This gospel passage is one of those very challenging, very uncomfortable readings. Jesus has been preaching. A man calls out to him, who feels he has been hard done by in the family inheritance. Jesus refuses to be drawn into such a dispute. Instead, he recognizes the motivation behind it (greed) and warns the crowd against it. To illustrate this, he tells a parable of a rich man who has bumper harvest. He builds a bigger barn to store the excess and all his things, with the intention of enjoying them over many years. It is in vain, because his life is demanded of him that night. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God”.
The passage is challenging enough when we read it as individuals: Our own tendency to accumulate: feather our nest, to rely on money for our security, to buy and consume more than we need. We build larger barns, store our possessions (e.g. self-storage industry), eat, drink and be merry.
But the challenge is even bigger when we consider that we live in a society based on accumulation. Wealth, capital, investment, infrastructure, even technology are all forms of accumulation. We use our wealth, our infrastructure, our technology to build more wealth, more infrastructure, and more technology. Bigger barns, more production, and more consumption. On and on it goes, in an endless cycle of accumulation that is beyond the greed of individuals. This system has its foundation in human brokenness, frailty and greed. But it has its own logic that is bigger than all of us. Its logic is Mammon – what emerges from the love of money.
Alistair McIntosh in his book “Soil and Soul” writes: “Mammon is a control freak. He must get richer, exponentially, compound interest, sustained growth, or else collapse into a crater-like bankruptcy of the soul. If he’s not puffing and steaming and growing; if he’s not always getting bigger and better, newly revamped, then he’s dying, losing market share – and so he must keep eating up life. He must keep sucking all attention in to himself because he requires total spiritual presence – worship.”
What does worship of the idol Mammon entail? We are all caught up in that in other ways than just our greed. McIntosh says: “That’s Mammon: ruler of the world. He merely asks us to “be realistic”, to appreciate all that he does for us. He merely asks that the collection plate be passed around to feed his Great Economy. He merely asks that we sing from a common hymn sheet”. It’s not us who are greedy: it’s Mammon. We are merely compliant to it, enslaved. There is a sense that our enslavement runs very deep indeed. After 9/11, George Bush famously said: “Mrs Bush and I would like you all to go out shopping”. Was that about greed? Is it humourous? Or is it tragic?
In the parable, Jesus says that the life of the man of the parable is demanded of him that night. I don’t need to talk to you about the lives sacrificed on the high altar of Mammon, throughout history. Today, 1.0 billion people are malnourished, 1.1 billion lack adequate access to water, and 2.7 billion lack basic sanitation. Closer to home, we see the effects of work choices on the working poor. I heard on Lateline the other night about the exploitation of shopping trolley workers. And even those of us who have more than enough often work very long hours. There can be emptiness in those who have much in the way of wealth and possessions, but whose relationships are poor.
Mammon and the Environment
But what are the links between accumulation of wealth and the environment? My PhD research showed that Christians tend not to readily make the links between the amount of wealth we have and our impact on the environment. But the links are clear – the cycle of accumulation needs materials and energy to power it. Those materials and energy typically come from somewhere else, from lands entrusted to other people to steward.
If we compare the “ecological footprint” of rich nations with poor nations, we find that the footprint of high income countries in 2003 was 6.4 global hectares per capita, in low income countries it was 0.8, and the sustainable yield was estimated to be 1.8 (WWF et al., 2006). On a micro level, research in psychology on what things can predict a household’s energy use shows that the strongest predictors are the income and size of the household. Not how much someone is concerned about the environment or justice issues. Climate change is an environmental consequence of Mammon.
All of this presents a deep challenge to us, but it is more than this. Often the assumption is made that environmentalism is a luxury of the rich. But that is an assumption of those who are disconnected from the land. The health and livelihoods of those we call “poor” are dependent on a clean environment and on the ability to be able to steward its resources. Examples include indigenous people living in the Amazon, Australian aborigines who resist uranium mining and nuclear tests on their land, and the poor in India who live with the pollution from pig iron factories every day.
The tragedy of Mammon is worsened when wealth, technology, scientific expertise – types of accumulation, are blindly put to use to solve environmental problems. For example, in Ecuador, a Dutch non-profit organization is growing tree plantations in the Ecuadorian Andes. The idea is that by planting trees in the alpine soils in the Andes, carbon can be absorbed. This is sold as offsets – back to coal fired power plants in the Netherlands, which continue to pollute. At the same time, it can be used to generate additional revenue for indigenous Ecuadorian communities through employment. What happened? The monoculture pine plantations were not suitable. The local community, instead of making money, has had to shoulder debt. They haven’t been paid what was promised for planting (and replanting) the trees and looking after them. Common land has now been given up. Even worse – the landscape may be emitting more carbon. The logic of the global market, of trading in carbon, has been in this case another tragedy of Mammon. (You can read more about this case study in the book “Larry Lohmann, “Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change, Privatisation and Power”, Development Dialogue, No.48, September 2006.)
What are we, as people in Christ, to do? People often feel helpless about climate change. Psychological research shows that helplessness may be the greatest barrier to people taking environmental action. I have often heard people say that whatever we do about climate change, we’re going to be swamped by economic growth in China and India. People sometimes say trying to stop coal new mines is unfair to people in these countries – that it denies them the possibility of aspiring to our lifestyles. But I don’t buy that argument. Yes, that we in this country have so much more than others elsewhere is unfair. (There are people who don’t have enough energy to sustain basic metabolism.) But to argue that because we have for so long been able to accumulate means that others should also be able to do so misses Jesus' point. Jesus has the same message for the brother who got a raw deal on the family inheritance as for the rich man in the parable. He’s not interested in the brothers’ dispute – about their idea of justice. He wants to witness to another way of life which is beyond such disputes. Whether you’re rich or poor, if you’re motivated by greed, if you want to accumulate, then it’s destructive.
I’m not suggesting we should forbid others a slice of the pie and keep it for ourselves. We can witness to another way of living. Far from feeling hopeless and helpless in the face of climate change, we are called to be communities of hope. Larry Lohmann says, what is the point in policy makers apparently working for ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets if we don’t have the practical means necessary to achieve them? What is the point in talking about a carbon trading scheme when coal mine after coal mine continues to be opened? Lohmann says that local communities who resist the use of their land for such projects, and who work for local alternatives – good stewardship of their resources, local energy sufficiency, are the real leaders on climate change.
Communities of Hope
What might a community of hope look like? In Colossians 3, Paul instructs us to set our eyes not on earthly things but the things of the kingdom. What does this mean? I am reminded of Amos 5:23-24: “Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. We are not to disregard life in this world – we look to be witnesses to God’s kingdom of right relationships. Paul’s letter to the Colossians is addressed to church of Colossae, the COMMUNITY of people there – not to individuals as such. It’s about living in right relationships with each other: putting aside anger, slander, abuse, lying, and recognizing that in spite of our differences we are all a part of the body of Christ. We don’t face Mammon just as individuals, we face it as a community.
Paul tells us to put aside all idolatry, (all kinds of greed). In preparing for this sermon, looking at the various resources online, I read about a woman who was a campaigner for nuclear disarmament. She had become burned out with her activism, she realised her priorities had become reversed. Instead of her activism being an outworking of her response to God’s love, activism was, as she put it, her idol. Her focus had been on “results”, and she had experienced failure, leading then to emptiness. We are not called as Project Green Church people to get everyone in Maroubra to join up to carsharing and to ride their bicycles. We are not called to get every church to sign up to green power. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t set goals. But, we are called to live out lives that respond to God’s love, and our environmental witness flows out of that.
How do we get this centring? We need to try to place love, grace, gift at the centre. If we view life as gift from God (our own lives, our life as a community, the life of our planet, Jesus’ life), then we respond in kind. In our reading from Hosea, God did not abandon the Israelite tribe of Ephraim, although they turned away again and again to idols, so it is with us. (Last week, we talked about how we could be a people of prayer, and how the Psalms can be a great resource for us in our prayer lives. Psalm 107 is one that we could use: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His steadfast love endures forever”).
If we keep gift at the centre, we live generous lives. Where do I see this generosity? I see it in volunteers giving their time – preparing grant applications, writing articles, volunteering to mow lawns, sharing skills, sharing possessions. I see it in our plans to install light globes in the broader community, and to build up an online library. In all this, people are giving generously rather than hoarding. What a witness! If you’ve got more ideas about what we can do along these lines, please see me!
Living generously is infectious – it results in multiplication. For example, we see the story of the loaves and the fishes. See how Project Green Church has grown! See the growing interest in it from elsewhere. See how inspirational and empowering it is for others. It’s a good news story.
My last point is that, in a society which tries to use the logic of Mammon to solve its environmental problems, trying to witness beyond this is a tricky business. There are lots of pitfalls, and there is lots of compromise. It is not an easy road. We need to reflect carefully about what activities we take on, to support and pray for each other, to sustain our hope. And we should always rest safe in the assurance that God does not abandon us. God’s kingdom promise is beyond the world’s brokenness and our own failings.