Golden Calves come in many forms – What are today’s idols?

6:00 AM.  I’m listening to the rain, on the roof, thinking about “The Practice of the Wild” by Gary Snyder.  It’s not a book that most Christians are reading because Gary’s a Buddhist, but never mind.  I’m not interested in his Buddhism.  I’m interested in his ponderings over the intersection of old cultures and the maladies of the new because that subject touches on missions, globalism, and economics, subjects about which Christians should have Christian thoughts.  Gary, like the Christian farmer/poet Wendell Berry, is an advocate of localism, and does a marvelous job tracing the history of our modern world as we’ve travelled, step by step, away from localism towards centralization, what he calls a “five-hundred year war on subsistence living”.

He speaks of the “The Commons” which is the land between “the wilds” of high mountains, and the fully usable lands of the valleys.  Historically these lands “in between” were shared locally for the common good (it’s still this way in Switzerland and Austria, as sheep graze the highlands with wild mountain goats in the summer).  The commons were historically managed locally, with limits placed on how many grazing animals any single farmer could have out, in order to preserve the lands.

But this system has not worked well when the harvesters are no longer villagers/farmers, but giant corporations.  Read about the demise of the commons in England:  “From the 15th century on the landlord class, working with urban mercantile guilds and government offices, increasingly fenced off village held land and turned it over to…big wool corporations.  The arguments for enclosure in England –efficiency, higher production – ignored the sociological and ecological effects and serve to cripple the sustainable agriculture of some districts.”

One scholar points out that the ‘enclosures of the 18th century created a population of ‘rural homeless who were forced to become the world’s first industrial working class’ and he goes on to speak of the environmental damage as ‘England now has the least forest and wildlife of all the nations of Europe.’

One could argue that modernity and industrialization have not only given you and me computers to type on, they’ve won a war over subsistence living:  hunter gatherers, small local farms, and localized economies, all have been decimated by the forces of the free market.  “Get on board with industrialization, or get out of the way” has been the mantra from Seattle to Beijing.  It’s even linked, often, with Christianity.  This could be because we’ve drawn some conclusions:  If atheism leads to communism (look at Lenin, Stalin, et. al), the capitalism leads to God.  I can’t remember my logic class, but there’s something wrong with that kind of thinking, especially when one reads about the year of jubilee, which is sort of God’s way of saying that everything’s leased because ownership is never permanent.

What do you think of this?  I don’t know what I think, but I ponder how we’ve made some things in the Bible into metaphors and allegory, and I ask myself whether they should be…

  1. What if “the earth is the Lord’s” is more literal than we realize?  What if water isn’t ever to be a commodity to be sold, but rather a gift to be shared?  What if seeds aren’t supposed to be genetically modified, and then patented so that, if a seed blows onto your property and grows there, you’re liable for theft unless you buy it?  What if, though God’s clearly not against ownership and private property, the hospitality of strangers, travelers, and immigrants is to be taken more seriously, more literally than we do?  What if our version of Christianity has unwittingly begun with lots of economic assumptions that are not only ‘not in the Bible’, but actually run contrary to God’s generous plans?
  2. What if the story about the guy who builds extra towers for his grain is more literal than we take it to be?  We can go to a morning Bible study and consider this story, and reinforce the principles that are in it by talking about Jesus’ exhortation to not worry about the future and then, after praying, we’re somehow able to stick around at Starbucks, sipping our $4.00 drinks and talking about our 401-k plans, sharing investment tips and how we’re building our portfolios. Does this give anyone else pause, or only me?  Is anyone else thinking about investing more in KIVA and less in NYSE? I’m just asking, and I’m asking because I’m pondering.

“That author you quoted at the beginning is a Buddhist” is a very bad critique of this thought line friends, because the challenge to my assumptions doesn’t come from the author or book of paragraph one; it comes from reading the Bible while thinking about the resource wars in the Congo that are happening because there’s stuff there that’s needed to make ipads, and thinking about the disappearing small farms in America, and fragility of our global economic and environmental web as it presently stands.  I don’t have answers in this arena, I have questions.  I wonder if Jesus has something to say about all this, or if our economic assumptions are so inbred in us, that we’re simply too threatened by this line of thinking to even ponder it.

I love Jesus more than ever, am convinced that He is our only hope more than ever, am convinced the His Word is the only revelation with real answers and the only and final authority, and read my bible more than ever.  But I want to live faithfully, more than ever too, and am increasingly convinced that every generation of the church has had blind spots (remember the Crusades, the witch burnings, the inquisitions, the colonialism, the slavery?), and I’m starting to ask the question:  “What’s our blind spot?” as I ponder the myriad of maladies that define our local, national, and global systems.  May God give us the wisdom to see our idols, and the humility and courage to deal with them.

I welcome your thoughts

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  • Meeps

    Maybe our blind spot is that we don’t think we have a blind spot. To the idol question, seems like kids can be an idol. We need a bigger house for the kids; we need a safer new car for the kids; we need a better church program for the kids; we need to get the kids into an expensive school. One thought: our kids need Jesus and a daily reminder that Jesus and we love our kids just the way they are.

  • I remember several years ago when the first hybrid cars were coming out, we had KCMS on in the car for some reason. The morning duo were talking about the hybrids as something kind of cool, but lamenting how small they were because they needed the big SUV’s to transport their families. (And yes, my wife and I do own an SUV and thus contribute to the problems they cause. We got it when our second child was on her way because we needed the space.)

  • Ben C.

    Thanks for the thoughts Richard! I love and am challenged by the two questions you come to with at the end of this post. Starbucks may not have the reigns of my wallet, but Pho on the Ave definitely does. I’m fascinated by this topic because I feel like it has become very trendy within my circle of friends to raise this cry against industrialization. I feel as though people get so excited for a cause that they are willing to shoot the messenger because they are wearing the enemy’s colors. I watch people shoot the economic and technological systems because of how the human condition seems to always find a way to percolate up through them. Let me play the devil’s advocate here and propose industrialization as the answer to both of your challenges.
    1. The Earth is the Lord’s. Water is indeed to be shared with everyone. What if because food and shelter is industrialized I can rely on someone else in another state to supply me with my food, while I work on a new type of water well for a different country that has been stricken by drought. What if seeds are to be genetically modified so that they can grow in everyone’s back yard instead of just the farmers on the richest soil?
    2. What if instead of building our own little farms in our back yards that will guarantee our own personal food supply security (although we’ve never been very good at growing crops because of our soil), we focus on what we do best in raising sheep, and make a big wool corporation that can supply wool for all the other local farmers… WITH EXTRA for the poor and the destitute.

    Now I realize that these are not perfect examples and this doesn’t solve the hyper concentration of sheep poo and lack of broad leaf foliage in one area, but I can’t help but feel that economic and technologic systems are getting the bad rap for our current depravity that is so convincingly shared by movies like Food Inc. If one can change the focus and value of the person behind the steering wheel to a Christ-centric world view then will the bulldozer that was leveling trees for the pocket book now clear the same land for a rehabilitation center?

    It is easy to point out logs in someone else’s eye, but that doesn’t mean we should gouge out their eye.

  • Josh

    Thank you Pastor Richard. I think this is so important. Just yesterday, I thought, “How can it be ok, that my dog has a better quality of life than most of the earth’s population?” There is so much I want to write and comment on here, but one of my blind spots is probably thinking that people care what I think, haha, so i’ll try to keep my comment short.
    I think one of my/our biggest blind spots that certainly affects our economics is assuming that we are “Christians”. That’s a loaded comment, which isn’t meant to say we aren’t “saved” (another loaded word), but even in Phillipians 3 Paul’s great desire to know Christ also seems to show a great humility about attaining to the resurrection. I’ll end with a few quotes: “Acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you shall be saved” St. Seraphim of Sarov. “We have not only to be called Christians, but to be Christians.” St. Ignatius of Antioch.
    “If you would be perfect, sell everything, give to the poor and follow me.” Jesus Christ.

  • Wow, lots of good comments that are helping me synthesize what I want to say. I think Ben makes a good point. Technology is a means to an end. So rather than looking at the specific technologies, we should look at the ends served by those technologies. I don’t think anyone would really question investment in a cure for polio or the development of penicillin. On the other hand, is there anything other that a raw profit motive that puts resources in to developing Viagra as opposed to researching a cure for cancer? And what about genetically modified seeds and industrial agriculture? Are those resources being deployed to feed the world, or to prevent rich North Americans from having to face the indignity of waiting for something to be in season. Hunger and access to water are still huge issues, even though the world produces enough food to feed everyone. And that cuts to the heart of the problem, doesn’t it? There is enough food to go around, but the much vaunted invisible hands of the market have failed to meet the need. Actually, failure is not the right word. The invisible hands set a price point for goods and services by establishing the price that will maximize the seller’s profits. Buyers that are unable or unwilling to buy at that price point do not buy. This is fine when we’re talking about TV’s or ipods. (Marketing debt to increase consumer demand is a different topic.) But what happens when people are unable to pay the market price for something they need to live? This is one key area in which the free market fails. What the market sees the as points below the supply/demand intersection on a demand curve are real people who need the good or service in question to sustain their lives.
    So how do we as Christians respond to this? Of course we should give to the poor, but do we stop there or do we also try to challenge the assumption that a free market that, in it’s purest form, allows people to die for lack resources is preferable to using governmental (or other) means to step in and meet human needs that the market does not?

  • sp

    I love hearing you ask these questions if only to make me feel less alone, as I ask them myself all the time. All the time.

    And it seems to me, at times, that they aren’t being asked by many around me…maybe especially Christians, perhaps? I’m lost at where this would take us, or what the implications might be. Maybe because the iconoclasm that would need to happen would threaten my own existence so much that it doesn’t seem possible. So, the (thick) tension of the question remains, yet the real answers elude to such a degree that it becomes hard not to be depressed about it.

    The wheels on the bus go round and round.