Wonder in the Culture of Possession

Tillich Park - "Man & nature belong together..."

Tillich Park – “Man and nature belong together…”

Do you sense the heart’s yearning for wonder?

Our hearts in the West are well-trained in possessing, controlling, and cajoling reality, bending it to suit our wants. The spiritual culture that accompanies “free market” economics is the drive to acquire and possess. Could our training in the culture of acquisition and possession be like the wall through which the flower breaks in Tennyson’s poem “Flower in the Crannied Wall”?

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

– Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1863

The flower lures him. Yet seeking to possess it, he destines its death. Having to possess it, analyze it “root and all”, he destroys the magnificent beauty that had drawn his eye.

Having and being are not the same. Only being is filled with wonder. Perhaps that is why Christmas Eve Candlelight services are packed with people who otherwise are not drawn there. There is a beauty to the story and the natural light which lifts yearning hearts from the wintry chill of an having into the warmth of wonder beyond our control or possession.

“The Birth of Freedom” and the NYSE

The New York Stock Exchange was closed down. For two full days the trading bell on Wall Street did not ring. But on Main Street the bells that mis-identify American freedom with Wall Street were ringing in our living rooms, flooding the airwaves with campaign ads about freedom and the loss of it.

In front of Westminster Presbyterian Church on the Nicollet Mall at the heart of downtown Minneapolis stands an eye-catching sculpture called “The Birth of Freedom.”. The figures are naked, emerging from primal slime, evolving, reaching toward the heavens.

The Birth of Freedom, Paul Granlund

The late Paul Granlund was the sculptor. Westminster commissioned him to give visual expression to the words of the Apostle Paul:

“For freedom Christ has set you free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  (Galatians 5:1)

There is a freedom from and there is a freedom for.

“For your were called to freedom; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another.” (Letter to the Galatians 5:13-15)

I listen to the campaign speeches. I hear the freedom talk. I see crowds cheering. I hear loud applause. And I wonder…what kind of freedom is being cheered? What kind of slavery is feared?

The advertisers who write the ads for the candidates and the PACs know the answers to these questions. They know that the psyche of American generations that grew up in the Cold War defines freedom as freedom from “Communism” or “Socialism.” They also know that the Christian Right fears submission to the “godless” whom they believe threatens their religious freedom.

But no one can take away my freedom or yours, and it is misleading to paint one’s political opponent as intending to take it way. For me, as a Christian, the freedom for which we are released (set free) is not freedom from but freedom for communion with my neighbors. It applies not only to personal relationships. It applies equally to the political and economic systems.

This morning the bell rang again at the stock exchange. The biting, devouring, and consuming of each other becomes a way of life again, the adored substitute for freedom. To condone it is to submit again to a yoke of slavery, the most widespread violence where, to quote Jacques Ellul,

“in this competition ‘the best man wins’ – and the weaker, more moral, more sensitive people necessarily lose.

The violence done by the superior may be physical (the most common kind, and it provokes hostile moral reaction), or it may be psychological or spiritual, as when a superior makes use of morality and even of Christianity to inculcate submission and a servile attitude; and this is the most heinous of all forms of violence.”

– Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, Seabury Press, 1969.

Meanwhile Paul Granlund’s “The Birth of Freedom” still stands silently in downtown Minneapolis, calling for the birth of something as yet beyond our imagination.  “Stand fast therefore [in the freedom for which Christ has set you free], and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The Apostle Paul often wrote his letters from jail cells, charged with disturbing the Pax Romana.

Escaping the Inner Prison

Corinthian Avenue Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA

I once worked outside this prison as a street worker in North Philadelphia. Young gang members and I played “stickball” on the lawn outside the prison wall. I thought then that the prisoners were inside, and that the gang members were headed for the inside. The rest of us were free…on the outside. Now I see it differently.

We’re all in prison. Yet we’re free. We’re in the prison of deregulated corporate capitalism.We’re back in the Roman Empire, where Paul and Silas were thrown in prison because they dared to interfere with the free market. They freed a young slave-girl who had been put on the street corner as a fortune-teller. She lived on Main Street; all the money from her fortune-telling went to her slave owners on Wall Street.

By rescuing the slave-girl, Paul and Silas were challenging the morality of the prevailing economic system. So the folks from Wall Street seized them, dragged them “into the market place” before those in power and the judges — who were in the hip pocket of those who owned the marketplace and the market — beat them and threw them in prison for advocating “customs and practices” that were unlawful, according to law of the Roman empire. It’s all there in the New Testament Book of Acts. It was unlawful to be moral, unlawful to mess with the economy of a free market.

After beating them to a pulp, the judicial system ordered the jailer to lock them up in the most secure part of the prison — “the inner prison.” It’s always “the inner prison” — the one in our own hearts and heads — whose walls are the thickest. The people who challenge prison security are put in the “inner prison” — solitary confinement.
As Paul and Silas sang and prayed “at midnight” from their inner prisons and all the others were listening, there was a kind of earthquake that shook the foundations of the prison. All the prison doors swung open and everybody’s chains fell off! Everybody’s! And when the jailer woke up to what was happening and drew his sword to commit suicide, Paul and Silas declared that he, too, had been set free from the prison he had guarded.
In September-October 2008 an earthquake rocked the foundations of deregulated corporate capitalism. The earthquake, of their own making, shook the prison walls owned by the big investment brokerage houses and the big banks and AIG, and the inner cell doors had begun to swing open in the hearts and minds of the American people.
But instead of leaving the prison, we stayed in the “inner prison.” We rebuilt the prison, gave the keys back to Wall Street, and chose three square meals a day, a roof over our heads, some chump change for candy and cigarettes, numbed ourselves TV entertainment, and gave the slave-girl back to her owners so we could all dream about a different future. We rebuilt the Wall Street Prison.
What to do? For me, this is a matter of faith. I’m still an inmate of the Wall Street Prison, but my “inner prison” is free. I’m going to keep singing out loud at midnight about human freedom from the prison economy of a deregulated corporate free market that is anything but free. I’m going to walk out of that inner prison by taking my chump change out of the big banks that give $1,000,000 bonuses to the very people who foreclosed on the family of that slave-girl, and I’m transferring all it to the local credit union which belongs to the people. Then I’m going to invite everyone else to do the same.
I’m going to join Paul and Silas and song-writer Timothy Frantzich until everybody’s chains fall off and all the prison doors swing open.
Questions for comment and discussion:
  1. What is “the inner prison”?
  2. How does “the inner prison” work?
  3. Do you agree, in part or in whole, with the commentary?
  4. Where do you agree and disagree?

I’d love to hear from you. Others would, too. Thanks for coming by.

The House We Live In

Gordon C. Stewart, April 3, 2012

The economy is broken. While most of us have been holding our breath, some of us have been out buying the most expensive jewelry at Tiffany’s. Investor’s Business Daily reported that Tiffany’s profits rose by 56 percent during the 2nd Quarter of 2011.

‘Economics’ is about the house we all live in. We get the word from the Greek word oikos (household).   Economics (Oikonomia) is how we arrange things in the one household. They don’t teach that in MBA programs.

This is not an economy. It’s something else. It’s an anti-economy, the antithesis of one household in which all residents are housed, fed, secure, and peaceful.

Profit vs. loss is not a way to manage a household. It divides the members of the household into winners and losers, owners and renters, charitable givers and those who receive, or do not receive, the winners’ charity.

What we call the American economy is spiritually and morally bankrupt. It’s not just broken financially.  Warren Buffett’s proposal to increase taxes on those who can afford to shop at Tiffany’s only scratches the surface of the household problem.  One could argue that the system – free market capitalism – is working the way it’s set up to work. Or one could argue that it isn’t.

It all depends on what floor of the house one lives in.

Two percent of the rooms are in the penthouse. They’re very large, decorated by the best interior designers and decorators. The furnishings are custom-made.  Those who live in the penthouse have a private elevator to leave the for lunch at the country club or the yacht club.  Over lunch they discuss how to maximize their profits with more blue chip stocks or bonds and whether to leave the penthouse for a week, a month, a season in exotic places. They discuss their charitable giving, encouraging each other to give to their favorite causes. Sometimes, in the best of clubs and social circles, they argue vociferously, just like the rest of us, about the economy in the Greek sense, the oikos. They are not all of one mind.  Some belong to the  Buffett Fraternity, others to the Trump Circle, even if they wish “the Donald”  would be more subtle.

The other 98 percent of the rooms in the house are rentals of various sizes. Some very large, some modest, and some small.  Only a few of the tenants have long-term leases or the protections of rent control.  The most vulnerable of us live downstairs on the smallest rooms on the lower levels. A growing number of us have been forced into the cellar.

And the rest?  We watch “the Donald” to catch a glimpse of life in the penthouse. We watch our neighbors and family members move to smaller rooms or to the basement, fearing that we, too, will end up in the cellar, but hoping that someday we’ll win the lottery and move upstairs to the penthouse.

Meanwhile, the folks who own Tiffany’s are laughing all the way to the bank, confident that the 98% are too preoccupied to get what’s happening…right there under our noses in the one house where we live.

Economics 101: “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). How, then, shall we re-arrange the one house? How will we Occupy it?