Once, long ago, I considered going the way of St. Francis of Assisi or Ignatius Loyola, forsaking the trappings of a wealthy and privileged life (as if I really had one) and letting my hair (singular) grow long, giving away my Armani suits and Bruno Magli shoes to beggars, wearing sandals and itchy homespun sackcloth, living in huts and bathing annually. This is how legend tells us men and women used to find their faith. Some men even took to emasculating themselves in ways too gruesome and cringey to consider. I once witnessed at the shrine of Guadalupe in Mexico, a group of people making their way across the piazza in front of the church on bloody knees. I also read of some jerk who went all the way across Spain to the shrine of St. James, on his knees. Why didn’t he just wait for the next bus? Where did the notion, what I remember the nuns calling “mortification of the flesh,” emerge? Some people might think that St. Theresa, who reputedly made and wore her own crown of thorns so that she could feel the same pain as Jesus, attained some profound level of piety that comes only with such discomfort (or psychological derangement). Somehow we got the idea that a Sadhu holyman, naked and standing for hours on one leg, is more metaphysically informed than we are, and not just a guy who had all his accounts with Lehman Bros.
The association of impoverishment of material possessions and physical pleasure with godliness appears in most faiths and might owe to stories like that of Job, or parables like a camel passing through the eye of a needle, but I suspect there is a deeper, more insidious reason for the religious sentimentalization of deprivation—it justifies and deflects criticism of systems of religious-economic-political power that create and maintain poverty and destitution—across all faiths.
Today, there are very many people who do not have to make a conscious religious decision to live the poor ascetic way of life to hopefully to be closer to God—it is already decided for them, and along with it they will get to suffer like St. Theresa, be as materially deprived as a Sadhu, and likely get to see God earlier than those preaching to them. Curiously, these notions exist right along side the wealth, opulence and self-indulgence of people practicing the same religion, worshipping the same gods. Indeed, many of those of have arrogated great substance and privilege are of the religion’s hierarchy—cardinals, mullahs, yogis, pastors and rabbis—the “holier than thous” living “off the fat of the land” (and the backs of the poor) as it were. What accounts for this inconsistency?
In a broadcast from a megachurch somewhere in the American southwest I watch a slick-suited preacher with requisite pompadour hair enthralling his flock with a sermon on “Jesus the CEO.” He wants his believers to take on Jesus as the “Chief Executive Officer” of [their] lives.” Is there anyone among the thousands being fed the implications of this connection between a Christianity and American Capitalism that gets the perversion of Christ’s original message (or even Adam Smith’s original message)? But we are not unfamiliar with the perversions of American Christianity, where the New Testament is merely a grab bag for some spurious association of scripture with CEOs or some corrupted extrapolation from Christ’s life and death to a justification for any right-wing agenda from preemptive war to bailing out huge corporations. Yet, none of that audience would recognize that Christ was much more like provocateur documentarist Michael Moore trying to throw an arrogant CEO out of the “temple” of American enterprise, than he would ever be that CEO. Christ was the son of a carpenter (Joe the Carpenter, not the Father in Heaven), and probably un-unionized at that; Christ was opposed to the establishment—the Romans, the Sanhedrin, the money-lenders in the temple. He would puke at being called a CEO.
But there you have it, yet another conflation of the two religions of America—Christianity and Capitalism. They dance in a relationship of co-dependency, shoring each other up when needed to maintain the power of the DOW and the pulpit through the intercession of their acolytes in Washington.
Poverty suits the purposes of religions in manifold ways. Religion promotes the idea of giving up one’s “worldly goods” not to beggars (what’s the point in that; then the beggars have to give up the goods, like a game of hot potato?) No, silly, the idea is for those goods to end up in the coffers of the Church (or some Swiss bank account). Moreover, by equating poverty with piety Church gets a double-down from poverty. It ends up with a lot of donations and property, but it really doesn’t have to do much to assuage the problems of the poor (some charities and clinics, but the Mother Theresa’s dispense more prayer than penicillin, it’s cheaper) because there is always that idea lurking that if you start to get rich you might start doing some evil things.
Not that Church is against some people getting rich; quite the opposite, in fact. First, it is interested in the Church getting rich, but it also needs rich people to help it because the Church really doesn’t produce anything except the Holy Trinity of Credulity—Fear, Ignorance and Guilt. If it plays its cards effectively, the Church gets rich people to cough up money for to assuage their guilt.
Some Protestant denominations work this rich angle differently. Calvinists, for example, believe in predestination. If you are born rich, or achieve riches, God meant you to be rich; if you are poor, c’est la vie. Either way, you are part of God’s script, so there’s nothing wrong with it. This attitude fit nicely into the Reagan years in America, and Protestant churches flourished on the theme that God wants you to be rich (just drop a bit in the collection basket).
Poverty also often accompanies ignorance, so we have a lot of poor people without jobs, healthcare, and even a roof over their heads, but they are kept floating between religious resignation and false hopes and, counterintuitively, can often be recruited by the cynical elements of church and state to vote and protest against their own interests. Since they are believers they can be made to believe almost anything—WMD, Iraqis flew the 911 planes, that changes in healthcare policy will mandate euthanasia.
Capitalism took root in the rich compost of the Protestant Reformation. Its fundamental principal is the private ownership of capital, which has a right to profit as it sees fit. Jesus, the carpenter, would end up framing houses for a construction company that could lay him off at will. He could try cabinet-making, but IKEA would run him out of business. Capitalism has always exploited human nature, but it is now at the point where it is over-exploiting Nature nature. But the church is right there to justify it with some good ole “multiply and subdue the earth (with some credit default swaps). Next time the rats will go down with this ship.
But Americans have been so effectively sold on capitalism as an economic religion that large numbers of them don’t know it was saved by The New Deal and that Social Security and Medicare are “socialism.” And so, from the Vatican of American Capitalism, Wall Street (and just as corrupt and greedy as the other Vatican), comes the crusade to keep the worker in terror of losing his job (and of unionizing), and Washington in fear of losing its electoral financing and K Street bribes. And “bail-outs” are not corporate welfare when you are “too big to fail.” There is something drastically wrong with a system that fails because it screwed the people, but it gets the people to pay them again for screwing them. And there is something tragically wrong with a people who can’t see what’s happening to them because they are bent over.
So when their faith in God and Mammon take them to disastrous wars or economic calamity, the people go to church. There the well-dressed, well-fed, well-housed, priest or preacher awaits them with a scripture or a homily that is as insidious as the promises of the pharmaceutical ads that surround the evening news—God and Wall Street want you to “Ask your Broker”; if the news is bad, “Ask your Preacher.”
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.26.2009)