By Liz McAlister
Dissatisfaction. A vague hunger. Subtle, nagging, demanding to be filled – seldom strong enough to be the central focus of attention. A vague hunger both blind and lost, that is seduced, distorted, manipulated to define itself in terms of greed, consumption, and wealth addiction. So we seek to fill it – with an excess of food, activity, information, possessions. We want more because what we are getting is not what we need. Now is never enough. Too much is never enough.
The great seducer is the culture. The average North American is bombarded 10,000 times a day with sensory bites. Their thrust:
– to breed dissatisfaction – we aren’t beautiful enough, clean enough, cool enough, smart enough, young enough
– to sell products that will make us beautiful, clean, cool, smart, young.
– to create among us rivalry, competitiveness,
– to sabotage every effort to build the kind of community that can enable us to withstand the
pressures of greed.
– to expect fulfillment in the future, and that future is for sale – if you have enough money, you can buy!
The preaching of the culture is fear: “There isn’t enough to go around.”
Pascal named the awareness of vague hunger the “god-shaped vacuum” within us. We triumph over it when we learn to trust the very hunger and fear we’ve been taught to avoid. Face it! Embrace it! Recognition of it is the juncture at which we choose: either to seek our grounding in materialism; or to move beyond it – and move from the cultural imperative to the spiritual alternative which invites us to enter fully into all that has been given to us.
Gratitude is our response. Gratitude is the antidote to the poison – it is the hidden art, the unrecognized answer. Gratitude has nothing to do with counting our blessings (and being thankful only if the good outweighs the bad). It has to do with walking headlong into the wholeness of life. And with the realization that, hidden in my gratitude for the life within me and before me is the nourishment I seek in vain through acquisitiveness . It is a practice of living fully the miracle of this moment.
What is it that gratitude achieves? If we can understand that our capacity to praise and be grateful for something in this world and nature hinges on our capacity to involve ourselves in that which we extol , then we can understand that the spirit of gratitude draws us out of ourselves and into involvement. It enables us to open ourselves to be able to forget ourselves in unity with others… If expressing gratitude for what is is an act of being alive, then we are dead people most of the time.
I want to dig a little into the hold that greed and property have on us. Let anyone say: “Property is sacred,” and critical thinking is stifled. Because this sacrosanct nature of property in the hands of a few is confirmed by law and sanctioned by state power, even the dispossessed majority tends to accept it. While deefinitions vary, exclusiveness and unlimited disposition are the chief elements of ownership as the term is commonly used. It demands analysis. The thing is – none of its foundations are true.
It was the Ancient Romans who developed the concept of ownership. It was Roman law that legitimized the accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense and impoverishment of the many. From there, private ownership of the land formed the basis of the slave-owning, the feudal, the capitalist, and the state-capitalist economic systems successively. This ownership concept is
- a) the root of the present global crisis, in which the rich become richer because the poor become poorer.
b) the root of impoverishment of the land and of society and the ecological crisis we now face.
- c) the root of most of our warring.
“But what is the meaning of “mine” and “not mine? …chilly words which introduce innumerable wars into the world.” (John Chrysostom)
(These are the effects of greed that I would have us delve into)
(1) The Roman Law ownership is the root of the present global crisis, in which the rich become richer because the poor become poorer.
What is rarely considered is a philosophical and moral view of ownership: “What is ownership-as-it-ought-to-be?” It’s a question searching for response, especially today among Third World peasants – what is legal does not reflect what is just. They ask:
– Why can we not own the land we till, which our ancestors tilled?
– Whose is the land really? It was there before you and I were born. When landlords and we shall die, the land will still be there.
– What is just with regard to the land?
They look to history for answers. In all primitive societies people exercised collective authority over land. Not until the coming of the Spaniards in this country, was the notion of legal title to land introduced and Roman law of individual ownership propagated. Thus ownership by Spaniards of large tracts of land seized from the natives was recognized as legal.
The urgent question of ownership coming right into the 21st century is essentially the same as the question faced by Christian philosophers in the late Roman Empire. Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Augustine – critique private ownership of the means of subsistence and its effect on both rich and poor. While the Roman law has been passed down, and while all are considered great thinkers and saints, their critique has been silenced. The principles they outlined toward a philosophical and moral view of ownership are 2
- Self sufficiency as a purpose of property… One who lacks the necessities of life cannot be other than broken in spirit . Property is for our use – to give people moral self-assurance regarding externals and hence free them for service to others… so people can lead a life consonant with human dignity. It is a means! The greedy are “foolish” they treat it as an end.
2.Koinonia as a purpose of property… Goods are called goods because they do good, and they have been provided by God for the good of humanity. Ownership of wealth should not mean the right to do with property as one wills but rather as God wills. And God’s will is manifest in the creation of people as social, as moving toward unity, as community, or koinonia. The purpose of wealth is to foster koinonia – fellowship that abolishes the differentiation between the few rich who wallow in luxury and the all too many in poverty. This aspect of property is reflected in the comment of John Woolman: “The Quakers came to this country to do good; and they have done very well!”
It is not human to regard property as something with which one may do as one likes simply because it is one’s “own.” To be properly human, one must act in a spirit of community – cast aside the prevailing, absolutist, indiviualistic Roman law legitimation of property and embrace a new rationale of ownership, holding things in such a way that they may be common. The basic difference is in fixing the right of ownership in the static order of keeping or holding instead of recognizing it as a dynamic reality: a duty of sharing.
Backing these principles is the observation”
– just as the foot is the measure of the sandal, so the physical needs of each are the measure of what one should possess. Whatever is excessive is a burden for the body.
– just as air, water, fire, the sun, land – are causes of life, they and all the wealth of earth belong to the human family and not to the few.
– the most basic title to property is the title of need. To this need all others are subordinate and by this need the right of ownership is limited. For the rich to share their wealth constitutes an act of restitution because they have accumulated so much that the poor have been deprived of their birthright.
The patristics denounced the status quo because it granting moral legitimation to what is immoral. They tried to reason with exploiting classes that their wealth was the result of theft, with a view to moving them to restore it by redistribution. They taught a philosophy of ownership based on the view that God is parent and giver and provider for all and that the few must cease stealing the food-producing resources that God destined for the use of all. Then everyone could celebrate their effective participation in the same common nature – in the one human family to which all belonged.
Legal arrangements of property rights are of human origin and should be changed as an expression of a faith-informed ethic based on the true meaning of ownership. Justice cannot be realized until humanity has effectively rejected the idolatry of property.
(2) – The Roman Law dealing with ownership is the root of the impoverishment of the land and of the society and the ecological crisis we now face. The possession of large tracts of land by the few not only destroys the many, pushing them into destitution, dependence, crime, it also destroys the land. It has blinded us to our integral relationship with the natural world. We pride ourselves on outwitting nature. We develop technology to transcend the basic biological law – a law of limits. We look to live beyond the limits that are normal and natural to us as human beings. We keep inventing; we keep trying to get beyond the human condition into some kind of wonderworld. But the more we try, the more we waste-the-world, and destroy our whole situation. Greed!
Other societies might be limited by their lack of technological development. Our society burns the energies of the planet, trying to get beyond the planet. We invent things that have immediate advantages; we cling to a short-term view that a moment of security or well-being can be had today without enormous charges against tomorrow.
The earth is what we have in common; we cannot damage it without damaging ourselves and all with whom we share it. When we disturb the outer world, we are destroying living forms – animal, trees, etc. And disturb the land we have! (Wendel Berry) The woods and streams inherit all the harms of human enterprise. We burn the world to live; our living blights the trees . Great machines, herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, de-forestation, desertification. We are losing probably ten thousand species a year – the greatest set-back to the abundance and diversity of life on earth since the first flickerings of life almost four billion years ago. And when we destroy the living forms of this planet, we destroy modes of God’s presence. If we have a wonderful sense of the divine, if we have refinement of emotion and sensitivity, it is because we live amid such awesome magnificence, it is because of the diversity, the beauty, the rhythmic movements of the world about us. If we grow in our life vigor, it is because the earthly community challenges us, forces us to struggle to survive, but, in the end, reveals itself as benign providence.
(3) – The Roman Law ownership concept is the root of most of our warring. “But what is the meaning of “mine” and “not mine?” …chilly words which introduce innumerable wars into the world.” (Chrysostom). “If we have property, we’ll need walls and weapons to protect it.” ((Francis of Assisi) ) “On account of the things which each one of us possesses singly, wars exist, hatreds, discords, strifes among human beings, tumults, dissensions, scandals, sins, injustices, and murders.” (Augustine) Preparation for nuclear war has turned the whole of North America into a weapons factory in peace time. Mining, milling, and processing; enrichment and nuclear reactors; reprocessing plants that separate out the plutonium; bomb factories for triggers and bomb assembly plants; testing sites for nuclear weapons and nuclear waste repositories. And through all, there is no safe level of radiation.
We’ve set off thousands of nuclear bombs on the planet, over half of them American. We’ve done severe damage to the biosphere and to human health. Subtle and not so subtle damage has happened both to the biosphere and the gene pool. As we produce more radioactive material, we enlarge the susceptible population, we increase the number of children with asthsma and allergies, juvenile diabetes, heart disease, arthritic conditions at age 8 or 9. These children are more vulnerable to a hazardous environment. And we keep enlarging this vulnerable category, even as we increase the toxicity of the environment! That’s a species death process.
We have toxic waste dumps, nuclear power plants, pesticides, herbicides, and defoliants created during the Vietnam War, now used on farms and in cities, plus the radioactive garbage sifting down from the stratosphere (a UN study claims 150 megatons from testing) – and no one keeps track of what is happening.
Luke 12:15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
As faith is the antithesis (antidote) to fear, gratitude is the antithesis of greed. Over 100 verses in the Scriptures mandate Thanksgiving. We see it * Ps. 107, 118, and 136. Phil. 4:6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
The central vision of world history in the Bible is that creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature. All are children of one family, heirs of one hope, bearers of one destiny – the care and management of God’s creation. This is the root of gratitude – this destiny, this dream of God for us that resists all our tendencies to division, hostility, fear, drivenness, and misery.
Without gratitude our future is complusive drivenness. Without gratitude there is no grounding from which to defy all that must be confronted in this estranged world of ours. Gratitude is a response to two specific life-style decisions: simplicity and service (neither of which is possible without community). These decisions are essential because gratitude is not something we can acquire and then use as if it were a new possession. Gratitude grows from a context of health created by “right attitude” and “right livelihood.”
“Right attitude” and “right livelihood” contradict all those cultural living habits that have to do with maintaining what we have and coveting what we don’t. “The greatest wealth of all is having so little that one must notice how much one has in having life itself.” With little to protect and acquire, life is simple. The answer we seek isn’t in saturation but simple thanksgiving. We become what we think: therefore a mindfulness of/gratefulness for our world family!
When wealth is reckoned in commodities, stashed away for some to have and some not to have; when “know-how” is spohisticated, mystifying, technical – possessed by some and not by others; when a sense of solidarity among persons yields to a kind of individuality; when a sense of belonging with others is diminished and a sense of being apart from others takes its place, when $, access, and knowledge are no longer shared among us but are controlled by some, the natural network of caring community collapses. Let us pray for clarity to see all that lives not as raw materials, symbols, but as sister-presences, independent, called out of nothing by no word of ours, bless`ed, here with us. May we live to breathe air worthy of breath – may we become breathers worth their air, makers worth their hire!