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God and Money

February 14, 2011

Tonight I was listening to a discussion about the just-unveiled federal budget as proposed by President Obama. In it there is the usual ‘cut the deficit by reducing services’ approach, including reducing heating subsidies. That we were assured by the commentator that these kinds of provisions would never get passed, or if they were, would immediately be set aside in a freezing emergency was not important. More interesting was the fact that cutting heating subsidies to the poor was deemed symbolic enough to be part of the budget document, an angle for the discussion about sacrifice.

This is, of course, nonsense.

The poor must sacrifice, according to House Speaker John Boehner because “we’re broke.” As my ex-wife used to say “Who’s We, White Man?” When Boehner says ‘we’, he means the federal government – the State. This can be said to be true because the federal government has never been in the business of providing an equitable and just distribution of wealth. So it is never willing to adequately tax the profits of industry for social services, even though there is no problem at all taxing the working class to provide for industrial and corporate services, like agribusiness and the defense industry. I can promise you that “we” will not be broke when it comes time for law enforcement.

Why? Not because wealthy people are exceptionally greedy and dishonest enemies of the poor, though some may be. That is a kind of comic book vision of how the world is. I have met plenty of poor people who are both greedy and dishonest. In fact, I say that human morality has little or no useful role in this discussion. This is a question of the distribution of money, and a much more primitive ~and natural~ system of behaviors is at work.

We must examine the role and functions of institutions to understand these behaviors. First and foremost, it is critical to recognize that the State is an agent of the Economy. Economics controls  the State, not the other way around. Second, it is the primary business, the core function of the State to defend the interests of the Economy. In the evolution of modern Cities and States the one critical function of the Church and then the State was, and is, social order. Social welfare is considered only in so far as is necessary to maintain social order. Any idea that the State operates through any altruistic motives, as the Democratic Party would have us believe should be put down immediately. The naturally evolved nature of the State, any State, is that of Police State.

Recognizing the State as an integral part, a division if you will, of the Economy, it is possible to see the budget as a simple income and expense balance sheet. Any policy that benefits the transactional economy enhances the income side of the ledger, while the costs ~and benefits~ of social services are to be kept at the barest minimum, as that’s on the expense side – the cost of doing business. If we understand that it is the primary function of government to protect wealth, then it makes no sense to tax the wealthy! And we don’t.

So spending on war is not seen as a cost, but rather an investment in economic interests, opportunities or threats to be dealt with. Spending on health care, education and housing is considered a regrettable cost of social stability and must be ‘cut’ for the sake of ‘fiscal responsibility.’

So who is broke? The regulatory and service  budgets of State. That division of the Economy is losing money, or to look at it another way, is costing the business of the Economy too much. The remedy? Cut expenditures as far as possible while maintaining social stability.

Who is not broke? The Economy that is sitting on trillions of dollars and refusing to invest. If we’re going to look at the budget, we must look at the Economy as a whole, not just at the Government sector.

So is the Economy the enemy? Well, it seems pretty clear that Capitalism is killing the planet, but it is not helpful to think in terms of enemies. It is better to examine the belief system and rhetoric that defines the mindset that makes it all possible.

When we discuss issues of society there is an enormous gulf between the realities of life and the rhetoric of society. The language of politics is paralyzed with ideologies and odd abstractions that have little or no connection to reality, except as blunt force. It is the language of sport and war, games of advantage and strategy, exploitation of opportunities. Yet on a day-to-day basis, among family and neighbors, more often than not we use far fewer words and the deep and rich complex reality is understood as a baseline of humanity.

Here is how Thomas Merton described the difference:

The irreligious mind is simply the unreal mind, the zombie, abstracted mind, that does not see the things that grow in the earth and feel glad about them, but only knows prices and figures and statistics. In a world of numbers you can be irreligious, unless the numbers themselves are incarnate in astronomy and music. But for that, they must have something to do with seasons and with harvests, with the joy of the Neolithic peoples who for millennia were quiet and human.

Merton, When the Trees Say Nothing, p.71

If you like, substitute the word un-artistic for Merton’s irreligious. For Merton, the religious mind was one of quiet observation and appreciation, compassion and gratitude; a mind that set aside all judgments of conventional worth. He certainly did not mean any kind of dogmatic theology or practice. Quite the opposite. So if ‘religious mind’ is a problem for you, substitute ‘artistic mind’ and that should work nicely.

Merton places the divide precisely at the separation of numbers (quantity) versus nuance (quality). Economics and its political arm exist almost exclusively in the abstract realm of numbers, while the all-too-real natural life of individuals, families and ecosystems exist almost exclusively in the existential realm of biology; and all biological systems are nothing if not nuanced. This is precisely why Jesus is reported to have said that we must leave for Caesar and the State that which is theirs, namely money and its calculations, and give to God and our neighbors the stuff of life, like compassion, food and shelter, health care.

In one of the most amazing short stories I’ve ever read, Atlas and the Fat Man from Behavior of Titans, Merton has the following passage:

There is another kind of justice than the justice of number, which can neither forgive nor be forgiven. There is another kind of mercy than the mercy of Law which knows no absolution. There is a justice of newborn worlds which cannot be counted. There is a mercy of individual things that spring Into being without reason. They are just without reason, and their mercy is without explanation. They have received rewards beyond description because they themselves refuse to be described. They are virtuous in the sight of God because their names do not identify them. Every plant that stands in the light of the sun is a saint and an outlaw. Every tree that brings forth blossoms without the command of man is powerful in the sight of God. Every star that man has not counted is a world of sanity and perfection. Every blade of grass is an angel singing in a shower of glory.

Merton,  Atlas and the Fat Man, The Behavior of Titans, p.46

It seems to me that we have essentially a language and cognitive problem. There must soon be an evolutionary bridge, or integration between our brain functions of calculation and our brain functions of compassion if we are to survive. (Compassion means ‘to suffer together’ by the way.) Both of these functions are hallmark traits of humanity, though not exclusively of course. Note how, in the first quote of Merton’s that he himself makes this integration, citing astronomy and music as realms where numbers and reverence meet.

Jesus seemed pretty convinced that these two realms could not be bridged. Let’s hope that either he was wrong, or that he was speaking about the Current Era only.

(all graphics by Thomas Merton)

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 15, 2011 10:56 am

    And competition means a striving or seeking together, which means it is no opposite to cooperation, which I find profoundly revealing, a hidden treasure for proving Jesus wrong, or asserting that he was referring to a stage in humanity’s progress.

    For me, we culturally do not understand wealth. We think it accumulated and owned money/property. The Piraha put it best: “I store my meat in the belly of my brother.” That’s wealth. Recognition of interdependencies and nurturing them to be strong in times of trouble. Money divides and puts us against one another, whispers ‘you can go it alone, you have to; no one can be trusted…’ Money is Hobbes’ dream, strives always to provoke war of each against all. At least, it does so in its current manifestation as interest bearing debt. If there is a money that does not have this long term effect, I’d love to know it. Silvio Gesell’s demurrage, or rotting money seems good, but I haven’t explored it deeply enough yet.

    Our challenge is to redefine wealth, hence my call; “Demote money, promote wealth.” If we can culturally put ourselves on that trajectory, we have a chance.

    I think you’d appreciate Charles Eisenstein. His “The Ascent of Humanity” is around 600 pages exploring exactly what you so eloquently touch on here. His root cause of our woes is Separation itself, the false sense, via the ego, that we are distinct objects in a Cartesian world looking out on it as its masters.

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