Greed, Goodness and God: Hope for Canada's Bottom Line
Greed, Goodness and God: Hope for Canada's Bottom Line

Greed, Goodness and God: Hope for Canada's Bottom Line

January 1 st 1999

My fellow Canadian and fellow Christian citizens and friends, it's good to be home again for a few days, though, in all candor, I must tell you that for someone who's not living there anymore home seems to be getting weirder and weirder. A wonderfully wacky local example of weirdness goes back about a year and a half ago when Hamilton's own Federal Heritage Minister, the Honourable Sheila Copps, made her multicultural boast that Canada was "a Tower of Babel that works." I wonder: does that maybe fit? Only in Canada, you say . . . ?

When I read current news about Canada or hear from friends about the latest Supreme Court decision or Ontario Human Rights Commission ruling I feel a bit like an older child in a severely dysfunctional family listening to brothers and sisters who still live at home telling stories about the crazy things mom and dad have just done. Such news is of course disheartening. Because you love mom and dad as well as your siblings. You are saddened, discouraged by these stories. Furthermore, not being there gives rise to an even greater sense of powerlessness—there's practically nothing you can do about it. At the same time all this is accompanied by "guilt" edged-relief—"I'm not living there anymore!"

Still, the bottom line, as I see it, is that Canada's bottom line is in trouble. Please note that what I have in mind here first of all is not economic trouble, though I am sure that a subject I am almost embarrassed to mention in a public address (lest I appear to be gloating)—the fact that the dollar I earn is worth $1.50 Canadian—is a matter of real concern to you as workers, as employers, as consumers, and as Canadian citizens. I do not intend callousness when I say that my concern tonight about Canada's bottom line—the accounting metaphor notwithstanding—is not first of all economic but spiritual, cultural, moral, and, yes, legal. On that measurement the nation we love is in danger of bankruptcy; it is going broke. However, putting it that way is also, as we shall see, the source of our hope.

Please forgive me if this opening sounds too gloomy but it is my impression—one that I'd love to have corrected by the way—that public Christianity has fallen on hard times in this Dominion of ours. Is it not likely that some future historian of the last Canadian decade of this millennium—undoubtedly having learned his grammar at one of Ontario's declining public schools of the day, at least when teachers weren't on strike—will describe our present time by paraphrasing Charles Dickens: "It was the worst of times, it was the getting even worser of times."

Please understand me well in terms of the limited focus of my attention here: I am suggesting that the phrase "worst of times" is fitting to describe one specific thing—the place of public Christianity in Canada today. (I should hasten to add here that I am speaking of the public face of orthodox Christianity—the doctrinal and moral core common to Reformed Christians, evangelicals, and traditional Roman Catholics—not the accommodated, empty, universalist, tolerant, politicized version of Christianity represented by the current moderator of the United Church and loved by the Globe and Mail). The public legitimacy of orthodox Christianity in Canada today is under serious attack, and Christian public expression (particularly when critical of the reigning immorality of the sexual revolution) is under severe political restraint.

Forgive me for this gloomy beginning tonight. My consolation to you at this point is to say that—like the sin and misery section of the Heidelberg Catechism—this is the first and necessary thing to be said but it will also be the shortest. So you can now put away your umbrellas. No more raining on the parade. I am not going to belabor the gloom with which I began but now with you look for other signs, contrary and hopeful signs.

Christian vocabulary

Is there any good news? Well let's look. Here I'm going to surprise those of you who know me by taking a closer and kindly look at what one could refer to as the Christian political left and its concerns about what it calls social or economic justice. Has it not struck you that though a Roman Catholic cardinal, who publicly refers to homosexual practice as immoral, is told that the public square must be kept neutral and naked (sorry, bad term in the light of the recent Toronto gay pride parade), that nonetheless this same churchman is praised by the same critics for being "prophetic" when he joins the Council of Canadian Catholic bishops in making economic pronouncements? Granted, only economic pronouncements of a certain sort—yet, is there a glimmer of something positive even there, an entry point into the secular wasteland? Maybe.

For consider this: What kind of language is used by the political left in its economic pronouncements? The key word capturing headlines in recent years is "greed." The 1980s were the "decade of greed." Bank mergers are evidence of corporate greed. Efforts to cut taxes or reform welfare are called "attacks on the poor by the greedy." And of course professional athletes who go on strike to raise their minimum wage to $3 million a year from the paltry $2.75 million they are getting are tagged as greedy along with the owners of the teams they play for. Our increasingly litigious society—collecting good money from McDonald's for spilling hot coffee on yourself and from tobacco companies because you were too foolish not to say no to peer pressure about lighting up cigarettes—is a reflection of unfettered greed masquerading as "victim's rights" and becoming a growth industry for lawyers. An even more prosaic example: the bumper sticker that reads "Born to Shop." This is what it means to be an image bearer of God—a mall tripper? And what about that peculiar new institution of late twentieth-century life in North America—the storage locker? We have too much stuff.

Finally, we need to note greedy governments encouraging citizen greed through state sponsored and state encouraged gambling. Ironically, at the same time government restrictions on freedom are often justified by a consensus attack on greed. This past January a law took effect in the United States that forces any doctor who privately contracts with a Medicare recipient for a service normally covered by Medicare to give up all Medicare patients for two years. Equality is the reason given by a California congressman who says that private contracting "just plays to greed" on the part of physicians. Greed has become an important word in our contemporary public vocabulary and there is more than enough greed to pass around. We have too much; we have too little.

Now, here's my question: on the face of it, isn't that development—talking about greed, that is, not the practice of greed—isn't that a good thing? After all "avarice" (covetousness) is one of the seven deadly sins in classic Christian soul care. Isn't it a good thing for a morally relativistic public sphere to actually be using the vocabulary of traditional Christian morality?

Greed is Good?

I am convinced that Christians can make use of the current preoccupation with greed to advance a gospel voice in the public square. Let me explore with you how it could perhaps be done. In February of this year, ABC television's reporter John Stossel did an hour long program on greed in which he, among other things, interviewed some of the fabulously wealthy entrepreneurs in America such as media mogul Ted Turner. The underlying message of the program was "Greed is good." Among Turner's more outrageous statements was the claim that junk bond king and convicted felon Michael Millken had done much more good for the world than Mother Teresa because of the businesses saved and the jobs preserved or created by his creative accounting and money market brilliance.

So, he concluded brashly: Greed is good! Greed drives men and women to create, invent, produce and in this way, unintentionally to be sure, does untold good for countless others. It's not only nice, compassionate, altruistic, other directed people who do good for humanity. The greedy do even more good because their own self interest has a spin off or trickle down effect. The guy who invents a better mousetrap in order to make his own millions or billions benefits mousetrap makers, mousetrap sales representatives, shopkeepers, and homeowners. Everybody wins: the only loser here is the mouse.

This picture is not altogether wrong but in many more ways it's also not right. To begin with, greed needs to be distinguished from simple self interest. Not all self interest is greed. Greed is inordinate or excessive self interest that is focused on accumulation of things for the sake of accumulating things. A homeless person can be greedy; a wealthy person can be bighearted. What this requires I will address in a few minutes. For now I want simply to put this before you: Christians ought never to join the chorus singing "Greed is good."

On the contrary, especially in a consumer culture, we ought decisively to repudiate greed, avarice, acquisitiveness. Greed is a vice, a spiritual sickness, and the repudiation of greed is an important first step for Christians to gain credibility and acceptance for their voice in the public sphere on economic matters.

We shouldn't hesitate to say publicly that the baseball owners and players alike are greedy and they almost destroyed what is arguably the most wonderful team sport created by human beings. And doesn't it strike you too that the high concentration of economic power into fewer and fewer, larger and larger financial institutions is both an example of acquisitive greed and probably a bad thing for the country's economic freedom?

So, make no mistake about it and don't be afraid to say it publicly: Greed is not good. Greed is evil, a serious spiritual pathology. The current public chorus of disapproval against greed is a song with which we as Christians can and must sing along even if we must sing it in a different key. Greed is wrong. Greed is bad!

Missing the point

Why? What I'd like to do for a bit now is pass on some of the classic wisdom in the tradition of Christian soul care on the deadly sin of avarice or greed. The first thing to note is that this wisdom is quite different from contemporary uses of greed in our current public discourse.

We denounce greed from the quantitative perspective of social justice; we pull out the greed card of moral renunciation when we are overwhelmed by ugly disparities of abject poverty and ostentatious wealth. When there are homeless people sleeping on Yonge street tonight it scandalizes us that the Rosedale crowd is living it up in corporate boxes in Sky Dome watching adult millionaires play children's games. When the photographs of emaciated children with distended bellies assault us from Somalia or Rwanda, we feel guilty about the extra cheese danish we scarfed up at this morning's coffee break.

It's the disparities that bring forth the accusations of greed. Once again I want to reiterate my point: these disparities ought to disturb us, trouble us, make us righteously angry, call forth from us cries for deliverance for the poor. If they don't do that to us we haven't heard our Savior's sermon preached to his own townspeople in Nazareth: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor and liberty to the captives."

The problem here is not that we should be permitted blithely to go on our way and ignore altogether the cries of the poor; our Lord won't let us. Rather the problem is this: the sin of greed, as popularly understood, is the wrong surgical tool to cut out this cancer. Much of what gets the public media attention today under the rubric of greed misses the point altogether. You see greed is not a quantitative matter measurable by the size of our bank accounts and pension plans, but a profoundly spiritual one.

Oh, to be sure, there are undoubtedly some enormously wealthy people who are greedy, successfully greedy. But you know something, greed creates no wealth. Wealth is created by creative energy that is blessed by incentive. Microsoft's Bill Gates is rich; boy-o-boy is he rich. But greedy? Doesn't seem to be on the face of it, though of course only God knows his heart. But Bill Gates did not get to be a multibillionaire thanks to his greed. He's rich today because he's a genius whose particular creative gift and entrepreneurial skill came together at just the right time to do us all a lot of good. I wrote this speech using a computer that depends on Microsoft talent and skill. I'm grateful for the genius of Bill Gates.

Problem of the soul

But back to the point about greed. I said that the classical Christian tradition of soul care looks at the sin of avarice or greed differently from the quantitative manner that we tend to do in our public discourse today. Traditionally, greed, avarice, covetousness was treated qualitatively as a spiritual problem, a problem of the soul. The inordinate desire for possessions, for things, for money is a form of idolatry—a foolish and sad effort to replace the created longing of the human soul for God with cheap substitutes.

The key here is "inordinate" desire. Desire is not evil, not even the desire for temporal things, for possessions. What is sinful is the immoderate desire that turns possessions and things away from means to ends in themselves. In themselves all things are good because God's creation is good; all creatures are good. It is not Christianity but a heresy called Gnosticism that repudiated material things as intrinsically evil.

By contrast, the heart of the Christian faith is belief in the resurrection of the body, the preeminent sign of the restoration and renewal of a very material and physical creation. But when human beings turn away from God, who alone can fill the longing of the human heart, and place that religious longing elsewhere, in a creature, they fashion idols for their own destruction. They foolishly imagine that the accumulation of more and more possessions will bring them happiness.

It is here that we must listen to our Lord's numerous warnings about mammon and the Apostle Paul's observation that "the love of money is the root of all evil" (I Timothy 6:10). And listen to the Apostle James' denunciation of the rich who are consumed with destructive inner warrings: "Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?" Then the Apostle cites an Old Testament Scripture that says, "God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell within us." (James 4:1 5).

God longs for his Spirit to fill ours; God wants to indwell us with his Spirit; God wants to make his home in us. And from our side we need to know that only the holy God can fill the holes in our heart and make us whole.

The Bible also gives us specific and clear antidotes to greed and covetousness. It is striking that the ten commandments are framed by the reminder of God's deliverance from the bondage of slavery and by the last commandment that addresses our inner heart, our attitude: "Thou shalt not covet!"

Greed can lead us to grasp and grope for things we don't have and the gospel antidote to that is contentment along with simplicity. "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment" (I Timothy 6:6), says the same Apostle who says that he has learned to be content in all circumstances with whatever he has (Phil. 4:11 12). The secret: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

There is also a greed desperately to hang on to what we have and the gospel antidote to that is of course generosity, liberality, mercy. "The Lord loves a cheerful giver" and "it is more blessed to give than to receive." "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy." Generosity and mercy are first of all God's gift to us, and all we do is distribute them more widely. As small children know well, love is not diminished by sharing but increased.

As some of you may know, this year is the centennial anniversary of Abraham Kuyper's famous Stone Lectures on Calvinism given at Princeton Seminary in October 1898. The Dutch Reformed church leader, university founder, journalist, and statesman is known for many things but among the strong and consistent themes in his work and words were combined concerns for liberty and for the poor.

Seven years before his visit to the United States, on November 9, 1891, Kuyper gave an address to the First Dutch Christian Social Congress (available in translation as The Problem of Poverty [Baker, 1991]). Kuyper's initial question: "What should we, as confessors of Christ, do about the social needs of our time?" He points appreciatively to the examples of some Christian socialists and above all to Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum that had appeared five months earlier. This encyclical, he notes, "states the principles which are common to all Christians, and which we share with our Roman Catholic compatriots" (p.84). It is striking and instructive that Kuyper first accuses the church of failing its responsibility to the poor and cites the early nineteenth century Dutch poet Willem Bilderdijk:

Whenever a people is destined to perish in sin,
It's in the church that the soul leprosy begins. (p. 25)

What a striking phrase: "soul leprosy."

Stones for bread

Now it is the responsibility of the church of Jesus Christ to whom the gospel that saves souls has been entrusted, it is the church's responsibility to preach against the idolatry of greed, to expose it as a false god that cannot satisfy the deepest longing of the human heart. The holes in our souls can only be filled by the holy God who shows his love toward us in Christ. The gospel of greed tells us that we are saved by having; it's of course a lie. Happiness does not come from getting and having but from being and from giving. As someone once said, the heart cannot hoard; only our hands can.

I said at the beginning of this discussion about greed that the public outcry against greed is one that Christians can and should join. Greed is bad. But now my plea and question is this: Is it too much to ask the churches of Canada that they address the question of greed as a problem of the soul rather than as one more lobbying group (with proof texts) pleading for yet one more version or other of wealth redistribution? That's been the pattern in mainline Canadian Christianity: say nothing about souls and much about economics. For the good of Canada and the salvation of men's souls, I believe it must stop and the pattern reversed. For two reasons:

  1. The salvation of souls is the church's proper business. If the church doesn't tell Canadians that their empty souls are being offered stones for bread by political schemes and that only the bread of life can satisfy their hearts deepest longing while idols of mammon will destroy them, if the church doesn't tell them that, who will? Let me give all of you a reading assignment: The "Grand Inquisitor" segment of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

  2. When churches endorse the solution of trying to solve the so called greed problem by redistributing wealth they only make the problem of empty souls and idolatry worse by nurturing another one of the seven deadly sins: envy.

While greed is the inordinate desire to get and have things, envy is a competitive hostility that is directed at someone else's fortune, success, prosperity, achievement. Envy is less concerned with getting and holding than it is with destroying the good that another is seen to be enjoying. Envy sees another's good fortune or success as a consequence of their misconduct. Only cheaters prosper; only the unscrupulous and exploiter get wealthy. All wealth is plunder, stolen from the vulnerable and weak. Life is a zero-sum game in which your achievement and prosperity are at the cost of my poverty and loss. I am poor because you are rich is the logic of the envious. The envious person knows no gratitude; the glass is always half empty and resentment for my empty half overwhelms any possible gratitude for the half full part of my glass because, you see, the empty half of my glass is in yours. The reason your glass is full is because my half filled it.

Incidentally, one of the great myths of radical egalitarians, those people who want to eliminate all disparity in wealth, is that envy and greed will disappear when equality arrives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Envy arises when there are small differences in possessions not large ones. Unions go on strike when comparable workers have a 15-cent disparity in wages, not $15.00 ones. Not only does the Christian conviction about original sin lead us to dismiss the utopian possibility of eliminating greed and envy, empirical sociological evidence confirms it.

My point here, however, is that the Church's role is not to play surrogate economics professor but to stick to its own task. Then we must call on Christian believers in economics and political science, in international banking, in relief and development positions, to do their job, always keeping in mind the demands of justice and love. Part of the problem is structural; another part is spiritual/moral, a matter of disordered souls. The church's part is to announce good news and healing for those souls. When it fails to do that all the redistribution schemes in the world are going to make the problem worse rather than better.

Hope: the goodness of God

It is precisely here, however, that we as Christian believers live in hope. One of the striking things about the numerous grand, sweeping overviews of our society and civilization that we have seen in this century is that one of their favourite metaphors is an organic one. Influenced perhaps by Oswald Spengler's important Decline of the West, we speak of societies being born, growing, decaying, and dying. But, as Herb Schlossberg has pointed out in his fine book Idols for Destruction, this is not the way the Bible talks about peoples and nations. The Bible uses the language of judgment. When people lapse into idolatry they fashion for themselves "idols for their own destruction" according to the prophet Hosea (8:4).

This emphasis on divine judgment is not a politically correct notion but it is a hopeful one. G. K. Chesterton once described this difference this way: "Our fathers said a nation is sinning, like a man; we moderns say it is decaying, like a cheese."

There's not a lot you can do about a cheese or a vegetable decaying; its demise is inevitable. There are those who feel that same sort of inevitability about the decline and decay of the West, the decline and decay of North America, the decline and decay of Canada. But as Christians, decline and decay are not the categories we want to use; sin and judgment are. Because, you see, sin can be repented of, conversion can take place, and renewal by the Spirit of God is a sure promise of the Gospel.

No, talk of inevitable decline and decay should receive short shrift among us. Because there is a third deadly sin (I'll leave the other four of the seven aside for tonight) that is relevant to our conversation tonight: accidie or sloth, despair. The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas defined sloth as "an oppressive sorrow which so weighs upon a man's mind that he wants to do nothing." Doesn't that sound familiar? It's a description of profound clinical depression.

In a spiritual sense, such despair, such "oppressive sorrow that weighs upon us so that we do nothing," comes from being bored with life itself, so bored that we no longer hunger for God and for his righteousness. Built into the human soul is a hunger, a hunger to be at home, to be secure, to know that our discontent about what's wrong in this world will finally be settled. In short, by nature, even the nature distorted by sin, we hunger for God and for the joy of his kingdom's righteousness. When we suppress that hunger, when we use all the clever sinful tricks to try to fool ourselves that we aren't really hungry, then we starve spiritually, we fall into despair and we do nothing.

Here's the gospel promise from our Lord himself: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; they shall be filled."

The mere fact of CLAC's existence today, in a tough world, where time and again it would have been a lot easier to quit, is a testimony to many people of faith whose hunger and thirst for righteousness were filled by the promise and presence of God's Spirit. That's the sort of testimony to the goodness of God that offers hope to our nation. God alone is the ultimate good. He alone deserves our final love. He alone can satisfy the hunger of our hearts.

Go forth and work knowing that your labour in the Lord, your faithfulness to the Lord in business, on the assembly line, in the field, office, union steward's shop, classroom, or kitchen is never in vain. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness and live righteously; they will be satisfied.

That, my fellow citizens, my friends, is the real bottom line, also for our nation.

John Bolt
John Bolt

Dr. John Bolt is a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has taught at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario and is the author of several books and numerous articles.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?