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Politics of Scripture

Christianity Unreconciled with Wealth

Is wealth the opposite of Christianity? Is profit antithetical to the kin-dom of God? A look into Franciscan friar Luca Pacioli’s accounting process – now called reconciliation accounting – reveals that despite Jesus’ words, the practice of Christians in the Western world has emphatically answered: no, they get along just fine. It is high time for a Christianity, guided by Mark 10:17–31, that is unreconciled with wealth.

17As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Mark 10:17–31 (NRSV)

Is wealth the opposite of Christianity? Is profit antithetical to the kin-dom of God?

According to Jesus in this Mark text, the answer to both of these questions is yes. But those of us who follow Jesus have not always answered these questions as he would have. While wealth and Christianity may be proclaimed as opposites in seminary classrooms and sermons, the practices of Christianity have told a different story. Money and Christianity have been entangled with one another for many generations, to often violent effect. Telling this history is at the heart of my research. Along the way, I have learned of a champion of early capitalist gain, who also happens to be a priest. A critical examination of this priest’s approach to wealth illustrates the contradictions between Jesus’ declarations in Mark and the practices of the church, and inspires us to dream of a Christianity unreconciled with wealth.  

Long before the Osteens and the Robertsons and the Waltons of this world, there was another wealth-devoted Christian, a Tuscan Franciscan friar and mathematician named Luca Pacioli. This Christian made possible an institutionalized wealth shrouded in Christian language and scripture. He made possible the renaissance of early capitalist commerce for the profit of European Christianity. He followed a very different sort of Jesus from the Jesus we encounter in Mark. Pacioli’s Jesus baptizes wealth as virtue, and names it God’s will for Christians.

When in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue for the conquest of Brown people and their lands, this friar was writing a work that would be used to theologically legitimate and profit from that conquest. Published in 1494 in Italy, Luca Pacioli’s Treatise on Double-Entry Bookkeeping firmly settled the question of wealth and Christianity: they get along just fine. Pacioli paraphrased Matthew 6:33 as part of his Useful Exhortation…to the Good Merchant at the start of his treatise: “Seek you Christians first the Kingdom of Heaven and then the other temporal and spiritual things you will easily obtain as your heavenly Father knows quite well what are your needs.” The ease of obtaining wealth was a key aspect of Pacioli’s process, and it was inextricable from God’s kingdom. Again, the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus and Pacioli’s Jesus are different. For Mark’s Jesus, wealth and Christianity are entirely irreconcilable. For Pacioli’s Jesus, wealth and Christianity are entirely reconciled.

At the time of his writing, the Catholic church condemned usury – profit made from lending people money. Being a Catholic priest himself, Pacioli could challenge such ideas from the inside. He was, ironically, a priest in the order of Franciscans called the Conventuals, or Minorities, so named for living a minor life adhering to the vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. But Pacioli was closely aligned with the Pope and several wealthy benefactors, and so he received a special papal dispensation to earn money as a mathematician and teacher. In his will he legitimated that wealth by mentioning this special papal bull by Pope Julius II permitting property ownership. He also legally willed his soul to God. Pacioli might amend Jesus’ declaration in Mark to say, “a rich man can enter the kingdom of heaven if he files the proper paperwork.”

Pacioli’s fellow priests were not thrilled with his flagrant flouting of the rules of their order; they tried to get him kicked out. He was instead made head of his monastery. Money makes a way. Knowing this personal history of Pacioli, we now turn to his work. His Double-Entry Bookkeeping treatise has been called a “foundational text of capitalism” and an innovation that changed the world.

Mary Poovey writes, in A History of the Modern Fact, that through Luca Pacioli, “double-entry bookkeeping became a display of mercantile virtue … In the late 15th century merchants were generally held in low esteem because … salvation ultimately mattered more than worldly goods. The system of double-entry displayed virtue … the credibility of merchants as a group.”

Pacioli understood that wealth was a matter of reputation and credibility. In this way, his entire treatise is an apologetic of sorts to prove the virtue of a good wealthy Christian merchant. A rich man can enter the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of men, given the right system and the right reputation.

Here is a brief overview of Pacioli’s orderly double-entry process, which made profit virtuous. First, one should keep a list of all transactions using two books, a memorandum for household expenses and a journal for inventory. Second, a third book, the ledger, is used to record each transaction twice, as credit and debit. If you sold sugar for five coins, you debit your goods by that amount of sugar while also adding five coins to the credit side. These two recordings – the double entries – must always, always equal out. If you are wondering what gets lost in this “equalizing” order, you are asking the same questions I am. 

According to the most thorough, and frankly enamored, work on Pacioli by R. Emmett Taylor, No Royal Road: Luca Pacioli and His Times, Pacioli called these three books “a perfect trinity.” Every entry was to be made in the name of Jesus. Every mistake was to be rectified with “that glorious sign from which all our spiritual enemies flee and at which all the infernal pack justly tremble; the sign of the holy cross.”

Tim Harford’s BBC article entitled “Is this the most influential work in the history of capitalism?” emphasizes this theological grounding, writing, “The double-entry system helps to catch errors, because every entry should be balanced by a counterpart, a divine-like symmetry which appealed to a Renaissance Man.” I would go farther than Hartford. For Pacioli, symmetry was not simply divine-like, it was divine – the work of God. Reinscribing that work (in, say, a ledger) was, according to Grahame Thompson, worship for Pacioli. There was virtue in symmetry because symmetry meant order. Asymmetry or disorder meant fraud, or criminality.

Pacioli’s treatise was all about virtuous order: ordering books, ordering accounts, and ordering property, in the name of the God who – in perfect proportion – ordered the world. And that order always had an end goal: profit. Not only did Pacioli make profit (and eventually, profit gained through usury) permissible in Christianity, he made profit the will of God, writing of loss, “You will close [an old ledger account] in this way – if the loss following will be higher than the gain, may God protect each of us who really is a good Christian! – then add to the credit in the usual manner.”

God protects the “good” Christian from loss of profit. But Pacioli’s process was not always Christian, or for (White, European descending) Christians. He did not invent this process. According to Tim Harford and others, he likely took it, without giving credit, from Muslim or Indian mathematicians. While Pacioli did not invent this process, he did christianize it. His now-Christian process became institutionalized in the Western world, and the worlds the West would conquer. He made (White, European benefitting) Christian profit into the will and blessing of God. Today, we might call Pacioli an original peddler of the prosperity gospel. 

The question then is, how was this profit made? Were the merchants who used his double-entry bookkeeping actually virtuous? Again, history provides a clear answer: no. You see, Pacioli’s system was published at the same time that Cristóbal Columbus – the Christ bearer – conquered in the name of God and country. It was not virtuous.

Those neat orderly lines of his did not just contain goods and debts alongside Jesus’ name and signs of the cross. They eventually contained people made to be chattel property – what Robert F. Reid-Pharr through Stephanie Smallwood calls “creating marks where human beings once stood”; what Smallwood calls fuel for the slaving economy: “Containing only what could fit within the clean lines of their columns and rows, they reduced an enormous system of traffic in human commodities to a concise chronicle of quantitative ‘facts.’” Pacioli’s method of settling books paved the way for a settler ideology of people as expendable, tradeable things, and gave that ideology a place to organize itself. The horror of slavery’s violence was hidden in plain, profitable sight.

All I have shared above should inform how we read Jesus’ explicit unreconciling of wealth and Christianity in Mark 10:17–31. It is easy to look at some of the extravagantly wealthy Christians I named at the start of this essay to show Christianity’s entanglements with money. It is more demanding to look for the places where people are called things and things are called facts, neatly ordered into the utterly ordinary priestly rules of profit that are still used in every country in the world, by a different name: reconciliation accounting. A Christian word for a hellish history.

Returning to the questions this Mark reading asks of us, I now add others: How are wealth and Christianity already reconciled with each other? Who pays for that reconciliation, and who profits from it? Given this history, is disentangling capitalism from Christianity even possible?

I believe Jesus – the Jesus of this Mark text, not Pacioli’s Jesus – responds, in his usual unflinching way. For mortals, it is impossible. We cannot save ourselves, because we do not even know the meaning of the word “save” apart from requiring someone else to be sacrificed to a Christian system of wealth production. A system that those benefiting from do not even notice much of the time.

But with God, who knows? There is much that slips between the cracks of Pacioli’s process of institutionalizing so-called virtuous Christian profit. There is excess life that steals away from commodification and ordering – what Joseph Winters beautifully names the “the gift of Blackness [that] is a kind of death … to the order of things.” To the ordering of people into things.

There is the hope of the unreconciled, who refuse orderly reconciliation that has unjust profit as its aim, including the reconciliation of wealth with Christianity.

There is the one who saves us all, who knows we cannot do this for ourselves.

The one who looks at us, sees us for who we really are and for the world we have made, and loves us enough to inspire dreams of worlds otherwise.

The one who then asks us to loosen our hold on our treasures, even our treasures of what is true and virtuous and Christian and known.

And then – and only then, according to the text – to follow.

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