Christians and money

“Why are many Christians uncomfortable talking about money?”

That’s one of the lead questions for a panel discussion I’ve been asked to participate in tonight.  It’s a good question, for which there are no simple answers.

Professionally, my interest in the question is an unsurprising one.  In surveys asking what topics couples fight about, money is usually at the top of the list, or certainly among the big three.  It’s not hard to think of couples you already know that are struggling in one way or another over finances: they’re over-mortgaged and in bankruptcy; they’re deadlocked in a squabble over the family inheritance; they can’t pay the rent because their spending is out of control.

There are people I care about in each of those situations.  And they’re all Christians.

If we’re going to answer the question about why Christians can’t talk about money, we’re going to have to make the question a little broader first: why do we as people have such a hard time talking about money, whether we’re Christians or not?

And please note: not all conversations about money are difficult.  In election-year America, how many conversations in recent months have been about jobs and the economy?  We don’t have a problem being vocal about money in general.  But it’s different if I ask you straight out how much you make a month, or how much you spent on your last vacation.  If I did, you might well tell me to mind my own business–which, by the way, is quite a telling phrase in its own right.

We are unavoidably children of the cultures in which we were raised, and there are strong cultural taboos against talking about money in certain ways.  We have strong feelings about what is and isn’t appropriate to discuss in polite company.  You wouldn’t walk up to your pastor and ask, “So, just how much is the church paying you?”

At least I hope you wouldn’t.

And money is symbolic of deeper, more personal issues.  Am I successful in life?  Do I have control over my circumstances?  Is my family’s future secure?  Do others see me as being generous?  And so on.

With all this, it shouldn’t be surprising that people have difficulty speaking honestly and forthrightly about money, and Christians are no exception.

But now comes the crucial question: how or why should Christians be different?

It’s not enough to have a set of religious rules to follow: I’m different because I tithe 10% of my income (gross, not net, mind you!) to the church–that’s what sets me apart!  Jesus himself seems to set two visions of reality before us: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Mammon.  Which one defines our sense of self, our values, behaviors, and goals?

So let me rephrase the question and then let it sit: In what ways is the kingdom that Jesus preached less compelling to us, his followers, than the implicit economic values of the culture we live in?

(Update, 10 PM: I was only able to participate in the panel for 30 minutes before going off to teach a class.  But during that time, my colleague Jude Tiersma-Watson reminded me that the taboos against talking about money may apply more to the American middle-class and above; many people from lower income brackets have no problem being very direct about money issues in their conversations.)