Dirty Money

 In Business, Character, Charity, Duty, Faith, Fred's Blog, Money, People, Philanthropy, Politics, Scripture, Teaching, Theology, Trust, Uncategorized

Listen to “Dirty Money” by Fred Smith


The destructive power of a hurricane when it makes landfall is often multiplied by the spawning of numerous tornadoes from the outer bands. In fact, areas that might not experience the levels of storm surge and wind are devastated by the tornadoes that travel far from the hurricane itself.

We’ve seen the effects of Hurricane Jeffrey Epstein over the last several weeks as tornadoes have touched down at M.I.T. and Brown University. Resignations of directors and deep concerns about the moral crisis facing institutions accepting “dirty money” from individuals and families guilty of sometimes criminal activity or simply being associated with behavior once acceptable but now considered reprehensible are increasing. Buildings are renamed. Monuments removed. Reputations of founders and now deceased supporters are questioned.

G.K. Chesterton wrote a scathing response to the news that John D. Rockefeller had donated a considerable amount of money to a program for children and had been the sole supporter for several years.  

“Philanthropy, as far as I can see, is rapidly becoming the recognizable mark of a wicked man. We have often sneered at the superstition and cowardice of the medieval barons who thought that giving lands to the Church would wipe out the memory of their raids or robberies, but modern capitalists seem to have exactly the same notion; with this not unimportant addition, that in the case of the capitalists the memory of the robberies is really wiped out. This, after all, seems to be the chief difference between the monks who took land and gave pardons and the charity organizers who take money and give praise; the difference is that the monks wrote down in their books and chronicles, “Received three hundred acres from a bad baron”; whereas the modern experts and editors record the three hundred acres and call him a good baron. Of late, however, I am happy to say, some candid voices have been heard about the corruption and cruelty of the men who are the pillars of public benevolence.”

Dirty money has been an issue for thousands of years. For Christians and Jews, we would ask what Scripture says and it seems to be clear.  

What Does The Bible Say?

Deuteronomy tells us that we must not accept the money earned by prostitutes because the Lord detests them.

The prophet Micah is clear that the Lord will not acquit someone with dishonest scales and a bag of false weights. “Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures…Your rich people are violent; your inhabitants are liars..”

Malachi might well have inspired Chesterton as he wrote, “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you..and I will accept no offering from your hands.”

Finally, in the New Testament, we read the account of Simon the Sorcerer who offers Peter money in exchange for the ability to deliver the power of the Holy Spirit. “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry because your heart is not right before God.”

But perhaps it is not that simple. In fact, Jesus himself accepts the expensive offering of a woman assumed to be a prostitute. Nothing is said about the source of the money that Zaccheus, the despised and corrupt tax collector, promised to give. While David is disqualified from building the Temple because he is a man of war and blood is on his hands, there is no mention of his enormous gifts for the Temple being rejected. His son, Solomon, forced slaves to work for him to build the Temple and his many wives turned him away to other gods while his heart was judged as evil in the sight of the Lord. Still, his gifts for the Temple were praised by everyone – even those who renounced his evil heart.

It is complicated even in Scripture and will always be the source of moral crisis. No doubt there are chapels and churches that have been built by the donations of thoroughly reprehensible people. Institutions have been named for men and women whose fortunes have been made in ways that are questionable and, in some cases, despicable. Likely, we could tear down or at least rename hundreds of great works of architecture, art, learning, and worship if we wanted to join the movement of cleansing the landscape of suspect philanthropy and redefining what is tainted and what is acceptable.

I don’t have an easy and indisputable answer to the question but perhaps it is found in Malachi and Acts. It is a matter of the heart. Are we offering something to a donor that is ultimately damaging to their soul?  Are we complicit in the work of pride in their hearts? Are we encouraging them to light “useless fires” that will ultimately destroy them and corrupt our work? Maybe it would be, painful as it sounds, better to close the doors.  

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  • Avatar
    Howard Freeman

    Re: naming… While doing development at Gordon-Conwell, a peer at another seminary told me that they had a policy of *not allowing* buildings to be named after the donor or family of a donor of a large gift. That seminary thought it was damaging to all parties concerned and sent the wrong signal to their wider donor base that, for example, the $10 gift wasn’t appreciated.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      I don’t know about making policy out of something instead of just leaving it alone. But that is because I don’t like policies anyway. I do think we create as much harm as good with naming opportunities.

  • Avatar
    Keith Sparzak

    And the plot thickens, Fred, when one considers the story/parable of the unrighteousness steward of Luke 16, doesn’t it?

    While its not an apples-for-apples comparison to what you are presenting, there are a couple of parallel principles and touch-points.

    I have always been intrigued by the assessment of Jesus in His conclusion—-amplified by Peterson’s paraphrase:

    “Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right —using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.””
    ‭‭Luke‬ ‭16:8-9‬

    Vs. 9 in the ESV says it this way: And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

    One has to do a lot of semantical gymnastics to reinterpret this verse in any other way than it is forthrightly stated.

    The theological caveat Christ shares is the turning point for one’s application of his teaching on the stewardship of money/wits/talents/etc., namely, be shrewd—i.e. “but for what is right”.

    Still, what does it REALLY mean to make “friends for yourself” through the manipulation of unrighteousness wealth?

    Darned if I know! (at least with an answer that will satisfy all theological curiosities)

    I ultimately take comfort in knowing that God will directly deal with the giver (that’s a “His” problem, not a “my” problem). Rather, it SEEMS that our role is to simply make friends with the unrighteousness mammon—whether literal or figurative funds—assuming that we are not nefariously complicit in the attainment of them. We must guard our own hearts.

    As you state, there are no easy and indisputable answers to this dilemma.

    Fun subject to debate!

    Thanx for yet another great subject to consider in your blog!


    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      I made a career out of making friends with unrighteous wealth! I think God is a whole lot more complicated than we make him out to be.

  • Avatar
    tony Morgan

    Fred, that is REALLY thought-provoking. I’m disappointed that you didn’t give me a solid conclusion…… I don’t like to think that hard on my own!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      The solid and simple answer will cost you.

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