Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Streams in the Desert

Nature, Annie Dillard tells us, is profligate. Consider the sunflower seed, and how true this is; not only true, but necessary. One seed will produce a plant with a flower the size of a truck steering wheel; and in that flower, will be many more seeds. Enough seeds to produce more plants, or to supply seeds for animals to eat, and still produce plants. Thanks to the profligacy of nature, one seed equals many seeds. Call it the arithmetic of biology, where 1+1=3, or 4, or a dozen, or two dozen. Without this arithmetic, life itself would be impossible. Without the wild profligacy of nature, none of us would be here to examine this wild profligacy. We are all the product of extravagance; but then there's the second part of Ms. Dillard's observation: "Nature is profligate, but wastes nothing."

Humans, it seems, waste everything. Which leads us to the conviction of shortage, of limits, of scarcity. We are convinced security is scarce, that is must be hoarded, defended, girded round with walls and barriers and men atop those walls with guns, all to protect what is ours, to keep it from running out, to prevent it from becoming scarce. Convinced of scarcity, we create scarcity. Consider the conclusions of Alfred Stiglitz. He estimates the cost of the Iraq war to already be $3 trillion, and anticipates the true cost, especially in care for veterans of the war, will end up between $5 trillion and $7 trillion. The White House response, of course, is the response of the defenders of scarcity as status quo:

"People like Joe Stiglitz lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure. One can't even begin to put a price tag on the cost to this nation of the attacks of 9/11," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.

"It is also an investment in the future safety and security of Americans and our vital national interests. ... What price does Joe Stiglitz put on attacks on the homeland that have already been prevented? Or doesn't his slide rule work that way?"
We are, you see, like nature: profligate; except that we waste what is most precious:

The war's gravest toll has been paid in blood. Fighting in Iraq so far taken the lives of 3,973 U.S. troops and left nearly 29,300 wounded. Its staggering expense, however, has already dwarfed the 2003 White House war estimate of $60 billion, and the price continues to rise.

"America is a rich country," said Stiglitz, a Columbia University professor and former World Bank chief economist.

"The question is not whether we can afford to squander $3 trillion or $5 trillion," he told committee members. "We can. But our strength will be sapped. ... There is no such thing as a free war."
As for what the White House said about Mr. Stiglitz' estimates, he has a very direct response:

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, I think the White House lacks the courage to engage in a national debate about the cost of the Iraq war. The Joint Economic Committee has asked the White House to come down and discuss the numbers; they’ve refused. Security is important, and we don’t deny that. The question is whether this war has been the best way of obtaining the security. And no matter what you’re going to do—you know, what you think about security, you still have to look at the cost. The costs have been important, even for the way we’ve waged the war. The reason the administration presumably did not buy, for instance, the MRAPs, these special vehicles that would have reduced the number of deaths by a very large fraction, is economics. So, you know, no matter what one says, economics is important, and the American people have the right to have an understanding of what those costs are. When we went to war, they said it was going to cost $50 billion. We are now spending that money upfront every three months, and that’s not even including the cost of veterans’ healthcare and disability down the line.
The market determines value based on scarcity. As Mr. Stiglitz explained to Amy Goodman:

When we say $3 trillion, that’s really an underestimate. We attributed, in our book, only $5 to $10 to the war itself. But if you look back, in 2003, futures markets, which take into account increases in demand, increases in supply—they knew that China was going to have increased demand, but they thought there would be increases in supply from the Middle East—they thought the price would remain at $25 for the next ten years or more. What changed that equation was the Iraq war. They couldn’t elicit the increase of supply in the Middle East because of the turmoil that we brought there. So we think, actually, the true numbers, not the $5 or $10 that we used, because we didn’t want to get in a quibble, but really a much larger fraction of the difference between $25 that it was at the time in 2003 and the $100 we face today.
Scarcity is the peculiar province of economics, the "dismal science." How much is available to go around, how fairly can it be distributed? This is the assumption of utilitarianism, this is the assumption of John Rawls' "Theory of Justice," this is the assumption of economists: scarcity is the nature of the world, now how do we adjust our desires to meet this wholly reasonable and undeniable conclusion? The economic pie can only be so large. Full employment, for example, would be disastrous: without a scarcity of jobs, what bargaining power would the employer have, what incentive would drive the workder to labor rather than laziness? With every niche filled, there would be nowhere to go, and little reason to worry about being asked to go. Scarcity is not only reality, we deem it necessity. The desert is our model for the world, it is the spur of our incentives: we are not creatures driven and derided by lust, because lust we can market. Lust is another model of scarcity, as you can never have enough things, look good enough, have enough sex or be attractive, knowleadgeable, witty, intelligent, enough. You must always lack and desire what you do not have. It is not lust we are driven by now, but fear. Fear for our security, but also fear for our want, fear that the world, indeed, is not enoughm and that we must always have more. Our fear is that the world is actually the desert we are afraid it might be, and that enough will never be afforded us.

Oddly, I think this is new, and it is American. In Stanley Kubrick's vision of Anthony Burgess' venture into the future, the world they imagine in A Clockwork Orange is not a world of plentitude and scarcity: it is a world of emptiness and spiritual waste. Alex is a creature of appetites, but those appetites are not the appetites Sitting Bull complained of. The love of possession is not a disease with him: indeed, he sees the world as his oyster, and reprimands his "droogs" when they spurn his authority over them. He reminds them everything they want is theirs for the taking, and, indeed, the live a life of crime and rape and theft that supplies all their needs, but their needs seem to be small. They steal cars and money as an exercise in power, not possession. Theirs is a dissolute life, but it is not a possessive one. Still, to an American eye, Alex's world is a very British one. He lives in a block of concrete flats, government housing small and cramped and anonymous, with even the public are in the lobby defaced in reaction to the soul-lessness, the dehumanizing atmosphere of the place. But no one complains of that, and the solution doesn't seem to be a more open marketplace. Alex's one venture into a store reveals as glittering and gaudy an arena as ever could be wished for, so it isn't lack of goods that plague his world, it is lack of humanity, and that is not a purchasable commodity. Indeed, the woman he kills inadvertently is a merchant in human happiness, and a collector of frankly pornographic art. The primary difference between her and Alex is his use of physical power, of violence. It is enough, but it isn't violence driven by what she owns and he doesn't. Yet what we hear today about terrorists or illegal aliens is all the same thing: we have something "they" want, and they will come and take it from us, will enjoy what we have, and we won't be able to any longer. That is not a fear peculiar only to American culture, but it is certainly a fear peculiar to American political culture today.

No character in Kubrick's film seems concerned with acquisition at all, or with what will be taken from them. Their only concern is power, and who wields it (rape, after all, Alex's favored mode of expression, is just another form of violence; and all violence is about exerting power). Which is another way of looking at scarcity, and another reason why we ventured, as a country, into a disastrous and misguided war. We were even assured the war would not create scarcity but defeat it, and now when Alfred Stiglitz tells us just the opposite has happened, the White House hastily changes the subject, deflects attention from the fear of want to the fear of losing what we have. So Americans at home are told only to worry about scarcity, are told only to shop after national calamity, or how we don't have the resources to help the people of the Gulf Coast after Katrina; or how we can't help borrowers caught in the subprime mortgage catastrophe; or told how we can't wage war and help the poor, the homeless, the sick, the infirm, even the veterans of the war that is making everything else too expensive, although we are assured that war either costs us nothing, or is a price worth paying. Power itself is an expression of scarcity, so that even those of us who proclaim power a necessary evil which we will wield wisely, confess the scarcity of the world, rather than the profligacy of God, the Creator who made the profligacy of nature.

Looking at what technology has wrought across the face of the earth since the discovery of the uses of petroleum barely 100 years ago, and the near exhaustion of that same resource today, it would seem economics and the notion of scarcity is not only true, but rational. That is the lesson of global warming: that there isn't enough to go around, and now we must reduce our demands, we must limit what we can do, expect, desire. The world is a desert, and we must act accordingly. Ironically, the desert is precisely where people have gone for centuries to encounter the God of Abraham, the one known as the Creator.

Consider, first, that is has always been this way; and it has not always been this way. When was the last time you heard someone talk like this?

People nowadays interchange gifts and favors out of friendship, but buying and selling is considered absolutely inconsistent with the mutual benevolence which should prevail between citizens and the sense of community of interest which supports our social system. According to our ideas, buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization
-- Edward Bellamy

The ultimate aim of production is not production of goods but the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality.
-- John Dewey

I confess that I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human beings
-- John Stuart Mill

The gross national product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them ... It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of thier education, or the joy of their play.
-- Robert F. Kennedy

We must recognize that we can't solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power....[What is required is] a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr
Three from the 19th century, two from the twentieth. It is hard to imagine an American public figure today speaking as Bellamy and Dewey did, or an American politician speaking as Kennedy did. And Martin Luther King, Jr., of course, only had a "dream," not a critique of American society that sounds very much like the little regarded and much despised liberation theology of Latin America. A helpful prelude, though, to a discussion of a much older text, and much older ideas, from another culture. Too old, and ideas are easily dismissed as ancient and irrelevant. But Ecclesiastes is right, and again and again we learn that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun. We take that, too, as a lesson of scarcity, and tell ourselves nothing could be new under the sun, so we must accept the present as an inevitable and ineluctable extension of the past; which is no more true than the myth of scarcity we cling to for our survival.

You can consider this in the terms of what Naomi Klein calls the "shock doctrine." Or you can consider it in even more direct terms, of who gets to control the natural resources like water. It comes to the same end: the preaching of scarcity, commodification as a way of making something more desirable. So long as someone else can create a scarcity which they can then supply, they will have power. And what is true for multinational corporations was equally true for Solomon:

Solomon became a centralized power in Israel (something, by the way, God had warned Israel about back in 1 Samuel). He became the main source and owner of chariots and arms, which he also sold; so he was an arms dealer. He levied tributes on those who came through Israel (it was on the trade routes), and on all the peole of Israel. Tributes, of course, are nothing more than taxes, and they do nothing more than take money from the many, and give it to the one: the king. It's good to be king; for the king. He also built the Temple, in a style typical for the Near East; but there's another issue there, and it's the same underlying issue: the Temple enforced control.

The Temple was arranged into three areas: the outer Temple, where women and slaves and all the "non-persons" of Israel could gather. The Inner Temple, where the men of Israel alone could go; and, in a small room at the back, the "holy of holies," where only the priest could enter. [Walter] Brueggeman said if you put wings on the Temple, it would be a modern passenger plane. The elite board first, and get the best seats in a special section, while the rest of us board last and sit cheek by jowl. Those up front even get the curtain drawn so we can't see what they are eating. The cockpit, of course, is there the priest goes.

Contrast this to Sinai, says Brueggeman, where all of Israel saw Moses on the mountain talking to God. Now, most of Israel can't even go into the inner temple, and no one is allowed to venture into the place where God could be seen.

Control, in other words, with access guaranteed by accidents of birth. All the Jubilee stuff that comes into Deuteronomy, by the way, doesn't even exist yet, and under Solomon it never will. That would cost him control.

Solomon becomes "wise," too, not because he is born that way, but because he puts scholars on his payroll, and pays them to know and learn wisdom and give it to him as he needs it. He controls knowledge, then, too; as much as he possibly can. And Solomon does one more thing: when he fights his brother for the throne, he kills all his brother's supporters after he becomes king. All of them save the priest, whom he exiles to a small village, where the priest leaves so long as he remains quiet. His power consolidated, Solomon proceeds to build a Temple to prove his power and wealth, and to enjoy a reputation that he largely bought and paid for with other people's money.
Under Brueggeman's analysis, Solomon might well fit into Klein's "shock doctrine." Solomon fights his brother for control of the throne, and kills his brothers supporters; if that isn't "shock and awe," what is? Then Solomon consolidated control in his hands, and became an arms dealer with the nations around Israel, even as he made Israel a military power. Such power, of course, is about scarcity. Only friendship with the king will provide security for the subjects. Only the king's wisdom is wise, because he has the best scholars to prove it. Only the king's power is just and fair, because he provides the security against rival kingdoms whom he also arms, and has to arm against. As long as the king keeps all good things scarce, and provides some measure of those things who are loyal to the king, then all is well with the king in his kingdom. But consider the rest of the story from the Hebrew scriptures:

Jump ahead about 400 years, to the impending Babylonian Exile. Now comes Jeremiah, descended from a long line of priests, from that very village where Solomon exiled the priest who had supported his brother. And now Jeremiah tells the reigning king:

Let not the wise boast of their wisdom,
nor the valiant of their valour;
let not the wealthy boast of their wealth;
but if anyone must boast, let him boast of this:
that he understands and acknowledges me.
For I am the LORD, I show unfailing love,
I do justice and right on the earth;
for in these I take pleasure.
This is the word of the LORD.

There is a direct rebuke of the descendants of Solomon there. Solomon who purchased his wisdom and his palace and his power and even the Temple, with his central concern for Solomon, and what Solomon could obtain, and own, and control. Solomon who used his control of horses and chariots to exact tribute (read: taxes) from others; who used the location of Israel along the trade routes to exact a toll for what passed through the land, and made sure the money went to Solomon, not to the community. Solomon cared about Solomon, not about:

How good and pleasant it is to live together as brothers in unity!
It is like fragrant oil poured on the head
and falling over the beard,
Aaron's beard, when the oil runs down
over the collar of his vestments.
Is is as if the dew of Hermon were falling
on the mountains of Zion.
There the LORD bestows his blessing,
life for evermore (Psalm 133)

The LORD bestows the blessing freely. Solomon makes sure the blessing is recovered and rewarded to Solomon. Solomon, like the Pharoah, says there isn't enough to go around: not enough money, not enough power, not enough wisdom, and I, Solomon, must control it all, must deal in it, must buy and sell in all the marketplaces, of arms, of ideas, of palaces, even of religion. Because of this, says Jeremiah, comes the Exile. Because of this, Isaiah tells Israel, the people, not the kings:

"Come for water, all who are thirsty;
though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
come, buy wine and milk, not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food
your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
you will enjoy the fat of the land. (Isaiah 55:1-2)

Listen, not to the king, but the LORD. Fare well not because the king is wise, or rich, or virtuous, but because of the goodness of the LORD. And buy without money, buy food without price, because economic transactions are not the basis of true life. There is no basis of exchange here: "Come to me and listen to my words, hear me and you will have life." (Isaiah 55:3). It is the call of the Creator, who gave life simply by speaking, in the beginning; and who gives life still, simply by speaking. And what is life if not a gift, something for which you can't give anything in exchange, which you can't even accept or acknowledge or receive, because you can never step away from it, apart from it, stand beside it and recognize it as something other to you, something which you could be given. What you is there to give to, if you don't already have life?

And because of the Exile comes Deuteronomy; the book of identity; and not identity for the king, but for the people. The people to whom God has given the one gift which can be given: life.

The consistent thread through the Hebrew scriptures into the proclamation of the basileia tou theou is that humans must eschew and avoid political power, because power draws its source from the fear of scarcity. As Brueggemann reads the Biblical narrative, Pharoah represents the people who live in fear and anxiety and anger. Such people have no energy left over for the neighborhood. In the story of Joseph and Pharoah, the guy with the most power and authority and wealth, dreams of scarcity. Which is not surprising; Pharoah's oikos is governed by the fear of running out. It is what keeps him in control, keeps him in power and why the people allow him to rule. This anxiety about scarcity is what drives the Hebrews into slavery and so, in brief, Genesis moves into Exodus.

Now Pharoah is so afraid of scarcity, so filled with anxiety for what might be taken from him, he begins to kill the babies of the Hebrews (and here the parallel to Herod in the New Testament, where he is clearly Pharoah to all the Gospel writers, becomes clearer. This is where Matthew draws his parallel with the Massacre of the Innocents). This is Pharoah's anxiety at work. As my notes indicate from the lecture: "The system that generates anxiety cannot relate to steadfast love." Which all by itself explains much about the reaction to Tom Fox, and even to the desire to go to war in the Middle East, a desire Wesley Clark says originally led to a plan to invade 7 countries in that region. But the story of the Exodus is that "Anxiety generated by ideology and social systems is not a part of the human condition." It is, in other words, our creation, and our creation, unlike God's, is grossly imperfect.

Enter Moses, a person with nothing who dreamed of freedom and departure from the "anxiety producing system." And then there is the miracle in the desert, the gift of God's abundance in the manna which comes to break the influence of the anxiety system (it comes as the people are complaining that they were better off in Egypt than in the desert). Our anxiety, Brueggemann notes, is a product of our lack of trust (faith) in God. God's offer of abundance, he says, calls into question the anxiety created by social systems, by human structures and strictures; and yet God never gives us more than "this day our daily bread."
The answer here becomes an answer that can never gain wide acceptance, because it requires a faith that cannot be imposed, nor would I choose to try to impose it. That way, too, requires an argument from scarcity: the portrayal of a god whose grace is necessary for life, but such grace is in short supply and available only to those who rightly and properly believe. That grace was bestowed upon the widow when she fed Elijah, but she was already of the house of Israel. That grace was bestowed freely and without first asking payment in any kind by the people who came to Jesus to be healed of their blindness, their lameness, their diseases. They know only that he had a reputation for power, and often they were amazed at how he treated them. They, too, were accustomed to scarcity, but Jesus blessed them with an open and generous hand, and never took back a blessing because they had not given him or God the proper due. Likewise when the prophets promise streams in the desert and the world coming to Jerusalem to pay homage to the one true God, it is a scene of benevolence and reverence, not of an enslaved humanity making a forced pilgrimage to Zion. The promise of life through the actions of the Creator are to be bestowed through the children of Abraham, not on them exclusively as a precious reward, as something rare and precious and available only to a few. But to live in that promise, to live in what Christians call the basiliea tou theou, is an act of faith, and that faith cannot be imposed even though it is a precondition to the trust that abandons scarcity and sees abundance.

The sunflower is profligate in its production of seeds from one seed, and there are enough to feed the birds or people and still make more sunflowers. But still we make sure the seeds are not free. If we did not, who would grow them? The sunflowers, of course, would grow themselves. But to appreciate that intellectually, and to live in the world that implies spiritually, are two very different endeavors. One might be utopian; the other is sheer madness; or simple faith. The latter are two conditions that often appear alike.

It can seem quite radical to think this way. But thinking this way doesn't mean you have to abandon all you know, nor that everything you know is wrong. But it might just mean that some of what you think, needs to be reconsidered. The Celtic Christians at the end of the Roman Empire would call that "seeking the place of resurrection." Which is yet another way of seeing abundance where others see only scarcity. It is open to everyone, but it is not incumbent on anyone, except those who choose it. And to those who do, it is a question of whether or not they truly choose life, of whether we truly trust God to be profligate enough to give us this day what we need.

Call it a Lenten meditation.

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