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Friday, November 12, 2010

Greed, prosperity, contentment, capitalism. What's a Christian to do?

Here we are in the season where people are nicer and trying to help and give more. I guess that’s a good thing, but too bad it can’t happen in other times of the year… What I’m about to say next is not to say that we shouldn’t give (we should!), but that we have a lot to learn from those “less fortunate” that we are intent on helping around this time.

So I have been thinking about wealth and greed. Maybe it’s all the talk of the financial crisis or maybe it’s just my pet peeves of little plastic key fobs that promise to save you tons of money and coupon cutting. I have heard a few things in sermons and classes in church and on Democracy Now that have kept me thinking about this.

I’m going to post a couple of things I’ve been writing. I apologize because they aren’t really finished and I don’t know if I’ll have time to put them in a more coherent form, but I thought I’d share anyway.

This is the version I heard Friday:

It appears to be much like the September version I found a transcript for, but with an added question by Amy about what did they, those in poverty, want to know from him (after asking what he learned about them). The question is at around 8:20

min in the show.

A rough quote:

“It may surprise you. They are not so interested in us. We overestimate ourselves. We believe they want to be like us. We believe they will overcome their problems when they look as much as possible as we look. Nonsense. “

His example from the Peace Corps:

He saw a woman in a village making 2 ponchos in a week, so they brought in another machine so she could make 20 in a week. They came back a few months later to see her increased production. They asked how she liked it and she said ok and when they asked how many she was making, she said two per week. They were shocked and wanted to know why and she said she didn’t need to make more than two and now she has more time to be with her friends and her kids.

We live in a society that would think this way was stupid and shortsighted. She would have been fired if she were working for us. Our culture tells us that making more money is the way to support your family (in a godly way) rather than spending actual time with them. We have it backwards. Everyone likes to say that we can do both, but we have really failed big on that and so I'm not really a believer in that anymore.

And here is another thing I heard that I have also thought a lot about at times, having visited the third world a few times myself:

“Solidarity of people. You know, respect for the others. Mutual aid. No greed. I mean, that is a value that is absent in poverty. And you would be inclined to think that there should be more there than elsewhere, you know, that greed should be of people who have nothing. No, quite the contrary. The more you have, the more greedy you become, you know. And all this crisis is the product of greed. Greed is the dominant value today in the world. And as long as that persists, well, we are done.”

Anyway, I struggle to understand what makes America what it is both for better and worse. The good is pretty easy. We’re free. We’re prosperous. The bad is more complicated. This could be due to our wealth as well. Poor countries and former socialist countries seem to do light years better than us (the Christian nation) in the very Christian traits of being content with what you have, not greedy, and taking care of everyone. Is capitalism to blame? Is the Christian nation not living it's Christianity? Or has Christianity been changed in America to fit our economic system?

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Here's the part I actually started with and have had saved in here for awhile:

I don't claim to be an expert on financial matters at all. Let me just get that out there. If you are on one side or another- because fans of capitalism or whichever economic system are equally as rabid as political fans- you will probably think me a complete idiot. Maybe you're right. It's early and maybe I'm not even awake as I type this.

Anyway, my whole thought process started with these dumb little "very special deals for our very special customer" cards you get. (And a friend's website: )

I have dozens on a key ring I have long since dedicated to this purpose. I mean why can't stores just have us all pay a fair price? Why must I carry a hundred little pieces of plastic to get a better deal than my neighbor? On the plus side, they do entertain children... But, is that the driving force, for us all to be cutting coupons, all to pay less (or appear to be doing so) than our friends? Yet, if we sell something, our capitalist instincts tell us we have to try our best to get the most out of people. And if we do, we feel good enough about this to brag about it and people respect it and consider you savvy. When you add Christianity to the mix, it all seems wrong and backwards.

An aside on the cutting coupons. We got sucked into a coupon cutting phase once. We thought, great, free money. Why haven't we been doing this? We soon found out why. To make it worth your while, you have to spend hours researching the best deals, knowing which stores are offering double coupons, look for cash in every rebate, go to seminars, talk about it with friends, join groups on Facebook and other social media, etc. It seems to consume people who do it. As I clipped my coupons and went to a few websites, I saw that. Maybe it's a hobby for some and if so and they derive some enjoyment from that, that's great. I'm not knocking wanting to save money either. We work hard and want the most we can get for our families. But therein might lay the problem. Always wanting the best value can turn a bit greedy when you get past clothing and food essentials I think...

We are told to be content with what we have (Philippians 4:11) and to pursue righteousness rather than wealth. And there's the story of the rich man who was told he'd have to give up his earthly possessions who walked away from eternal life. Jesus said it is harder for a rich man to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.

Sometimes I think we gloss over these things by saying that you can still be rich and be godly. That way, we don't have to address that there might be something fundamentally un-Christian about the way we Americans do everything and think. Oddly, I have heard that more in discussions of these topics during the economic downturn than at other times, but perhaps I've just been thinking more about it myself. I mean is the eye of the needle just a saying? That seems to be what we treat it as. Otherwise the Bible would be saying the rich can't enter heaven because camels can't go through a needle. Or, they could in Jesus' time since he was healing the sick and turning water to wine in those times... so the application would be after the time for the miraculous passes, the rich could still enter due to Jesus' death on the cross... There is just so much in the Bible about helping others, not desiring riches, giving til it hurts, etc. Of course that is balanced with working so that you can eat and taking care of your family lest you be worse than an infidel. But I don't think these things allow for us to so casually dismiss them so often to say that, but the rich can go to heaven and it's not wrong to want to get paid more, etc. It's a fine line.

With drinking, we quite easily make a distinction. Drunkenness is sin. Period. Like the love of money is the root of all evil. Both sins have sort of shades of grey before you reach that point where people would judge that you (or yourself) have sinned. Perhaps the money one is more grey. Perhaps the money one is more convenient because you can say that you are rich yet still have your mind on the spiritual and don't love money and no one can really say much because only God can see what's in your heart. We can all see, however, whether or not someone can walk a straight line or put their finger on their nose. I like the description of choosing not to drink being like walking on the side of a cliff. We should have our minds on God, which would take us far from that cliff, rather than be constantly concerned with getting close enough to that cliff to feel the adrenaline, but not fall off completely. I mean, that's having your cake and eating it too- social drinking. Could it be the same with money? No one ever really says that if you have your mind on Christ, you probably would be a lot worse off financially than most of us are; we simply accept the fact that we are better off than most and move on. And we'd be fine with that. It's not an absolute or something I necessarily believe even, but I really wonder about that when people follow up the rich man story with that most important caveat- but the rich can be godly, too. Do we really need to be so concerned with that?

So, then there's the financial crisis and people debating which economic system is best. Ok. So maybe no one's really advocating abandoning it or questioning capitalism. But it seems like the church should, if anyone. A system that advocates no regulation in its purist form and encourages people to get as much as they can by virtually any means (lying or misleading is fine-its up to the market/customer to choose the best). I don't necessarily agree with everything socialism is and has been, but in countries that have been socialist, there seems to be more of an emphasis on helping each other out even if you take a hit personally, which should appeal to Christians. It seems odd to me that a Christian country would tend toward such a cold, vicious system rather than one that looks out for people. Many Christians object to socialist and semi socialist models on the basis of rewarding people who refuse to work and working for your food is in the Bible, so this is ruled out an ungodly. But how is a system that encourages and produces so much greed and allows us the "freedom" to gouge and lie and rely on the market to sort out right and wrong supposed to be more godly?

Since I've had this in the draft folder, I've heard a bit on NPR about Quaker capitalism. Now, maybe this is something Christians can relate to better than socialism??

Note to self. Stop saying socialism. Say Quaker capitalism.

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