When I first lived in Honduras the extreme poverty of my neighbors changed the way I thought about normal middle class lifestyles in the United States. What before had seemed appropriate now seemed extravagant. I challenged people in my church in New York to spend less and share more with those in need. I had little success in moving people to cut back and give—probably in large part because of my bounded group religiosity that caused judgmentalism to spill out of my exhortations to give more.
When I started teaching at the seminary I decide to take a different approach.
Rather than center on the needs of the poor, I have focused on the alienating impact of Mammon and consumerism and how Christian communities can help individuals experience greater freedom from these alienating influences. And, in general, my approach has been more invitational than confrontational. My thinking is: people in the United States and Canada suffer under the burden of these alienating forces—offer them a way to ease the burden.
I am still in favor of doing that, but two things recently combined to lead me to think we must do more—including some confrontation. I think we must become more active in confronting greed and efficiency as supreme values.
Again, Honduras moved me to confrontation. Sadly Honduras is a very troubled country today. In recent years it has had the worst homicide rate in the world. Drug trafficking and gangs are commonly mentioned as the reason for the high murder rate, but it is more than that, including: corruption, high inequality, and a very weak judicial system. I could tell many stories: extortion, murder for not meeting an extortion payment, people robbed on buses, government leaders embezzling, corrupt police, gang violence. One story especially moved me when we last visited Honduras.
We were in a tiny village, in the mountains, an hour’s drive from a paved road. We enjoyed the warmth of the family’s Christian hospitality, the music of the stream flowing by, and the beauty of verdant mountainsides. Gerardo told us how much he loved living and working there. To me, it felt like a haven from the nation’s problems; I asked if that was the case. Gerardo replied that until two years ago it had been a tranquil place and they enjoyed good relations with their neighbors. But then people began losing cattle to thieves. And not just one or two cows, but ten or fifteen at a time. I asked, “how could someone sell the cattle if they were branded?” Gerardo replied, “excellent question.” They should not be able to get past the checkpoint near the closest city, let alone sell them to a slaughter house. Obviously people with power and authority are involved. They suspect a coronel. Gerardo told us that recently a young man was murdered in their village because he knew too much about how it was happening. Gerardo’s father had very recently had ten cattle stolen and they did not report it. They feared that the ones they report it to might actually be involved in the crime, and might come after them. I wondered, how can that coronel sleep peacefully at night? What drives this? The answer is a word that came up repeatedly during our trip.
Hondurans did talk about drug traffickers and gangs, but a repeated theme that kept coming up as we talked to people was greed. They saw greed as a root problem.
I left with questions: what is the church doing about greed? What could the church in Honduras do? What is the church here in North America doing to confront greed?
The second contributing factor happened a few weeks later when I read a book by Lisa Hamilton, Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness. It tells the stories of three farmers: a dairy farmer in East Texas, a cattle rancher in New Mexico, and two brothers on a farm in North Dakota. In one sense each of them is a radical, in another sense not that radical at all. They would have looked pretty normal fifty years ago. They are resisting more industrialized models of farming.
Like any farmer or any business person; they cannot ignore the bottom line. They seek to make money. Yet, all three of the farmers in the book have a higher value than making money. Greed does not drive them. Rather they are driven by concern for the land, their families, people who work for them, their communities, and people who eat their food. Rather than the most efficient way of doing things they bring in other evaluative factors. The book contrasts them with others farmers with very different practices, and different priorities. The combination of greed and technique produced distortions that are bad for the earth, bad for those working on the farms, bad for the communities, bad for those eating what they produce, and unsustainable.
It is not just Honduras, and definitely not just farming. The chemistry combining greed and efficiency as supreme value is dangerous and all too common in our society. The destructive impact of that chemistry hurts many. Just one example. Think of the financial crisis of 2008. What was at the root? Greed that utilized and trusted in efficiency/technique ended up hurting millions.
With my Honduras experience fresh in mind I put down Hamilton's book, and said to myself. “I need to start talking about this in class.” Part of the church being salt and light in society is reflecting seriously on how to lessen greed, and lessen the almost total commitment to efficiency.
I have, and I will continue to challenge students to take a stand against greed. But I am thinking that perhaps more important than confronting greed is promoting generosity.
If generosity increases, greed will decrease. Clearly, lessening greed and increasing generosity is good for others. In the absence of greed Gerardo’s family would still have all their cattle. Yet, right in line with a central paradigm of the Discipleship and Ethics course, ethics as gift, God calls us to give not just out of love for others, but also out of love for us. Last summer I read a book by sociologists Christian Smith and Hillary Davidson called The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose. The title communicates the main point of the book. It is not, however, just a reflection or a sharing of wisdom. The book reports results of a carefully constructed sociological study based on both quantitative and qualitative research. In the nine different categories of life investigated, generous people had greater scores of well-being—sometimes markedly so. The conclusion of the book states: “In offering our time, money, and energy in service of others’ well-being, we enhance our own well-being as well” (224).
So I encourage you, as an act of love, exhort others to turn away from greed and practice generosity. And perhaps one of the best ways of moving others to generosity is to increase our own generosity.
Let us be open to how God’s Spirit may lead us to generosity of time, money or possessions today and in the days to come.