Money, Technology, and the Silence of Churches: A Conversation with Susan Thistlethwaite

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite wants to do for money what gays and lesbians have done for sex—within the church, that is. Instead of ignoring this unwelcome subject, she wants to bring it out into the open. 

“Money is still something that we don’t touch. And yet, as I talk in churches so many people are so behind the eight ball on their retirement, on their homes,” she told me. “In churches people are just barely holding on financially—we’ve got to find a way to speak to this in a direct, biblically-based, powerful way.” 

As a Senior Fellow at American Progress, a theology professor at Chicago Theological Seminary and its former president, Thistlethwaite has seen, firsthand, how money and power have not only influenced the political and financial system, but how it has affected those at the bottom of the economic scale. Her forthcoming book is: #Occupy the Bible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) about Money and Power.

“Statistics show that 50% of Americans own 1% of the wealth of the country. That’s a shift on the one percent, but that’s the one percent that has nothing. We can’t let this happen under the radar anymore, so I developed a thesis that Occupy is a sign from God that we have to take this seriously. I hope this book will get progressives to start talking about money in the way we’ve just begun to talk about human sexuality in justice-making ways. We’re not there yet on money,” she said.

We talked more about these topics, including a look back at her most recent book—on tech, sin, and the myth of Eden—during a recent conversation.


RD: In your forthcoming book, you use the tent cities that the Occupy movement set up in cities around the country as a metaphor for God’s presence in the movement. Why is the symbolism of the tent important?

SBT: We didn’t get to put up any tents in Chicago [at Occupy]. Rahm Emmanuel landed on Occupy like a ton of bricks. I went to the encampment on LaSalle each morning for coffee and donuts. CTS students and I made a golden calf and carried it around at various demonstrations. I began to think about the history of encampments, like the Hoovervilles, that were tents.

The idea that God is in this tent going along with the escaping slaves, I thought to myself, these tents, in that sense, are sacred because they are indicating the presence in the same way that I think Exodus is talking about—trying to name a presence of God in the wilderness, even though you’re on the move. There’s so much scholarly debate about whether the existence of the ark of the covenant and the temple indicates a different notion of the divinity—and it is, it becomes less fluid and mobile in that sense.

But, I do think that there is a sensibility to the idea that God is in a tent that we should recapture when a judge rules that a tent isn’t speech. Corporations can be speech, of course, but not if you put a tent over it! I get visions of going to various corporations and throwing a tent over them and saying, ‘All right, you can’t give money anymore.’

It’s a challenge that I try to get at in the last chapter. I don’t believe that interfaith groups have any right to colonize this movement, so I think that you have to be careful and respect that people have really different perspectives on God or humanity and respect that diversity. Yet from where I sit with this set of sacred texts, and trying to read with this lens: this is a sacred place and I see the tent as a sign of that.

I’m not dictating to Occupy or even to the people who want to engage in a different way, I’m simply offering a reading of the Jesus movement from the perspective of money and power.

How do we occupy the Bible?

There are several steps to take. First, read the book, the whole Bible. I quote studies that show if you actually read the Bible outside of the church it turns you liberal. Also, get a New Revised Standard version. There is a conservative Bible project that is cutting out passages considered too liberal, so get a whole Bible.

Next, get out on the streets. You’ve got to put yourself in a different place. We call ourselves the 99% but, in fact, racial, sexual, gender identities and real socio-economic differences exist among people and unless you put yourself in a place where you can listen to difference, you’re not going to be able to read the Bible with new eyes. You’ve got to get out of your church or house and get on the street where people are. Get with people who aren’t like you and work together with them to figure out what to do.

Then, you’ve got to make the connections between these conflicts and differences. I visited the women’s tent in Zuccotti Park (the site of Occupy New York), and the women were getting hassled, and some were even raped. Just because you say you’re the 99% that doesn’t go away. You can’t let the idea of “99%” and the very necessary economic solidarity obscure all these other contradictions.

In your last book, Dreaming of Eden: American Religion and Politics in a Wired World, you go in-depth about how technology has deeply changed our relationship not only to information, but to each other. You liken our new love of technology, and easy access to tons of information, to the Garden of Eden story—that yearning for some innocent past, even in the midst of the temptations of social media. How do you see this yearning to return to a pre-Fall civilization playing out in our political and financial sectors?

I’ve been finding the most application, in the recent months, is in the financial sector. I recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post on the JP Morgan debacle. It’s the same kind of overreaching of power that got us into the financial crisis, and yet their CEO has been running around Washington saying, “We don’t need Dodd-Frank. We need to regulate ourselves. We’re in fine shape.” He’s pressuring the bankers to do exactly the same thing that brought the meltdown. They are not evil in and of themselves, they are simply tempted by that much money. That much money tempts a lot. I lifted the column right out of Dreaming of Eden because it happens over and over.

You can say the same thing about Zuckerberg and Facebook. They should have priced their stock lower but greed overtook them: they priced it too high, and the underwriters took a hit, and the investors took a hit, and it’s everything that’s broken about this system. Here’s something created by a young person that is part of my life and your life—it’s creative and interesting and connects us (which illustrates the good of the internet age) but at the same time you’ve still got the fall. People thought they’d make a jillion dollars off of Facebook and it’s down.

The thing about human nature is you don’t think your way out of temptation. That’s the value of the recent decade, where we’ve realized that these systemic problems need systemic solutions; they need structures and regulations. We learned that lesson in the Great Depression and put Glass-Steagall into effect. But we believed it couldn’t happen today, so the act was repealed. The drive from the Reagan years of anti-government individualism is going to be the death of the economy. Everything that the Great Depression taught us has gone away, and it’s not just in the financial sector, it’s the labor sector as well, in the attack on unions. No CEO is going to give up their money; you have to have labor solidarity in order to adjust that.

These are theological problems: what the internet does is put it on steroids.

This wired world has made it easy to spread knowledge and may even be changing the knowledge we receive. What’s is the goodness and the danger in that?

The rise of social media has really helped progressives be able to leverage power. In many respects, women take to social media simply because we’re good at it. Look at what happened with Susan G. Komen—critics overreached and took it too far in attacking Planned Parenthood. Here is a really wonderful connective organization for women who have had breast cancer and one that helps raise money for research, but their supporters felt betrayed. There was a huge social media storm in the wake of the criticism to the point where many Komen executives have resigned—people took to Twitter and Facebook and it happened in just a few days.

Another example is Sandra Fluke and the so-called religious freedom battle, which was an anti-contraception battle, and what happened to Rush Limbaugh. He is significantly diminished in both his sponsors and his radio outreach. That was completely a creature of social media—and again driven by women, but not exclusively.

Those are the good things happening. But then you’ve got these internet rumors that Obama is a Muslim—email chains that are like a virus, something that infects society, and keeps perpetrating this lie. The internet facilitates a destructive alternative reality. I think that it feeds that desire to have the world be different than it actually is; as the conspiracy theorist wants it.

Back when the John Birch society was handing out tracts it was fringe, but online culture has permitted the fringe to move to the center. The profound polarization that has basically ground the Congress to a halt is hugely dangerous to democracy.

So, you have this internet social connective tissue of people able to do the kind of networking they were never able to do before with both speed and precision, and yet you also have dangerous alternative realities take on a life of their own and provide a huge amount of political pressure on people who are in government so that there can be no compromise.

Theologically, we would say it’s incredibly dualistic; all the good is over here on my side, all the evil is over there, and you can’t compromise with evil. So the good is speeding up, and the evil is speeding up.

These are all very serious problems, but you say humor is an important part of the fall, because it’s impossible to have humor in the Garden of Eden. Why?

Comedy is born of pain, and yet one of the functions of comedy can be cruelty. Much of something like sexual harassment is disguised as comedy. “Can’t you take a joke?” is what we hear. Every non-dominant group has the comedic stereotype used against it.

That’s not to say comedy itself is always innocent because it’s not. But what makes something genuinely funny is when you can raise critical consciousness, when you can actually see your own foibles and you can also, I think, see and survive a lot of the tragic dimensions of life. That’s why Chris Rock, who was asked about a friend of his who committed suicide because he was depressed. “Depressed?” Rock said. “What do you mean? Of course he was depressed, he was a comedian.”

This is existentialism. There is that tragic sense of life that we’re able to see and comedy helps us cope. Comedy allows people to see things and actually know things that they wouldn’t be willing to look at otherwise because it’s too painful. Studies have shown that viewers of The Daily Show are more informed about public affairs than viewers of other news programs—another study has just come out showing viewers of Fox News are the least informed.

The Daily Show is effective because it is subversive across the board. Jon Stewart is an equal-opportunity comedian. He will ridicule the Obama administration. He’ll ridicule the GOP. He’ll ridicule pretty much anybody. That’s important. The left needs to wake up to the fact that President Obama is a particular kind of politician. Many of his policies I support, some I do not. But he does not walk on water. It’s politics, and the people who complain to me that they feel betrayed, that Obama hasn’t accomplished everything they hoped he would, seem to me to be, again, looking for the Garden of Eden. We were going to elect this guy and the Kingdom of God was going to come in. I ask them, “When else did you ever think that in an election?”

It’s partly Obama’s fault. He used that word “hope,” which is pretty much eschatological, but you never get to the eschaton. The eschaton is after history—you don’t get to that perfect realization, you live in history and in politics. It’s just another really good example of the Fall.

You write that the solution to our yearning to get back to this innocent Garden of Eden really is a religious one, in which we talk about meaning and purpose in a way that can help people. How do you propose to do that?

The key to internet-driven culture is having people become more savvy, recognizing how this stuff is coming at them at 90 miles per hour. I also advocate public activism; I do what I preach. Every week I write a theological piece for the Washington Post on topics like JP Morgan Chase, which is really about hubris. I point out that this is sin. It’s not the gay people sinning, it’s these people over here who are sinning. In this way, I take back sin for what it really is.

I teach seminary students how to do this in the public square. Progressives are very conflict-averse; they’re afraid that if they speak out in the public square and they really say, for example, that JP Morgan is sinning, that they’re going to get criticized. And they’re right. That’s not an incorrect assumption. I lecture students, a lot, and say, “If you can’t take the heat do not get into this kitchen.”

Liberalism has many strengths. It brought God into the world. It allowed us to value the natural order and value human intellect as a way of thinking theologically. But, liberalism is a philosophy of history as progress and harmony—and that’s untrue to the nature of the Fall. Why I use the term “progressivism” instead is that progressivism is movement-based. Progressives are more communitarian, they’re not as individualistic; they have a far savvier sense that history is struggle, and that the world does not want to be changed.

What I wanted to do in that book was to wake people up to the fact that we’ve got this strong way of looking at human history—and to see both its goods and the way in which it can also be incredibly demonic. To work within those two poles without become dualists is our challenge. I know people on the left who are very dualistic, except in reverse—anything the right does can’t be good, etc. I think that the trick is critical consciousness.

So, I wrote the book to raise that critical consciousness so people would begin to see how we’re still striving for an innocence we never had. When you see that, you begin to act in a different way and it loosens its grip on you.

What’s the Garden of Eden trend you’re spotting in the race for president?

The trick from the right is to reignite the politics of anger so successfully done by Richard Nixon. To really paint President Obama not just as wrong but as evil.

They want to get people to vote against him rather than for Romney. I think “Etch-a-Sketch” is close to describing Romney, but I think he’s more a Rorschach Test. The right sees in him what they want to see—he is very much an object of their desire. And he must be the whitest guy on the planet, he and his family all wearing Izod shirts. They are very much a throwback to a romanticized past of strong rich dad, stay-at-home mom and a whole bunch of kids—and Izod shirts. This is dangerous, yet funny. It’s not for nothing that people say good and evil is black and white.

It’s hard to write about Romney because even when he lies he’s not someone you can portray as the great deceiver. He manages to try to be, as best he can, all things to all people. He will take us back to the Garden of Eden. Everything will be heterosexual and white, even though more non-white babies are being born now than white. It doesn’t keep people from longing for the Garden of Eden. In fact, it makes it worse because you fear that it’s going away.