The Violence of the Rich

Second article in a series . . .

The great religious systems of the world – and many indigenous regional strains – weave a harmonious montage against greed and materialism. This blog post is the second in a series highlighting religious unity against the type of values seen in the dominant religion of the land: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. The following is excerpted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available in May 2014.

Judaism prohibited lending money for interest, called usury. The Hebrew Bible book of Deuteronomy disallowed lending for interest within the Israelite community; outside the community – with foreigners – it was permissible. Usury was prohibited within the community mostly so that the poor would not be exploited by those with money to lend. The financially well-to-do lending to poorer members within the community was seen as a form of philanthropy, ultimately supporting the communal common good. An interesting historical note: most all the competing religious systems and secular codes from the ancient Near East, from which Judaism emerged, did not forbid usury. Israel, a smallish community dwarfed by Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia, forbade usury most likely to protect and unify a poor community that needed to do all it could to stay together and survive. Demanding interest on a loan to a neighbor was understood to be an act of hostility. The Hebrew word anawim, a plural noun translated “the poor” or “the marginalized,” can be understood to have an unexpected antonym: brutality, untamed anger, the violence of the rich. The expected antonym – the rich – is not specific enough; the actions of one group directly affect the state of another within the community. Their fates are united, for better and for worse.

(Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing, May 2014. All rights reserved.)

Addendum: “The violence of the rich” is obviously a provocative statement and blog post title. Let’s be clear: it’s not an indictment to be rich nor is it a sin to enjoy earthly blessings. Expensive items accessible only to a few of us – Mercedes-Benz automobiles, Beaufort Alpage cheese, Thos. Moser furniture – merit higher prices (mostly) due to superior quality and workmanship. High-caliber quality and exceptional workmanship make the world a better place and do not contribute to its demise. What does contribute to the world’s demise is the sense of disconnection that can exist between those who are rich and those who are poor.

The religio-cultural system emanating from a small ancient Near East community accentuates the close connection between its richest and poorest members. The Hebrew prophet Micah excoriated the rich of Jerusalem for taking economic advantage of the city’s working class, calling their actions “violent” (Micah 6:12). This religious system still speaks an important word of caution to the well-to-do: be aware and active to temper the injustices suffered by the poor. To not do so is an act of indifference that can stray toward violence.

What Happened to Egalitarianism? Part 1

Market values, when left unchecked, turn into a type of religion that exalts individualism over and against societal common good. Its defenders claim, rather, that individual pursuits comprise the best method of achieving common good (albeit as a secondary by-product of market activity). While there is some legitimacy to this claim, when pushed to the extreme, it becomes an ideology that creates detrimental social effects. Egalitarianism – all humans accorded equal worth and social status – is thoroughly eroded by the ideology of market values. We live in a day and age where the value of egalitarianism, a grand construct of American society, appears to be increasingly forgotten.

The following is an excerpt from the book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, to be published in May 2014.

Egalitarianism – where economic and political opportunity are accessible to all – is a grand human-societal achievement. In the last five thousand years of civilization, purposeful egalitarianism is the best hedge against the natural human tendency toward uncivil hierarchy that has produced slavery, monarchies, and plutocracies. Egalitarianism is not a naturally occurring reality. It needs advocates; we need to struggle for it and continually lift it up lest it disappear in our midst. Egalitarianism is what helped end slavery and welcome American minorities and women to voting booths; egalitarianism generates social progress. We are constantly challenged by the first of Thomas Jefferson’s self-evident truths in the preamble of the Constitution: “All men are created equal.” We haven’t fully reached our destiny; as a matter of fact, the farther we travel the more we see what is in need of amendment. The current struggle for egalitarianism has a formidable foe in the cohabitation, since the time of Rockefeller and the Gilded Age, of business and government. The struggle has seen advances for egalitarianism after extreme social crises, such as the age of Rockefeller and his cohorts and the combined traumas of the Depression and World War II. The battle is on for egalitarianism to advance once again after the 2007-08 economic swoon.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing. All rights reserved.

Click here to read What Happened to Egalitarianism? Part 2.

America – a Christian Nation?

Is America a Christian nation? No – the true religion of the land is the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumption. Religion can be defined as “ultimate concern” and our true societal devotion is found in material pursuits. It’s been a good religion; it has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions of Americans. It can go too far, however. When these pursuits become excessive, the religion breaks bad and the common good suffers.

“Liberty produces wealth, and wealth destroys liberty.” Henry Demarest Lloyd, Henry_Demarest_Lloydjournalist and activist, wrote these words as the wealth of John Rockefeller Sr. crested to historic proportions. The long era of excess – beginning at the turn of the century – gave birth to a permission previously unrealized in American society. The egalitarianism woven into its foundational fabric, which protected the new republic from aristocracy and other undemocratic concentrations of power, could be abandoned.

Is social inequality the necessary price to pay for the uninhibited pursuit of wealth? Do social inequalities destroy democratic ideals? Just a Little Bit More explores these questions as it highlights the similarities between three short eras of excess in American history: the Gilded Age, the 1920s, and the current one that began in the 1970s and helped to bring about the economic swoon of 2007-08.

Democracy and egalitarianism are two of American society’s grandest achievements. They do not exist naturally but thrive only when advocated. When egalitarian practices suffer, so does democracy, leaving the fate of the common good hanging in the balance.

Excerpt from T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson’s Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing, May 2014. All rights reserved.

The Culture of Excess

I want to tell you a story, captivating yet tragic, about a god that has been around for a long time. This deity has staked its claim, oftentimes successfully, in human hearts; through the ages its spirit has been manifested variously in peoples and their events from the Dutch tulip panic to the 2007-2008 financial crisis emanating from the US housing market. This god is not new; its inhabited forms and shapes, however, always seem to give the impression of novelty. Its liturgies and incantations allure, its high priests (mostly all male) impress, and burgeoning converts hold fast in the way. For the last one hundred years – what I call the long era – the new way of this god has promoted excess to the detriment of the common good. Specifically, for the last thirty-five years – the short era – a fundamentalist belief in the powers and ways of the market has pushed excess to new extremes. Excess is not solely the propriety of Wall Street; excess has filtered its way into numerous significant areas of American life.

Excerpt from T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson’s Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing, May 2014. All rights reserved.