Mad About Money

greedWe are just now on the cusp of Passover and Easter, which is why I thought it might be appropriate to talk about money and how it rules our culture. The rule of money being about as far removed from Passover and Easter values as you can get. Money being the equivalent of death, and these two deliverance narratives being all about life and love and justice.

My concern is not just money’s power but money’s remarkable capacity to hide its power dimension and conceal its toxic potential. I mean hide in ordinary mental constructs, like “so-and-so is rich – how wonderful is that?” whereas “this other so-and-so is poor – and what a shame that is!” Without it occurring to us that so-and-so #1 is actually, if not literally, standing on the neck of so-and-so #2, and is doing so with the full backing of the corrupt social order.

Here is how it plays out in national life. The very wealthiest Americans, whose share of income and wealth has shot up astronomically for the past 25 years, have somehow gotten a huge number of other Americans to buy into the idea that there isn’t enough money. And that therefore we should cut lifeline benefits that go to poor children and sick people and old people and veterans. That we should actually sing hosannas to them as our benefactors—as our only hope. That we should bow down to them and all chant in unison, “Blessed are the ‘job creators!’ ”

These elites have got lots of struggling Americans believing that they must accept the so-called new normal of inadequate wages and no benefits. That it’s their own fault if their earnings fall short of what it takes to live a decent life.

I mean, really: we should laugh out loud at such errant nonsense. And we should slap such people down for their stupendous arrogance. But we don’t do so, because in large measure the austerity narrative has us all in a stupor, in a trance of submission to the system as it now is.

This is an alert and informed group of people. I won’t insult you by multiplying examples. You already know that there are many in Congress today, Democrats as well as Republicans, who carry on all the time about the unsustainability of the programs that benefit the weakest and most vulnerable. But do you ever here these same champions of thrift talk about the incredibly costly programs that benefit the fattest and the sleekest—that comfort the already very comfortable?

I’m talking about the carried-interest rule that lets hedge fund managers, people who often make upwards of $50 million per year, pay a tax rate less than half of the rate paid by the people who clean their offices. I am talking about the estate tax bonanza that still lets the heirs of couples with $10 million estates pay nothing at all. I am talking about the Fortune 50 corporations that have aggressively avoided paying any corporate income tax – including General Electric, whose boss recently chaired Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

I mention that our president hangs out with these people and defers to them because that’s how it works. The rule of money is bipartisan phenomenon. It’s not about Democrat or Republican. The plutocrats pay the bills of candidates from both parties, and neither party would dream of really touching their privilege or their power.

In the big showdown on tax changes recently, Obama almost immediately caved in on hiking the marginal income tax rate of individuals making more than $250,000 a year. That had been his initial position – repeated again and again – that individuals making more than $250K should really pay more in the interest of fairness.

But the deal he made only requires people above $400,000 to kick in a little more. Any why did he cave in that way? Because there are plenty of people in his own peer group, among the lobbyists and the policy professionals, among the congressional staffers and the big-name media personalities, who make between $250,000 and $400,000 and who let the president know they had no intention of having their good life interfered with.

wendell berry

Wendell Berry

I don’t mean to go off on Obama. I admire the president. He is a product of this system, not its creator. But neither is he doing anything to change it. He’s no Franklin Roosevelt, who denounced the people he called “economic royalists” and who loved to say, during his second campaign, “They hate me – and I relish their hatred!”

So far all I have done is sketch out a migraine-making problem that is hardly news to most of you here. It’s the domination system, whereby the already rich and powerful grow yet more rich and powerful by controlling and feeding off the government. So it was also in the corrupt client state of Judah in the 6th century BCE, when Jeremiah denounced the corrupt priests and the false prophets who sucked up to unjust power. So it was in the Roman Empire. So it was in the Habsburg Empire and in the British Empire. And so it is in today’s American Empire.

But if I were to stop speaking right now, you would have every right to say, “Gawd, that was a really awful presentation – and for two reasons. That guy gave us a lot of depressing old news, and he didn’t suggest that there is any way forward.”

I don’t want to be quite that awful as your guest speaker today. And that is why I am drawn to Wendell Berry, who never stops with just mourning our money-mad culture, but who also imagines a way for us to survive it, if not to defeat it immediately.

Berry’s essay, “Economy and Pleasure,” was published during the Reagan years but is still fresh today, in part because these still really are the Reagan years in respect to many still-prevailing mental constructs and also in respect to still-prevailing currents in political life.

Berry begins by observing that the idea of competition and of winners and losers in relentless economic competition is anything but a natural category. It’s not like tall or short, like more able or less able. It’s not even quite like rich or poor in the old days, when the poor at least had their place. The so-called economic winners of today don’t really know what to do with the losers. There is no human place for them; thus they are, in a quite literal sense, dehumanized and made unworthy of our attention. Or, to quote Berry, “there is no limit to the damage and the suffering implicit in this willingness that losers should exist as a normal economic cost.”

But then, while Berry has us despairing in the usual way over the hopelessness of it all, he changes it up. In the passage that I read, he invites us to consider that everybody loses in a domination system that preserves itself through violence against our very human being and through violence against the earth itself. Or, as my friend Bill Coffin used to say, there are no winners in a rat race: even if you win, you are still a rat.

Berry then turns the discussion to a consideration of pleasure: of God’s pleasure, and of our own pleasure, in the beauty and worthiness of all that is. This, he says, is the only cure for the money disease and for the madness of unceasing competition and endless grasping for more. We have to re-orient our desire toward the boundless riches of the here and now. Otherwise we can never rid ourselves of the anxiety of scarcity.

Earlier I used the term “trance” in relation to our submission to the system as it now is: to the money system. Berry thinks, and I think too, that the only way we can really break the trance and break out of our passivity is, in a way, to touch the earth again. To return to the soil, to a connection with living things, to a more primal connection to each other than a Facebook connection, or worse, the kind of instrumental connection that asks, “Hmmm, now let’s see: How can I use this person to my own advantage?”

I think Berry is right. I think that that is where we start. But I do not think that that is where we can end. And here’s why: our re-establishment of a connection between ourselves and this lovely earth, or between ourselves and our neighbors, is a precondition of recovering our health. But we should not expect the over-class, the predator class, for whom competition and a division between winners and losers is so intoxicating—we should not expect them to sober up or to suddenly give up their haughty power if a butterfly should float past their window. I wish it were so, but I think it’s naïve to expect to expect the Holy Spirit to descend upon the floor of the New York Stock Exchange anytime soon. I think it’s a fantasy to suppose that recovering social health among the regular people will automatically precipitate a revolution in values among the super-people, those uebermenschen, at the top end.

This is why, person of peace though I am, I have always had a problem with the bumper sticker that reads “Visualize World Peace.” Sure. Happy to do it. Consider it visualized. But then what? No, it’s not good enough to get healthy in our own private sphere and just assume that our quantum of health will then rise and expand like leaven in the loaf. We need to take what health we have, we need to join hands with others who are in recovery from money madness, and then we need to turn it into a force more powerful: a nonviolent social force that can cast down the mighty from their thrones, as Mary’s Song in Luke’s gospel envisions so fervently.

We can get halfway to health on our own. But we can only become truly healthy in a healthier society. Which is why we must shame, expose, pursue, and harass the oppressors, those at the top who are intoxicated with their power and who really do imagine that they are better and more deserving than the rest of is. We must expose and pursue them nonviolently, it goes without saying. But expose and pursue them nonetheless.

Christians today celebrate Palm Sunday, a day when tradition holds that Jesus entered Jerusalem to the hosannas of the poor people while riding on a lowly donkey, not on the proud charger that an earthly emperor would be mounted upon. Jesus entered into Jerusalem in this way not to rule but to challenge those who held unjust rule. And his primary provocation—the thing that got him killed—was without question his symbolic action in the outer court of the Jerusalem temple: his direct challenge to the money lenders, his direct condemnation of the hateful oppressors who drove poor peasants into debt peonage and slavery by loaning money at extortionate rates of interest.

The payday lenders of the first century, you might say. Jesus knew how to hit them where they live. Naturally, he quoted Jeremiah’s famous line: “[God’s] house is to be a house of prayer for all people. But you have turned it into a den of thieves!”

Jesus died because his passion for the Reign of God, for God’s shalom, was so strong that it was not enough for him personally to become healthy and connected to the real. No, he did not consider it enough to be able, in one’s private life, to experience human communion and to experience pleasure in the goodness of God’s creation. Jesus understood that as long as the over-class retains the power to make everyday people anxious and afraid, his own healing could never be complete. So he went after the over-class in a dramatic way – and he died for his trouble.

But the struggle continues, the love goes on. And it’s even possible to understand why so many people feel that the passion of Jesus, the passion of Sojourner Truth, the passion of Gandhi, and the passion of Dr. King, remain fully alive in this present day. It is an undying passion fueled by an undying hunger and thirst for God’s reign in which there will be pleasure not just for ourselves, who might have started to break away from the rat race if we are lucky, but for everyone still embedded in that misery who suffers every single day as a consequence.

St. Augustine taught that hope has two lovely daughters: courage and anger. My hope for us, my prayer for us, is that as we grow healthier in our personal lives we not stop there. My hope is that we gather the courage and the righteous indignation that we will need for the struggle—that we draw upon our growing health and clarity to fight the good nonviolent fight against concentrated wealth and power. We will do this not because we like fighting. No, we will do it so that others too may at last find health – and peace – and pleasure—in a world that was made for everyone’s enjoyment.

peter laarmanGod has been absurdly generous in making the world for pure delight, in taking delight in it, and in giving us a glimpse of what that is about: actually inviting us to live in such delight.

May we find inexpressible pleasure in merely being alive in this world and to this world.

And may we then insist that no person and no living thing be degraded or discarded or deprived of this same supreme pleasure.

Peter Laarman

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on March 24, 2013
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About Peter Laarman

Peter Laarman is executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of activist individuals and congregations headquartered in Los Angeles. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for the

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