The Foolishness of Greed

(the following is an excerpt from my new book Christ Held Hostage: The Hijacking of American Christianity, available here.)

What is the definition of insanity? It has been almost five years since the 2008 economic meltdown, and the same forces that brought it to us are stuffing the war chests of our elected representatives in order to remain free and unfettered to do it again and again. The ancient Chinese poet Lao Tzu was right: “There is no greater disaster than greed.”

Greed never looks very far ahead; its only concern is acquiring more and more—now. When it does look ahead, it is only down the street, to see if a cop is coming. And our august legislators, those whom we elect to look after our interests, seem just as blind and foolish as the horde on Wall Street, for their only concern is the next election. Like sheep gorging on clover, they do not consider the consequences until the bloat sets in. Instead, they continue to dine on the gravy train supplied by the banking lobby, with never a thought to the rage that is brewing in the hearts of average Americans.

Will there be a reckoning? Of course. That is not the issue. The real question is what kind of reckoning there will be. Will it be blunt and bloody like a sledge hammer or keen and clean like a scalpel? That will depend on the kind of leadership that emerges: dangerous demagoguery or shrewdness and wisdom. As economist James K. Galbraith said in an interview:

…That’s the great danger… if there is not a constructive program that people can identify with, there will be a destructive program that they will identify with. And it will come along quite soon. And what form it will take…it’s anybody’s guess, but the result…very well could be disastrous.[i]

So far, the forces of greed have managed to channel the rage away from themselves and toward other targets. The grassroots rancor Americans originally felt over the 2008 bailouts was deftly parried and the blame redirected—amazingly and shamefully—toward those who cannot defend themselves, such as illegal immigrants and the poor. But the greedy cannot expect to keep dodging responsibility indefinitely, not with so many Americans out of work and no prospects in sight, not with so many millions homeless through foreclosures. Sooner or later the hungry mob the Astroturfers trained to attack will turn and devour them.

A shrewd businessman knows when to hedge his bets, but the greedy are like pachyderms who chase away even the smallest animals from the watering hole and then begin draining and muddying it with their feet so that nothing, not even they themselves, can drink from it. They are like the farmer who killed the goose that laid the golden egg because he wanted to get at the gold he thought was inside.

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Ebenezer Scrooge on an enlightening journey. At the end of their travels, the miser makes a shocking discovery:

    “‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe,’ but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw.’

‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

‘Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.’ exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

‘Spirit, are they yours.’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’ [ii]

In this frightening and prophetic image, Dickens means to waken his countrymen to the cry of the poor among them. As an author, Dickens is often accused of over-sentimentalizing his characters and melodramatizing his plots. Yet not here. Here, he boldly draws back a curtain to show humanity its own self-destructive path.

Dickens was born in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars. At school he would have learned of the colossal upheavals and evils unleashed in the French Revolution: anarchy, demagoguery, tyranny, the guillotine, economic instability, and the carnage and devastation of two decades of war. Prosperous mid-Victorian England had many of the same signs of coming revolution: massive poverty, unemployment, and unrest. The Industrial Revolution had not improved the lot of England’s destitute but had created vast swaths of urban poverty with its concomitant ills of disease, appalling living conditions, illiteracy, and child labor. In the Scrooge story, he tries to warn England of the coming storm, that it must deal with its children, the issues of poverty and economic injustice, or else meet a grim reckoning. For that reckoning must come, and woe betide the nation in which the roiling masses find solace in the eloquence of another Robespierre, Saint-Just, or Bonaparte!


[i] James K. Galbraith, “Economic Recovery in Review,” Moyers’ Journal, (30 October 2009). Web. pbs.org.

[ii] Dickens, A Christmas Carol, in Complete Works, vol. 25, 59-60.

For more information or for some interesting links: book website

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