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Protecting the System

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Economy: Week 1

Protecting the System
Tuesday, June 26, 2018

When the economic institution is our primary lens, as it is in the U.S., religion tends to be diluted by pragmatic, win/lose, and power attitudes. God is bought and sold more than loved, waited for, or surrendered to. This is why Jesus’ anger (and even destruction of property) was aimed at those selling and buying in the temple (see Matthew 21:12).

I once saw a cartoon in the New Yorker depicting a pedestal holding a dollar. People are bowing to the enshrined bill, and one of them says, “The reason I like this religion is that at least we’re not hypocritical.” Americans have this dangerous illusion that we’re a religious people. Yet it’s evident that God is not on the pedestal here. Clearly our consumer system is the priority, and everything else is subservient.

I once was teaching a class that was to be attended by a wealthy banker. I had been warned that he might take me to task for my criticism of the American Way, so I was prepared for the worst. As I talked, I watched him listening attentively, occasionally becoming stiff-shouldered. Sure enough, at break time he headed right for the podium.

“Father,” he said, putting his hands on my shoulders, “I’ve got something to tell you. Not only is what you said true, but it’s much truer than you even imagine.” Then he explained to me a study documenting that the United States government’s savings and loan bailout of 1989 was the biggest transfer of money from the poor to the rich in human history.

“But there’s really no one to blame,” he added, in spite of the visible few who went to jail for their corrupt actions. “The whole system is skewed to protect those at the top at all costs.” In fact, I added, it’s to protect the system itself, because the system is our goal. We abhor and denigrate welfare for the poor but hardly blink at welfare for corporations or for the banking and military systems. Money is tight for education, health care, and other public services but our military budget only continues to grow.

Paul Hawken, an American entrepreneur and environmentalist, shares a similar insight he learned from a farmer in Maine:

The problem with the United States is that it usually hits exactly what it is aiming at. And for decades now, we have aimed for money and possessions. We got it. It was not evenly distributed and is now highly concentrated, posing as great a threat to democracy as any foreign power ever did, but that is what this country made—money. In the process, we completely forgot that success and failure, when measured by currency alone, are impostors, and that our lives, the transience of which often becomes evident all too late, can have little meaning unless we feel in our passing that we were able to serve the nature and humanity [and God] that gave us our breath and soul. [1]

[1] Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, Revised Edition (Harper Business: 1993, 2010), 194.

Adapted from Richard Rohr with John Bookser Feister, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (Franciscan Media: 1996), 69-70.

Image Credit: Oil Slick in the Timor Sea, September 2009 (detail), NASA Earth Conservatory, US Government.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image:
It was inconceivable that the vast plains and forests . . .  could be exhausted, or that the abundant new fuels of coal could produce enough waste to foul the air and the seas, or that the use of oil could eventually lead to global climate change. —Paul Hawken
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