Monday, December 26, 2011

A Different Christmas Story

In my Advent reading this year, I read the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel and compared it with a statement issued on 17 December 2010 by a Buddhist-Christian consultation on “Structural Greed” and an earlier World Council of Churches study document “Poverty, Wealth and Ecology: The Impact of Economic Globalization—a Background to Study the Process,” written by economist Rogate Mshana.

In our popular culture we learn that Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn. The local establishment was booked because of the government decree that ordered everyone to return to the town of their birth. Sort of like telling people they need to get a birth certificate before they can vote in the 2012 election in the United States. The hidden poll tax is not exactly illegal since it is indirect, but it will prevent the poor from voting. Make no mistake about it: voter suppression is a campaign issue in this country. Communities of faith should be registering congregants and visitors to vote in record numbers on Christmas Eve, at least that’s my opinion. But the focus of my blog contribution is elsewhere.

Maybe Mary put Jesus in the manger not because the inn was full, but because she was poor. She was not in the inn because she could not afford it. Lack of housing is a common problem for the poor. Poverty is about more than not having enough money. It means not having housing, not being able to buy nutritious food, not having access to good schools or adequate health care, dealing with illness without resources, often living in unsafe environments, facing daily reminders of social discrimination and exclusion, and being reminded constantly that it is your own fault. One person running for the Office of President of the United States was candid enough to say that in his world if you cannot afford private health insurance--well, I don’t think he actually said you should curl up and die, but his intention was unmistakable. Christmas? “Bah-Humbug!”

We don’t hear a lot about Structural Greed this holiday season, but it’s a good concept. In the Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed the authors write that “one of the primary reasons for the global financial crisis is that over the past centuries economic processes have been progressively motivated and structured by the goal of maximizing profits for capital owners and thus monopolizing the world market.” The writers go on to acknowledge that we have become comfortable with greed and the idea that accumulated wealth is necessary for human progress. In the statement, Buddhists identify Three Poisons: greed, hatred and delusion. The antidote is becoming a generous, loving and compassionate person. But the conference participants go on to say that if we only focus on individual greed we are maintaining the status quo. Accordingly, we need to develop strategies for countering Structural Greed.
Rogate Mshana’s paper offers both a framework for analysis of Structural Greed (although he does not use that phase) and strategies for addressing it. He says that we need theological reflection, economic analysis, ongoing dialogue, and practical action.

Theological reflection leads to the insight that poverty is a spiritual problem as well as an economic one. Economic analysis shows us that the market mantra of economic growth is not sufficient and cannot be sustained in a divided world. The 500 richest people in the world have a combined income that is greater than the income of the poorest 416 million people. Economic growth has not and will not lead to greater equality. We need to create conversations in communities of faith about the reality of wage theft, home foreclosures, unemployment, and poverty in our communities. Faith communities can be places for these sacred conversations. Finally we need proposals from practical action. Here is where I find Mshana’s idea of a Greed Line especially helpful. Establishing a Greed Line offsets the Poverty Line and creates a whole new conversation.

Mshana proposes five ways to measure greed. Absolute Greed could be defined in terms of annual personal income and total property and assets owned. Income Ratios, a second matrix, invites us to look at the income ratio between, say, management and labor, or wealth and poverty. A Dynamic Greed line, the third matrix, measures the rate of wealth increase and profit growth. Usually high rates or growth or return on investments could suggest undue political influence or insider knowledge. The fourth matrix proposed is Categorical Types of Enrichment. Where does the money come from: expropriation, bonuses, stock options, investments, wages, etc? Investments and dividends, primary sources of wealth for the wealthy, are taxed a lower rates than income. The fifth matrix is Other Considerations, such as consumption levels. There are both conceptual and educational advantages to the Greed Line. It is a creative way to frame the conversation and it offers guidelines for analysis, education, conversation and action.

The Occupy Movement reminds us daily that we need to turn the page. We need a new economy. We need to replace the ethics of apathy with a call to compassion. We need to challenge Structural Greed with Economic Democracy. In the Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed, they recall these words of Buddha, “In a situation of crisis, act as if your turban is on fire.”

David P. Hansen

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