Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Friday, 19 September 2008

St. William of Tuscony

We had one more leg to go. Get from Kansas City, through Missouri, Iowa (also now known as Obamowa), and on into Wisconsin. On the way we passed this interesting tidbit at a rest stop. I'd never heard of the Amana Colonies, but my dad was very familiar with them. Evidently they're the most successful communal experiment in American history. The rest stop had a marker commemorating the efforts. I was shocked at what was on the flipside. Here was a people who had successfully created a commune, sharing everything in common. And then, in the end, they had given in to that dread demon, mammon. They had changed from an enterprise where no one counts his own goods as his own, to something that was the epitome of capitolism, with stock options and everyone looking for his own bit of the pie. The worst part of it was it was so easy to see how this could happen. Every religious movement wanes in successive generations. Lasting for 100 years is a great feat. And when the fire has died, you look to continue in a way that makes sense, that fits the culture of the now you are in. It was all shared before. Let us continue to share. But we are each going his or her own way. So we must share individually. We will have our own share of the pie. We will have our own stock options. We will fit in to American society, while still retaining some of our roots. Because if you can't take it with you, better get it before you go.

Thirty minutes out of Madison, we broke down again. It was now 3 PM, and we had to be in Middleton by 7 in order to return the trailer and not have to pay another $20 penalty. (Every day we're late we have to pay an extra $20. As of today we've been delayed a week.) Bill went off to get some more parts for the RV, and was gone for over an hour, as he searched for a store in the middle of Wisconsin farm country.

I don't pretend to know all the problems with this RV, and all that happened to it. It's some mixture of not having gas, and the carborator, and the alternator, and the starter, and all those a few times. I don't know much about cars. But Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." A primitive society would see what we do as either magic or that of God. So let us review.

Bill came and fixed the RV, making it run again. Miracle One. A few miles down the road it broke down again, with a different problem. Bill fixed it again. Miracle Two. And today, he returned, like a white night, in his white cowboy hat and leather boots, with the right part, and suddenly, the RV was running again. We drove down the road, the dog house off the engine between the front seats, and Bill spraying WD-40 straight into the engine as he drove. As Leonardo da Vinci is rumored to have said, "Still, it moves." Miracle Three.

It takes three documented miracles to make someone a saint, according to the Roman Catholics. This is why I declare he is now St. William of Tuscony. He brought us all the way from Belen, New Mexico, to Waunakee, Wisconsin, where we sleep tonight in our assigned lot in the park. We stopped on the way to return the trailer, and praise God, we were charged only $25 for the damaged plastic fender. Today, this week, Bill was the manifestation of God to us.

9 comments:

mom said...

Jed--thanks for sharing your road trip with us. I'm sure you'll hear comments. Let me know how things progress...love,

Omar Poppenlander said...

Mammon and capitalism are not one and the same thing. I believe that to infer that these are synonymous is a gross mischaracterization of capitalism. Capitalism has at its core the creation of additional wealth and prosperity for a community (e.g. we can do more with pooled resources than any one person can do individually). Only the individual can turn capitalism into greed by lusting after the false god of Mammon. Capitalism is more a way of doing than a belief system.

And the exact Clarke quote (also known as Clarke's Third Law) is I believe "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

@bdul muHib said...

Ah, but Omar, you've never had the training in socialism that I've had ;-)

I agree, mammon and capitalism are not the same. But I also believe that mammon is the ultimate goal of capitalism. I do not believe that captialism's goal is the creation of pooled resources, but rather the accumulation of wealth for a few. This past week has not been a failure of capitalism but its most crowning success. Without greed, capitalism can in no way succeed.

And without Christ, communism can never hope to be successful.

Omar Poppenlander said...

"Ah, but you've never had the training in socialism that I've had."

I won't debate that. Clearly, you know more socialists than I do - I am not here to put down socialism or to praise capitalism uncritically. I merely want to point out that your belief that capitalism is a system based only on "greed" shows a profound misunderstanding of the foundational theory, tools, and actual practice of capitalism in the better part of the world.

Based on my experience, your belief seems unsupportable by the facts. If you spend some time talking to actual capitalists - small business owners, stockbrokers, corporate execs, etc. - as I have, you will probably find that the majority of them are not greed-driven bastards and that most do what they do to promote the common good.

Clearly, you've never had the training in capitalism that I've had . . .

:-)

The end goal of capitalism is not a new Great Depression. No one is happy for what is happening now, even the ultra-wealthy. So the current economic crisis IS NOT the great high-point of capitalism. You may believe it was inevitable; I disagree.

And of course, as you correctly state, the record of socialism in practice is not better (in fact, probably worse) than that of capitalism. Both need to be informed by a moral (Christian?) code of conduct to have any hope of providing justice, peace and prosperity in the land.

So I encourage you to temper your thoughts on this subject. Capitalism is certainly in need of a critique and a re-direction. But there are many of us who still believe it is salvageable. And I certainly don't think our odds are any better for success with socialism, communism, or any other "ism" you might mention.

@bdul muHib said...

Well, the socialist line was just a joke, referring to communal living.

There's a world of difference between what drives capitalism, and what drives the participants/victims of it. Capitalism might be driven by greed, without many of those involved being driven by it. Only the most successful would need to be driven by greed to make it work; and everything I see in the elite of this country, and everything I've studied of them, indicates this to be true.

No economic system, or governmental system, is perfect. "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." That goes for communism- but it remains the economic system closest to the ideals of Jesus. And therefore the most evil when Jesus is removed from the equation.

Clearly, a new Depression is not the goal of Capitalism. It is, however, the final, unavoidable result. It can be avoided, if the country moves to a greater degree of Socialism, or Socialist Capitalism, which indeed we have done, in one fell swoop over the last two weeks, but have been moving forward towards over the last 100 years, following Marx's descriptive (not prescriptive) philosophies. This country would not have survived without The Great Society, and it won't survive without this greater degree of socialism we now have. (Only Nixon could go to China. It appears only George W. could have made us Socialist. Who would have thought?) We are surviving to the extent that we give up our commitments to capitalism. The problems with the Communist Countries (not practicing real communism, but merely calling themselves such) was that they tried to force communism in, acting as if Marx/Engels was prescriptive, and not descriptive. You have to wait for it, and it will come.

Omar Poppenlander said...

I agree with a good deal of what you said although I might take exception to communism as the "economic system closest to the ideals of Jesus." I don't think that any of our current economic theories or systems can make that claim. I would also continue to argue that greed is NOT what drives the capitalist system . . . or that at the very least, that it is not the only driver. For those people and companies for whom it is a driver, it doesn't have to be. That's just symptomatic of the human condition (i.e. sin.)

Wanting to better your life in the way Adam Smith described is not the same as greed. It may only be a distinction of degrees, but it is an important few degrees (cf. Dante). I think Smith would be appalled by the excesses perpetrated in the name of his theories. Milton Friedman he was not . . .

Also, I think your research on the so-called "elites" may be skewed or biased by media portrayals or preconceived notions. The very term suggests a type of polarity and class warfare that I think is dangerous in this debate. Again, I would challenge you to go and speak with actual capitalists - even some of those who are "elites" in your mind based on how much money they earn or have accumulated. Most of them are not greedy bastards and some of them are downright saints. Yet these good, ethical businesspeople drive the system just as much as those who are callous, uncaring or entirely self-absorbed.

(On a side not, it may also be instructive to note that 2/3 of the movement of money in our society is done at a retail consumer level. So in capitalism, individual consumers of all wealth-levels move the needle as well. How did WE affect the current credit crisis? We haven't acknowledged the ways in which middle and lower-class citizens may bear some limited culpability for the current situation . . . but that is a topic for a whole other posting.)

We have in fact moved to a more blended model of capitalism/socialism in the US, and many economic theorists would argue that this is appropriate for a just capitalism. A notable example is Thomas Friedman, who in his books on globalization argues for free trade AND certain social safety nets noting that both are critical to a successful capitalistic, democratic society. However, buying up the banks may or may not be your best example of a pre-destined move in this direction. Many economists believe that this is a risky ploy at best and that the worst may be yet to come for the American taxpayer/bank speculator. Turning them back over to private ownership may still be important or necessary.

So what is capitalism? I feel that you are arguing that it is a system built on greed to allow a few people to acquire great wealth while leaving out the rest. But it's not. Capitalism is a theory that suggests that the reinvestment of capital can drive prosperity (cf. The Parable of the Talents). This reinvestement and drive to increase prosperity can be done for greed, but it can also be done for the common good. Prosperity can equal shalom.

It might also be wise to consider what we mean by capital. Most people think of capital as money, but it can also mean physical assets (land, machines, etc.) and there is also increasing talk in business circles of intellectual capital, human capital and even spiritual capital. My colleague Randy Franz wrote a paper on "Holistic Capitalism" which suggested that if we treated these other forms of capital in the same way that we treat financial capital, we would have a healthier, wealthier and more just society. I don't know if it was ever published, but if I find a version of it, I'll send it your way.

Peace,

Omar P.

@bdul muHib said...

Many good thoughts, here, Omar.

I'm not aware of any industrial capitalist leaders who would be willing to meet with me. If you are, please do let me know :-) But I agree, greed is not in any way limited to them, but is something part of the middle and lower classes as well. We're just less successful at it. I also agree that the upper class does much good. Bill Gates has engaged in incredible beneficence, as has Warren Buffet. But in percentage giving, the rich give far less, on average, than the poor. And this bypasses the whole issue of Christ's call to become part of the poor, to rely on him, to give up our wealth to the poor (which, of course, I don't expect a non-Christian to follow, but think they are just missing out).

Yes, greed is the human condition. I think capitalism exploits that condition better than any other. Bettering your life through material means, as Adam Smith describes, I would say is a form of greed- just one that we all are inclined towards.

Assuredly, my research on elites is skewed. I was heavily influenced by that bastion of liberalism, Occidental College- the one Obama went to. Nash was our primary textbook. I gladly admit my biases. Marx/Engels reader was another textbook.

I think it is exegetically dangerous to argue the Parable of Talents as an economic example. It is a parable, intending to tell us how to invest ourselves in the lives of others, and bring them into the Kingdom; not how to increase our wealth- though groups like the Full Gospel Businessmen have often used it that way. In the same way, speaking of spiritual capitalism is, I think, valuable, but it remains a metaphor. I'm all for increasing that, or building people up, or increasing your intellectual capacity. There is, as you say, a lot of potential there for bettering society. But "love of money is the root of all kinds of evil", and it's pursuit is warned against many times in the NT. I think it reasonable to extend that to wealth (like land), and thereby to embrace all the warnings in the OT as well. The accumulation of it is dangerous inherently, for it leads us to rely on ourselves, to put ourselves first, and in a land and world of finite resources, to take from those who have not.

And that indeed is how we built our country. We built it by taking from the 2/3rds world's wealth, at first in the form of slavery, and later in goods from colonies, and still later in unjust trade laws that perpetuated the theft and rape of the lands and peoples of other countries. Now, "American's chickens are coming home to roost", as China rises and the American Empire enters its twilight. For too long we acted with injustice towards the world at the expense of the inheritors of God's Kingdom, the poor, so that we could become the wealthiest nation on Earth, in gross accumulation and per capita. This, I believe, is the legacy of our economic policies.

Omar Poppenlander said...

Hey Jedidiah -

I haven't had time to revisit your blog for a few days, but I appreciate your comments and agree with much of what you say. If you were in the area, I would actually invite you to meet some of my "industrialist/capitalist" friends and acquaintances. I am sure that I could find some who would not only agree to sit down with you, but who would love to try to persuade you to join their ranks. :-)

I think your interpretation of Adam Smith may be a little off, but that is a minor point (you've read "Wealth of Nations," right?). You have to look at Smith in the context of the 18th century or he doesn't make sense.

The only major point I disagree with you on is the idea of "Christ's call to become part of the poor." We are certainly called to rely on God over our land, possessions, talents, health or any other created thing. But although I agree that there are many warnings in the OT and NT about the dangers of wealth, I don't think this is comensurate with a call to poverty for all believers. Certainly, for some reliance on God and obedience to Him may mean (perhaps even require) a renunciation of all possessions (e.g. the rich young ruler) but for others, it may be possible to rest in God while still living in what the rest of us would see as abundance (e.g. Job or Abraham). I see modern day folks who I think fill these roles - and as Christians who own businesses, they provide jobs for many others, give to ministry organizations, invest in their communities, etc. "To whom much is given much is required."

I know I won't persuade you on this point though. I have heard your position on the necessity of poverty before and I know that it is deeply ingrained. Suffice it to say I felt the need to place another point of view out here. There is room for a Christian in the capitalist system, imperfect though it may be. Indeed, now more than ever, we need thoughtful Christians attempting to reform what has become an all-encompassing economic system. In times like these when the corruption, flaws and excesses of the system are so abundantly on display it is imperative for us not to disengage, but to work both prophetically from outside the system (as I feel your comments do) and pastorally from inside the system to bring change and Shalom.

Cheers,

Omar P.

@bdul muHib said...

I agree with you, Omar, that God calls some people to absolute poverty, like St. Francis, but not the majority of us. I also agree that one can be a full-on Christian within the Capitalist system. The Full Gospel Businessmen are a notable example of this, much as I might disagree with some of their beliefs. What I believe is that Jesus is very clear on not only the dangers of wealth, but that the "poor will always be among you". He does not say "with", as it's often translated (begging the question as to why the translators would want to translate it that way), but in the Greek, "among". The idea is that we are in the midst of them; we are them. Many great authors have pointed out that it is impossible to be just to those in need, and live well off, because resources are finite.

You bring up Abraham and Job. But in the New Testament, who is there? There are new guidelines we are given- but only transformed. Thus Jesus says that no one who has not left lands and houses and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, will not receive 100-fold lands and houses and mothers and brothers and sisters, and persecution, in this life, and in the life to come, eternal life. That was my experience. I grew up in poverty where we regularly went dumpster-diving for food, and yet, because the 80 of us shared what we had, I had 10 houses and 20 cars and 80 brothers and sisters. And this was the point of this article- that the early Amana Colonies did the same. They lived in poverty, yet had great wealth, because they shared what they had with each other, just as the first Christians did.