Capitalism-A Sickness of the Soul

SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Amos 6:1a, 4-7

Psalm 146

1 Timothy 6:6-19

Luke 16:19-31

Prayer of the Day: O God, rich in mercy, you look with compassion on this troubled world. Feed us with your grace, and grant us the treasure that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“….if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” I Timothy 6:8-9.

“God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.” Rev. Joel Osteen.

Only in America, where the religion of capitalism is far more deeply ingrained than anything most children learn in Sunday School, could the kind of Christianity preached by Rev. Osteen gain traction. His perverted travesty of our faith and the rhetoric of the so-called “American Dream”[1] are regularly invoked to sanctify greed, long recognized by Christian tradition as one of the seven deadly sins, and make of it a cardinal virtue. In a 1986 commencement address Ivan Boesky, stock trader subsequently convicted of insider trading, remarked that “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”[2] According to capitalism’s creed, the engines of economic growth run on the fuel of greed, ruthlessness and selfishness. Only the weak, the timid, the lazy and cowardly whine about equality, fairness and compassion. Such folks are, in the eyes of capitalism and the words of a disgraced former president, “losers.”

The religion of capitalism is a lie. To the extent that it has become entwined with Christian faith and teaching, it is heretical. It is high time we said so in no uncertain terms. Capitalism was roundly called out and denounced by Pope Francis in his proclamation, Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”). “Today” says the Pope, “everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” He goes on to point out that “as a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.” Human persons are treated as consumer goods “to be used and then discarded.” The sad truth of these words is born out in the incriminating evidence of refugee camps throughout the world, displaced and homeless people living in the shadow of wealth and the ruined, dying communities scattered throughout the American rust belt. Capitalism is about generating ever more wealth for the wealthy at the expense of the earth’s fragile ecosystems, its workers, their families and their communities. Pope Francis had some hard words for the defenders of this death dealing economy:   

“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

None of this is to say that commerce is evil or that markets valuing the goods and services businesses produce are hopelessly corrupt. But like all things human, they become demonic when deified. The markets cannot protect our hearts from greed, our neighbors from oppression or the earth from exploitation. When we cease to view markets as tools for determining the fair value of things sold and afford to the “Market” unregulated independence and a near supernatural power to regulate human economic relationships, we fall into the sin of idolatry. Like all false gods, the Market demands a blood sacrifice in payment for its supposed benefits. As the Pope points out, that tab is picked up by the poor, the homeless and the starving. The rich, too, pay for the benefits they receive in the coin of an ever diminishing capacity to care for their neighbors and thus lose their humanity inch by inch.

That, of course, is the tragedy of the rich man in Jesus’ parable. There is no learning curve for him. He has seen with his own eyes how what Mary the Mother of our Lord foretold has come true with a vengeance. The “the powerful” have been “brought down from their thrones” and lowly “lifted up.” The hungry have been “filled with good things” and the rich “sent away empty.”  Luke 1:52-53. But the poor fool has not figured that out. He does not realize that the great reversal has taken place. He still thinks he is a big shot who can hobnob with father Abraham. He still thinks Lazarus is his “boy” who can be ordered about. He thinks he can buy favors for his rich relatives by sending Lazarus to “put the fear of God” into them. But Abraham wisely replies that they have all the warning they need from prophets like Amos, who in our lesson today gives about as clear and concise a warning as any thinking person needs. Moreover, he points out that, even if a man should rise from the dead and appear to this man’s wealthy brothers, they would be no more likely to change their selfish and unfeeling ways. Turns out that Abraham was right on the money. Jesus has risen, but the gulf separating the rich man from Lazarus has grown to global proportions.

The false gospel of wealth and prosperity threatens not only the lives of the poor, but as well the souls of the privileged. It is not for nothing that Saint Paul warns us that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” I believe that, though we may deny it, many of us mainline protestants have been at least subliminally infected with the prosperity gospel. I think it is killing us without our knowing it. There is something deeply wrong with a people incapable of weeping when the images of starving children flash across our television screens. Only the most lethal spiritual sickness can explain our blindness to the poor and homeless living in close proximity to our comfortable homes. We are on the rich man’s side of the divide-which is opposite that of our Lord. We are fast losing our capacity to feel empathy and compassion. The good news is that there is for us still time to close the gap. There is still time for our hearts to melt and our minds to open. We have not only Moses and the prophets, but the testimony and call of the risen Christ.  


[1] Just what is meant by the “American Dream” is open to interpretation. If by that term one simply means the opportunity to earn a decent living, raise one’s children in safe neighborhoods with good schools and be free from persecution and discrimination, then I have no quarrel with it. That is pretty much what most of us want for ourselves and our families. Frequently, though, the American Dream is simply rhetorical shorthand for the freedom of industries to exploit the earth, the power of the strong to dominate the weak and the rationale for tolerating poverty and exploitation of labor. As such, it represents a decidedly non-Christian spirit.

[2] This speech was subsequently parodied in Oliver Stone’s movie, Wall Street. Stone’s fictional character, Gordon Gekko, says in a speech to shareholders of a fictional corporation, “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that 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. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

Here is a poem by Jerome Rothenberg I have previously cited. It reflects all too well the prevailing conditions of our time and the sickness of greed against which the Apostle Paul warns us.

A Poem for the Cruel Majority

The cruel majority emerges!

Hail to the cruel majority!

They will punish the poor for being poor.
They will punish the dead for having died.

Nothing can make the dark turn into light
for the cruel majority.
Nothing can make them feel hunger or terror.

If the cruel majority would only cup their ears
the sea would wash over them.
The sea would help them forget their wayward children.
It would weave a lullaby for young & old.

(See the cruel majority with hands cupped to their ears,
one foot is in the water, one foot is on the clouds.)

One man of them is large enough to hold a cloud
between his thumb & middle finger,
to squeeze a drop of sweat from it before he sleeps.

He is a little god but not a poet.
(See how his body heaves.)

The cruel majority love crowds & picnics.
The cruel majority fill up their parks with little flags.
The cruel majority celebrate their birthday.

Hail to the cruel majority again!

The cruel majority weep for their unborn children,
they weep for the children that they will never bear.
The cruel majority are overwhelmed by sorrow.

(Then why are the cruel majority always laughing?
Is it because night has covered up the city’s walls?
Because the poor lie hidden in the darkness?
The maimed no longer come to show their wounds?)

Today the cruel majority vote to enlarge the darkness.

They vote for shadows to take the place of ponds
Whatever they vote for they can bring to pass.
The mountains skip like lambs for the cruel majority.

Hail to the cruel majority!
Hail! hail! to the cruel majority!

The mountains skip like lambs, the hills like rams.
The cruel majority tear up the earth for the cruel majority.
Then the cruel majority line up to be buried.

Those who love death will love the cruel majority.

Those who know themselves will know the fear
the cruel majority feel when they look in the mirror.

The cruel majority order the poor to stay poor.
They order the sun to shine only on weekdays.

The god of the cruel majority is hanging from a tree.
Their god’s voice is the tree screaming as it bends.
The tree’s voice is as quick as lightning as it streaks across the sky.

(If the cruel majority go to sleep inside their shadows,
they will wake to find their beds filled up with glass.)

Hail to the god of the cruel majority!
Hail to the eyes in the head of their screaming god!

Hail to his face in the mirror!

Hail to their faces as they float around him!

Hail to their blood & to his!

Hail to the blood of the poor they need to feed them!
Hail to their world & their god!

Hail & farewell!
Hail & farewell!
Hail & farewell!

Source: Rothenberg, Jerome, A Paradise of Poets, (c. 1991, 1993, 1995, 1998, 1999 by Jerome Rothenberg, pub. by New Directions Publishing Corp.). Jerome Rothenberg is an American poet, translator and anthologist. He is the son of Polish-Jewish immigrant parents and was born in New York City. He attended the City College of New York and received his master’s degree in literature from the University of Michigan in 1953. Rothenberg served in the U.S. Army in Mainz, Germany from 1953 to 1955, after which he did further graduate study at Columbia University. He published translations of German poets, including the first English translation of poems by Paul Celan and Günter Grass. He also founded Hawk’s Well Press and the magazines Poems from the Floating World and some/thing. He currently lives in San Diego, California. You can read more about Jerome Rothenberg and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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