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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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