Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. – Robert F. Kennedy in an address at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, March 18, 1968
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One of my newspaper colleagues tells of a neighbor he once had. Every morning, getting ready for work, they’d see each other across the driveway, and the next-door man would begin complaining about this story or that from the previous edition. “Can’t you guys ever get anything right?” he’d gripe. One day Pat had finally heard enough. Mentioning the writer of the most recent offense, he asked, “How much do you think she makes?” The neighbor, a steelworker, tossed out a figure. In reply, Pat gave the actual rate, about half of what the neighbor was earning. “And that’s with a master’s degree.” After a silence, came, “That’s all?” And, “Yup.” After that, Pat says, the conversation was always, “Great story” or “Fine coverage.”
When we fall into the trap of measuring success by dollar expectations, we become blind to much of what makes the world go ‘round. We separate ourselves from much of what builds and sustains community, too.
Consider, too, how expectations about wealth color our perceptions of others. Are there special reasons for impressions of starving artists or poverty-stricken saints? How do we feel about lavishly paid clergy or local teacher salaries?
Sometimes it seems we expect poorer people to be more virtuous – which would also suggest a belief that money corrupts – all while wanting more for ourselves.
If there is virtue in poverty and starvation, why don’t more people emulate these artists and saints? Might poets and prophets function better if they were well-fed and wealthy? Might they be freed from daily oppression?
How you would feel if your annual income were broadcast on the evening news? How would you feel knowing exactly how much your friends and neighbors are earning? Would it change your perception of them?
Continuing this theme, Elizabeth O’Connor raises troublesome points: “Do we believe that money and possessions have a way of coming between people who want to be in community with each other? Do we really believe that every life has resources more priceless than gold, and that our hearts, minds, and labor are adequate for any task? What if the world is right and there are things that only money can buy, gifts of the spirit that only money can unlock, and blocks that only money can push aside?”
As George Savile, First Marquess of Halifax, observed in his “Political, Moral and Miscellaneous Reflexions”: “They who are of opinion that Money will do every thing, may very well be suspected to do every thing for Money.”
By now, we are realizing we need to take much more than cash values into account when we confront money issues.
For example, poet and ecologist Wendell Berry has calculated that according to monetized values, a family broken by divorce is viewed as much more “economically viable” than an intact family, simply because more cash is required to support two households, rather than one. More cars are needed, child care is done by paid helpers, meals are eaten in restaurants, and so on; economies of labor are no longer shared. Yet, when other values are included, such as emotional injury to children, lowered standard of living for both households, or the inevitable injustices on both sides in any divorce, you soon perceive how hollow the monetized calculation truly is. Berry’s examination of economics, based on his hands-on insights as an environmentalist and a farmer who uses mules rather than tractors, leads him to prophetic criticisms of international agribusiness strategies, American public policy, education, and the style in which many of us live. He finds inspiration, too, in bare-boned customs of Amish families and others who steadfastly measure their economies over generations, rather than by quarterly profit reports. Responsible action, he argues, holds individuals accountable. In addition, he observes, “Local productivity, however small, is a gift.”
Recognizing this liberating element, Robert Sardello notes: “Gift economy is exceedingly important because the gift is always oriented toward an unknown future . . . Public education serves as an example.”
In short, economic actions cannot be evaluated simply by money. In our economic decisions, we need to compute all aspects, not just dollar signs. In a curious way, then, Caesar’s patriarchy rears its ugly head whenever we try to monetize the transactions of our lives and limit the calculation to a balance sheet. Taken one way, then, and you cease rendering unto God what is God’s, even as you discount God’s gifts among us. Taken the other, you go beyond rendering unto Caesar, even as you use his coinage.
Jim Corbett, a founder of the Sanctuary movement that guided Central American political refugees to safety, was a Quaker who pondered money-related issues – and one who knew precisely what it meant to hit the trail. His Goatwalking is a gem of a volume that’s difficult to classify – part handbook for selecting goats and surviving long periods sojourning in the desert, part spiritual testimony, part social action guide, part Western expedition, part autobiography – yet it has applications that pop up unexpectedly long after you’ve read it. He connects many concerns of religion, economics, social justice, and covenant community in challenging arguments, even if you are never likely to purchase a milking goat. Somehow, that seems fitting in our examination, where everything begins to connect in unanticipated ways.
For example, his desert journeys help him welcome the vitality that Sabbath and sabbatical provide in freeing individuals from the traps of everyday living. “Sabbatical communion also opens a way to bridge divisions between peoples and classes and to transcend humankind’s alienation from land and livelihood. It opens a way toward the Peaceable Kingdom that is a nonviolent alternative to the apocalyptic hopes of revolutionary Zealots.” In short, he perceives a linkage in which the still small voice of 1 Kings 19:12 can realign worldly possessions to support faithful communities. His treks enhance his gratitude for the “marriage” he has with a specific congregation, the opportunity for giving a universal aspiration a living reality.
As Corbett also demonstrates, doing without material comforts, even briefly, can clarify your vision. Or, as the saying goes, some of the best things in life are free.