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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Greed in Ceaseless Profit-Seeking: Is Generosity Enough in Terms of Christian Ethics?

In his 2011 Easter sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued an outspoken attack on the greed consuming the world’s civilized nations. Speaking against the rush for oil, power and territory, the Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams argued that the comforts and luxuries that people take for granted can not be sustained forever. He forecast that civilization itself would one day collapse from the over-production and consumption.  

                             The Archbishop of Canterbury (The Telegraph)

Williams laid the root of the excessive acquisitiveness at the doorstep of the fear of death. “Individuals live in anxious and acquisitive ways, seizing what they can to provide a security that is bound to dissolve, because they are going to die. . . . Whether it is the individual grabbing the things of this world in just the repetitive, frustrating sameness that we have seen to be already in fact the mark of an inner deadness, or the greed of societies that assume there will always be enough to meet their desires - enough oil, enough power, enough territory - the same fantasy is at work. We shan’t really die.” Relentless activity in the world of business is our way of forestalling the thought of our own coming non-existence.  It follows that “(w)e as individuals can’t contemplate an end to our acquiring, and we as a culture can’t imagine that this civilization, like all others, will collapse.”  Therefore, we take our comforts and luxuries for granted and ignore the warning signs that they cannot be sustained indefinitely.

In short, the West defines itself in terms of ceaseless activity geared to acquisition without limit—as though a fatted calf stuffing itself for dear life—in order to keep the inevitability of an end at bay. Hence, we identify ourselves by our functions, as in “I am a banker,” rather than by our respective natures, which exist in idleness as much as activity. In fact, it may only be in the silence of a holy night that one can come face to face in the darkness with oneself, unfettered by one’s vocation.

Whereas the Archbishop’s sermon focused on greed inherent in excessive acquisitiveness, the Easter message of the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt. Rev Nazir-Ali, discussed the immorality of the financial markets in terms of financial inequality. As reported in The Telegraph, “The bishop said that high-earners such as City traders and company directors must swap their desire to ‘make a quick buck’ for a commitment to share their wealth. Bishop Nazir-Ali blamed the turmoil in the world’s financial markets on amoral forces and warned that one of the ‘great disparities’ of our age was the gap between rich and poor.” Even though capitalism necessarily makes use of people unequally according to particular efforts, talents, and resources, the greed of the “haves” need not be utilized in ways that exacerbate the inequalities such that the “have nots” are left without the means of sustenance. Writing in a Sunday newspaper, the bishop charged, "The turmoil in the markets is almost certainly the result of such forces.” Indeed, the greed of irrational exuberance pushes the gap to such an extent that volatility can destroy the market from within.

Accordingly, the bishop urged: “Those with power need to ensure that the poor are not disproportionately affected. What is required is a change of heart, of disposition, of attitude. . . . From possessiveness we need to move to gratitude for what we have, from 'cutting corners’ to make a quick buck to that integrity for which business in this country was celebrated, and from mere accumulation of wealth to a generosity of spirit. . . . When that happens, hedge fund managers and directors of companies can indeed go into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the chief priests and elders." This statement is a departure from the rich man getting into the kingdom of God being like a camel getting through the eye of a needle—a view that was dominant in early Christian thought. The bishop’s thesis that generosity can deliver even a rich person harkens back to the salience of the virtues of liberality and magnificence that were dominant in the Christian thought on wealth in the late Renaissance. Such is the distance within the history of Christian thought on wealth in relationship to greed (on this shift, please see my book, Godliness and Greed).

Because generosity requires wealth in the first place, the bishop was assuming that the link between earning wealth and greed is mitigated or even eliminated by charity (the root of which is caritas, which means sublimated human love) of part of one’s wealth. Although involving virtue, this approach is less idealistic than the earlier stance in which even pursuing wealth was assumed to be tantamount to being greedy. In other words, the bishop’s stance is more worldly because it allows for some profit-seeking and wealth-holding (as long as they are accompanied by the virtue of generosity rather than the vice of selfish acquisitiveness sans limit). Even so, the stance is quite idealistic compared with the greed that nearly brought the financial markets to collapse in 2008. The question is perhaps whether generosity amid profit-seeking and wealth-holding is sufficient to restrain the ceaseless productive activity for still more.

Jonathan Petre, “Archbishop of Canterbury Attacks Western ‘greed’ in Easter sermon,” The Telegraph, April 24, 2011.