I have some bad news. In case you haven’t noticed, our country is a little divided. There are deep schisms along multiple fault lines. It’s heartland versus coast. It’s white collar versus blue. Our rifts take on political, economic, religious, ethnic, and even educational contours. I’m guessing you’ve taken note of these divisions.
In these few paragraphs, I will lay out the real reason for our divided society. And I will suggest an ancient Christian remedy for fixing what’s badly broken in our world.
Here’s the real reason for today’s discord. It boils down to a single word. Get out your highlighter.
Now stay with me for at least a few lines. With this diagnosis, I’m not channeling Bernie Sanders. I’m not expressing solidarity with President Obama’s declaration eight years ago that it was time for America’s rich to “start paying their fair share.” The kind of greed I’m referring to has little or nothing to do with money. But it has everything to do with prioritizing the wrong things.
Thomas Aquinas defined greed this way: “Greed is a sin directly against one’s neighbor. . . And it is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man [scorns] things eternal for the sake of temporal things.” To be greedy is to want your own way. To be greedy is to listen only to your own counsel and the words of those who agree with you. To be greedy is to want all the rights, privileges and protections of society for yourself—regardless of the price to others. Because to be greedy is to be unable to see others or have compassion on them. Greed is the ancient Christian word for narcissism.
Our world is full of greed. When people see their in-group as the only ones who matter, that’s greed. When folks have no interest in listening to those who are different, that’s greed. When individuals angrily shout that they deserve such and such, that’s greed. Even when those who feel disenfranchised riot to take “what is rightfully theirs,” that’s a form of greed. Claiming that this country is your country and belongs solely to your kind of people is greed. Our society has been done in by greed.
Greed causes blindness and callousness. In John 9, the Pharisees were blind, according to Jesus, because they couldn’t see the formerly blind man as a fellow human being. They couldn’t see Jesus for who he was. They were so protective of their own turf, so unable see beyond their own prejudices and so full of malice toward anyone who would challenge them that Jesus characterizes them as blind. This was a blindness caused by greed.
As some Jews continued to oppose the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God, Paul spoke the words of Isaiah to them. He said, “For this people’s heart has become calloused” (Acts 28:27). They were so protective of their own turf that they were unable to welcome Gentile believers into their midst. Greed had produced in them callousness toward the needs of others.
Doesn’t this sum up our society? The bad news is that there is plenty of greed to go around on all sides. The good news is that there is plenty of greed to go around on all sides. No one has the monopoly on greed. It’s a vice that appears to afflict almost everyone who wants either a bigger slice of the pie or to keep others from taking their slice. Greed is destroying us.
There’s an answer to greed. We find it among the ancient Christian virtues. It will require some definition, but here is the remedy to our divided society.
By charity, I don’t mean Christmas-time donations to the Salvation Army. I’m not talking about support for orphans in Haiti or the homeless in Santa Fe. Here is how Augustine of Hippo defined charity: “Charity is the virtue by means of which we love what we should love.”
This might remind you of the old King James translation, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. … And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Cor 13:1, 13). Charity is the ability to properly devote oneself to the things that matter.
And what matters most according to our Christian faith? Is a political party the ultimate priority? Is wealth the end-all? Are my opinions more important than seeing you as a human being? Is my status in life what matters most?
You see, when we love the wrong things, we become blind to those we should love above all else: God and others. Call this a loss of charity. And in the absence of charity, the shackles come off and unchecked greed runs rampant in our society. This produces greedy people who are blind and calloused to others.
Look, I realize that bullies have to be confronted at times. I know that greed occasionally has to be checked by force. I’m not a utopian who believes that everyone will be charitable.
But wouldn’t the wounds of our world start to heal at least a little if God’s people started to practice charity toward their fellow human beings? Imagine if Democrat Christians began to be charitable toward supporters of Donald Trump. Try to picture young-earth Christians showing charity toward those who respect science.
I know there are people toward whom you feel less than charitable. I have the same problem. But the answer isn’t intellectual bickering or more Facebook manifestos. The starting place is mutual charity.
If greed is the problem in our world, then charity is the answer. Can’t you start to remove the greed from your own life? Can you begin by practicing the Christian virtue of charity today?