Saturday, November 15, 2008

Take heed of greed

"And covetousness, which is idolatry ..." (Colossians 3:5)

"And take heed of greediness and earthly mindedness, and covetousness, which the apostle called idolatry; for it is a great spot and blot of the world that lieth in wickedness."

From "Mind the Heavenly Treasure," which offers thoughts of George Fox for every day of the year. This one is for Nov. 15.

Having just witnessed the economic meltdown, attributable mostly to greed, I find Fox's words especially relevant. In fact, having lived for a year in England and been stunned at the size and granduer of some of the great houses, I would have to say greed is a recurrent phenomenom and something which connects us with the earliest Quakers.

Two houses stand out in my mind: the first is Blenheim Palace, home of the Dukes of Marlborough and birthplace of Winston Churchill. I had never seen a place so overwhelmingly grand in my life, not only huge but set like a jewel on thousands of acres of stunningly beautiful English countryside. I remember how huge the rooms were, how tall the ceilings, how everything was on an almost non-human scale. It was somewhat like the palace Charlie Chaplin lives in in the Great Dictator. I remember having a visceral sense of the class system, and I would argue we really have nothing comparable to this home in the United States (or didn't). I also had a sudden realization: Winston Churchill came from the highest of rarified circles. I had a sense of the huge gulf between people like him and people like me. In essence, the palace did what I imagine it was intended to do: it made me feel small and insignificant.

The other great house that struck me was Ham House, located in or near London. It's a much smaller house, more on the scale of grand houses I've seen in the U.S., and growth has surrounded it, so it's not set in the midst of vast acreage. What struck me was the silver everywhere. Because of colonial plunders, the family which owned Ham House had vast amounts of silver. To preserve it, they melted it and had it made into big tables, in part to make the silver difficult to steal. So in the midst of, in the 20th century, a still relatively low standard of living, sat these vastly wasteful tables. I almost couldn't get over it.

Now that I'm a Quaker, it strikes me that both these house were built (or begun) in the late seventeenth century (I will check this out). So Fox and his followers would have seen these monuments to greed in the midst of great poverty. And they would have seen a concentration of wealth making ordinary people feel small. Thinking about this, it's easy to see why they pushed so hard for addressing people as equals and for equality itself.

But let's not dwell on the past. If we heed Fox's advice, how do we steer clear of greed and covetousness. Do we simply have to accept it as inevitable?


David Carl said...

How to steer clear of greed and covetousness? I would say first, notice its reality within us. Acknowledge the truth that it is there (if in fact it is). Next, we might open ourselves to divine guidance about it. We might ask questions of ourselves, such as, "what am I trying to accomplish with this? What do I really want? Would I really then be satisfied if I achieved or possessed this? Have I been satisfied in the past -- and how long did that satisfaction last? We might spend time in worship on these questions, or perhaps seeking the counsel of other Friends to get a fuller perspective. Perhaps we might have a worship sharing session on these questions, again to achieve a broader view of our desires.

We might also ask ourselves, what is it that really satisfies our souls? When have we been happiest and most fulfilled? To paraphrase Fox's words on war, what is the life and the power that takes away the occasion of our covetousness and greed?

Jeremiah said...

Blenheim Palace was built in the early 18th century, so Fox would not have lived to see it, even if he'd been passing that way. Your general point is valid though: there were plenty of 'stately homes' dotting the English landscape in his time, even if none (apart perhaps from royal palaces like Hampton Court and Whitehall) would have been on quite this scale.

Blenheim was a gift from the Crown to the Duke of Marlborough in thanks for his victories over the French armies of Louis XIV. So its gigantic scale no doubt reflects its role as a victory monument, a bit like Nelson's Column and Trafalgar Square, or the Wellington Monument in Dublin.

And, as you rightly point out, many other grand homes were built in Britain from the proceeds of colonial plunder in India and elsewhere, and on the profits of slavery. The nouveau-riche nabobs and Jamaica planters wanted to show the established aristocracy that they'd arrived.

Some Quakers had pretty grand homes, too, on the Ham House scale certainly. Think of Woodbrooke in Birmingham, bought by the chocolate magnate George Cadbury as his private house, and only later donated to the Quakers. Or Earlham Hall near Norwich, the home of the Gurney banking dynasty (and now part of East Anglia University I believe). How fair was the trade that brought in such profits?

John Woolman's query as to whether the seeds of war have nourishment in our possessions should always be in our minds. Did they come into our ownership through violence? What violence is required to sustain the economic system that enables us to have them when others have not? Are our possessions likely to provoke violent envy in others?