The Economy of Love

Trust and Abundance

Some years ago, I lived in a house with several other young Quakers, and we often pooled our resources for buying food. This meant that people often thought whatever was in the fridge was up for grabs. Once I went to the kitchen to make a sandwich, and discovered that the loaf of bread that I’d been planning on using had vanished.

At first, I was irked. If anyone had asked me for the bread I would have gladly given it to them, I thought, but this was going too far. I had plans for that bread, after all, plans which were now ruined. But as I calmed myself down, I realized how ridiculous this was. For starters, there was plenty of food that I was welcome to eat, and before long I was munching on leftovers. Secondly, it occurred to me that a lot of my irritation was from having my plans thwarted, despite the fact that the food I was eating now was probably rather healthier and tastier than what I’d intended to eat. And finally, I remembered that it was just bread: not worth arguing about.

That lesson has come back to me recently. Last week I was eying my rather minuscule paycheck before I tried to settle into my daily worship. My mind would not let go of financial worries until I heard, “Don’t worry about the money. All will be attended to.” Later that day, an unexpected check from my grandmother turned up in the mail.

That was plain enough… but soon thereafter, I stumbled on the video of a TED talk given by the musician Amanda Palmer. It’s worth watching in its entirety, but briefly, she makes two points about our modern-day economy: one, there is more value in the world than capitalism has measured with money, and two, there is an astonishing power in asking for money rather than charging, relying on love and generosity.

Then I visited the new-grown farm of some friends—including two Quakers who had lived with me in the house I mentioned earlier—and again got the sense that the universe was telling me something. Though I hadn’t planned on staying so long, they persuaded me to linger three days, with abundant hospitality. I initially demurred because I didn’t want to be a drain on their resources, but I earned my keep by helping with a few chores and with the spring planting—and by simply being a friendly face from outside the small and busy world they now inhabit.

There are two ways we can interpret all this: either I have figured out a high-concept way to justify my mooching, or the Spirit has just handed down a clear and lovely reminder of an old lesson: “You cannot serve both God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6.24b-25).

Or, to put it another way: let go of that loaf of bread, and let yourself be fed. Continue reading

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Conviction

The election is done; but it has not solved all our problems. Martin King said, in his classic speech “A Time to Break Silence,” “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Going by Dr. King’s formula, the United States is still dying. President Obama is treating symptoms of that illness (such as abuses of health and some legal rights) while not treating causes (abuses of wealth and power). It would dismay Dr. King to see the first Black president doing so, but it might not surprise him.

In fact the whole political left is largely focused on symptoms, and each group has picked one and made it their hill to die on. There is little agreement about what should take priority (other than beating Republicans). In fact the left—or liberals—or progressives—can’t even agree on what to call themselves. And in such tight financial times, the left plunges into what I call “liberal cannibalism”—fighting over who gets the last crumbs of the pie, rather than asking what happened the pie as a whole. The result, as W. B. Yeats put it, is that “The falcon cannot find the falconer./Things fall apart; the center cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, and the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.”

Quakers are far from immune. I have watched Friends leave meetings, and the Society, because of divisions over which worthy cause is worthiest. The result, in my part of Quakerism, at least, is that Friends have embraced a wide range of causes, but generally those causes are lifted up by individual Friends, or by individual meetings. This is to be expected: one of the most central Quaker tenets is “What canst thou say?” We are a faith that puts great faith in individuals. But the down side of “What canst thou say?” is that there has been less of “What can we say?” Meetings and Yearly Meetings are slower to take action. And may I point out that while minutes do indeed say something, they do not by themselves do anything? Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Quakers minuted opposition to slavery in 1688. A century later, Philadelphia finally banned slavery among its members.

So even we Friends can lack all conviction.

But while virtually all liberals wail and moan and wring their hands over priorities, we Quakers have an alternative. We know where to go to find the answers: George Fox called it “Living in the life and power.” We have over us the ultimate authority. When it comes to authority we accept no substitutes; only the Spirit will do. We do not even always listen to each other, after all. Sometimes we do need to stand aside and let the Meeting go a way we wouldn’t choose, but this is acceptable as long as we do find and follow the leadings of the Light.

When we do… ah, what we can do then!

So we do not need to stand in bafflement at all the different threats and causes, trying to triage an entire civilization. We can instead discern what the Spirit says we should do, and then move with true conviction towards the holy goal.

I don’t think this would mean abandoning any causes near to our hearts. There is so much overlap, after all: gay rights matter for immigrants because some immigrants are gay, and environmental damage so often follows poverty and war, and so on. After all, don’t our testimonies overlap? There’s no real line between Peace and Equality, is there? And to truly live up to Integrity we have to be both peaceful and equal. Moreover, everywhere I look, I see one core problem: abuse of power. Confront abuse of power in every form, and that’s the first step to social justice, no matter which form of abuse is dealt with first. But I also suspect that we may not be called to a particular agenda, but to a particular way. A deep way, a difficult way, even a dangerous way, but a way sure and true. The manner of Friends may come to mean not what we all do, but how we all do it. If we all lived so deep in the Spirit, that might well be enough.

This is just my guess, though. After all, we must come together and discern our way. But we can do this. To come back to Yeats’ poem again, we are the falcons who know how to find the falconer. To return to King’s speech, it is our time to break our silence. We may not see the path clearly, but we can follow the Light in faith, and trust that we are well on our way.

 

An Adolescent System

Capitalism’s basic mechanism is sometimes boiled down to “Find a need and fill it.”*

Growing up, as I often teach my students, basically means, “You don’t always get what you want.”

If capitalism seeks to profit by filling every need (and inventing new ones, or trying to fill them faster), and if maturity means setting aside what you want, for a time, for someone else’s sake, or forever, then doesn’t it follow that capitalism is adolescent?

Some needs are best filled slowly, some needs are best filled only in part, and some needs are best not satisfied at all. But with the market’s efficiency, capitalism will try to fill the first category rapidly, the second category fully, and the third category quietly.

To say “I want everything and I want it now” is classic teenager behavior. But instead of advising us, “You can’t always get what you want,” capitalism says, “Absolutely! And here are more things to want, and ways to get them faster! Just type in your PIN here…” In fact, in doing some research for this piece, I came across many comments that “find a need and fill it” is bad business advice: the real money is in filling wants. Capitalism will even go so far as to suggest, “If you don’t get what you want right now, then you are a failure.” Capitalism does not understand self-sacrifice, and has forgotten anything it knew about delayed gratification.

Growing up means, in part, controlling one’s desires. This was something our wiser teachers tried to get into our heads. But capitalism would much rather our desires controlled us, to profit by us. The most insidious form of capitalism, after all, is to make money off never-ending desires: promise to fulfill a need/want, and not quite deliver, so that there’s more need tomorrow. This is why the drug trade is capitalism perfected: create a want so strong, so controlling, that a person will give you everything, including selling their children, in order to get it. And they’ll come back tomorrow for more.

Of course, since we are all participants in a capitalist system to one degree or another, capitalism is us.

So let’s pause for a moment, shall we?

What do we want… and what do we need?

I have been experimenting with paring back my desires. Some of my most heartfelt wants are for things that we capitalists have always promised each other but never could quite deliver: Time. Love. Peace. I also want justice, but I can’t remember capitalism ever promising that. I’ve wanted glory; I’m learning better, though my desire to leave a mark on the world is no less—I’m just much less excited about getting the credit. But let’s turn to the tangible. I want books; I’ve been selling off my library. I want music; I never buy albums, and have learned ways to borrow. I want games; I don’t buy new ones, and I’m contemplating throwing out or giving away the ones I have. I want TV shows: instead I watch online, or just tell myself no. I want a nice place to live—quiet, well-lit, safe, with a good kitchen. I’ve settled for a place to live, period. I want good, healthy, clean food; I’m still spending a lot of money on that, but I don’t buy meat even though I will eat it, and I’m starting to figure out how I can grow some of my own food.

I mean to control my own wants, needs, and desires as much as I can—because that’s what growing up means. I think most mature people would agree with me, and I hope they start to find similar ways to cut back the wants, scale back the desires, and focus on what needs to happen and what’s most important in life. If enough of us start to do that, we can begin to sort out the adolescents from the adults… and I think age would have nothing to do with it.

 

* The quote is attributed to Ruth Stafford Peale, wife of Norman Vincent Peale, but it was possibly popularized by Kaiser Cement Co., among others.

Altar Call

It was cloudy and drizzling; not the kind of weather you’d be out in by choice. My friend Ron, of course, has no choice. He has to beg for money every day so he and his brother Jim get a room for the night. So, huddled under his umbrella, he stood at the stoplight, waiting for people to take pity. I had a dollar for him, and stopped to talk. He was in low spirits, due to the weather, exhaustion, and little luck that morning, and he predicted with gloom that he’d still be out there when I got off work hours later: the money his brother had gotten wouldn’t even fold, and Ron wasn’t doing much better.

“It’s no way to live,” I said. “If you’re still out here when I leave, we’ll see about getting you what you need.” I had a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet, you see. Then I hurried up to work to get myself out of the rain.

But it bugged me, as I dried off inside. Ron was miserable waiting for a handout, thinking about old friends who now drove past avoiding his eyes. And I had a twenty in my wallet. Continue reading

Safety Net

Our social safety net is still fraying. In some places it is altogether worn through. This is perhaps not surprising, what with the rhetoric that fills our airwaves and legislatures: poor people are lazy, drug-addicted parasites, and safety-net programs like TANF (welfare), SNAP (food stamps), and others are just enabling their lazy, drug-addled leeching. “Leech” is more commonly applied to welfare recipients than to Social Security recipients, but even there we hear talk of “hard decisions,” which always come back to “How do we cut back?” instead of “How do we raise more?”

Democrats being what they are, there’s not much language coming back from the Left in defense of welfare recipients, but I’d like to provide some. A Google search turns up a few people, mostly actors and singers (perhaps because they get asked a lot of questions about their lives), who have stories about growing up in poverty and relying on one or another social safety net. Let’s have a roll call, shall we? There’s Shania Twain, famously, but also Kelly Clarkson, Tobey Maguire, JK Rowling, Jesus, Charlie Chaplin…

Wait, what?

Yes, that Jesus. Obviously the social safety net took a different form in his day, but he made use of the ancient version. In Israel it went like this: the law (specifically Leviticus 19:9-10) commanded that everyone had to leave some of their crop for poor people to eat, both by leaving some of the crop unharvested when the rest was brought in―leaving some grapes on the vine, leaving the ears of wheat at the edges of the field, and leaving anything that spilled on the ground lying there. In fact, those with more land had to leave more behind, which is almost progressive taxation. Moreover the law also said that anyone could eat from anyone else’s fields, though they couldn’t take anything out of the field in question. In this way everyone who had something left a little for those who had nothing, and the reason for this is given in a rather important commandment later in Leviticus 19: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus? Listen to this: “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.” (Matthew 12:1) That’s all twelve disciples taking advantage of the laws protecting the poor. Jesus himself presumably never had to worry about going hungry (lilies of the field, and so on) but he had to feed his flock, after all.

Now it’s true that Jesus likely worked as a carpenter before his ministry began, and his disciples had all sorts of jobs from fisherman to tax collector; it’s also true that where they could get freely-offered hospitality, they took it. That was the better way, and it remains the better way. But for those in-between places, Jesus and company relied on Israel’s form of food stamps.

In fact, if you squint a bit, you can see another connection to today’s situation, because just one verse later the Pharisees chide the grain-plucking because the disciples did it on the sabbath. In short, when they used the social safety net, the disciples were accused of immorality. Some things never change.

So when Jesus said, “As you do for the least of these, you do also for me,” he meant it. He and his group had used the laws protecting the poor; in all likelihood they were poor, having renounced all wealth, property, and careers to follow the call. Israel had protections and help for its poor citizens, and Jesus was among them. Which means, as I’ve often stated, that those who slander the poor are slandering the man from Galilee. “As you do for the least of these” cuts both ways.

Which is, I think, worth remembering.

Old Lessons

Every homeless person I pass, every abused child I hear of, every accusation of rape that is met with hostility and scorn, every fresh disaster worked by human hands, from pollution to famine to war — all these call me to my words. How could they not? I follow a teacher who taught me to love my neighbor as myself, and yet I live a life that spits on such philosophy — indeed, I live such a life and I am enriched by it. I follow a teacher who taught me to share all I have, and I live a life that insists on hoarding my wealth. I follow a teacher who taught me to see the holiness in every one, and I live a life of privilege in a system that treats some as gods and the rest as raw material, to use or waste as the gods see fit.

Then I see those charged by my teacher to set these wrongs aright — minister, priest, pastor on one level, every Christian on another — and too many of them are the scoffers and abusers, the ones who perpetuate the structures of power and the abuses of that power. Not all. There are quite a few who give all they have and more, who love their neighbor with compassion as their guiding star. But any is too many, when it comes to those who say they follow Jesus and attack their neighbors anyway. I look around at my fellows in faith, and for every one I see laboring to heal the world, I see one or two or ten wounding it further, sometimes without even knowing it. I may not see all the good that’s being done, which is as it should be. But when I see the poor on the streetcorners mocked and attacked and scorned, then there is more to do, and I see many of those charged with helping the struggles leading the charge against love and justice, or applauding the attacks from the sidelines. The man from Nazareth came to change the way the world worked, and too many of his followers are standing in his way: they are themselves the problem.

In such times all I can do is quote the words of the prophets, time and time again:

“‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
The Lord has told you, oh mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
(Micah 6:6-8)

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melodies of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
(Amos 5:21, 23-24)

“‘You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets.”
(Matthew 22:37-40)

Why must I say this again? Why must I teach old lessons anew? Better men than I have taught us to love our neighbors — men, yes, and better women, too, for all that they don’t make it into the books as much. Why is it so hard to learn? Why is it such a struggle for so many to remember? I see so many pouring out their piety on one side, and pouring out scorn upon the poor from the other, yet all from the same mouth. One of their words must be a lie, and their wealth tells us which it is, because they “cannot serve both God and wealth.” They must renounce one master or another, and it seems they have chosen to renounce God.

But to those who renounce wealth, shall they be poor, shall they suffer, shall they starve? No, for the Generous One shall not forget them — and those they have helped will not forget them either. Let those who worship wealth go their own way, because it is a way of loneliness, and meaningless. Those who worship the god I follow shall have each other.

Make your choice!

The Last Judgment of the USA

Then the people of the United States were brought before Christ, and were divided in two, the sheep and the goats, and the goats were placed at his left hand. And he said to them, “You who are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and you did not cure me, in prison and you did not visit me.” And they all answered, “When was this precisely, Lord?”

And he told them:

“Whenever you drove past East St. Louis or around Watts, and did not stop; whenever you passed over Gary or avoided the South Side; whenever you ignored Baltimore or the Bronx, stayed away from Philly’s heart, fled DC at nightfall. Continue reading