The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Pentecost XVIII: how things are wired
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind...”
-Gordon Gekko, Wall Street, 1987
So says actor Michael Douglas, portraying the avaristic Wall Street tycoon Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. Mr. Douglas’ performance was so chillingly amoral, cynical and convincing, his embodiment of the character so complete, that he well deserved the Oscar he received for it. Gordon Gekko is a recognizable type; his “Greed speech” struck a chord in the cinema-going public, and it has ever since. I believe it resonated with such vibrancy because we 1) agree with the sentiment and are grateful that a popular medium finally articulated so well what we’ve been thinking all along, or 2) disagree with the sentiment, reluctantly acknowledging that it is the prevailing economic voice in our culture whether we’re personally comfortable with it or not.
Amos spoke to and of persons with other names, but he could have been describing Gordon Gekko when he said, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat...”
Amos renders the cynical, urgently impatient voice of self-interested gain. His prophecy uses the voice of the marketplace to demonstrate how it disrespects sacred public observances as irrelevant wastes of time. Amos makes sure we understand that the voice of the marketplace he hears disrespects human dignity, discounting people as worth a pair of sandals. As Amos gives voice to the traders, he makes clear that they believe and live as they do not as the least sinful of many options but rather the first chosen option- more than just suggesting that the true sacred observance of the people is, or ought to be, personal gain. Then, having identified these people, Amos drops the hammer:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds... On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.
Commerce and religion are twin dialects of a community’s spoken language. If you doubt it, look at the souk in a middle eastern town- it vibrates with the bargaining energy that frames all public discourse in middle eastern culture. When you hear the rumbling bass line of Russian liturgical music you know Massey was right: “The Russian soul has an infinite capacity for suffering.” Tuna carcasses on auction in Tokyo speak the precise dialect of east-Asian conspicuous consumption, lavishly preparing either for self-indulgence or for hospitality. Pentecostal gyrations in rural Guatemala convey the passion of native culture as surely as Guatemalan Roman Catholicism recalls its majestic Spanish colonial roots. The Chicago Board of Trade and the New York Stock Exchange demonstrate the frenetic body language and roar of acquisitive American culture. Evensong at Christ Church, Oxford radiates the orderly harmonics of class-driven English society. Commerce and religion really are twin dialects of a community’s spoken language.
We deceive ourselves to believe that Faith is a primary value in culture. It’s not. The deep resonance of Gordon Gekko’s remarks suggests that self-interested gain is a primary value in culture. Commerce as a primary value far and away eclipses religious faith as a primary value for much of our culture; the truth of this is seen in the whimpering, tepid effect of things like blue laws, now utterly passé. The closest the two get may be “In God We Trust” on every coin and note we circulate among ourselves. Perhaps we deceive ourselves that we have brought God into every business transaction simply by affixing His name to the medium of exchange. Then there are the indifferent millions who couldn’t care less whether the noun God appears on our money or not, pursuing zealously the business of the marketplace regardless.
Amos lived in a culture where God was not optional; the values and practice of Faith imbued every feature of daily life. Living in a culture where God is optional, we are left to wonder if our Faith has much influence on public discourse generally and the marketplace particularly. It doesn’t. Our Faith has little influence in the largest arenas of commerce, or if it does, it is at the rarified, esoteric level where large Church and not-for-profit portfolios are invested. Faith influences us as individual persons before Faith influences the marketplace. There really is a choice about God, but it is not the choice you think the marketplace might suggest. The freedom to practice religious faith and the freedom not to practice both are insisted upon as we have organized ourselves here, but in so saying we have declared that the choice holds the greatest value, not the values chosen.
The values of God and the marketplace intersect and operate at the mundane level. For example, Faith touches the economics of driving a personal motor car. I have long believed that what I pay for gasoline is determined by a bunch of greedy suits at a boardroom table in Houston. The suits know I’m going to buy it. They have it and I have need of it, and I reveal in my behavior that I think I need it more than I need clean air. That choice affects you, and I apologize. Anyway, the suits decide how much money they’ll make in any given time period, and I pay it. I don’t have to like it, and the suits don’t care whether I like it or not because my concerns about the environment or economic justice are not their concerns. Perhaps if I owned 1,000 shares of Exxon stock I’d feel less cynical about it, but I don’t own the stock and so I’m free to be a bit crusty.
The level at which my Faith has influence is in my personal economy; interpreting the oil business as small ephah/great shekel, false-balanced, the choice I have militates toward changing myself, not the oil business. That choice comes ultimately to whether or not I operate an automobile. Of course, not driving is grossly impractical in day-to-day activity, and not driving reaches beyond my cynicism about the oil business and bearing witness to the effects of greed on the environment. So, since the suits and I both know that I’m going to participate in the transaction, I am left wondering how the teachings of my Faith are relevant in the matter. What is true in the example from the oil business is true in every transaction we make. The teachings of Faith are annoying and inconvenient, aren’t they?
Yes. They are. Gordon Gekko and Amos the prophet meet. The amoral features of the marketplace touch the basic needs of life, and Faith interprets what’s OK and what’s not.
Amos speaks to the problem of godless avarice. Our Faith in the same God for whom Amos prophesied makes the same claims on us and our culture that it made on Amos. This is complicated, grown-up stuff, and it is never over. The prophet’s voice calls us to examine ourselves and repent when we need to repent, and bear witness when we need to bear witness...and in either case to be changed people every day. Our Faith may be a comfort when the questions are easy, but it is essential when there appear to be no sinless options.
Luke’s parable of the dishonest manager concludes with “You cannot serve God and wealth.” But you can serve one with the other. Clothing money in religion turns wealth into God, and leads to Gekko’s rationalization: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right.” The other way ‘round, serving God with wealth, you are asked to serve God not only by choosing how the wealth is generated in the first place, but also by choosing to live a life that is “rich toward God.”
Love you. See you in Church.
FBC3+, 18 September 2016, being The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost