Mammon and Modern Economics

Wesley Bergen’s Reading Ritual  explores Leviticus through the lens of contemporary popular culture. Instead of treating Leviticus as “religious” ritual in opposition to daily life, he tries to de-de-familiarize Leviticus ritual by finding parallels with contemporary culture.

In the first chapter, he examines the ritual dimensions of a meat-packing plant, drawing comparisons with the activity of priests at the tabernacle. Following Catherine Bell’s criteria for ritualized activity (formalism, traditionalism, rule-governance, invariability, sacred symbolism, and performance), he finds that meat-packing meets 4 of the 6 in a fairly obvious way. The last two – sacred symbolism and performance – aren’t so obvious. Bergen attempts to draw a connection by suggesting that meat-packing is linked to the modern sacred as much as sacrifice was to the ancient sacred. The modern sacred being money.

Bergen writes (15-16), “If we define ‘the sacred’ within the context of biblical Israel as ‘the core that infuses and informs and guides and explains the whole of life,’ then arguably the most sacred thing in our society is money. Modern economics claims to encompass all of life. It acts in our society as a complete system, a meta-system for our world. In our culture, religion is just one small part of our lives—it is individual, private, segregated. It is the stock market that acts as a final judge in larger society, an objective measurement of the pleasure or displeasure of our national deity.”

He admits that we don’t typically think of money in these terms, but claims that “when we study the actions rather than the rhetoric of our society, the identification takes on more weight. Money, of course, is simply the most obvious sign of a larger system, the economic system, just as God is usually the most obvious sign for a larger religious system. Gods are usually understood to be beings (or Being) whose actions are open to some measure of explanation and attempts at prediction, but who are thought of as beyond direct control. Many actions are taken to influence gods, but the effects are often not sure. Much the same can be said of modern economics.”

He points to studies of law-and-economics as further evidence for the pervasiveness of Mammon: “Good law leads to good economics, and therefore economic outcome can be a factor by which we differentiate good law from bad. . . . In the Old Testament, law was founded on the will of Yahweh. Law was not open to human debate at all (at least in theory), because one cannot debate the will of a deity. God spoke; humans obeyed or disobeyed. The current shift toward an economics-based legal system means that money has replaced God as the ground of value, as the arbiter of good or evil. If this is so, then actions done for money (jobs) have become the ‘religious’ ritual of our time. In the meat packing plant the actions performed on the killing floor are purely about money.”

As Bergen sees it, the relation of signified and signifier has shifted: “In biblical Israel economics was an indicator of the pleasure or displeasure of the deity. Economic success was understood as a sign of the blessing or curse of Yahweh (Deut. 28). In our society, economics is the signified, not the sign. Economic prosperity has become an end in itself, rather than a sign of a greater good. People (now called consumers) are encouraged to sacrifice large amounts of time to increase ‘productivity’, which is said to help the economy. Then consumers are encouraged to sacrifice this money they have earned, to spend more than they have, which is also for the benefit of the economy. All of this obfuscation and suggestion of sacrifice without any personal benefit to either the individual or society sounds like the church at its worst.”

The analogy is strained at some points. Is God a “sign” of a “larger religious system”? Does intention have no role in determining whether or not an act is idolatrous? Still, there are pointers here to a Levitical analysis of economics, which a project worthy of pursuit.