms and expectations about what is conventional, comfortable, or “the way we’ve always done things.” Lay people may get excited to have a new conversation about money or they may get irritated.
Sometimes religious communities prefer that clergy stick to “comforting the afflicted” and not “afflicting the comfortable.” However, when religious leaders reject messages that conflate net worth with self-worth when deciding to invite their people to live in God’s economy, not the economy of the world, then anything is possible.
Religious leaders can lead with confidence knowing that this is one important dimension of human social life requiring discernment and careful consideration by people of faith, even when it conflicts with the dominant expectations of our society or institutions.
When religious leaders embrace the challenge of leading an authentic conversation about money in the context of their community, there are a variety of ways in which they are acting against the norms of the dominant culture. This is work that can allow for positive change in our organizations, and in the practices of the people connected to our communities, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Talking about money is often considered impolite in the broader American society and within the culture of most American religious communities. Money talk is taboo. Leading counter-culturally means breaking the taboo, and religious leaders may get into trouble by doing so. And of course, this kind of counter-cultural leadership stands also in a long tradition and is affirmed by religious teaching. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” By courageously addressing difficult topics, including questions related to money and worth, religious leaders invite discernment and encourage the deepening of faith, which is at the heart of what it means to care for the well-being of a faith community.
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