Tuesday, November 04, 2008

On the Road to Scarcity

"Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation." --John Fowles

The title tells me all I need to know: "A Date With Scarcity." The examples chosen tell the tale:

When historians look back at the era that is now closing, they will see a time of private achievement and public disappointment. In the past two decades, the United States has become a much more interesting place. Companies like Starbucks, Apple, Crate & Barrel, Microsoft and many others enlivened daily life. Private citizens, especially young people, repaired the social fabric, dedicated themselves to community service and lowered drug addiction and teenage pregnancy.
Interestingly, that is not apparently connected to this:

In the next few years, the nation’s wealth will either stagnate or shrink. The fiscal squeeze will grow severe. There will be fiercer struggles over scarce resources, starker divisions along factional lines.
As I overheard one man say this past weekend, discussing the Presidential choices (and his was decidedly GOP): "If I was running for President, I'd vote for the other guy," because, he explained, the nation faces so many problems.

But do we? Is Cormac McCarthy the prophet of our future? Are we facing pure misery which will only be bearable if we can describe it with stunning beauty? Is aesthetics our only hope? According to David Brooks, it's actually worse than that:

Raised in prosperity, favored by genetics, these young meritocrats will have to govern in a period when the demands on the nation’s wealth outstrip the supply. They will grapple with the growing burdens of an aging society, rising health care costs and high energy prices. They will have to make up for the trillion-plus dollars the government will spend to avoid a deep recession. They will have to struggle to keep their promises to cut taxes, create an energy revolution, pass an expensive health care plan and all the rest.
The concrete reality of a blasted world that leaves survival in a stark outline actually reduces the choices to a binary live/die. The real choices of how to allocate resources, of how we determine whether or not resources are scarce, is much more difficult. In that same conversation I overheard during the weekend, the other participant averred that she was not rich, so she was worried about Barack Obama raising taxes. Of course, she was driving an expensive car, had been to the GOP National Convention, and lived in a good neighborhood in a major American city. By international standards, she was "rich" already, although she might not have made it to the same list as Bill Gates. Wealth and abundance are relative terms. It's all in how you look at it.
And now we're supposed to look at the glass and find it is suddenly half-full, and deal with it. As Bob Herbert says on the same op-ed page:

The U.S. cannot thrive with its fabulous wealth concentrated at the top and the middle class on its knees. (No one even bothers to talk about the poor anymore.) How to correct this imbalance is one of the biggest questions facing the country.
But the most likely conversation will be over abundance, will be discussed in the terms of "Joe the Plumber." We won't talk about abundance, but about why we are "punishing success." We won't be concerned about the poor, we'll be complaining about how they want to drink our milkshake.

One can never have too much milkshake.

McCarthy prefers that vision of apocalypse that Brooks invokes. According to the NYT review, one character says of the environment of the story: “There is no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who is not honored here today.” And that's the popular vision of apocalypse: not revelation (which is what the word means) but disaster. Maybe it's because the Exile was such a nightmare for Israel:

When I would comfort myself against sorrow, my heart is faint in me.

Behold the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people because of them that dwell in a far country: Is not the LORD in Zion? is not her king in her? Why have they provoked me to anger with their graven images, and with strange vanities?

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me.

Is there no balm in Gil'ead? is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!
But even Jeremiah couched the disaster in terms of justice and of revelation. McCarthy, like Brooks, posits no moral order for his apocalypse. If there is any at all, by Brooks' reckoning, it is merely the comeuppance of the "meritocrats" who have run out the string, who have reached the inevitable end that the politics, and theology, of scarcity always presume. Like all pessimists, they are never disappointed.

What, then, do we do with Elijah, or Moses? Moses promised the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey. Elijah told the widow in the midst of famine to only feed him, and all would be well for her. Good thing, it turns out, that she listened. Even Ezekiel, who sits by the river in Babylon and hangs up his lyre and laments that he must sing the Lord's song in a foreign land, has a vision of recovery from disaster:

The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he led me out in the spirit of the LORD and set me in the center of the plain, which was now filled with bones.
He made me walk among them in every direction so that I saw how many they were on the surface of the plain. How dry they were!
He asked me: Son of man, can these bones come to life? "Lord GOD," I answered, "you alone know that."
Then he said to me: Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!
Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life.
I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the LORD.
I prophesied as I had been told, and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise; it was a rattling as the bones came together, bone joining bone.
I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them, and the skin cover them, but there was no spirit in them.
Then he said to me: Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, son of man, and say to the spirit: Thus says the Lord GOD: From the four winds come, O spirit, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.
I prophesied as he told me, and the spirit came into them; they came alive and stood upright, a vast army.
Then he said to me: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They have been saying, "Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off."
Therefore, prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus you shall know that I am the LORD. I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.
There isn't a more powerful image of resurrection in all of Scripture. And yet even this doesn't get to the word of abundance that comes to Isaiah, a word to post-exilic people:

"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)
I've said all this more than once, but let me simply say it again:

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 simple truth of the Scriptures, of the Gospels, of the Letters of Paul and Peter and James and all the others, even of the Revelation to John, is that the world you live in is quite literally the world you see. Change your sight, change your reality. There are streams in the desert, and they are part of the prophetic vision; but you have to look to see them. We could call it seeking our place of resurrection. It's a better concept than seeking our self-assured security.

Are we on the road to scarcity? Or do we live in a world of abundance, able to satisfy the needs of all?

You, as Jean-Paul Sartre would remind us, choose.

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