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Wealth Is Not Worth – 2/23/2014

Near the end of one of William Shakespeare’s great historical tragedies, Richard III finds himself on the losing side of the battle of Bosworth Field. His men are driven, half his army has turned against him, and his horse has been shot out from under him. Amidst the smoke and blood of the battlefield, he is nearly alone with his crimes, haunted by the ghosts of all the friends he has betrayed, all the people he has killed in order to win the crown and keep it. With the fortunes of war turned against him and any hope of victory long gone, the king of England howls out a bargain which is also that play’s most famous line, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”[i]

As a quotation, this is usually taken to mean that he Richard is trying to escape. He wants the horse so that he can flee the battle, and England, and so survive. That was always the way that I understood it, until I read the play and realized: Richard has no intention of running away. He wants the horse so that he can ride back into the fight, so that he can kill his rival. The war is certainly lost, his kingdom certainly gone, his life certainly forfeit. He has spent a great many years and undertaken countless cruel and terrible acts in order to become king, and now he would trade it all for one last spiteful opportunity for revenge.

This is only one famous and dramatic example of the truth that the value of things, the worth of objects and possessions, is subjective. This is a central premise to all of modern economics and the world in which we live: if the value of a barrel of oil, or of a bushel of potatoes, or of a crate of iPhones were objective – constant and equally true to all people in all places and times – then there would be no need to set prices or strike bargains. The principle of “buy low, sell high” would never apply to anything. But clearly the worth of objects is not constant and universal. The crate of iPhones which is worth more than a barrel of oil today would have been a worthless oddity 60 years ago in a world that had no concept of the cellular phone, and the barrel of oil which is worth far more than a bushel of potatoes today would have been useless 100 years before the invention of the internal combustion engine. And any hungry person today, if they had no means to sell the items to anyone else, would likely take the potatoes over the other two.

So we live in a world where the value of things is constantly changing, being refigured and reconsidered, negotiated over and haggled about. And because we are so collectively obsessed with determining the worth of objects and profiting from it, we too often fall prey to trying to measure the worth of subjects – of people – in the same way. So that nearly everything about a person is a thing which can be bought and sold in our economy: not just our labor, but also our health, as so many struggle to afford necessary medicine and treatment. A price may also be placed on dignity. Consider the way in which celebrity culture offers to trade money and fame for privacy and self-respect, or how the suffering of poverty is sometimes called necessary in our ridiculously wealthy nation, in order to convince people to perform jobs that they otherwise would be unwilling to do.

It is almost as though every element of the self could be reduced to dollars and cents. Dr. Charles Mayo of the Mayo Clinic once attempted to make such an estimate for the human body specifically: if reduced to its essential elements, what would its worth be? He assessed the price at 84 cents. A librarian at the Mayo Clinic recently refigured the math based on current prices for things like nitrogen and phosphorous. Her estimate came to an even dollar.

But that only considers the physical stuff of our selves; what about our more intangible qualities? For nearly as long as there has been a religious concept of the soul, there have been stories of people attempting to sell theirs. In the German legend of Faust, a scholar sold his soul in exchange for knowledge and pleasure. The landmark blues musician Robert Johnson was said to have traded his soul to the devil in exchange for his preternatural talent with a guitar. And in one particular episode of the Simpsons, the family’s eldest child, Bart, sells his soul to his best friend for $5, reasoning that souls are imaginary things with no value at all, while a five dollar bill is worth five whole dollars.[ii]

When Bart’s sister Lisa finds out about the exchange, she is incredulous. “How could you do that?…Whether or not the soul is physically real…it’s the symbol of everything fine inside us….the only part of you that lasts forever.” Bart is unmoved by this, and offers to make Lisa her own bargain if she thinks his prices are too low. “I’ll sell you my conscience for $4.50. I’ll throw in my sense of decency too. It’s a Bart sales event! Everything about me must go!”[iii]

This seems to me a similar attitude to the one which created a minor news story a few years ago, about a woman who sold her name. After posting the right to it on eBay, she legally changed her name to that of the online gambling site that won the auction. (I am intentionally not repeating her new name to avoid giving the website any more free publicity.) This story was followed not long after, by the news that a set of parents had sold the rights to their son’s given name, so that he would be listed on his birth certificate as “[Gambling Website].com Silverman.”[iv]

Of course, our names may influence who we are, but they cannot determine our fate. So maybe those parents were being quite as clever as Bart Simpson first felt himself to be: selling something abstract and imaginary for cold, hard currency. There is a story from the Buddhist tradition about a man who’s name in the local language meant, ‘curse.’ Curse was generally disliked and mistrusted by everyone, except for a certain wealthy man who had been his playmate when they were both children. The rich man gave Curse work in his household, but his wealthy friends thought this was unwise. The normal course of life and work had the man’s unlucky name being called out a hundred times each day: “Good morning, Curse.” “How is the work coming, Curse?” “Curse: would you please pass the salt?” In this way, they thought that the rich man was inviting ill fortune by employing his childhood friend.

But then there came a night when a band of robbers sought to plunder the rich man’s estate, while the master of the house was far away. Curse, his loyal servant, stayed up the night, watching for danger, and when he saw strangers approaching the house with malicious intent, he woke up the rest of the house staff, and ordered them to light every candle, and to bang on pots and drums and anything else that would make a great noise. The robbers fled, and when the owner returned he said of Curse, “It is not the name, but the heart within that makes the man!”[v]

This story points out how ridiculous it is to judge another person by something as incidental as their name, and I think that most of us were already on-board with that before we heard the tale. And yet, how often in life do we judge each other, and particularly ourselves, on the basis of things even less relevant to our character than our names. I am thinking particularly of the way that we can get caught up in our own financial success – or the lack thereof it – in our money-obsessed society. How we confuse wealth with worthiness.

The cartoonist Kin Hubbard said, “It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.” Our world is quite creative in the indignities that it invents to apply to those who have less. In Raleigh, NC, the authorities there have recently conspired to make it almost completely illegal to feed the homeless. And camps of people living out-doors when they have no in-doors to live in are routinely broken up all over the country – including right here in Essex County – without being replaced with any real alternative. It seems that anyone turning to any form of public assistance or support for their survival can be labeled a taker or a moocher by elected officials. Hanging over nearly every discussion of public policy or private charity to reduce the suffering of poverty is the attitude that there are certain things that the poor ought not to have. Nice clothes, a working cell phone, a decent computer or a car that isn’t a danger to drive. The judgment is that any of these things disqualify one from being truly poor, or actually in need, as though presentable clothes aren’t a necessity if you ever want to pass a job interview. As though a car and a phone aren’t critical to being able to hold down most jobs. As though every item of value that you might own and work hard to obtain, ought to evaporate the moment that you get laid off, or foreclosed upon. These powerful messages of shame get into our bones and eat away at our sense of self-worth – not just for being poor, if we are poor, but for being anything less than rich. For being out of work or underemployed. For having a job that doesn’t use our degree. For renting, when we cannot afford to buy. For having a smaller house or a cheaper car than our brother or neighbor or friend. As though any of these things could say anything at all about how much our lives are actually worth.

We need to be reminded – sometimes I need to remind myself – that money cannot measure the value of our lives. This week I got to have a conversation with our Coming of Age class – the high school-age folks in the process of graduating from our church school into the adult congregation. As part of that process they were interviewing a few of us “grown-ups” about what we believe, and how we explain Unitarian Universalism to ourselves and to other people. And as often happens in these sorts of discussions, when Unitarian Universalists are asked to dig down deep into the barest and most crucial things they believe, somebody brought up the First Principle. A reminder: there are seven principles described in the covenant between our congregations. They have changed some in form, wording and number since the first version of that covenant 53 years ago. And they could always change again: the words we share in common are there to describe what is true beyond words, and we have, together, the power and the responsibility to reshape that language whenever we find our way closer to the truth.

The first principle – that we affirm, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” – is easily the most quoted line in our covenant. It is only rivaled by the seventh – the “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The fundamental worthiness of human beings is a belief that deeply shapes who we are. It is a theological starting point for many of us. But what is it in us that is worthy? If the calculus of the marketplace, that attempts to reduce all things to dollars and cents, has no bearing on the value of lives, what is its measure?

The simple answer, I believe is that each of us is worthy because of our souls. Now, that is an explanation so simple that to just say it and stop would qualify as dodging the question. I have previously offered a definition of the soul as the sum of our potential to feel love, pursue justice, practice compassion, and experience awe.[vi] Either a metaphor for these capacities in each of us, or a thoroughly real metaphysical self through which they operate, depending on the angle at which you view the universe. I continue to rely on this definition. But thinking about the source of human worth this past week has helped me to see that the essential quality of the soul – again, by my definition – is the capacity for reaching out. Reaching out beyond the solitude of our existence with senses, mind, or heart. Reaching out in wonderment, questioning, or love. Our ability to reach out to the other scattered points of the universe, forging the connections that make up our interconnected web: this is what makes us worthy.

There is a famous story in the Christian tradition that the teacher Jesus was questioned once about paying taxes to an occupying army. This was what is today commonly called today a ‘gotcha’ question. Some folks were trying to corner him into saying something either politically dangerous or spiritually irresponsible. His answer, you have no doubt heard: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.” That instruction draws a line between the values and measures of money and military might, and the spiritual standards of the cosmic, the infinite. But it is a very ambiguous line. So just like those students who sought to follow their teacher’s instruction, it falls to us, as to all people, to make our own determination. Which parts of our world and our lives within it will be measure by the metrics of profit, in capital and interest, principle and dividend. And which portions we will measure only by the standard of the soul: by which all people are infinitely precious, impossible to replace or exchange, and all objects and choices must be judged according to the connections they create, sustain, or destroy. We live in a world in large part shaped and determined by money. An understanding of its standards and values is an unavoidable necessity. But our world also suffers from too many choices being made according to those standards of wealth, and too few according to the only real measure of worth.

[i] Act V, Scene IV.

[ii] http://liblog.mayo.edu/2010/01/14/whats-the-body-worth/

[iii] “Bart Sells His Soul,” Season 7, Episode 4.

[iv] http://www.send2press.com/newswire/2005-05-0525-006.shtml – this was a frequently repeated news story in 2005, but all trails seem to lead back to news leases from the self-promoting website, which raises some question as to its objectitivty.

[v] “Jataka Tales of the Buddha: #83”, retold by Ken & Visakha Kawasaki. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013

[vi] “The Work of the Soul,” sermon delivered at the First Parish Church in Beverly, MA, 2/3/2013.

The Tin Anniversary – 2/9/2014

This year marks the tenth anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts. Ten years ago our state became the first state in the US where any two grown-ups who love each other can get married and have that marriage recognized and protected equally under the law. We got rid of the special preference for partnerships between one woman and one man: now any two people who are devoted to each other can come to the party.

When the court ruling that led to that change came down here in Massachusetts, I was living in California. I had just started school to be a minister, and this decision was big news for my classmates and I. Many of us felt uncomfortable with the role of ministers in signing wedding licenses, in a system that recognized certain couples but not others. Here was the prospect that the law might start to change across the country, and that we might feel less torn between the legal power permitted to ministers and the moral responsibility incumbent upon them. There was also, among the native Californians, a crumb of disappointment that anyone else – even Massachusetts – had beaten their own state to the punch.

Which might have been what led folks in San Francisco to jump the gun. Before the ruling here in Massachusetts went into effect in May of 2004, the mayor of San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples, valid immediately. A rolling wedding party broke out at city hall. Several of my friends, who had been with their partners for decades – in one case longer than I had then been alive – rushed to make things official in the eyes of the law. But in less than a month, the state government ended the party. No more licenses for same sex couples would be issued, and the weddings that had already taken place were deemed illegal. For a short moment, equality was offered to folks so long denied it, and then it was snatched back out of their hands.

I thought about this recently when something similar happened in the state of Utah: for a brief period last month, the order of the courts required Utah to issue marriage licenses regardless of whether the people getting married were one woman and one man, two women, or two men. The weddings have now been halted as the state government challenges the ruling. In some ways, this is just as painful and disappointing, but the difference is that this time, the arrival of marriage equality even in the state of Utah looks like a matter of when, and not if. On Valentine’s Day 2004, no state in the country would issue a marriage license to a same sex couple, and only Massachusetts was about to start doing so later that year. Today there are 17 states where marriage is equal. The federal government has gone from actively blocking freedom and recognition to officially declaring that it will extend every possible right and privilege of marriage to same sex couples. The battle isn’t over yet, but the tide has turned.

It’s a fight that our religion has been deeply involved and invested in.  Grounded in a theology which holds love as the highest ideal and which calls for the marginalized to be protected from the powerful, we are barred from dressing up tired prejudices in the garments of holiness. So throughout this fight, through court cases and legislative battles and street protests, Unitarian Universalists have been among the religious voices – and in the earliest days, sometimes the only religious voice – for the freedom to marry. The successes we have helped to win have made real differences in the lives of real people – some of us here today – and contributed to a society which is more accepting of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people. Ten years after that work started to blossom, we need to ask ourselves: what’s next?

The struggle for the right to marry has been a struggle for equality of a particular sort: one specific opportunity and set of rights. It’s primary argument has been one of sameness – that whether you or I love someone who is the same gender as or a different gender from us, it is the same thing. It is the ‘same love,’ as the song on the radio says. Because our feelings and experiences and needs are basically the same, our rights ought to also be the same: they ought to be equal.

Several decades ago, the Universalist minister Kenneth Patton wrote, “Free people are not the equals of anyone; they are themselves, unique, self-sufficient, irreplaceable, ineffable…Equality only clears the ground so we can face our problems on a footing equal to others, and open us to a multitude of new problems we were sheltered from in our inequality. Equality is an equality of problems. Equality is not enough. What is enough is selfhood, which Epictetus, a slave, achieved equally with Marcus Aurelius, a Caesar. In the realm of selfhood there is no equality, only creaturehood, incomparable self-identity, where none are equal, because all are unique.”[i]

Whatever struggle we turn towards now, it should start from the understanding that our rights to be free, to love and to live, do not rely on our sameness. No one should have to be ‘normal’ to be respected. No one should have to be ‘proper’ to be valued. No one should have to be exactly like you, or me, or anyone else, or some unreal, unapproachable idea of what a person is supposed to be like, in order to be listened to, to have a say in the world around them, or to be loved. To use a phrase that one of my compatriots from seminary taught me, marriage equality is not the promised land. When the law respects all loving partnerships in all 50 states, that doesn’t mean the struggle is over. The struggle for the human rights of all people, whatever their sex, or their gender expression, whomever they love, or whomever they don’t love, but do think is pretty hot – that struggle continues. The world has gotten a little bit better in these last ten years – I truly believe that. But it won’t keep heading that way, if we pat ourselves on the back, when we ought to be rolling up our sleeves.

It was once the custom in ancient Rome to mark the 25th anniversary of a marriage with a wreath made out of silver, and the 50th with one made out of gold. Over the centuries, and with the relatively recent encouragement of the American National Retail Jeweler Association, there has come to be some special material, suitable for gifts, associated with every possible wedding anniversary. According to the list compiled by librarians at the Chicago Public Library, the appropriate gift material for the tenth anniversary is tin.[ii] Tin is a soft, cheap metal, and because this year also happens to be my 10th wedding anniversary with my partner Sara, I can say from having looked that there’s not a lot out there in terms of attractive gifts made out of tin. But probably the greatest factor in tin’s favor is that it does not rust easily; it endures. So in this year of the tin anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts, may the gift to our faith and to our congregation, be the endurance of tin. To stay in the fight, and to take it to new fronts, on behalf of the rights of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people, and of all people, however different, or however the same we might be.

 



[i] Kenneth Patton, A Religion of Realities.

[ii] http://web.archive.org/web/20071230073534/http://www.chipublib.org/008subject/005genref/giswedding.html

Money, Money, Money, Money

There is a fascinating historical connection between money and organized religion. I’m not just talking about the huge sums needed to build the great temples and cathedrals of the world, or the famous gift possessed by religious leaders from 10th century prelates to modern televangelists for getting believers to open their pocket books in the name of the Lord. This is something even more literal:

About the same time that the Roman Empire began to falter and fade, Christianity began to really take off in Europe. Weaker, smaller countries couldn’t support the same huge armies and major infrastructure that Rome had, and so a lot of things changed in the way that people lived their lives and did their business. One of these changes was that they began to find alternatives for all those Roman coins in circulation. With no one minting them anymore, it made sense to look for other options, and the stuff they were most commonly used for – for paying taxes to the government, and for the government to pay wages to soldiers and other employees – wasn’t as necessary. All that gold and silver was still worth something, of course, but better to trade it to someone else for a horse, or a piece of land, or a contract for some of their wheat crop next fall, rather than have to sit on and protect something that was inconvenient, attractive to thieves, and actually something you could eat or make much use out of.

A lot of those disused coins ended up being traded to abbeys and churches – the centers of the rising Christianity – where they were generally melted down and made into crosses and statues and other adornments for the grand shrines and cathedrals that were then being built. Precious metal that had been a liquid means of commerce became instead a solid symbol of eternity. Similar trends took place in India during the rise of major Hindu and Buddhist temples there, and in China as Buddhism became established there. (In my understanding of this history I am completely indebted to David Graeber’s excellent book Debt: the First 5,000 Years.) All of this posed a challenge to ambitious kings and

Who I -Works. Traditional were: coming for skin to?

queens, who wanted to field the large armies and build the sorts of empires that required the minting of coins. So these monarchs would find some pretense to seize holy sites, to take possession of gold crosses or silver menorahs and melt them down, reconverting them into hard currency.

Money can be many things – it can be a symbol, it can be an obsession, it can be a tool of corruption or oppression. But it is also a store of value. It measures – very imperfectly – somebody’s work, or something that someone wanted that someone else had. In the world that we inhabit, it is inescapable. So because we cannot get rid of it, at least for now, it is up to us whether we will use it to build empires or cathedrals. Whether we will use that stored value in the service of consumption or community.

We are now beginning our annual canvass season – when we are each asked to reflect on our commitment to our spiritual community, and to make a pledge of financial support to it. So in the month of February, we’re going to be talking a lot about money: what it means, or can mean, what place it holds, or ought to hold, in our lives. Your congregational leadership have already filled out their pledge cards, and now is your opportunity to do so as well. All of this is leading up to our celebratory service on March 2nd, when we will complete the collection of pledges and consecrate our trust in and support for our beloved community. So happy money month! May this time of intentional focus on what we have, lead to a greater appreciation for it, and a greater sense of intention in what we do with it.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Our Common Wealth – 2/2/2014

In folklore of Turkey, there is a character named Nasruddin, a wise fool whose tales always end with someone looking ridiculous: sometimes it’s somebody else, and sometimes it’s Nasruddin. In one of his stories, Nasruddin was left in charge of a restaurant for a few days while his friend, the owner, attended to some business in another town. While he was minding the shop, the king passed through town on a tour of his empire, and happened to stop for a meal in the very establishment Nasruddin was looking after. Nasruddin greeted the monarch with deference, and asked what he might like to eat.

“Do you have any quail eggs?” asked the king.

“I’m sure some can be found,” replied Nasruddin.

The king asked in that case for an omelet of quail eggs – which would require about a dozen, since quail eggs are so small. Nasruddin assured him this would not be a problem. He had to go borrowing from a few neighbors, but he found enough quail eggs to make the omelet, which the king ate quite happily.

After the meal, Nasruddin presented the king with the bill for his meal. It came to one hundred gold pieces – an astronomical amount, easily more than the entire restaurant was worth. “Can it be that quail eggs are really so rare in this part of my country?” the king asked aloud.

“Quail eggs are not so rare here, your highness,” Nasruddin explained, “we get them from time to time. “Visits from kings, on the other hand…”

Nasruddin’s canny price-setting is a reminder that so long as there have been people with more, the people with less have had to get creative in finding ways to get some. But the problem of the gap between rich and poor cannot always be so easily solved when the king comes to town. In fact, such a thing can make it much worse.

In 1324, Mansa Musa, who ruled the Empire of Mali in West Africa, set out from his capital in order to make the hajj. The hajj is the pilgrimage to the city of Mecca, in what is today Saudi Arabia. Every Muslim who has the physical ability and financial means necessary is required to undertake the journey at least once in their lives. Mansa Musa or Musa I – Mansa is a title, it means “Emperor,” basically – wasn’t just any king. He ruled a nation with one some of the most productive gold mines then known to exist on earth. He regularly makes lists of the wealthiest figures in human history – in at least one case, at the very top. So Musa I did not make the hajj alone; he travelled in style, with a literal army of retainers, servants and guards, and a vast fortune with which to pay for the transcontinental expedition.

On his route, he passed through Egypt, and this is where a lot of what we know about the mansa comes from. His arrival in Cairo was a grand spectacle – he was written about at the time, and his visit became the stuff of legend in Egypt for centuries after. He is said to have been exceedingly generous: making gifts to local officials, over-paying for everything he bought, hiring scholars and experts to join him his retinue and return with him to Mali, paying to build new mosques throughout his travels, and giving alms to the poor. Mansa Musa brought so much gold with him, and spent it so freely, that the price of gold in Egypt cratered. This caused what we would today call super-inflation – a problem we don’t normally think of as being possible in the 14th century. Too much gold meant that the price of everything else went through the roof, and suddenly an amount of money that would have made you rich the year before couldn’t even meet your basic needs anymore. The Egyptian economy took years to recover.[i]

All this year, I am preaching each month on some topic of social concern and what our tradition has to say about it. In the fall, we began with the subject of work, its value, and the moral question of how labor should be treated and compensated. Today’s subject is the related matter of the economy in general and how our society distributes its resources.

In this day and age we are, of course, in our own decade-long course of recovery from financial cataclysm. Its causes are very different from the ones the troubled Egypt in the 1300s, but pattern in which not even the wealthy and powerful seem willing or able to prevent calamity is a familiar one. Depending on whom you ask, it is going very well, or poorly, or not at all. Interestingly enough, those answers correlate somewhat to whether a person is doing as well or better financially than they were before the crash, or making less money, or struggling with the loss of a home or a job that isn’t coming back. The explanations for what caused our economic implosion are fairly technical and at least a little disputed – I won’t rehearse them here. Suffice to say that we have an economic system – a system for exchanging goods and services in order to meet human need – that depends on the constant motion of a lot of imaginary numbers. On one day in 2008, a vast host of these numbers proved to be even less grounded in reality than usual, so all that motion had to stop. We still don’t have all of it moving again, yet.

The film Margin Call attempted to tell the fictional story of one financial firm, on the eve of a crash, scrambling to find a way out from underneath all those bad numbers before anyone else realized there was a problem. At one point, two of Manhattan’s wizards of finance are talking about the crisis they know is about to hit. One of them expresses concern for the strangers all around them on the street – the ‘normal people’. The other – the more experienced and mature – responds with a justification of why their job matters. And here I have cleaned up the language a good bit:

“Listen, if you really wanna do this with your life you have to believe you’re necessary and you are. People wanna live like this in their cars and big [flippin’] houses they can’t even pay for, then you’re necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really [freakin’] fair really [flippin’] quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don’t. They want what we have to give them but they also wanna, you know, play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. Well, that’s more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow, so [forget] em. [Forget] normal people.”

What that character described had a kernel of truth to it. The world we inhabit depends upon private corporations seeking private profits. As long as they do well, everyone else gets to go about their business. Our status remains quo, and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer only incrementally. But when things go really wrong – when a whole bunch of companies lose a whole bunch of money all at once – the private loss doesn’t stay private. And when things start to get better, they get better faster for the people who already have more, and slower for the people who already have less.

This is possible because we live in what farmer and poet Wendell Berry calls a “total economy.” This is the way he explains the term:

A TOTAL ECONOMY is one in which everything—“life forms,” for instance,—or the “right to pollute” is “private property” and has a price and is for sale. In a total economy significant and sometimes critical choices that once belonged to individuals or communities become the property of corporations. A total economy, operating internationally, necessarily shrinks the powers of state and national governments, not only because those governments have signed over significant powers to an international bureaucracy or because political leaders become the paid hacks of the corporations but also because political processes—and especially democratic processes—are too slow to react to unrestrained economic and technological development on a global scale. And when state and national governments begin to act in effect as agents of the global economy, selling their people for low wages and their people’s products for low prices, then the rights and liberties of citizenship must necessarily shrink. A total economy is an unrestrained taking of profits from the disintegration of nations: communities, households, landscapes, and ecosystems. It licenses symbolic or artificial wealth to “grow” by means of the destruction of the real wealth of all the world…”[ii]

The shared resources of our world – the common wealth that rightly cannot be said to belong more to anyone of us than to any others of us – get appropriated and transformed in to things that a few people own and most folks do not. The English word “economy,” can be traced back to a Greek word meaning “household management.” So we are managing our household – the collective household of all people and things on this earth – in a manner that makes a few of us rich and many of us poor and that is built on a pattern requiring some sort of self-inflicted disaster every few decades. All the while, everything that is not already a commodity must either be refined into one or destroyed by accident or design.

The author G.K. Chesterton famously said of Christianity, “[It] has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”[iii] Similarly, the ideals of human religion direct us towards a world that is very different from this one, the one that our species has built over the last several thousand years. Judaism emerged on the margins of warring empires built from slave labor, and envisions a world free from slavery and the exploitation of human beings, free in fact from the ethnic resentments and oppressions that defined the world of its day. The central story in Judaism is of a group of slaves becoming their own nation, its vision of God is as a liberator, who sets free all captives. Again and again, the Torah admonishes its audience, “Remember when you were slaves in Egypt.” Therefore have compassion for the widow, the orphan, the stranger in your midst. Remember what it is to be persecuted, so that you should refuse to become the persecutor.

More than a thousand years later, Christianity arose within the Jewish tradition in the context of military occupation, when all of its early adherents were subjects of a brutal and powerful empire. Its central story is about how the greatest threat such an empire can make against us – death – falters and fails before the power of love. Its vision of God is as a parent, who refuses to play favorites between this child or that. The expectations of the Gospels make empire impossible by making the militarism upon which it depends impossible: “one who lives by the sword shall die by the sword,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” “if your brother strikes you on your right cheek, turn and offer him your left.” Christianity’s founding prophet was murdered by an empire – what greater evidence could there be that his message posed a threat to all systems of exploitation by force?

Six hundred years later, Islam emerged in the same lineage with Judaism and Christianity, at a time of profound economic crisis. There was a yawning chasm between rich and poor, and children were dying for want of hospitality and generosity – values that were being discarded in favor of narrow self-interest. Some of Islam’s greatest reforms were in the area of the ethics of the market. In Islam God is addressed most often with the titles, al-Rahman, al-Rahim: the most compassionate, the most merciful. Not only is the giving of alms to the poor and marginalized extolled again and again in the Qur’an, but it also establishes stringent rules about how to conduct trade and commerce. Among other things, Islam outlawed charging interest of any kind on any loan. Clearly one of its goals as a religious system was to guard against any system of finance becoming a system of exploitation.

All three Abrahamic faiths have visions of the world that, though quite complimentary to each other, are radically at odds with the system we actually live within. So it is up to people of faith – ourselves included – to carry that vision forward. To move the world from the way that it is to the way that it ought to be.

I should give you an update then, on something we began back in the fall. On the Sunday in October we devoted to labor, my friend Paul Drake of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice came and spoke to us about a campaign to put an increase in the minimum wage on the ballot in Massachusetts this fall. Many of you were moved to contribute your signature to the cause.

That state-wide campaign collected over 111,000 signatures, more than enough to ensure the issue could reach the ballot. As was the hope, this cajoled the state legislature into action. The senate has now passed a bill very similar to the one on the ballot petition. The state house is also working on its own bill. No draft has been made public, but there is fear that the increase in the minimum wage may be tied to a reduction in unemployment insurance. This is personally horrifying to me: to see power that was built through a grassroots campaign to support low-wage workers be turned against that same population by cutting a crucial program in our limited, imperfect safety net for the poor. This week I was part of a delegation of Beverly clergy and community leaders who met with our state representative to express our concern. And this morning you have the opportunity, if you care to, to lend your voice as well. There is a card enclosed in your order of service with a printed message for your representative. If you read it and wish to sign it, you may leave it in the offering plate, and I will make sure it gets sent in.

In a world where too many people have too little to depend on, generosity and charity are a moral necessity. But as the story of Mansa Musa demonstrates, even good intentions and a whole lot of money cannot fix a broken system. So when we are moved by conscience to address the suffering of our neighbors and friends, we must address the problem on two fronts. The first, with giving and sharing, trying to meet the immediate need, and the second, by asking ‘why do the same needs keep going unmet, over and over again?’ A total economy guarantees only that some will profit, not that all will thrive. So it is the work of all people of good will to work towards a new way of managing our global household that cares more about people, and less about profit.



[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/17/mansa-musa-worlds-richest-man-all-time_n_1973840.html

[ii] http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/299/

[iii] G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World, 1910.

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