Wealth without Greed

By Gary Blakely

Capitalist markets are driven by two emotional extremes: greed and fear. Perhaps that's why Fareed Zakaria subtitled his recent Newsweek cover story: "Greed is Good (To a Point)" ("Capitalist Manifesto," Newsweek, June 22, 2009).

Zakaria's piece is compelling on many levels, but I'm especially intrigued by the notion (certainly not original) that two fundamental yet generally undesirable human emotions -- greed and fear -- are effectively pitted against one another for the common good to drive an economic system that "with all its flaws ... remains the most productive economic engine we have yet invented. Like Churchill's line about democracy, it is the worst of all economic systems, except for the others." (Zakaria)

Viewed in this respect, I can agree with the notion that greed is good, but only in this limited "my enemy's enemy is my friend" way of thinking.

The religious tradition known as "Mormonism" (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) roots itself in a restoration of original Christianity rather than in the traditions of post-New Testament Christianity. Therefore, we do not have a classification of "seven deadly sins," of which greed is one. In my religious experience, the somewhat-related headline sins of pride, lust, and sloth get more play than greed in the LDS Church. Admonitions about sloth usually take the form of encouragement to be economically "self-reliant" and to avoid "the dole," and industrious labor is strongly encouraged. Evidence of this sentiment is as close as the original name of the territory later known as Utah: "Deseret" -- a word "which, by interpretation, is a honey bee" (The Book of Mormon, Ether 2:3).

But back to greed. Mormons believe that God cares very much about our motives. Greed is akin to covetousness, and according to one LDS scholar, "the Hebrew word translated as covet ... denotes an inordinate, consuming, selfish desire, arising from improper or evil motives." (Brent L. Top, "‘Thou Shalt Not Covet'," Ensign, Dec 1994, 22.) These are definitely less-than-worthy motives. Not good.

LDS scripture contains teachings about the temptations incidental to wealth, as well as the relationship between material goods and one's motives. In about 550 B.C., Book of Mormon prophet Jacob taught that prosperity and riches can lead us to another of traditional Christianity's sinister seven: pride. He then counseled,

Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you. But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good -- to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.
Book of Mormon,
Jacob 2:17-19

Thus, consistent with our focus on industry and self-reliance, Mormons do not believe that material possessions are necessarily bad. True, they might tempt us to become prideful and selfish, but if we can avoid those pitfalls riches can in fact be used for God's purposes. As Paul taught, it is not money, but the love of money that is the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6:10).

But what about Christ's statement that it is "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God"? (Mt. 19:24; Mk. 10:25; Lk. 18:25) I believe his point is clear: The possession of riches can seriously impede our spiritual progress1 but "with God, all things are possible."