Accommodating Greed

The Rev. Alison Cornish

November 26, 2006 – 

If I want it, IT’S MINE! If I give it to you and change my mind later, IT’S MINE! If I can take it away from you, IT’S MINE! If it’s mine it will never belong to anybody else, no matter what. If we are building something together, all the pieces are mine! If it looks just like mine, IT’S MINE! If it breaks or needs putting away, IT’S YOURS! – The Toddler’s Manifesto

Today we continue with our occasional series on what I’ve coined the Seven Deadlies – that is, sins, vices, demons – depending on your world view. Today we take on Greed.

Now, this could be a very short sermon. Fact 1: Greed is bad. Fact 2: Most of us are in agreement about that first fact. Conclusion: So, there we are. Greed is bad. Don’t be greedy. End of sermon.

Ah, t’were it so simple! How easy it would be to point to others – lots of others – and say look at those greedy people. We wouldn’t have to look far to see those who display rampant acquisitiveness, covetousness, avarice – all variations on the theme of greed. Nor is there doubt that we live in times when greed is flourishing. And we are surrounded by greed’s stories, from Wall Street to Main Street, complete with shaking heads, the tsk tsking of clucking tongues, disbelief at the rising outrageousness and candor of the more, more, more crowd. Yes, it would be so easy to point to all these examples, and more, and conclude to be a good person, we must resist the evils of greed.And those who do not, well, simply are not good people. And we know who they are, and we know we are not them.

Yet, as I tried to say in our first venture into the Seven Deadlies a few weeks ago, what’s the point of even talking about these if we don’t spend some time contemplating our own struggles? That is, there’s not much purpose in talking about deadly sins if it’s always about someone other than us.

Of all the seven deadly sins – gluttony, envy, pride, sloth, anger, lust and greed – greed is perhaps the one that we most likely want to say that’s someone else’s sin. But I believe Wendell Berry’s words we heard during the meditation – By this earth’s life, I have its greed and innocence, its violence, its peace. I do believe that by simply living upon this good earth, greed is a part of each and every one of us. Yes, every one – each of you – and me.

So, let’s begin with some definitions – what is greed? Is it simply the unending clamoring for more, more, more? Is it that brash, loud, ugly? Or is it something more nuanced, more subtle? It all depends, of course, on who you’re talking to Ö for example, it’s reported that when Nelson Rockefeller was asked to define greed, he responded, just a bit more. In our times, we’re likely to define greed in terms of runaway acquisition and consumption, a theme which certainly dominates in our materialistic times. But in spiritual terms, greed is more often associated with desire, or craving, or the pursuit of pleasure. Well, all those are certainly front and center in our times, too, aren’t they?

Last time I spoke on one of these seven, on gluttony, I talked a bit about sin, and how the seven deadly sins came to be named, and institutionalized, by the early Christians.

But with our exploration of greed, I want to take a slightly different tack, and look at greed not from a Western, or Christian, perspective, but from an Eastern, and particularly Buddhist, perspective. I offer this today not because I am, by any measure, an expert in Buddhism. I offer it because I find the Eastern perspective to most helpful in imagining the pervasive nature of greed.

Eastern religious traditions are less focused on the idea of sin than Western traditions.

Buddhism and Taoism are philosophies or theologies of virtue rather than of sin. (Tickle, 12-14) That is, they focus on what it takes to cultivate a good life. The virtues to which Buddhists aspire in their right living are humility, charity and veracity. Right livelihood, to Buddhists, is the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption. But the Buddha recognized that there were obstacles, or impediments, to living in such virtuous ways, and he named these the three poisons,- greed, hatred and delusion. In fact, Buddhists see greed as the central obstacle to ridding oneself of desire, which is the central point of living the eight-fold path of Buddhism. (Loy)

Greed as poison. That, in fact, is a truly apt description of greed in our times. When it comes down to it, when I think of greed, I think less of individuals than the environment in which we live. It’s not so much that we commit greed, as we have been poisoned by greed. Like poison, greed is pervasive. It’s in the environment, it’s a part of the system, we are exposed to its toxicity each and every day. This is the greed that’s captured so eloquently by Bernice Reagon in her song Greed – a Sermonette. Here’s what she says –

I been thinking ’bout how to talk about greed

I been thinking ’bout how to talk about greed

I been wondering if I could sing about greed

Trying to find a way to talk about greed

Greed is a poison rising in this land

The soul of the people twisted in its command

It moves like a virus, seeking out anyone

Greed never stops, its work is never done

A creeping, killing, choking, invading everywhere

There really is no escaping greed’s tricky snare

Nothing seems to stop it once it enters your soul

It has you buying anything, spinning out of control

Not partial to gender, or your sexual desire

All it wants is for you to own, to possess and to buy

It rides with the culture, touching us all

Greed really isn’t picky, it’ll make anybody fall

It’s been around a long time, since way before we began

Before this was a nation, greed drove people to this land

Greed driven people created slavery,

Black men, women and children became somebody’s property

Greed is a strain of the American dream

Having more than you need is the essential theme

Everybody wanting more than they need to survive

Is a perfect indication, greed has settled inside

Maybe you don’t really know just what I mean

Maybe you don’t want to know about your and my greed

You may wonder whether you’re infected by greed

If you have to ask, then this song you really need

Greed is sneaky, and hard to detect in myself

I see it so clearly in everybody else

I can see it in you

You can see it in me

We can see it in big corporations

See it in the government

See it in the banks

I can see it in the Congress

See it in the military

I can see it in my neighbor

It really shows up clearly

You, and you and your greed

I been thinking ’bout how to talk about greed

I been thinking ’bout how to talk about greed

I been wondering if I could sing about greed

Trying to find a way to talk about greed

Yes, the signs of greed – and its effects – are everywhere we look. And yet, it’s still hard to define, or, as Reagon puts it, greed’s got a tricky snare. When we put some statistics side-by-side, the complexity of greed begins to emerge – For example,

* 20% of people who live in the richest countries enjoy 86% of the world’s consumption – the poorest 20% of people consume only 1.3% of the world’s resources.

* Each billion of the world’s 358 billionaires’ wealth represents the lifetime production of 20,000 working-class people.

* After nearly 10 years of unbroken economic growth, most of our country’s 72 million families feel they cannot make ends meet.

* The percentage of Americans who considered themselves happy peaked in 1957, despite the fact that consumption per person has more than doubled since then.

* Americans carry $1 trillion in personal debt, approximately $4,000 for every man, woman and child, not including real estate and mortgages.

* Since 1950, Americans alone have used more resources than everyone who ever lived before them. Each American individual uses up to 20 tons of basic raw materials annually. (Affluenza)

These sobering statistics help challenge the multitude of ways we make greednot about us. If it isn’t about you, and me, and people that we know, then where the heck are these numbers coming from? We are victims of greed. We are practitioners of greed. One way or another, we are caught in the web of greed.

And, these statistics – and many others I could cite – also offer a sense of howaccommodating greed is. By accommodating, I mean that greed is a shape-shifter, a changeable, chameleon-like character that is not necessarily easily recognizable.

Lewis Mumford, that quintessential commentator of the 19th century, recognized this when, writing about the industrial (and consumer) revolution, he observed that except for sloth, the seven deadly sins [have been] recast as virtues. Greed, envy, gluttony, and pride [have become] driving forces for the new economy Ö [when] unbounded power was harnessed to equally unbounded appetites. There are many faces – even virtuous ones – to greed.

Returning to the words of the Buddha –

Greed is the real dirt, not dust;

Greed is the term for real dirt.

The wise have shaken off this dirt,

And in the dirt-free man’s religion, live.

Greed is the real dirt – indeed, it is common, pervasive, and clings to us like mud. That makes greed something that everyone has to somehow deal with – rather than lay the blame at someone else’s feet.

An unlikely bearer of exactly this message to Americans was President Jimmy Carter.

In July, 1979, in what was to be another in a series of energy policy speeches, Carter preached a speech that carried a clear anti-greed message to a large and expectant TV audience (Carter). In it, he shared his belief that the country was suffering a moral crisis.

He said “in a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.” Carter appealed to the public to acknowledge their complicity and readiness to heal themselves from this sorry state as he continued, But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose Ö this is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.” Carter’s message did not go down well. He preached, but failed to provide answers, and, as historian David Shi says, “He totally ignored the fact that the country’s dominant institutions – corporations, advertisers, popular culture – were instrumental in promoting and sustaining the hedonistic ethic” for which Carter blamed American citizens. A little more than a year later, Ronald Reagan defeated Carter by offering Americans a vision that was as optimistic as Carter’s was pessimistic.

The fact that Carter may have been right, in some sense, was almost beside the point.

If you are president and you’re going to diagnose a problem, you better have a solution to it, notes one commentator – while Carter turned out to be a true prophet, he turned out not to be a savior.

The questions that President Carter left hanging in the air are, most definitely, still with us – and still largely unanswered. How do we come to terms with – and heal – our lives that have become so centered on materialistic concerns? And how do we change a society that has so completely accommodated itself to the precepts of greed?

Well, to begin, I think we need some new definitions of greed. In my reading, I found several that helped me to better imagine the pervasive and invasive nature of greed – Dr. Robert Rabinowitz offers – greed is the constant clamoring of the acquisitive drive within us for more stuff. [And] stuff is more power, more money, a higher social status. In other words, greed is not limited to the acquisition of things. And Arthur Simon offers that greed happens when a passion for things is stronger than our compassion for the wounded in our world. (Simon) When our focus shifts from the well-being of others to the care and feeding of stuff, something has gone askew. My own working definition of greed is this – that ever-present whispering that calls me to acquire more than is sufficient for my needs without regard for the harm, or expense, that my desires cause to others. Those others might be located in any part of the interdependent web – a worker in China, a strip mine in West Virginia, the local landfill, or a low-paid retail worker who staffs the local K-Mart at all hours for my shopping convenience. Whatever your own definition of greed, it should, I believe, include some reference to the fact that greed is part of each and every human’s life on earth, and has implications that extend way past us as individuals.

And I think we also must recognize that, to make a decision to turn away from greed is at odds with the prevailing values of our times. To choose to not accommodate greed as normal or greed as the fuel for our economic engineî or even greed as virtue, is a counter-cultural choice. Perhaps this is was the point that President Carter failed to adequately portray – choosing to resist the powerful forces of advertising and popular culture takes enormous strength, ingenuity, courage, and support systems. We need to think in terms of addiction. You know that when one is addicted to alcohol, or cigarettes, or gambling, all that must come to bear in order to resist and overcome temptation and abuse. Well, I don’t think it’s much different for those seeking to resist and overcome greed. If, as Bernice Reagon says, greed has worked its way into our souls, there’s more to resisting its siren song than just sayingno.

The key question for our times is this: once our needs are met, how do we want to live?

Our culture sends us this message: people want more in order to be happier. And numerous studies have shown that when the more means moving from deprivation to having adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care, and a few amenities, happiness does substantially increase. Beyond that point, however, additional income contributes very little to people’s sense of well-being, though they imagine it will contribute much.

Here’s something offered by our friend Forrest Church to which we might aspire – to want what we have. This, of course, goes beyond our material interests – to want what we have means to accept our lives, with all their bumps and grinds, and not to wish them away with want for something else, a dreamed-for life, a life of desire. But it certainly might counter the constant clamoring for more.

Finally, if we choose to take on greed in our own lives, and to live a more simplified lifestyle, these changes must be linked to increased generosity in giving of ourselves and our resources. Too much of what I read about greed focuses attention on our own lifestyles and choices, which, although important, is not the whole story. To engage with voluntary simplicity or to heal fromaffluenza is certainly laudable. But if it’s to be more than a self-help (and self-congratulatory) practice, it must be matched with increased generosity and care for others who are less able to make such choices.

Skip a meal, but give the money saved to a food bank. Resist shopping, but take that time saved and spend a day with Habitat for Humanity. This is how recovering from greed becomes a spiritual practice.

And so we return to those three Buddhist virtues – humility, veracity and charity. Recognizing that we each share in greed’s long reach, we are humbled. Naming the forces of greed which poison our culture, we are truthful. Changing our lifestyles not just for ourselves, but for the sake of others, we offer charity. May we begin to do just this, here, now, in this season of excess, with this caring community supporting our hopes and intentions.

Sources:

Affluenza, www.pbs.org/kcts/affluenza

Jimmy Carter, Crisis of Confidence speech, http://millercenter.virginia.edu/scripps/diglibrary/prezspeeches

/carter/jec_1979_0715.html

David R. Loy, Shall We Pave the Planet, or Learn to Wear Shoes? A Buddhist Perspective on Greed and Globalization, available at http://www.bpf.org/tsangha/loy-globo.html.

Bernice Reagon, GREED (A Sermonette), Words and music by Bernice Johnson Reagon, 1998, Songtalk Publishing (BMI).

Arthur Simon, How Much is Enough: Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 2003)

Phyllis A. Tickle, Greed (NY: Oxford University Press, 2004)

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