Famine, Greed and the Fourth of July

Grizzly with Cubs in Denali

Amos is one of my favorite prophets. When Amos prophesies at the king’s shrine, the king tells him to get lost. Amos does not back down. He continues to speak. In effect, he tells the king to stick it in his ear.

In today’s reading, Amos address the injustices done to the poor. He denounces exploitation, faulty scales, and anything that oppresses people. He issues a strong warning to the ruling elite.

Now Amos, in his day, believed that God directly punished injustice. Today we are more likely to say the what goes around comes around. When people treat others unjustly it usually redounds upon their own heads in some way. Alaska’s indigenous people say, “Live Carefully—What You Do Will Come Back to You.”

We should understand the context in which the prophets preached. We should then try to apply their preaching to today. As I read Amos this morning, the first thing I thought about was the possibility of a double-dip recession. There is a famine in our land as a result of an economic downturn which was spurred by Wall Street greed and wars of imperial consumerism.

We are entering the Fourth of July weekend—a national feast to celebrate our liberation from oppression, our independence. The economic downturn will turn the feast into mourning for many Americans. Unfortunately it will be the least among us who will experience the greatest mourning. Millions have lost unemployment benefits as their elected representatives jockey and posture for advantage in the next election. The politicians will be living the good life and eating the finest barbecue while millions languish in hunger which could have been prevented by extending jobless benefits. Our patriotic songs will turn into lamentations for many of our brothers and sisters.

It would not be fair to lay the total blame on the fat cats. We too bear our share of the responsibility. We allowed preemptive unjust wars which have driven the nation into greater debt. We allow funds for border protection while decrying funds for health care and  child nutrition. We condone preemptive wars to sustain our unsustainable consumerist lifestyle. We allow our churches to minister to the pray, pay and obey crowd while ignoring issues of justice and equity. We allow church leaders to infantilize people by reducing life issues and justice issues to one issue.

God is allowing a famine to strike our land. We need to want. We can never satiate all our wants let alone all our inordinate first-world needs. We hope this will not be a famine of bread or thirst for water but rather a famine for hearing the word of God, hearing Gospel values.

Jesus clearly expressed his values. Greed is the cause of much turmoil, oppression, exploitation, and even war in our world. It is easy to point the finger and scapegoat those who fall short on issues like abortion. Talking about greed gets much more up close and personal for many more people because more people are complicit in greed and its effects. A contemplative living focus forces us to examine closely the impact of our behavior. For example, when greed drives us to seek inexpensive goods, we have to ask ourselves whether the goods have come from sweat shops which oppress and exploit the least among us.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they were clean on the outside but were full of greed and self-indulgence on the inside (Mt 23:25, Lk 11:39). Luke warned the members of his early community: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions (12:15) Paul warned the Ephesians not to let greed, among other sins, even be mentioned among themselves (5:3) and enjoined the Colossians to put to death various sins, including greed which is idolatry (3:5).  Peter warned the members of his community to beware of false prophets who would exploit them in their greed (2 Pet 2:3). In fact, “They have hearts trained in greed” (2 Pet 2.14).

If we couple these warnings about greed with Jesus’ warnings about the dangers of riches, we see a strong bias against, greed, possessions, and consumerism in the New Testament. The bottom line is that it will not be easy for rich people to enter the new Kin(g)dom proclaimed by Jesus. In fact, it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kin(g)dom of God (Mt 19:23, Mk 10:25, Lk 18:25). The rich young man who could not part with his possessions went away sad (Mt 19:16-22, Lk 18:23). Jesus condemned the farmer who built more silos: “This is the way it works with people who accumulate riches for themselves, but are not rich in God (Lk 12:21). Jesus told the poignant story of Lazarus, poor and covered with sores, who sat begging at the gate of the rich man (Lk 16:19-22).

Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, continued to proclaim Jesus’ message about riches. In 1 Timothy, Paul speaks about those who want to be rich and “are trapped in many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (6:9). He says that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils.” He goes on to say that the pursuit of riches has led some to wander “away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Tim 6:10). James gives no quarter to the rich. They will wither away in scorching heat like flowers in the field (James 1:10-11). James chides the rich for having “dishonored the poor” by oppressing them (2:6). James invites the rich to “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming” to them ((5:1) Revelation also warns the rich: “For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:18). The great city “where all who has ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in one hour she has been laid waste” (Rev 18:19).

Merton understood the dangers of technology and consumerism. Merton eschewed materialism, greed, and consumerism:

The great sin, the source of all other sin, is idolatry and never has it been greater, more prevalent than now. Yet it is almost completely unrecognized precisely because it is so overwhelming and so total. It takes in everything. There is nothing else left. Fetishism of power, machine, possessions, medicines, sports, clothes, etc., all kept going by greed for money and power. The bomb is only one accidental aspect of the cult. Indeed, the bomb is not the worst. We should be thankful for it as a sign, a revelation of what all the rest of our civilization points to. The self-immolation of man to his own greed and his own despair. And behind it all are the principalities and powers whom man serves in his idolatry.

Giving into greed is self-immolation that leads to angst and alienation. Furthermore, Merton believed that greed is the root of violence:

A society that lives by organized greed or by systematic terrorism and oppression (they come to much the same thing in the end) will always tend to be violent because it is in a state of persistent disorder and moral confusion. The first principle of valid political action in such a society then becomes non-cooperation with its disorder, its injustices, and more particularly with its deep commitment to untruth. Satyagraha is meaningless if it is not based on the awareness of profound inner contradiction in all societies based on force.

Merton thus identified structural violence. The very structure of economic and political systems perpetuates oppression and nonviolence. The first task of the Christian then is to non-cooperate with the injustices inherent in these structures. Merton would identify the second task as taking whatever nonviolent steps are necessary in order to dismantle unjust systems. He strongly felt, for example, that it is the first duty of every Christian to do away with war:

We are being called to experience a hunger and thirst for the word of God. Amid the grief, hardship, and lamentation of the current economic crisis, we, like Amos, can proclaim biblical values. We are being called to hunger and thirst for justice, We are being called to examine our values and to live contemplatively.

Contemplative living and contemplative practice follow the lead of Jesus. Amid a hectic schedule of preaching, teaching, healing, and challenging empire run amok, Jesus took time to go apart and to deepen His relationship with Abba God. Before he began his ministry, Jesus allowed the Spirit to lead him into the desert (Lk 4:1) After announcing his mission in the synagogue and healing Simon’s mother in law and many others, Jesus went to a lonely place (Lk 4:42).

Contemplative living and contemplative practice bring us into silence and stillness where we can see more clearly, where some dim light emerges in the darkness, where we begin to discover the “invisible fecundity” in reality. We will see more clearly that we are not our possessions. We are not what we can acquire. We are what we are as we enter into deeper union with the great I AM, with one another and with God’s bounteous creation.

Famine, grief, and lamentation will bring us to new life. We will experience God’s empire where justice roars down 24/7 like a mighty river.

[Parts of this post have been excerpted from “Merton on Greed and the Economic Crisis” which I published in The Merton Seasonal last winter.]

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