In chapter three, “The Way of Renunciation,” Jones introduces us to the heart of the opposition he aims to unpack in Dismissing Jesus: God vs. Mammon. “Renunciation” here is about renouncing the “whole social system” that is Mammon: “the spirit of unsacrificial wealth, self-interest, and greed, a longing for greatness and prestige, a grasping for power, the power of domination and violence” (36).
Renunciation is a complete act of repentance, a turning away from the ways of the flesh and the world and a turning toward the way of the cross. In many ways, then, this chapter offers something of a meta-statement of many of the chapters that follow. It remains fairly general, but, as far as it goes, is mostly quite helpful. Readers may particularly profit from Jones’s extended exposition of the meaning of the three temptations of Christ, in which he shows how Christ’s rejection of Satan’s three temptations encapsulates his rejection of all that the world holds dear: material possessions, public spectacle and prestige, and power.
Jones clearly thinks that he shines new light on these vices of greed and pride by treating all their manifestations as part of a larger overarching whole, which he names Mammon. But I’m not so sure that this new nomenclature really helps us, on the whole. To be sure, it sheds light on how many vices that we often imagine to be separate are in fact deeply interconnected, and grow out of one another. On the other hand, it substitutes vagueness for precision. Moral theology has made a considerable investment over the millennia in classifying vices, and by collapsing them all into one indiscriminate heap, I worry, Jones makes it more difficult to offer concrete diagnoses of particularly evils or concrete prescriptions for resisting them. Of course, as I have said, later chapters fill in some of the details of the big picture given here, so this worry may be exaggerated. Still, I think it’s important to resist, at the level of terminology, a flattening out of the moral life that causes us to forget the radical pluriformity of the sins and
temptations we face.
Perhaps the reason I cannot wholly put aside this worry is because Jones’s use of the concept of Mammon prompts another, more significant worry. Here’s why it seems to me important to hold onto the pluriformity of evil: although the Good is prior to, and constitutive of, all particular goods, the same cannot be said of evil. That would be Manichaeanism. What do I mean? Well, there is one supreme and eternal Good, which is God, and it is in him that all virtues and all creaturely beings find their concrete goodness. But this is not so of evil. The particular vices exist only as corruptions of particular virtues; they do not have their own being. If they did, then they too would have to find their root in a single source, a supreme and eternal Evil—in other words, an equal and opposite principle to God himself. This is Manichaeanism. Far from being just another abstruse “ism,” a heresy that we have to oppose at some theoretical level, but hardly seems of practical consequence, Manichaeanism is very bad news. It means that much of the created order, whether the physical order or the human social order, is not simply off-course and in need of correction and redemption; rather, it is fundamentally, irretrievably corrupt. It cannot be redeemed, only avoided. We are doomed to an eternal cosmic struggle against this inexpungible evil. Of course, a Christianized Manichaeanism may insist that in the end, Christ somehow triumphs over Mammon, but his victory involves not redemption, but destruction of the parts of the world tainted by Mammon.
“Now, now, Brad,” you will say, “that’s all very interesting, but let’s not get carried away. What, really, does this have to do with Jones’s book?” Well, I would suggest that it is not for nothing that Scripture rarely attempts to personify evil under a unitary appellation; nor is it for nothing that, when it does do so, it uses a curious variety of names. Satan, Lucifer, Mammon, Belial, Beelzebub, Devil, Dragon, Apollyon—we could go on at some length, in fact. This variety of names helps us to remember that there is no anti-God, that evil is not one great single power, but is much more mundane than that. When Jones seeks to, on the basis of a single saying of Jesus, unify all of these under the single name of Mammon, he risks doing rather more than he intends. We should not be surprised to find that overtones of Manichaeanism start popping out all over the place. “Jesus didn’t deny that money was a god. That god even had a name—Mammon. Jesus affirmed Mammon as the sole, serious competitor to the Trinity.” “Jesus understood the antithesis or contrast between God’s way and Mammon’s way as the most fundamental distinction in all of life and history.” “For Jesus, Mammon wasn’t one idol among many equals. Jesus never spoke of any other god in the way he spoke of Mammon. He singled it out as the direct competitor to God” (32). The rest of the chapter (and indeed, much of the book) is framed in terms of this absolutely fundamental dichotomy, a dichotomy that seems to concede more to Mammon than Scripture ever does to Satan.
Perhaps this is all just a strong metaphor, but without practical consequences. I thought so at first, but the more I looked, the more I realized how this move does start to yield the tell-tale practical symptoms of Manichaeanism. It means that Jones accepts at face value Mammon-Satan’s claim to the dominion of the world:
Satan owned them all [all the kingdoms throughout history]—“All this authority I will give You, and their
glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish” (Luke 4:6). In a very important sense, they are all Tyre, all Satanic. All Satanic? We instinctively resist such a conclusion, especially those of us who identify with some of these nations. Certainly our nation has to be benevolent and well-meaning at heart. Some of these kingdoms even seemed to grow out of Christian roots. Christ wouldn’t
call all nations or empires Satanic, would he? Surely, “Christian nations do plenty of good.” (40-41)
But crucially, Christ does not call these nations and empires Satanic; he never grants Satan’s claim.
To be sure, nations and empires can become Satanic, as we see in Rev. 13, which Jones of course quotes. But to grant them Satanic as such is to cede too much of the created order—human social order itself—over to the evil one. True, the Apostle John says (though Jones never quotes this passage), “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), but the Book of Job reminds us that Satan is on a leash. Inasmuch as the hearts of men have turned toward evil, Satan reigns there, but inasmuch as creation remains fundamentally good, Satan can never claim full control over any part of the world. If this is true before the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, how much more is it true now afterward, when “he has led captivity captive,” when “he reigns until God has put everything under his feet”!
Jones’s argument here, I would suggest, could have benefited considerably by taking on board the rich exegesis and biblical theology of the first three chapters of Leithart’s recent Between Babel and Beast. Here he argues that while some governments and empires do become beasts, wholly given over to the purposes of Satan and hostile to the rule of God, others are mere Babels, banally corrupt and arrogant in their quest for order, but still useful for human society, and some are even redeemed to the point of becoming cherubic guardians that protect and advance God’s kingdom.
Jones, however, lacking such nuance, appears to consider all the kingdoms of this world to be intrinsically bestial, all political rule to be a manifestation of Mammon, and hence denies that Jesus ever redeems them for his own possession. He faces the flat contradiction of Rev. 11:15, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” but he responds,
we don’t see Jesus or the saints redeeming and reforming the Satanic beast. Jesus didn’t baptize the kingdoms of the world and hold them close to his heart. No, he destroys the beast and everyone connected with it. That’s what Jesus did with Satan’s former property. . . . Christ’s kingdom destroyed and replaced Satan’s kingdom’s. It’s a completely different way of rule (41-42).
Logically, this move would seem to lead Jones toward both anarchism—the rejection of all forms of political rule—and sectarianism—a mindset in which the faithful simply withdraw from engagement with the doomed world and leave it to its fate. The first implication Jones openly embraces (see especially ch. 6); the second he would deny, I think, but it seems hard not to see it in the language he frequently employs (esp. at points in chs. 6 and 8, which we will come to later). We can see some of both in the paragraphs that follow the above quote:
The reason that Jesus destroyed Satanic kingdoms is that the kingdoms of this world run according to an entirely alternative way of life . . . God is love, after all, but nations and empires don’t even attempt to do that. States slice and bomb. They are institutions that by their nature focus on external obedience and order. They cannot look on the heart. They do not attempt to live by love, especially not love of enemies that was so central to Jesus’s life. States excel at breaking things and people, pushing them into outward order, forcing surface conformity. The goal of Jesus and the whole New Testament aims another direction entirely. He aims for an obedience of the heart, a faith of internal virtues grounded in love. The kingdoms of this world have always been horrible at that. It’s against their neighbor.
Jesus wanted something completely different from the violence and domination of past, present, and future kingdoms, nations, and empires. He wanted a radical alternative, a new sort of kingdom, and so his way of life, his empire—the church—would struggle against the kingdoms of this world forever. (42)
(This sort of language crops up at a number of other points in the book. See for instance pp. 240-41, where he says that Christians shouldn’t get involved in politics: “Why help Mammon build its kingdom or try to redeem Mammon? Church and state solve problems differently. The state has no promise of the Spirit and the depths of the human heart. The state can only look on the surface, and that’s not God’s way. The state can only deal with externals, and that will always be halfway and ineffective. The state excels at coercion and violence, even when implied, and that’s not Christ’s way. Christ’s kingdom works in the realm of interior virtues and love.”)
Here, Jones takes something that is obviously true—that states cannot see the heart, and must rule at the level of outward order—and draws a non sequitur conclusion from it: that they are therefore fundamentally at odds with Christ’s kingdom of inwardness. The Reformers drew the opposite, and it would seem far more logical conclusion. Precisely because Christ’s kingdom operates at the level of inner virtue, and earthly kingdoms at the level of outward virtue, they are not competing for space on the same playing field, but operating on different levels. Of course, the Reformers did not draw from this the corollary that some have imagined—that therefore the two have nothing to do with each other, each doing their own thing in their own way without relevance for the other. Rather, they drew on the long Christian tradition of ethical and political thought that argued for some connection between outward and inward virtue, and therefore contended that states could, in their own limited, provisional, and imperfect way, assist the inward heartwork of Christ’s kingdom by providing a framework of external virtue. Jones, however, for whatever reason sees an absolute, intrinsic contrast and rivalry between the external and the internal:
Mammon loves an external show of prestige and credibility. It loves bureaucratic credentials and the glitz of greatness. It loves the seriousness of marble columns and shiny war medals. None of that requires an inner life or deep habits of goodness and empathy. It’s all surfaces and lies, whited sepulchers with dead men’s bones. (39)
Now, none of this is to deny that Jones’s descriptions of states, and of the world and its social structures and economic systems, is largely accurate: “the spirit of unsacrificial wealth, self-interest and greed, a longing for greatness and prestige, a grasping for power, the power of domination and violence” (36). Don’t get me wrong. The critique in this chapter is a valuable one. But Christian ethics has a very strong interest in insisting that all of this is a perversion; it is not the way things have to be. The institutions and practices of human social life are fallen, twisted, and corrupt, but our response is to identify their vices and redeem and repair them; not discard the world and everything in it to create a new alternative from scratch. As Jones’s description of Mammon in this chapter remains largely at the level of generalities, so does this critique. But I have taken some time to develop it because it will inform our response to some of Jones’s later, more specific claims about what Christians must renounce and what their alternative must be.
Now, I am pretty sure that Jones does not, in fact, think that business acumen, trade, sales, and all the rest are intrinsically evil; rather, I expect that his point is to very forcefully drive home the warning that they are particularly (perhaps uniquely) vulnerable to fall into evil. But if that is the case, then what readers of this book urgently need to hear, and what I know many sympathetic readers are eager to hear, is guidance on how to successfully navigate this ethical minefield. The vast majority of readers will be involved in vocations that require them to do some kind of buying and selling, to exercise some kind of business acumen, and they want to know how they can do this in allegiance to God, rather than Mammon. Where are the pitfalls? Where are the sins? What practices must they avoid, and what attitudes must they cultivate? Of course, Jones cannot say everything in this book, and these questions will take a long time to answer properly. But I wish he had made more effort to at least point us in the right direction, rather than leaving some readers with the impression that the only godly thing to do is to abandon business altogether. And of course, it is at points like this that my complaint about the lack of history in this book comes into sharp relief. For there are few questions to which the Christian tradition of moral theology has dedicated such careful attention as it has to these questions about money. From Basil to Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin to Wesley, we find warnings about the love of money, warnings about the vices that arise within the domain of commerce. But we also find careful, thoughtful, nuanced discussion of how a Christian should live and work amidst this sea of temptations. It is such guidance for which readers of this book are earnestly crying out.
(See also Pt. 1, “Introduction,” Pt. 2, “Overview of the Way of the Cross,” Pt. 3, “The Way of Weakness,” Pt. 5, “Faith Working by Love,” Pt. 6, “The Way of Sharing,” and Pt. 7 “The Way of Enemy Love.”)