Greed and Capitalism

The shaking up of the world’s financial markets and the virtual melt down of America’s investment banks these past two weeks should certainly make us question the soundness of our whole approach to wealth and riches.  The “irrational exuberance” spoken of by Alan Greenspan some years ago seems to have come home to roost. Leave aside the question as to what extent Greenspan’s  policies, as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, were actually causing the dangers he warned against, but I think it is safe to say that, generally speaking, the chaos is largely a result of  the ”buy now and pay later” mentality which has been fostered by the wide use of credit cards and the prevalence of unsound mortgage practices – both of which have been pushed far beyond any reasonable limits by the banking industry.

We must ask if any of this disaster might not have been avoided had those claiming to be Christians among us had thought a bit more deeply about the warning issued by Jesus that we cannot serve both God and money.  Actually, the word that Jesus used for “money” on this occasion (recorded in Matthew 6:24) was “Mammon”, an Aramaic word that seems to have been originally the name of the god of money or riches.  In other words Jesus was telling us we cannot serve two gods at once.  Either one serves the true God or else ends up committing the sin of idolatry. We can’t have it both ways! Likewise, St. Paul warns us, in his first letter to Timothy (6:10) that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” While I’m not sure that is always the case—it seems to me that love of the power that comes with wealth is even more dangerous—still, I think that there can be no doubt about the truth of what Saint Augustine said when he warned that “The believer who is taught  to hope for riches will be corrupted by prosperity.”

Why is it that this so often turns out to be to true?  Looking up the definitions of various words that might be used to describe the causes of falling into this trap (like “avarice,” “covetousness,” “cupidity,” or just plain “greed”) we keep finding the word “desire.”  Admittedly, the occurrence of this word in this context is generally modified by such words as “strong,” “inordinate,” or “excessive.” But the use of the word “desire” should raise a serious question for those of us who like to think we are Christians. After all, we are not Buddhists who are taught that the only way to overcome evil or suffering is to get rid of all desires! Without the fuel of desires of various sorts, it is hard to explain the advance of human civilization or even civilization to begin with. Instead, what we are being told as Christians is that we need to get our priorities straight. As Jesus said, we must “Seek [or ‘desire’ — the Greek word can be translated both ways] first the Kingdom of God and his justice and then all else [or at least everything else that is  necessary for us] will be given to you” (Matt 6:33). 

So what does this mean for us in practical terms? For one thing, or at least it seems to me, that however bad the economy is, as we cannot vote simply with our bank account or pocket books. The “Kingdom of God” in the gospels is not just heaven above: it is supposed to be—as the Lord’s prayer itself has it—that God’s “will be done here on earth.” In other words, whether we are “stupid” or not, we have to see that, if we truly wish to claim that we are Christians, what is at stake here is something more than just “the economy.”

R W Kropf   9/22/08                                    Greed2.doc 08-09-22.html