The mythology got mixed up with theology and became canonized by our founding fathers somewhere between the 16th and 18th centuries. That didn’t make it Biblical, or even an unsacred truth, but somehow because of the nature of our patriotism and need to believe that those who “started” us were wonderful, upstanding people who got it all right, there are people today who still believe the lie. Mostly they are wealthy people. The same ones who believe that the beatitude “Blessed are the poor” ends right there. Look it up—there’s more. Because the “more” is also somewhat opaque for our understanding, I will leave that to those trained in exegesis. However, there is little doubt as to the nature of scriptural direction about wealth—in particular, excessive wealth.
For example, in the New Testament we read about the Rich Fool, who refused to help the beggar at his feet but instead tore down his barns to build bigger barns so that he could hoard more wealth. Wealth was not just money, then or now. It included material possessions like land, cattle, crops, and even family. His reward for such activity was to burn in Hell, pleading for a drop of water from the hands of the beggar he never helped, who was in heaven. (He was denied, by the way.) Sure, this is a just a parable; it is a story with a moral point– “Moral” being the key word.
Another story, this one repeated by eye witnesses, is about the rich young ruler who came to Jesus, claiming to have kept all the religious laws from his youth. He inquired “What must I do to be saved?” and Jesus replied “Give all that you have to the poor, and follow me.” The young man could have lived in America today, because he turned away sadly and left the followers of Jesus.
Maybe that is why scripture also tells us that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Old and New Testaments alike repeatedly tell us to take care of the poor, the widows, and the orphans, the sick and disabled. The commands are unequivocal: Don’t hoard wealth. Don’t succumb to greed. Take care of those who are in need. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. What’s more, most religions have similar values and ethical concerns about matters of wealth, poverty, and human relationships.
For example, in many cultures one who would be holy must give up all material things as well as family and other relationships, wandering alone and without visible support in order to meet the requirements of holiness. In the Christian traditions, the closer one is to God, the more likely it is that one would join a holy order and renounce wealth and personal possessions. We have a long history of people defined as saints because they dedicated their lives to caring for others, rather than for themselves. Nowhere in anything I have ever read or experienced has anyone achieved sainthood by loving and caring only for themselves.
So how did the Puritans—and our founding fathers—get it so wrong? What made them believe that being rich and powerful was a sign that they were truly better than others? Well first of all, they came from a country steeped in the mystique of the aristocracy. Even though they came here to found a new nation that would denounce the way of life they left behind (yes, our forefathers were rebels and immigrants!) there were some ideas deeply rooted in their zeitgeist, to which they still clung.
Reinforcing the belief that wealth and power signified a better race of human beings was the Calvinistic belief in predestination. Actually, the concept of predestination was not the problem. The problem entered AFTER these people were taught to believe that there was a heaven and a hell, and that God knew and had always known who was destined for each place–and the outcome could not be changed. The problem came to life because these folks needed to believe that they were among the chosen. After all that they had sacrificed, and all the difficulties they encountered in the new world, they needed to believe that there would be some post-death reward to make it worthwhile.
So, the Puritans were smart and lived well. They worked hard, saved for the future, and circulated their money in the community. They prospered accordingly (see Max Weber’s Puritan Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism for a classic sociological analysis of this phenomenon). And when they prospered they chose to believe, lacking evidence to the contrary, that they were among the Chosen. They prospered, therefore they believed that they were special, and that God was showing them that they were predestined for eternal life in His heaven.
This need to connect prosperity with God’s blessing returns again and again in our history. A few years ago the “prosperity gospel” gained in popularity with the promise that God would prosper those who followed Him according to the tenets of that particular line of interpretation. Followers of this belief system may still exist, but they are much quieter now. Louder are the voices of those who were disappointed by the lack of evidence that the purpose of Christian living is to gain wealth.
I believe that right now we are experiencing a far more malignant resurgence of the myth that the wealthy are superior beings, blessed by God (in those cases where they claim a belief in any God but money). Their belief not only justifies to them the dehumanization of the vast majority of the world who are not wealthy, but also the hoarding of wealth. Many of the latter—exemplified by the pre-Christmas Scrooge of Dickens fame—care for nothing more than wealth and power. Like Scrooge, they are quite literally insane with this addiction, justified by an ancient myth that has been repeatedly denounced by philosophers, poets, theologians and followers of holy writ from every religion. In their insanity, these believe they are doing the “right thing” to destroy all that has been good about our nation.
As it happens, I have met very few people of wealth and power who also were people of integrity. Some who began public service with honorable intentions to change the system from the inside soon succumbed to the seductive nature of wealth and power. But not all of them. There are a few truly fine people who hold positions of power, and who manage despite everything to remember the nature of wholesomeness, trust, and accountability.
Accountability is vitally important. I must be accountable to others if I am to be an ethical person. Moreover, alone I cannot effect positive societal change. I can speak out, and I can join others who recognize our need to be free of the idea that our nation should be returned to a time when people believed that a few wealthy persons were of a superior race. But, unlike those of the present, the Puritans of our past usually knew that if you would prosper, you had to build up the people around you as well. The necessary recirculation of wealth and resources made communities stronger. They were accountable. There was no such lie as “trickle-down” economics.
The past is done. Today the idea of strength in numbers can still be applied: Together, we can reclaim the excellence in education, health, and industry that once made us strong. It is a new day, a new time, and the ways and means of doing this have changed. But the values that built our nation have not. Those values are timeless.
How many times are we going to have to renounce the mythology that the rich are superior beings, blessed by God and destined for a heaven populated only by their “own kind?” Probably again, and again, and in ever more determined and righteous ways. Of course, those who actually believe that ethical rules or the holy writings of many religions are just nonsense will laugh at all this, and return to the pleasures that help to salve the perceived injury they suffer from constantly being challenged by the resilient presence of those they would choose to ignore, to dehumanize and disenfranchise. But we who do not buy into any belief in “superiority” simply by virtue of wealth are not going away. The scriptures attest to that, as well. And we are many.
People are hungry for God.
People are hungry for love. Are you aware of that?
Do you know that? Do you see that?
Do you have eyes to see?
Quite often we look but we don’t see.
We are all passing through this world.
We need to open our eyes and see.