Melissa Browning, Ph.D.
Atlanta, Georgia USA

Melissa Browning is a theologian, ethicist, and activist who studies congregational and community-based responses to injustice. Melissa teaches at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University where she is the Assistant Professor of Contextual Ministry. For the past 17 years Melissa’s study and fieldwork has been tied to East Africa. Her recent book, "Risky Marriage: HIV and Intimate Relationships in Tanzania," builds on a year of fieldwork completed in Mwanza, Tanzania where women were asked to re-imagine Christian marriage as a space of safety and health for women. Melissa is also active in death penalty abolitionist work in Georgia and is an ordained Baptist minister.

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A little counterfeit money…

By on September 3, 2010

shapeimage_2-5To be honest, I’m not much of a cash girl. I prefer to swipe the plastic and deal with the consequences later. I’m not a big spender either – pretty frugal in fact – but sometimes my love of lattes and iPhone apps gets out of control. So my sweet husband and I decided to tighten up with a budget. Its a good practice – a spiritual practice even – to know where you’re money is going and be a good steward of what you are given. We’ve been going to a budget class at church based on the Dave Ramsey system, and Dave’s answer to our money woes is create a budget and only spend cash. Gasp! Did I mention I hate cash? Its too real – which is just the point. Real money is harder to spend. We learned that in budget class too.

So our budget class homework for the week was to spend cash – and only cash – as we worked from our new budgets. Wes and I were pretty excited to try this out. So I made the bank run and grabbed our cash for the week. As I left the bank I was nervously looking over my shoulder, a little scared someone would see the “I’m carrying cash” look on my face and mug me. Perhaps these are leftover fears from living in Nairobi where ATM’s are guarded with guys who have guns, but I digress. I made it home fine, but there was one problem. I asked for small bills but got all hundreds. So Wes took the money back to the bank to exchange the huge bills for manageable money. When he did, we found out one of our bills was counterfeit as it was promptly seized by the bank. So for now we’re out $100 and a little scared to spend anything else that came out of that bank envelope.

Of course, the entire funny money fiasco completely stopped both of our days. Wes was stranded at the bank, Jack the dog was panting in the hot car, and I was at home, listening to Bank of America’s on-hold music. (I will mention that they finally called me back an hour after I openly aired my grievance on Twitter.) This interruption gave me a bit of time to think about money and the dishonest little thief who created my fake bill. I stared at the 100-dollar bill on my desk and Ben Franklin stared back, mimicking my disgruntled facial expression. Because I’m knee deep in a dissertation, and because I’m not good at waiting, I began to think philosophically about counterfeiters – about people who get greedy and hurt others. Greed explains a lot of the ethical conundrums in our world. Too often, someone ends up short because someone else has taken too much.

This past Sunday our pastor, Julie Pennington-Russell, preached an excellent sermon titled “How much do I really need?” She started the sermon with a great story from Leo Tolstoy titled “How much land does a man need?” The story begins with a man who heard that land was being given sold at a ridiculously low price. When he approaches the sellers, he learns that the land is being sold “by the day,” and whatever boundaries he can mark out in a day become his land. There’s only one catch. If he doesn’t return to the place he started by sundown, he’ll lose his money. Well, the man paid his money and set out to mark the boundaries of his land, but as he walked the land kept getting more beautiful. He finally made his first turn, but again, the more he walked the land was more beautiful still. The sun was already starting to set as he made his third turn. The man was determined not to lose his money, so he ran and raced until he reached the place where he started just as the sun was setting. Then he promptly fell over and died. His servant picked up a hoe and buried him there. Tolstoy ends the story by answering his own question – How much land does a man need? Six feet – enough to bury him from head to toe.

As I start my new budget this month, I’m reminded of how little I need. The boundaries of my life due not need to be gregarious or grand. I can live more fully if I do not measure my life by the things I own. After all, a bigger yard just means you spend more time mowing.