The continuing flux in the stock market has created a near constant state of anxiety in the financial world. The roller coaster behavior of the Dow, along with its erstwhile companion the Nasdaq Stock Market, has been so unpredictable for the past year that even seasoned stockbrokers and managers are bewildered about what will happen next. Welcome to the new financial world order.
It’s a harsh world, too. There are thousands of workers who are significantly invested in the stock market through their retirement programs. These working folks have seen their balances, and their hopes, drop dramatically over the past year. And while there has been some recovery, in many instances the losses are permanent.
There’s nothing quite like dramatic swings in the stock market to set off a wave of philosophical and spiritual musings about the role of money in our culture. Obviously, we cannot survive in our culture without money. But necessity is different from obsession. And since the 1980s, we have been obsessed with it.
We need money to buy bread and provide shelter. It takes money to acquire basic health care. It also takes money to purchase the things that make life interesting – things like books and music and art. But do we need money to establish a viable identity? Does it take money to validate our existence? We need money to make a living, but does money alone make a life?
The ’80s gave us the popular wisdom, “Greed is good.” Greed drives the economy, we were told. Greed creates wealth. Greed creates jobs. Greed produces products, and also purchases them. All this greedy behavior is good for us. It keeps everybody employed.
But greed has another effect. Greed makes us less human. In the anxious quest for more and more stuff, we become like the commodities we consume. We sell ourselves to the highest bidder in order to possess the stuff we believe will add value and security to our lives.
Greed makes us less human in another way. Greed pits us against our neighbors. The needs of others are a threat to my wants. What if there is not enough to go around? Suppose the needs of the needy hinder me from getting what I need and want?
The end result of all this is that our neighbors also become less human. Our neighbor is no longer a person to be loved and valued as another human being. Our neighbor is an obstacle, an impediment to our quest for more and more stuff.
Of course, the most disastrous result of greed is what the Bible calls idolatry – the worship of something made with our own hands. This is the ultimate loss of perspective. People of faith believe that God is the source of all life. God makes it possible for us to live and to live meaningfully. Consequently, God alone is worthy of worship.
But greed moves something else into God’s place. Our stuff becomes the source of life. We live to get and have more and more things. And these things, we believe, add meaning to our lives. Without them we feel empty, purposeless and without value. The irony, of course, is that even with our many gadgets we still feel empty. The more we have, the less satisfied we are with what we have.
The reason for this is simple: The piling up of more and more things does not make us human. Love does that, and trust, and community, and hope.
Greed does not make our humanity. It consumes it.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.