Money and Values

If you are someone who has been blessed with financial well-being or wealth, you have a special opportunity to advance the process of spiritual development. You can become a living proof to others that it is possible to live a life in which the pursuit of money is not the bottom line.

But money can also be a burden and a curse.

I've worked with families that have been broken apart by the anticipation of inheritance, or by the resentments that developed when one family member became wealthy and others remained under financial pressures. I've watched as parents lavished wealth on children and found their children becoming distant and rejecting the parents' best values. I've seen people born to wealth unable to trust others, fearful that everyone they met was more interested in their money than in their soul. I've seen people who earned lots of money spend much of their psychic energy worried that their success would never last and hence felt unable to act with generosity toward others. Many people who have money are so sure that others will resent them for it or seek to put demands on them, they feel they have to hide what they have.

So lets start with this: if you have money, rejoice in the opportunity it gives you. There was a time when liberal and progressive circles thought money was a contamination and that the highest goal was to live a life of poverty. Poor people never shared this philosophy.

Emancipatory Spirituality does not call upon you to be poor. It rejoices in well-being and seeks to build a world in which everyone can also enjoy a life of plenty. And that does not depend on you giving up all that you have.

The first challenge in dealing with your money is to give up attachment to it, and instead see it as a momentary gift which you have received and for which you are the steward. Your task is to learn how you can use your resources to best serve God or Spirit.

There was a time when this meant: give it away to some charitable institution and let them worry about it. I know many decent people who do this still. But increasing numbers of those who have suddenly come into wealth, either because of good fortune in the marketplace or through inheritance, are becoming involved with their charitable giving, taking a more hands-on approach. As this involvement grows, these people are beginning to ask themselves a central question: do I want to do more with my money than put Band-Aids on societal problems?

For some, the answer is "no." They are afraid that asking those kinds of questions may force them to challenge the very institutions and economic practices which gave them the money in the first place. Others are excited about the possibility that they might use their money to make a real difference, to provide ways to fundamentally change our world.

From my standpoint, the key in evaluating any potential recipient of support is this: Are they explicitly helping people with whom they have contact recognize themselves as part of a growing spiritual movement that seeks a new bottom line for our society based on love and caring, ethical, spiritual and ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder? If they are explicitly developing that consciousness, please help them. I've seen so many good people and foundations squander huge amounts of well-intentioned charitable giving on projects which provided band aids, because they never really were clear enough to ask: how exactly do we ever expect to create a society which might reflect the values in which we believe? Charitable giving should focus on supporting those projects which, in your opinion, seem to be providing the best answer to that question.

Of course, there are many other wonderful and important ways to be of service. Every time you enable others to act from the standpoint of their own inner goodness, or empower them to recognize that they too are manifestations of Spirit, you make an important contribution.

One important practice: talk to your children about money and about the responsibility to use it to serve the advance of Spirit in the world. Share with them your most idealistic feelings about how to use money, and involve them as early as possible in the discussion of how they might use any money you might e able to give them. Talk to them about the fears you have and about the hopes you have for using money in a spiritually healthy way.

If you're unsure how to begin the conversation, spend some time writing an ethical will. Talk about the values you hold and how you wish they could manifest in the world. Then talk about what you wish your children could do with whatever money they might inherit or earn in the marketplace--and how they might embody your values. Then, invite family members to read that will out loud and discuss it together.

You don't have to be "rich" to engage in these kinds of conversations. Many of us are struggling financially, and don't share the problems of the wealthy. Yet talking about money can be an important spiritual practice for us as well. Helping family members talk out their fears and their hopes around money will make everyone feel less alone. You don't have to feel that you should be protecting everyone else from your fears. Here, as elsewhere in the spiritual life, being honest, open and real will often produce unexpectedly good results.

The universe has been amazingly generous to each of us. One of the traditions in Jewish life is that even a poor person who receives charity should give to others in need some of what she has been given. The opportunity to give to others is one of the great blessings of life.


Most of the ways that people with money give their money does little to heal or repair the world.

On the one hand, there are the big donors to museums, art shows, symphonies, hospitals, and universities. Most of these institutions are shaped to serve the interests of the class of people who donate to them. In fact, it is really doubtful that this is charity or philanthropy except that it is so defined by the IRS.

On the other hand, there are wonderful wealthy people who give their monies to the thousands of do-good projects to help the most oppressed or to rectify a particular imbalance in the society. Most of these projects are well-intentioned but end up being wastes of money. Ford, Rockefeller, and many other huge philanthropies join in this kind of giving—along with countless family funds.

What all these lack is any strategy based on a serious analysis of the world system that needs to be changed or how it might actually happen. In fact, most of these philanthropists insist on "doing something" rather than on thinking out what they are doing and what its long-term impact is likely to be. They thus make their donors feel good, but meanwhile do little to actually impact substantial change.