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Exploring Pagans and their relationship with that earthiest of earth symbols, money.

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Eschewing money

Money is a power that we have given disproportionate influence in our lives.  One of the ways that some people -- Pagans and others -- try to deal with that is through voluntary poverty, avoiding the stuff entirely, or as much as possible.  It's a choice that is controversial and poorly understood, and its impact isn't entirely clear.  As part of my money ministry, I'm trying to wrap my head around the many ways we can relate to it, including its rejection.

One thing that has become apparent to me is that there are limits on how much one can change through voluntary poverty or other money-avoidance schemes, such as simplicity and joining an intentional community which doesn't use it internally.  That limit is explained nicely by Lynne Twist in her book, The Soul of Money.  In the first chapter, Twist tells the tale of Chumpi Washikiat, a member of the Achuar people of the Amazon, who has been designated by his community to go out into the world and learn about money.  He moved into the author's home in the United States to do so.  Twist writes,

"His education about money was more on the level of inhaling.  Everywhere he went, the language and meaning of money filled the air, from billboards, advertisements, and commercials, to price cards on muffins at the local bakery.  In conversations with other students he learned about their hopes, dreams, and prospects for life after graduation, or as they put it, 'life in the real world' -- the money world.  He began to see how it is in America:  that virtually everything in our lives and every choice we make -- the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, the schools we attend, the word we do, the futures we dream, whether we marry or not, or have children or not, even matters of love -- everything is influenced by this thing called money."


It's difficult to unthink a thought.  Once we have thought of money, even if we stop using it, it has fundamentally changed how we think about the world.  The same is true of language, in fact:  On RadioLab that I heard a story about a group of people who did not learn language until adulthood, yet did communicate with one another.  After they were taught a language, over time they forgot how they formed and shared ideas without it.  As an idea and shaper of ideas, money is every bit as powerful as language in this regard.  Those who stop using it will continue to think as if they did, and as someone who has always had the idea of money in my life, I am sorely pressed to imagine the alternatives.

Comments on previous posts about this topic have made it clear that feelings are strong on this subject.  There's been a number of people who have criticized money, but even more who condemn those who choose voluntary poverty, mostly for being a drain on resources intended for those who did not choose to be poor, but are anyway.  Missing was any voice of the voluntary poor, so I went looking for them.  I was lucky enough to find one who was willing to speak with me about it.  E is a Pagan who prefers to remain anonymous, and since I do not even know eir gender, I will refer to em using Spivak pronouns.  (These gender-free pronoun alternatives have become popular with people whose genders don't fit into our binary categorization, but in truth, they are intended for people of all genders, even the boring "male" and "female" ones.)  E also is not fond of capital letters, and had occasional spelling and grammatical errors in our Facebook conversation which I have corrected for the sake of clarity.

My unnamed source is an initiate of a Gardnerian lineage of British Traditional Wicca.  E is what I think is the stereotypical Pagan who is voluntarily poor, in that e has an education which allows em to earn money performing skilled labor, but mostly chooses not to.  That is not always the case, however; as e told me, "at the moment, I am indoors, because .. polar vortex. I like not having my fingers and toes freeze off, so I have a small gig doing software dev so I can pay for a roof and some bread in the meantime.  Nothing Fancy. I'm still broke all the time, but I'm not freezing."

Software development could earn em a heckuva lot more in a year than I have ever been able to make, so why only do it when necessary?  For this particular Pagan, it's to avoid buying into a system that is fundamentally broken.  (And if you didn't notice that I used a money metaphor just then, you're probably as blind to money's omnipresent influence as any of us.)

"It's not monetary exchange itself which I find distasteful," e wrote.  "Most specifically it's the commoditization of human needs and suffering which occurs when we devolve into too much reliance upon the concept (because it is only a concept) of private property.

"Now that's not to say private property is verboten, just that for my own part, I do strongly feel that as far as social agreements go, they are there to safeguard against unnecessary suffering first and foremost.  [It is] forcing unbalanced and hierarchical relationships on people by intervening between them and their source of survival (land, water, air, seeds/food, etc.).  It ends up serving the precise opposite role.

"So I don't believe in land ownership beyond what a single person can reasonably use for growing/harvesting food for themselves and dependents.  As to how to avoid difficulties like 'the tragedy of the commons,' I don't feel there's any greater likelihood of that if the produce on the land is also not commoditized, nor otherwise associated with hierarchical social constructs (social status) as opposed to [using it] for its intended purpose of ensuring the survival of living people/ecology.

"I'd leave off by simply pointing out that the chief hurdle in the way of realizing a world free of such abuses of power and ecological resources, is the ignorance (as in 'to ignore') of the people with respect to the harm it causes, nor what its original raison d'être was to start with."

I asked about the most common accusation leveled at the voluntary poor in comments to my other posts:  "So what do you say in response to people who say that you, by your choice of poverty, are taking from the mouths of people who did NOT make that choice?"

E replied, "Is my not working taking any more from them than their support of a system which prevents me from living off the land in a self sufficient manner?  Which is ultimately more destructive?  I know my answer.  Who entitles the government to determine that I naturally have any lesser rights to the earth upon which we depend for our lives, than any other person, such as the queen, or some other landlord?  The fact is that the state (as supported by its electorate) impinge[s] on my freedom through the threat of force (police).  I have no right to opt-out of decisions made on my behalf. And this we call 'freedom™.'"

E went on to explain the freedom in eir view consists of "the right to dissent.  It also means freedom from aggression.  Limit either of those two (provided one's action don't contradict either) and you are no longer living in a free society.  Some others may have Stockholm syndrome and love to lick the boots of the master.  I don't.

"Also," e pointed out, "I've paid plenty of taxes (or rather have had plenty of my labor extorted by threat of force).  I'd have to collect social assistance for practically the rest of my lifetime before I could ever be even close to being considered as sponging off anyone else's work."  In addition, e contributes to eir community in non-monetary ways.  "I volunteer.  I teach what I know.  I probably make more personal effort to help people in that situation than anyone who'd make such a statement.  Moreover, I'm actually in a position to understand what poor people experience.  Instead of judging from a high horse, I am directly friend to friend face to face with them on a regular basis.  When it comes to things like making space for homeless people to find shelter, or to plant food crops, it's not me who's standing in the way.  It's all the property owners who are concerned for appearances of having homeless people in their neighborhood.  I don't take such people's criticism seriously because they're almost always hypocrites."

Those last points remind me of what Alley Valkyrie told me about the trap of poverty, and makes me indeed wonder who causes more harm to the poor, those who choose to live among them, or those who choose to live above them.

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Terence P Ward is a business writer and journalist who blogs under the rather cumbersome moniker of True Pagan Warrior.  He can generally be found at home, tending to his gardens and the many demands of his cats; in the alternative, follow TPW on Facebook. 


  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Sunday, 09 March 2014

    Thanks for raising this important issue. The beginning of your essay reminds me of the oft repeated phrase "time is money." One of the reasons I came to live in rural Greece, was because here there are still times that are meant to be enjoyed in the company of friends and families. Sadly of course this "time" is passing in Greece as well, as the domination of the mighty euro is coming to take over the traditional values of a rural subsistence economy.

    For me voluntary poverty or not giving in to the reign of money is valuable. We need to think about the meaning of life in terms other than money and consumption. We also need to think about ways to achieve that which are communal and social and not just individual. "Private" property vs. "community" property are issues we also need to consider. Especially now as the last remaining "common goods" such as water are being privatized all over the world and in the US.

  • Jeffrey Fink
    Jeffrey Fink Monday, 10 March 2014

    Good stuff! Are you familiar with The Venus Project? They are working on building a new society, doing away with money altogether.

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    I have not heard of them specifically, but I knew such initiatives are out there. Thanks for the tip!

  • guy fawkes
    guy fawkes Monday, 10 March 2014

    What strikes me about this whole discussion is that people never stop to question what money is in the first place. For instance the fiat currency which is used by nearly every citizen of the developed world is based on a ponzi scheme. Folks who criticize the voluntarily poor, are basically advocating that we enslave ourselves for the privilege of selling the ground out from under our own feet. Those banks pay no tax. They're the worst welfare bums of them all. What will it take for people to wake up to that fact? Do we have to declare a police state and start rounding people up? It's time to get our heads out of the clouds and realize the travesty with which we are complicit when ever we seek to earn and spend this exploitative mass delusion we call money.

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    I don't think money is a mass delusion at all. I do, however, think that it's one of many ideas that we have intellectualized so much that we have lost touch with their original purpose.

    The Senate filibuster is a good example. It started as a strategy to protect the rights of a minority to have their say, so long as they continued to say it. Now, a filibuster doesn't require anyone to say anything, because if someone says they will filibuster, all the other Senators take it as a fait accompli to save time. Money has also become an intellectual shorthand, divorced from its original conception.

  • guy fawkes
    guy fawkes Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    "I don't think money is a mass delusion"

    Respectfully, then you don't understand it well enough. You should start by investigating the nature of "Fractional Reserve Banking". Your dollars do not stay in the country, but are accrued in the form of foreign debt, ultimately in terms of the ownership of your land and it's resources, including human capital. Ignorance of this reality is a very dangerous thing as has been learned the hard way by economy after economy on the world stage over the past several years. While everyone is too busy slaving for a day's pay, asleep at the wheel, you're selling out your children's freedom from beneath their feat. If that isn't a mass delusion, I don't know what is.

  • guy fawkes
    guy fawkes Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    To save some time, here's a good primer on how money comes into existence in almost all of the countries in the world today. If you find it at all sensationalist, I highly encourage you to do your own research.

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    Lest you continue to assume that I am disagreeing because I don't understand you, please refer to my post of last September:

    Fractional reserve banking is exactly what I'm talking about, an extreme intellectualization of the idea of money. It's based on the Keynesian arrogance that we can control the laws money obeys, just because we coined the term, as it were.

    Money is older than the central banking system, ergo your argument that money is a mass delusion because of that system is invalid.

  • guy fawkes
    guy fawkes Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    Sorry I missed that, and glad that you've covered it. However I still think that the use of the term "money" is extremely misleading in the context of today's society. The type of money you are referring to might as well be a fiction, because for practical purposes it doesn't really exist. Like freedom, free trade, human rights, and so many other things, the terminology has been entirely coopted for the express opposite purpose it was intended. You're technically right, but I still believe for all practical purposes, money is (today) a mass delusion just as we've both affirmed.

  • guy fawkes
    guy fawkes Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    That my friends, is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Now, will it be the red pill, or the blue?

  • Terence P Ward
    Terence P Ward Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    Addendum: my source would like to clarify that e considers eirself to be one of the poor people, not apart from them. "Also, the real poor people are the ones who lack that human connection with their fellows. Wealth isn't measured in money in my books, but instead in human kindness."

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