“Greed is good,” said a prominent American capitalist not long before the present series of greedy bubble-bursts, beginning with Enron. Considering its productivity of human goods and good, something is good in capitalist motivation – but greed is the excess, the sinful-ruinous hypertrophy, of that good.
The current “On Faith” question goes to the marrow of the matter:
“Greed, one of the seven deadly sins, is seen as a major factor in the housing market crash and the oil price spike. Can greed ever be justified morally or spiritually?”
1…..Almost ninety years ago in the city, our mother’s greatest fear for us children was runaway horses. We were never to sit on the curb, our feet in the street! Fire trucks, delivery wagons, peddlers all had horses, which sometimes would run wild. As my earliest fear of the world, the runaway horse is my most natural metaphor for the human tendency to destructive excess, which the Greeks called “hubris.”
2…..This destructive human tendency is easily activated when a person experiences any expansion of powers or possessions or possibilities. The sinful ego, centered on self, tends to expand to fill any new space of power/possession/possibility. Lord Acton’s bromide includes this sliding scale: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Saddam Hussein (and Stalin before him) had absolute power, with no conscience to constrain his destructive excess.
3….In light of this dark side of human nature as we know it, good government – in state or church or business or any other organized activity – is improbable. In calling us all to repentance, the Bible is straightforward about our condition: we are “sinners,” self-interestedly violating our duties to our Creator, our fellow-creatures, and even ourselves.
(The other half-truth about us is our bright side, our tendency to love God and others and the whole creation as well as ourselves. As it calls us from the former half-truth, the Bible calls us to this half-truth, and shows us the way from that vice to this virtue.)
4…..Before it became (historically) one of the Seven Deadly Sins, greed (covetousness) was one of the Ten Commandments (the only one on disposition rather than deed or word). We have needs and wants, and our wanting exceeds our needing. When our wanting includes our neighbor’s having, the Tenth Commandment calls it “coveting”: the Hebrew word in Exodus 20:14 emphasizes the pleasure and delight in this sinful desiring. The Greek word translating the Hebrew word here in the Old Testament is used in the New Testament for “greed,” and its root is the comparative meaning “more”: greed is runaway more-More-MORE!
5…..Any particular greed, if not checked, becomes obsessive: one becomes possessed by whatever/whoever one increasingly desires to possess. What gets our attention gets us, and what holds our attention is our idol, our god. The Bible (Colossians 3:5) puts it this way: “Put to death…greed, which is idolatry.”
Irresponsible loaners in the sub-prime mortgage market, oil sellers, 9/11, Abu Ghraib, American nationalistic exceptionalism, Jeremiah Wright’s runaway sense of self-importance, lying or cheating to advantage oneself against others, lusting for one’s neighbor’s companion – the long sad list of obsessive-destructive wanting is endless, daily on the front page. And in it all, politics and religion and morality and business and education and entertainment-sports are existentially mixed.
6…..Folk wisdom addresses the sin of greed. “My nose ends where your nose begins” is literally true & an apt maxim. But my hands do not end where your hands end: I may grasp what is in your hands (grasping, Sanskrit “graha,” is the central sin in Hinduism). And even more dangerous, my eyes (my “desiring,” the central sin in Buddhism) do not end where your eyes begin. Worst of all, my wanting to be in charge does not end where your rights and even God’s rights begin: “pride,” playing God, is the central sin in the Bible (Judaism and Christianity). Here it all is as compacted in First John 2:16, King James Version: “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life.”
7…..Greed – excessive wanting, in disregard of others – is the pathological form of the natural human yearning for having, for loving, for learning, for achieving, and for transcendence (as Browning put it, “a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”). As pain in one’s physical body is symptomatic, signaling sickness or injury, malfunctioning in the social body – the family, politics, business, education, religion, entertainment-sports – tells us (sometimes violently) that together we need to attend to whatever is wrong. The time for “change” away from greed and its wreckages is always NOW.
8…..Greed, in its various manifestations, is a self-inflicted disease of the soul and of society. Says Jesus (Gospel of Luke 12:15), “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” And the cure he offers in summing up the point of the Bible (Gospel of Matthew 22:37-39, quoting two places in the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament) is this: “’You shall love the LORD your God,’ and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’
To answer the “On Faith” question: NO, greed can never be justified.