Posts tagged #consumerism & mammon

Mammon's Theft of Shalom

“It didn’t work.”

Bob Ekblad’s words caught me by surprise. I calmly asked him to explain, but internally I was anything but calm.

Inner voices were screaming out “What do you mean it did not work!? Your community development work with Gracie was very successful!” In fact, I often have told of their story as an example of a positive model. They lived in a rural Honduran town; they partnered with a Honduran couple; they lived incarnationally in a simple adobe house like those they served; they first modeled better agricultural practices and after people saw the results they desired to learn from the Ekblads.

They started with and focused on working at more economical farming methods that prevented soil erosion, produced greater yields, and were environmentally friendly. But they did more: they sought to be holistic.

“Julio has been successful.” He is nowhere near wealthy, but his family is comfortable. Yet Bob said, “He wants more; he wants to come to the United States to make more money.”

They worked in various areas: nutrition, education, health care, job creation and they started Bible studies with those involved. They were patient; they invested in relationships, they trained Hondurans to teach others. The changes were visible -- in people’s lives and on the hillsides as many adopted their farming methods. After five years they left and the program continued. They supported it from afar and visited regularly.

Yet now, almost 35 years after they had first gone to Honduras, sitting on the other side of their dining room table Bob said, “It didn’t work.”

He explained that the people they had worked with are not at peace. More soul work was needed. I pressed him a bit — naming individuals. “How about David?” Bob replied, “Yes, he is the exception.”

But when I asked about Julio (not his real name), Bob sadly shook his head. Julio was one of the first to apply their methods, probably because he was amongst the poorest in the town. The sight of Ekblad’s garden teeming with vegetables and Bob’s infectious passion had led Julio to believe he might actually be able to grow vegetables on the little square of land their rented shack sat on.

During a weekend away from my teaching job in Tegucigalpa I had gone with Bob, on horses, to Julio’s home. We helped Julio make a huge compost pile that would provide rich soil to transform his hard packed dirt into a garden.

Bob reported to me that what I had hoped for that day had happened. Over the years, with the Ekblads help and training, and a lot of hard work, Julio rented bigger pieces of land to farm and eventually bought his own. In Bob’s words, “Julio has been successful.” He is nowhere near wealthy, but his family is comfortable. Yet Bob said, “He wants more; he wants to come to the United States to make more money.” Bob concluded, “We should have started in a different place, with soul work rather than agriculture.” 

As I ponder these few minutes of conversation a number of things stand out to me.

  1. The value of a long term perspective. Thirty years ago he would not have said “It did not work.” You see things after thirty years that you do not see after five years — let alone after a few months or a few weeks. What can you do to foster a long term perspective?

  2. Be truly holistic. Some react to an overly individualistic-spiritualized-futuristic version of the gospel by totally rejecting it and dedicating themselves to pressing injustices and physical needs. More commonly, people instead embrace a holistic gospel that includes the physical and economic, but the spiritual as well. My sense, however, is that many in this latter category give lip service to a holistic gospel, but in reality give little attention the spiritual component — what Bob called soul work. I was in that category for a few years in Honduras. The physical needs were so great, the injustices so extreme — they consumed me. I affirmed a holistic gospel, but did not really practice it. Gradually, as I came to see that distorted concepts of God and bounded group religiosity caused great suffering in people’s lives, I became as enthusiastic about leading Bible studies on Jesus as I was about addressing physical poverty. Although I am not as convinced as Bob that the starting point must be soul work, his reflections affirm to me that it must be central. How holistic is your approach? What areas call for more attention?

  3. Mammon and consumerism enslave, and we must address them directly — whether working with the poor or rich. Mammon blocked Julio from fully experiencing shalom. How might you seek to introduce the Julio’s in your life to liberation from Mammon through Jesus?

Posted on July 11, 2016 .

The Paradox of Generosity



The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose

by Christian Smith & Hilary Davidson


This book reports the results of a carefully constructed sociological study--including 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). As a sociological study the book is first and foremost an argument with research results to back up that argument. You may think, “makes sense to me. I do not need to be convinced.” Still, there are reasons to read the book. Even if you do not find the thesis surprising you may be surprised at the width and depth of the positive impact of generosity in the giver’s life. It motivates one to generosity, but also underscores the value of encouraging generosity in those we counsel, teach and disciple. It is not a “how-to” book, but it does provide some insights on how to increase people’s level of generosity.
The look into people’s lives is reason enough to read the book. The stories and examples from their qualitative research allows one to enter into the lives of the generous and the un-generous. The authors use short real-life examples throughout the book, but they also have a few long in-depth case studies of generous and un-generous people. There is much to reflect on.

I regularly think back to the description of one un-generous family—“Doug and Michelle Arnold” (120-133). What especially stood out to me was the intentionality of their ungenerosity. It is not that they happened to be ungenerous, they had principled reasons for their stance. In their logic everyone should take care of their own needs. Doug and Michelle did not ask for help, and reasoned that others should do the same—work and take care of their problems. The Arnolds made an exception for natural disasters--occasionally giving small donations. And it is not just in relation to money, but generous actions as well. They live as autonomously from their neighbors as they can—live and let live.
Doug and Michelle openly acknowledge that their purpose in life is to make enough money to have “the good life.” According to them the good life is having financial security and enough money to support a lifestyle of leisure with modest luxuries and perhaps a weekend home by the beach. Therefore for them it is counterintuitive to give either time or resources to others. Yet as they talk about their lives there is little sense of shalom or thriving. They make a combined $115,000, but the authors observed that the Arnolds, “clearly live in a subjective state of relative deprivation, imbued with a constant sense that there is not enough money for the things they need and want” (129).
The question that keeps coming up when I think of this couple is: how might I reach out evangelistically to them? I mean that in the traditional sense of inviting them to a relationship with Jesus, but also in a broader sense of the gospel—good news. They are so far from living as Jesus did. How might I invite them to follow the ways of Jesus and become people of generosity who love their neighbors? I ask that question out of concern for them—so that they may experience some of the well-being this book describes, but also out of concern for our society. The way they are living their lives is not good for them, their neighbors, nor our society as a whole.

Posted on February 16, 2016 and filed under book reviews.

Greed vs Generosity

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.

And I have. I tell these stories and exhort students to act against greed

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.


Posted on January 29, 2016 .