The word “GREED” was sprayed in murky green letters on the perfect white wall behind a row of beachside penthouse apartments in Portugal’s southern Algarve region. Further down the wall was sprayed: “Who owns this?” Otherwise, everything looked perfect, especially the giant plate-glass windows abutting each balcony.
On the one balcony that was occupied, a lone woman lay on a sun lounger with a pensive look on her face as she stared into her smart phone. A couple of kilometres inland from the coast in Lagos’s Praça de Gil Eanes square, various homeless and strays lounged on park benches chatting amongst themselves or tottered around holding out a begging cup.
The differences between rich and poor began to preoccupy me back in the wild days of international travel when I moved back and forth between working as an independent journalist in Ethiopia and visiting family and friends in the UK and the increasingly distant US. Confronting two different socio-economic states and cultures between the developing and developed worlds illustrated how poor people so often prove far nicer than richer people.
The recognition started at a rather superficial level in noticing the ability of the poorest of the poor in Ethiopia to flash a type of smile that seemed endangered in the West: bold, vibrant, unrestrained, utterly human. Arriving back in London, I was met by all these taut, tight-lipped strained faces, and when a smile broke through it was often a macabre imitation of what it should be. T.S. Eliot couldn’t have put it better:
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
It always took the edge off the exaltation of arriving home, and that was before the Covid-19 era where many Brits have shown their freedom-loving chest puffing to be all but a charade, with our flight from liberalism recently described in devastating detail by Ed West in his UnHerd article The fantasy of English freedom.
But Brits are far from alone in displaying how greater materialistic wealth appears to make them more miserable. It’s even more prominent in the US, which isn’t surprising given the greater scale of inequality there.
I suspect one of the reasons Jesus was so wary of human wealth was because of its inexecrable link with power
The University of California in Berkeley conducted a study linking bad driving habits with wealth that was part of a larger body of research relating behaviour and wealth published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012. The university’s traffic study showed that drivers of expensive cars were more likely to commit driving infractions and not stop for pedestrians: in other words, drivers of expensive cars were likelier to be shitty to other people. Further studies that focused on drivers of SUVs have illustrated the correlation between a driver simply being physically elevated compared to those in ordinary cars lower down bringing out the worst in many people as they gaze from their SUV thrones on the scrubs muddling along far below.
None of this should be that surprising. Jesus harped on about this sort of thing relentlessly in the New Testament when he seldom had anything good to say about riches and rich people, remarking it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. You couldn’t stop Jesus seeking and hanging out with rough fisherman, prostitutes, lepers and all sorts of ne’er-do-wells. When Jesus remarked that “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”, he was referring to the importance of good works and love—not to the size of your salary, Christmas bonus, stock portfolio, or pension.
I suspect one of the reasons Jesus was so wary of human wealth was because of its inexecrable link with power and the seeking of power as a means to secure that wealth, as well as to enable the further acquisition of it at the cost of what really matters.
“At the heart of the human condition is this constant struggle between love and power, between Jesus and Nietzsche, almost,” Gavin Ashenden, former Anglican chaplain to the Queen, says in Damian Thompson’s Holy Smoke podcast. He notes the Church itself has forgotten how seductive lure of power can be and, as a result, has becoming increasingly involved in politics despite the fact that in the past this has had “terrible consequences”. One example was the Spanish Inquisition during the sixteenth century, as detailed in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s telling of the encounter between the Grand Inquisitor and Jesus in Seville. In this Dostoevsky expounds on one of the big themes closest to his heart and that dominates his writings: how the modern world was going in the wrong direction by embracing science and the power to calculate—human reason—at the expense of spiritual values, while the rampant materialism of the modern world constituted a terrible danger to humanity and freedom.
You’ve got to work harder for those friendly moments on the street nowadays
Those such as Ashenden argue we are enduring a similar moment, though it is hard to know what most church leaders would say about this as they were too busy closing churches in response to Covid-19 and sinking back into the shadows when the faithful needed their leadership most. At least there is the occasional BBC Radio 4 program addressing such issues to make us think about them: “What is wealth,” asks Amol Rajan, host of Radio 4’s Rethink Fairness series that discusses how the impact of Covid-19 could and should change the world. “There is material wealth, also known as money. And the moral kind, also known as love. Common sense dictates that the latter should be the priority. Why then do we have a system of government and a public market that so focuses on the former and is largely silent on the latter?”
He goes on to ask that if we have a moral imperative to alleviate poverty, “Why is it that the deep global trends of the past few decades, from automation to huge inflation in house prices, diminishing returns to labour, are all skewed to the rich?”
As a further indication of the problem, Rajan cites the late American anthropologist David Graeber, who commented that, “the more obviously your job benefits other people, the less you get paid.”
That reminds me of a friend noting how so many of his Oxford University peers who had excelled with firsts and PhDs all headed toward the world of management consulting because that was where society offered the rewards. He lamented about what might have been if all that brilliant brain power had been channelled to other areas of society that needed sorting.
The trajectory of a society barrelling along toward worshipping mammon, throwing the cautioning words of Jesus—and most other faiths—to the wind, partly explains the fixation of Instagram feeds on wealth and celebrity. It might also go some way to explain why students nowadays aspire more to—while encouraged by their mentoring seniors—high paying jobs in the finance sector, which the BBC program also noted, while the numbers of students enrolling in the humanities and liberal art degrees keeps heading downward.
Materialistically, most of us in the developed world have never had it so good
Materialistically, most of us in the developed world have never had it so good, and yet this apparent improvement is attended by an exponentially growing amount of unfriendly behaviour in society. Clearly, the vitriol, aggression and lack of compassion shown on social media and in public debate does not accurately reflect the spectrum of everyday existence where innumerable people are friendly, caring and doing everything they can for others. But it seems you’ve got to work harder for those friendly moments on the street nowadays—and it was hard enough before Covid-19 and its dehumanising restrictions. The irony and danger of the present moment—which is likely to see many more people get their first taste of what it is like to be poor because of the economic fallout of Covid-19 restrictions—is that the condition of the poor, the under-represented and afflicted is being leveraged in a very different style to what Jesus espoused.
“Nouveaux Marxism, [or] whether we call it cultural Marxism, or neo-Marxism, or Marxism 2.0, it’s the same project that Marx began, this form of a just Utopia where everyone gets a reasonable portion of the cake,” says Ashenden, who left the official Church of England in 2017 in protest at what he saw as its failure to defend the essentials of the faith and Christian culture, while swallowing wholesale an agenda of political correctness. “Christianity has got a wonderful strength in that it is always against injustice. But the task of being against injustice is a very different one from creating justice.”
He notes that while there is a great deal that can be done to “remedy injustice, hold people to account for various forms of bullying or abuse of power … the creation of justice, the perfect world where everyone gets a fair share is a form of Utopianism that cannot be realised”. And when society tries to realise it, Ashenden says, it results in the Marxist disasters of the twentieth century, leaving Ashenden cautioning how troubling it is that younger generations “don’t know their history and the danger of wokeness” because, “After wokeness comes the inevitable culling of citizens and human beings.”
Humans live in a world that is more connected and informed than it ever was. Larger proportions of the population undergo official educations, with educational institutions that are the envy of the world producing astonishingly smart individuals, their intellectual prowess honed to ultimate effectiveness, who are propelled into the world of politics and policy where, in theory, they should be able to do good. But it’s not working, and as technology and science thrust on, there are far more indications of what Dostoevsky warned about, despite our growing pool of fantastically well-informed experts and scientists.
Perhaps that explains why when Jesus’s disciples began performing miracles and cures, Jesus “thanked God for having kept such things secret from wise people and for revealing them to simple folk,” Paulo Coelho writes in The Pilgrimage, his first book and account of walking the mysterious Road to Santiago. “It would be a divine injustice to allow only those people who had the time and money to buy expensive books to have access to true knowledge.”
History has shown too often how there can be a thin line between searing intellect and that hubris that justifies oppression of simpler people who, it is argued, don’t know what’s best for them. It’s been a mainstay of Ethiopian politics for centuries, during which its ruthless leaders, while varied in their particular cruelties, have all been united by the governing modus operandi of gaily sacrificing ordinary Ethiopians in order to cement power. And it’s happening again right now as the country’s northern region of Tigray is rent asunder.
The arrogance and heartlessness of Ethiopia’s leaders has form, meaning that while devastating it isn’t surprising: but the degree of disingenuity and hollowing out of the idea of leadership among Western politicians is a more recent trend. We the voters bear a larger responsibility for the worsening behaviour of our politicians than we are willing to accept, argued Matthew Syed in a recent Sunday Times column about how the concept of personal responsibility appears to be diminishing as we increasingly look to others to solve our problems.
“With the pandemic, western nations failed to prepare not because of the irresponsibility of governments but the short-termism of voters,” Syed writes. “Any party that proposed putting provisions aside would have been devastated at the polls for failing to spend in the here and now.”
Syed argues that, similarly, we are deluding ourselves if we attribute the 2008 financial crisis solely to the greed of bankers and not also to the ordinary populace too readily maxing out credit cards and grasping at huge mortgages.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why when the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared around the Portuguese hamlet of Aljustrel in 1917, she chose to engage with three poor shepherd children. The adults apparently couldn’t be trusted, and who can blame Mary for making such a conclusion: World War One had broken out and its carnage was in full swing.
Portugal, for all its lustre in the Algarve, is a relatively poor country compared to much of Western Europe, as described in The Critic article A salute to our oldest ally. I’ve encountered foreigners here who commented that sometimes it can feel like you are in a developing country masquerading as a developed one. It’s a harsh and unfair conclusion, but it’s not without grounding. There have been many moments while trekking the length of the country that I have been reminded of my time in Ethiopia because of the human friendliness conversely twinned with material dilapidation. Hence those graffiti-spraying locals who get irked, as they struggle to make ends meet, by the rich lounging in their beachside penthouses, the flawless sheen of those plate-glass windows an apt metaphor for our times.
“We live in one of the most metaphysically and spiritually starved cultures that has ever been,” Ashenden says.
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