The Man Who Quit Money—And Religion


The other day I drove to the bank and closed my one and only credit account.

Before arriving, I fantasized about how the interaction might go, suspecting the bank representative would ask why I was closing the account, to which I would launch into a lecture about the evils of credit.

But when the loan officer pushed an affidavit toward me, I merely drew a line through the provided blank.

"I am closing my account because __________________."

The loan officer looked at the document. "There's no reason you're closing the account?" she asked, eyeing me narrowly.

"I just don't want credit," I replied.

I figured she wouldn't understand. When I've tried to converse with friends and family about the illusion of money—IRAs and 401(k)s, taxes, loans, dividends, Wall Street and the corporate ladder, minimum wage and medical benefits, interest, usury, exploitation and the downright deceit of the American Dream—they chortle as if I were a madman. To get is to gain, they seem to believe, and our economic system with its monetary tentacles affords greater getting. How could that be wrong?

That's how the song goes, after all, played in every pop lyric, commercial jingle, and Steve Jobsian story of success. Our economic substructure is so contextual to our way of living that most are unaware it even exists. So, on second thought, it's not belief folks exhibit, but obliviousness. Fish are the last to know of the water in which they swim.

The account I closed was insignificant—a secured line of credit for $500, backed by my own savings. I opened it a year ago when I realized how anxious my wife is to buy a home, which in our case necessitates a mortgage. We had lost a home to foreclosure in 2012 and because the punitive years had passed we supposedly were eligible again for three bedrooms and a picket fence. But after applying for a mortgage and getting declined—a fact I'm grateful for—I decided I would build my credit with a small secured line.

My stomach turned as I completed the paperwork. Use my money to fund a credit line that the bank will allow me to spend with interest so I can build real credit and eventually become eligible to go into real debt? Those are, in essence, the terms of secured credit. Oh boy! What an opportunity!

I imagined big bankers sniggering while unzipping their pants. "Show us you love us, Mr. Trimble, then we'll think about patting you on the head." I'd get off my knees to find my wallet or soul missing, probably both.

So I kept my mouth shut when that lowly loan officer sought my reasons for closing the account. She, like the rest of us, a fish in water. Trying to tell her the water is bad would've been akin to feeding Neo the red pill. Or I might've offended her with a pornographic account of what it means to get bent over. Either way, it would've been a poor beginning to a pleasant Friday.

The woman snatched the document, punched a few keys on a computer, and that was that. Credit no more. I felt satisfied, almost smug, believing my action agitated her.

I was inspired to close the account after reading The Man Who Quit Money, a biography of one Daniel Suelo, a Coloradan ascetic—or vagabum, as he calls himself—written by Mark Sundeen.

Suelo lived "totally without cents" from autumn of 2000 to spring of 2016, when he began caring for his aging parents. He explains on his blog: "For 15 years I didn't use or accept money or conscious barter—nor did I take food stamps or other government dole. My philosophy has been to use only what is freely given or discarded and what is already present and already running."

At the heart of Suelo's life—and at the heart of the book about him—is a struggle for spiritual integrity, and money is the singular obstacle that prevents this achievement.

Raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, Suelo detected early on a disconnect between what his Christian community professed to believe and how it lived, which he couldn't ignore. He once rebuked a woman for rolling into church wearing a fur coat, and armed with Bible verses he repeatedly challenged the faith and behavior of his parents and community members. Yet always he was met with incredulity and resistance. Who is this young bedraggled contrarian, to call us out?

To follow his spiritual yearnings, Suelo had to cut his fundamentalist roots. Throughout his college years and into his thirties he explored philosophy and mysticism, and he invested himself wholeheartedly in humanitarian causes, working at homeless shelters, farming and food cooperatives, even the Peace Corps. But always he came away dismayed by the omnipresent dollar. In every church and charity, nonprofit or nunnery, he encountered spiritual teachings twisted to suit a purpose. Every good cause held in common some business objective, which tainted human connection and hindered access to the Divine.

Finally, in 2000, seeing no alternative, Suelo placed his life savings in a phone booth, all thirty dollars of it, walked away and began to live.

While reading of Suelo I thought of my Mormon upbringing in Utah. Though the Mormon elders propagandize Joe Smith's invention as mainstream, it is fundamentalist at the core, if not in its adherence to the canon, then in its dogmatism. And on any given Sunday in Utah, you can watch women in sexy skirts tiptoe in and out of church houses in their knockoff Jimmy Choos, lips effulgent and red. They arrive in SUVs with baller rims. And the men, dressed like multilevel marketing execs, check the time on garish timepieces. Once a month they profess before a congregation their undying love for the Lord's gospel and saving grace. They also spin a narrative that suggests looking beautiful is about self-care and cleanliness, that cleanliness is next to godliness. They say God rewards the righteous with spiritual and material blessings. Visions of sugarplums dance in their heads.

"No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money," Jesus is believed to have declared. Yet good Christians everywhere continually build up this house-of-cards kingdom, ever chasing mammon.

"By their fruits ye shall know them."

I get it. There was a time in my life when I purloined piles of money and enjoyed a sense of superiority at my worldly success, embracing the American way. I didn't know it then, but I saw my ornaments of house, car, and clothing as proof of my value to society, evidence of my smarts and righteousness. Blessings from God. Every Sunday I laid up treasures in heaven, then laid up treasures in the bank every other day. And because my Christian-American-Mormon culture normalized such behavior, I saw no hypocrisy. I gloried in my credit score, believing it granted me access to the big boys' club. I could acquire almost anything I wanted with a swipe of a magnetic strip or a signature and a credit check.

Today I consider a credit check akin to an unsolicited rectal examination. And to seek an honest way of life, meandering and unmapped as it is, I had to forsake religion, just as Suelo had to.

Some say early Christians decried money and power because they didn't have any. Impoverished and weak, they were unable to physically express their feelings of inferiority, jealousy, and hatred against the strong and noble class, so they spawned a myth that flipped the meaning of social identifiers. Humble, poor, and weak they revalued as good, while prideful, rich, and strong they revalued as bad. They even moralized the terms, employing shame as their weapon. Not only was wealth and strength bad, but to have either was sinful.

But the rise of Protestantism, democracy, capitalism, and industrialism spread wealth across Christian nations—and temptation. So a new myth emerged, and it says righteous living equates to worldly comfort. This narrative infected Christendom only a couple of centuries ago. God knows Jesus didn't spin the self-serving fable. He was ascetic, forsaking the world and preaching the same, just as all iconic sages have done—Buddha, Mohammed, Socrates.

As philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer explains:

The New Testament declares [Old Testament] Law to have failed, frees man from its dominion, and in its stead preaches the kingdom of grace, to be won by faith, love of neighbor and entire sacrifice of self. This is the path of redemption from the evil of the world. The spirit of the New Testament is undoubtedly asceticism, however your protestants and rationalists may twist it to suit their purpose.

The love of money may be the root of all evil, contributing to corporate expansionism, consumerism, wage slavery, wilderness wastelands, alienation and decadence, but the Christians who first pointed this out can't seem to help their lusty selves. And rather than adhere to their ideological roots, they amended them. "God rewards the righteous," they say. "Live in the world, but not of it."

Just the tip.

For how can money be evil when it's so plentiful, so delicious, so necessary not for living but existing? No credit score, no character or credibility. No bank account, you don't count. Redemption from the world's evil comes not by forsaking it, but by embracing it, for he who has much suffers little; the new redemption is not life eternal, but life aplenty. Hashtag blessed. And the bank account is the shibboleth to social acceptability. "That no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name." The mark of slavery. Admit you don't have one and you are eyed suspiciously, considered an untrustworthy rogue, a conspiracy theorist, a madman, a freeloading free spirit. Like Daniel Suelo.

The modern-day marriage of money and morality—this Christiancorporatocracy—has intoxicated the world's would-be saints, put them under the ether. They are, by their own professed standards, sinners, bound for... the grave.

"Come hither; I will shew unto thee the … great whore that sitteth upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication."

Am I a bigot? Why should I attack religious notions and their incongruities? A sense of justice, I suppose. Resentment. I resent institutionalized power, exploitative myths, mental hijacking, self-deception and intellectual dishonesty. We are monetarily rich, morally poor. We shouldn't pretend otherwise.

I recommended the book about Suelo to a few friends, rich religious folk. They asked how he did it, how this man "quit" money, to which I replied, "He scavenged, foraged, planted and cultivated, worked freely, accepted freely, lived in caves—" screeech!

"What! Lived in caves?" they exclaimed.

Yes, Daniel Suelo lived in caves.

They scoffed at my book recommendation, dismissed it as ludicrous, went back to shopping on Amazon.

Utah, the Beehive State, home of the überindustrious, where citizens toil away for the Queen Bee, the Kingpin, the Blue Book, the Graven Image in the Sky, the Golden Moroni, the Godly Greenback, the Mouthpiece of the Lord in the Holy of Holies, the Promised Neverland, the Vanity of Vanities. For Chrissake!

Son of God, born in a manger, reborn in a cave.

In short, Daniel Suelo has moral courage, a kind of integrity, and those who laugh his Christlike lifestyle while claiming to worship Jesus Christ do not.

I know, I know, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." And forgive I do. It’s not the people I detest, but the ideas. Shall we forgive bad ideas, or argue them? Fight them.

Maybe some can chase or sell labor for dollars without encumbering their spiritual development or souring their self-respect, but I can't seem to. I side with Daniel Suelo. That's why I closed my measly credit account. I might not have the temerity to abandon money entirely, but I'm determined to never again grovel before usurers.

Are wealth and integrity mutually exclusive? I don't think so. Then again, it depends on your definition of "wealth." It depends, as Jesus exclaimed, on where your heart lies. Maybe there is a way to live honestly without living in a cave. I'm reminded of Yeats, who said with regard to eking out a living, "One has to give something of oneself to the devil that one may live." That seems true. But I would add: do not give something of oneself to that devil-god of pews, pulpits, and preachers' lips, for in order to overcome the world, you must first overcome the institutions and ideologies that promise deliverance from it.