I’ve received a lot of financial advice and financial promises from Christian preachers over the last few years. Most of them come from so-called “progressive” churches. More than one pastor has quoted John 14:2, saying I should look forward to having my own mansion (or two!) in heaven. They also make sure to tell me—in the same sermon—that being a “child of the king” means that I, too, am royalty, and so I should expect an abundance of riches and glamour in the world to come. Countless other pastors have reminded me to be a “good steward” of what God has given me. What that means, I soon find out, is to invest in a 401K and, therefore, root for multinational corporations to triple their profits by the year 2049. “Don’t forget to buy a home,” the pastor adds, “so you can hand it down to your kids.” Here, then, the Christian gospel is not about the abolition of wealth, but its accumulation. It’s not about the abolition of inheritance, but making sure my children are comfortable. It’s not about the rejection of power and privilege; it’s about kings, queens, and mansions with many rooms.
According to Vincent Lloyd, the Black theological tradition has always been uniquely positioned to expose the idolatrous roots of these prosperity gospels. “What white churches proclaimed as theological,” he writes, “was actually the interests of white Americans dressed in religious language.”1 Saidiya Hartman, while not necessarily identifying with any traditional religion, continues this idolatry critique in her recent book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Meditating on the experiences of a young urban Black couple at the beginning of the twentieth century, Hartman observes:
Aaron and Eva wanted nice things like everyone else, but like most black folks they didn’t adore property, believe in it as a principle like freedom or love or Jesus, or idolize and worship it like white folks did. What Aaron and Eva esteemed was autonomy, what they sought was an escape from servility. Owning things, land, and people had never secured their place in the world. They didn’t need others beneath their feet to establish their value. For white folks—settlers and masters and owners and bosses—property and possession were the tenets of their faith. To be white was to own the earth forever and ever. It defined who they were and what they valued; it shaped their vision of the future. But black folks had been owned, and being an object of property, they were radically disenchanted with the idea of property.2
For Hartman and Lloyd, it’s almost impossible to separate the idol of property from the idol of whiteness. We cannot discuss one without the other. But what’s worth noting in the above discussion is that not only do preachers commonly use financial metaphors to spread their (white, capitalist) gospel; critical theorists often resort to theological language to indict structures of racial capitalism.
Devin Singh’s profoundly important book, Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West, provides readers with invaluable tools to help us understand why it’s so hard to talk about God without talking about money, and why it’s so hard to talk about money without talking about God. In the symposium’s first essay, Alberto Toscano engages Singh’s rich exploration of “God as a predatory lender, the Messiah as a minted coin, [and] a Roman tax census as the sine qua non of incarnation.” Whereas Toscano focuses his analysis on ideology, sovereignty, and the way “money is bound to the state,” Danube Noel Johnson draws on Jacques Derrida to inquire “about the status of religious and racial difference” found in Singh’s theoretical scheme. Worried about the “dubious projects of conversion” often funded by Christian theology, Johnson invites Singh and his readers to consider what type of “currency,” human or divine, is afforded by God to non-Christian subjects.
In our symposium’s third essay, Heather Ohaneson asks whether we can properly view “soteriology is fundamentally economic in nature,” and, more broadly, whether a foundational metaphor exists at all for Christianity. While Ohaneson wonders if other metaphors might prove more foundational or generative than monetary ones, Sean Capener draws on Aristotle to assess how analogy operates as a “technique of thought” in Singh’s theoretical framework. If the goal is “to think against the divinization of coin, against the moral force of debt-slavery,” Capener concludes, “what does such a practice look like? And what force do we ascribe to analogy?” Finally, in the symposium’s fifth and final essay, Elettra Stimilli highlights Singh’s sophisticated engagement with critical theory, and asks how a more explicit Marxist or Foucauldian framework might help us better understand both the valorization of capital and the complex relations between state sovereignty and economic-governmental power.