Greed: How Can Religions Address the Deepening Spiritual Crisis of Our Time?

by Mark Hannan

This article was originally published Feburuary 12, 2014 by SCUPE.

by Mark Hannan

This article was originally published Feburuary 12, 2014 by SCUPE.

The following is a synopsis of the Greeley lecture on peace and justice given by Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana at the Center for the Study of World Religions of Harvard University on February 3, 2014. This lecture is a precursor to SCUPE’s Congress on Urban Ministry (June 23-26, DePaul University, Chicago) which will address the theme: Together, Building a Just Economy.

The unimaginable level of income inequality has become a serious public conversation and scholarly inquiry. President Obama has addressed it several times over the past couple of months, including in the recent State of the Union speech. The week before that, when some 2,500 participants from business, government, academia and civil society convened in Davos, they considered the Global Risks 2014 report which points out that this massive income gap is the risk that is most likely to cause serious damage to the global economy in the coming decade. Immediately prior to the Davos meeting, Oxfam, the international organization that addresses issues of hunger, poverty and economic justice around the world, in its report said that the world’s richest 85 people control the same amount of wealth as half the world’s population, over 3.5 billion people. In other words, each of the wealthiest 85 has access to the same resources as do about 42 million people. These are incredible numbers. In his message, Pope Francis urged those who gathered at Davos to promote inclusive prosperity. “I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it,” he said.

Last November Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudiumor the Joy of the Gospel, where he connects evangelization with a strong critique of consumerism. In a section entitled “No to the new idolatry of money,” he points to its causality: one cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, he says, “we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The worship of the ancient golden calf,” he goes on, “has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idol­atry of money and the dictatorship of an imper­sonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” Human beings are reduced to one of their needs alone, he says, and that is “con­sumption.”

The rise of plutocracy, where the super-rich increasingly control the political and economic processes that leave everyone else out is already a serious global problem. My concern is that in the United States we may be reaching a tipping point where laws such as Citizens United and the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, both driven by big corporate interests, will tilt the playing field in favor of the super-rich for a long time to come. I believe that this is caused by greed, which – in both its individual and structural manifestations — is a spiritual problem.

This position was affirmed by an advisory body of the World Council of Churches, the Churches’ Commission on International Affairs (CCIA) when it met in March 2009, in Matanzas, Cuba, about six months after the global financial crisis hit. Its working group on Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation made three important affirmations.

First, they identified the cause of the crisis as unbridled greed, and declared it as a form of violence. “[T]he accumulation of wealth and the presence of poverty are not simply accidents but are often part of a strategy for some people to accumulate power and wealth at the expense of others. As such, greed is a form of violence which, on personal, community, national, regional and international levels isolates and injures us.”

In offering the provocative comment “greed is a form of violence,” the CCIA is connecting a word—violence— which it knows evokes a sense of strong condemnation, with a word that it believes is equally condemnable –greed, and advocating as robust a reflection on greed as the churches have had on violence. Indeed, churches, like other institutions caught up in systems of structural greed, find its reflection on greed muted, and its advocacy on behalf of economic justice compromised. A “greed is good” doctrine, popularized by the fictional character Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street, and daily and forcefully asserted by some Fox News and CNBC commentators, as well as proponents of prosperity theologies, therefore goes largely unchallenged.

While many religions address greed, it is important to recognize that today’s structural greed is almost unprecedented. A new robust and self-critical reflection that pertains to today’s realities, by all religious authorities, I suggest, is therefore urgent.

The WCC has engaged such a process over the past several years. Its program Poverty, Wealth and Ecology has engaged economists and theologians in dialogues that have now resulted in a proposal for a new financial architecture released in Sao Paulo, in October 2012. One interesting feature of this is the inclusion of a “Greed Line.” If there’s a poverty line below which a person can be said to be in poverty, there must be greed line, above which a person can be said to be greedy!

Second, they recognized greed as a spiritual problem requiring spiritual interventions. Christianity alone does not have the resources to address this problem, they said, and affirmed that religions over centuries have deeply reflected on the question of greed and have significant wisdom to offer. They specifically identified Buddhism as having a sophisticated reflection on greed and its disastrous consequences, about the value of simplicity for the lay community of disciples, and renunciation and voluntary poverty for the monastic community.

Affirming the value of having its internal reflections lead to interreligious engagement, the WCC together with the Lutheran World Federation convened a Buddhist-Christian consultation in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2010. Buddhists from several countries and a variety of traditions engaged with Christians from a variety of traditions in a consultation entitled “Buddhists and Christians engaging structural greed.”[1] The resulting statement, “A Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed” has helped to move Christian and Buddhist communities to deeper common reflection and action.

Third, it identifies the need to listen to the voices of the poor. “We acknowledge that in our various positions of leadership we are not always well-placed to hear the voice of the oppressed, of indigenous people, of women, of the disabled, of refugees and displaced people, of the poor and of the most silenced among us.” We who gather around theological tables, religious leaders and scholars, because of our social standing as educated, middle class elite, do not have access to the conversations that are going on among those who are poor in our communities.

This is a difficult but critical question. Prof. Harvey Cox of Harvard University, in a 1980 Christian Century article entitled “Theology: What Is It? Who Does It? How Is It Done?” addressed this question. The elitism is understandable, says Cox, given that the minimal conditions for doing theology include the ability to read and write, familiarity with the received tradition of concepts and categories, sufficient leisure to reflect on these, and the power to get one’s ideas published or otherwise heard. Are theologians prepared to take the next step, he asks, beyond the self-critical awareness we now have, for example, of how the rhetorical conventions and cultural symbols of any period shape even its most original theology, to a recognition of how the pervasive ideology of the dominant class influences the theology it produces?

So, how do you dialogue with those who are poor? One of my mentors, Jesuit theologian Aloysius Pieris offers us an insight from his Sri Lankan context. In his Asian Theology of Liberation[2] he insists that an authentic Sri Lankan theology must undergo a double baptism, in the Jordan of its religious diversity, and the cross of its grinding poverty. These two axes of religious diversity and poverty are basic facts of the Sri Lankan context. Dialogue, he says, is more than an academic exercise done in religious seminars organized and financed by western agencies, by people who do not have their feet on the ground. It is not an abstract concern, but a daily existential experience; never merely an intellectual exercise, it is a moral commitment. Pieris’ analysis suggests that if we want to engage in dialogue we need to incarnate ourselves in the context. Not only does it require a double baptism of immersion, it requires us to engage core-to-core with the other religious partners.

The question, however, is even more complex. There is plenty of dialogue that goes on in poor communities. Poor Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and those of other religions often live in the same communities, share each other’s concerns and needs, and reflect with each other about their fortunes and misfortunes and the ultimate meanings of day to day events. The difficulty for us middle class theologians and dialogicians is that we have no access to that conversation. Many difficulties, including those of communi­cation and building trust become serious obstacles when we try to listen to that dialogue.

So, is there any hope for theology or interreligious dialogue? According to Pieris, there is no alternative but to engage in voluntary poverty, which for religious people, he reminds us, is a positive value. We must struggle against forced poverty, but voluntary poverty is a spiritual calling we must embrace. Some of the greatest saints and revered gurus in religious traditions, he reminds us, were people who renounced worldly comforts and pleasures. Some entered the monastic life, others such as Gandhi, became engaged in issues of social justice.

For those of us in religious leadership or theological academia, who assumed that theology can be done in the comfort of the seminary and its library, this is a problem. Indeed, for most of us, whose perceptions are colored by the dominant economic ethos, and where the desire to reach higher in the economic ladder is the positive value, voluntary poverty does not make sense. Therefore, Pieris asserts that it is simply not possible for people with such a middle class mindset to really understand and appreciate those who are poor,  and recommends that those who engage in the disciplines of theology and of interreligious dialogue undergo a conversion, and undertake the baptism of voluntary poverty themselves.

This is what SCUPE does. We put our students into the streets of the city, to its local communities, to areas of concentrated poverty, where we teach our students to listen to the questions, struggles and stories of pain and laughter. We bring those questions together, subject them to deeper analysis, and then ask what scripture and tradition have to say about these questions. Indeed, in the margins our students have seen dialogue burst into argument, controversy and creativity. There, it never stays a mere dialogue, but moves quickly to action. At the margins people are conscientized, they strategize, organize and move in to light a fire under their leaders. Indeed, when religious or political leaders do not have the courage to do the right thing, it is the organized people at the grassroots who are able to hold them accountable.

A useful hermeneutical key to this conundrum was offered in November 2013, at the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches. It’s Commission on World Mission and Evangelism issued a new statement on mission entitled Together Towards Lifewhich turned all previous understandings of mission on its head. “Mission from the margins invites the church to reimagine mission as a vocation from God’s Spirit who works for a world where fullness of life is available to all,” it declared. In other words, mission is not to those who are a poor as we always thought, rather, mission is from those who are poor and marginalized to those at the privileged center.

This is a profound statement. Those of us at the privileged center, the theologians, the religious leaders, the pastors and teachers, the middle class elite, are the very ones that need to be missionized. It says to us powerfully that those who are hungry today have something important to teach us about economic justice, about life and its meaning, and about the importance of sharing and community. Those who are working two or three jobs at minimum wage and have kids to take care of at home also have something important to teach us about faith, because at the end of the day they still have strength left to say their evening prayers with the kids. Those who are suffering climate catastrophes, such as the recent one in the Philippines have something important to teach us about climate justice and about life’s fragility and resilience. When we are able to deeply comprehend that, we will discover that our questions are different, our answers are different, and more than anything else, our attitude towards life and our lifestyle will be different.

What happened in 2008 was a result of unbridled structural greed. It was violence that was perpetrated against massive numbers of people around the world. But the religious communities’ voice was muted. We were conflicted because we too participate in that structural greed. Given today’s context it is critical that the religious communities’ voices be powerful and resilient. But in order for that to be so, we must allow those in the margins to teach us, missionize us, and indeed, convert us.


[1] Martin Sinaga (ed.) A Common Word: Buddhists and Christians Engage Structural Greed (Lutheran University Press, 2012)

[2] Aloysius Pieris, Asian Theology of Liberation (T&T Clark, 1988, 86)

Published with Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana’s permission

Related Articles