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Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord....
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear. (Amos 5:18-19)
The yard around St. Paul’s Cathedral in London has been occupied for the past several weeks by an encampment of protesters, similar to the camp that has sprung up around City Hall, here in Philadelphia. The occupiers, who are a grubby group, by and large, have posted signs in London declaring that “Capitalism is crisis,” warning, “Rich beware, your days are numbered,” and of course, proclaiming that “We are the 99%.” The legitimacy of the protest has been questioned by some because, late at night, thermal imaging suggests that many of the tents are unoccupied, leading some to suspect that the protesters prefer to go home to their warm, comfy beds, than to actually occupy – 24/7 – a segment of the City of London. I’m sure I don’t know.
I do know that the leadership of Saint Paul’s, working hand-in-glove with the leadership of the City, deemed the protesters to be the greatest threat to the cathedral since the German bombs of World War II, prompting them to close the cathedral for nearly a week, before the embarrassment of such prissy precaution forced the resignation of the Dean and the re-opening of Christopher Wren’s famous landmark, whose neo-classical design I have always thought more suitable for banks than churches, anyway. (But I digress.)
I have walked among the pitched tents at City Hall, a few blocks from here, and I must say I found the whole thing underwhelming. There is almost nothing attractive to be found there; it does not lend the appearance of youthful idealism to the city, or even resurgent hippie-ness. The only person I ran into whom I knew was a homeless woman who has never been on the winning side of her ongoing struggle with drug addiction, sad to say. There was not much to inspire the heart as I walked through the encampment, but for just that reason, you had to be impressed that people were continuing to stick it out in what is anything but a utopian environment.
I have a theory that may be crazy. My theory is this: most people want to be rich. In America we are supposed to take this for granted, but as Christians we seldom talk about it; this is problematic. In my Bible I keep stumbling upon this question on the lips of Jesus: "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?" This rhetorical question is in line with Jesus' teaching that if you want to gain your life you have to lose it; if you want to be first you need to put yourself last; that you should let someone else take the more prominent seat at a dinner; that to be his disciple you must take up your cross (which is almost never pleasant) and follow him. Although we read this stuff in church, none of this really sounds like a good idea to most of us who profess to be Christians. To the question, "What would it profit a man to gain the whole world but forfeit his life?" Our implied answer is, "I'm not sure, but I'd be very interested in finding out." That is to say, I would rather be rich than follow your teachings, O Lord of the Universe.
So my theory is that most people want to be rich, or at least they think they want to be rich. In America you can get fabulously, stinking, obscenely rich, and, what's more, you can make sure everyone knows how rich you are, which is part of the benefit of being rich.
I sometimes find myself wondering about the kind of wealth that has been amassed by certain people in this country. I mean, after a few billion, what's the point, I'd say, in my warped way. Until I remember that people have a thirst for power as well as money, and in our world money = power. So even though you can't really do much more with, say, $10 billion than you could with, say, $5 billion, if you have $10 billion you are de facto twice as powerful as some schlub with only $5 billion, which, if you are in Russia, or China, or maybe even America, is important, because, well, it's better to be powerful than weak.
(I will not introduce here St. Paul's astounding revelation from the voice of Christ that his (ie Christ's) power is made perfect in weakness, because most Christians prefer to ignore this mysterious and counter-intuitive teaching, so why shouldn't I?)
Back when we had stunted imaginations, so many Americans thought the best they could do in the way of riches was to, say, own a house with a dishwasher, and a second car, and not be embarrassed by the way your kid looked in the clothes you dressed him or her in to go to school. Let's put this in shorthand - most people's imagination of richness extended only so far as being better off than their (very-likely immigrant) parents, and maybe not getting killed in a war (that would be good too, a sort of bonus, but that’s another sermon).
But time marches on and does its amazing thing. Here are some of the things time did in America. Time watched the quality of public education (which had been a key to accomplishing the aforementioned goals of prosperity) decline dramatically, especially in urban areas; time watched manufacturing in America disappear; time watched saving in America turn into borrowing in America.
And time watched the so-called wisdom of the so-called markets decide that it was wise to create markets in which you didn't have to do anything but come up with new and convoluted ideas of how to get money to make money on its own, on paper, without the hassle of actually, like, making or doing or producing and selling something. This seemed like an especially good idea to people's whose bonuses (on which they got taxed at a lower rate than their much smaller salary) would be, shall we say, astronomically big at the end of the year, as long as paper kept making money, on paper. Yippee!
Now, what could be better than sitting back and getting rich because some of my money, on paper, made me some more money, on paper? If compensation tells you anything, almost nothing could be better than this - not healing the sick, not teaching your kids how to read, not even defending you in court. The huge rise in financiers' compensation is a direct reflection of how much we, as a society, value this alchemy - the ability to make money with money on paper - more than we value nearly any other skill.
Remember, after all, most people want to be rich, want to "gain the whole world." And we have created this society in which we put on display anyone who is able to get rich - we call this celebrity, which is no longer confined to movie stars, now it's also ballplayers (even if they don't win) and talk show hosts, and, lottery winners, and their counterparts: reality show stars, which is really just winning another kind of lottery. The ne plus ultra, of this cultural lottery is, of course, winning American Idol, which allows you to become rich and famous in the span of one short TV season - yippee! This is what we want to be: American Idols: rich and famous - fast!
Now, we know that some people work hard to get pretty rich, but we also know that some people just get lucky (sorry Winkelvoss twins, some people don’t). This is why I know what an IPO is - because implanted in my mind is the distant notion that I (who have no business ever getting involved in an IPO) could get rich if only I was in early on the right Initial Public Offering of stock.
All this is to say that we have decided that not only is there nothing wrong with being fabulously rich (sorry, French revolutionaries, you can keep your liberté, egalité and fraternité), we have decided that democracy rightly leads to the possibility that anyone at all has the right to do what they want in the pursuit of wealth; that, in fact, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are only second-rate stand-ins for money.
Put it another way, we actually believe that money does buy happiness, and we are looking for some serious happiness therapy.
Put it another way: most of us would very much like to know what it would profit us to gain the whole world, please, but with as little effort and in as little time as possible.
Now, because of this not-so-latent desire to be rich, and the expectation that it is somehow reasonable to think that I could be fabulously rich without being born to money, working especially hard, or selling all my organs, I have taken my pitchfork out of the garage and buried it deep in the backyard somewhere. It's true that once my forebears would have grabbed their pitchforks and stormed a castle, (or a gated community, or an Upper East Side town house, or Bryn Mawr) to demand, say, a honest day's pay for an honest day's work, to see to it that a sick child got decent medical treatment, or to defend the small plot of land they had to till in order to harvest enough tubers to get through the winter. But no one wants an American Idol with a menacing pitchfork in his hand, so many of us have buried those implements of outrage in the backyard.
Meanwhile, we are distracted by the shiny things we can easily afford at Wal-Mart despite that fact that our wages have not increased meaningfully in 30 years. We don't care, we’re waiting for the IPO, or the lottery, or American Idol! And while we wait we have a big-screen TVs! And the most wonderful processed foods! Life may not be perfect but our needs are met almost as quickly as we are told what they are!
By now you surely think I am crazy, that I have lost it. But we are living in a nation in which I hear people vociferously arguing against their best interests all the time, in which people foolishly think that corporations, in the end, will represent the best interests of the people, but the government, in the end, can't possibly be interested in the best interests of the people. And this, in the city where the entire bold and beautiful idea of American democratic government was hatched! But somehow we have been convinced by the narrative that the marketplace cares about our well-being. Maybe because of how much I love my iPhone, which seems to be meeting my needs so beautifully, as long as my needs are not, say, nutrition or healthcare or education.
And so, although every indication around us shows that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the middle is a lot further away from the top than it used to be, but not so far away from the bottom, we live in a society where people who hope to be rich deride the grubby people who may or may not be sleeping in their tents as they wage a protest against this widening gap between those have and those who have not.
But I still wonder if there is wisdom in the ancient question that Jesus asked: "What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but forfeit his life?" It was meant to be a rhetorical question, but I suspect there are a whole lot of people trying to discover the answer, or at the very least wishing they could.
Which is why the prophet Amos warned that the day of Lord might not be so pleasant, as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear, which is, I suspect, how the leaders of St. Paul’s Cathedral felt when they realized what they’d done by closing their doors, and seeking ways to evict the protesters. It has been deeply gratifying to read in the papers, how the tide has shifted at St. Paul’s in London; to see the church remember that power and wealth have no currency in the kingdom of God, where justice will some day roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. And to recognize that dis-organized, inarticulate, grubby, sometimes misguided, and perhaps even inclined-to-sleep-in-their-own-beds-at-home as the Occupy protesters may be, they are a reminder that our secret longings to be rich will not prevail against God’s desire for justice and righteousness – which have most often been at enmity with the amassing of great wealth.
And the real question for the church is this: when we encounter the possibility that justice is beginning to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream, are we willing to get wet? Or will we head for higher ground so we can keep our money dry?
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
6 November 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia