THE VOICE OF MY SON ANNOUNCES AT BREAKFAST from behind a box of Honey Bunches of Oats that he plans to sue Post cereal for age discrimination. It seems that the backside reads, "Recommended for all ages 110-and under." Calvin, pleased with his lawyerly instincts, asks, "What if you're 111?"
It's seventh-grade humor, but it's telling. Forty years ago, over my Cheerios, the joke never would have occurred to me. The word lawsuit did not leap to the mind as the first reflex of misfortune. It still had a fearful frisson about it, so terrible an undertaking was it to presume to fix a monetary equivalency to events (such as slipping in a supermarket aisle) that were still by and large considered "acts of God" or the givens of the human condition.
When Tec-9 machine-gun-toting gang member Darryl Barnes sued the City of New York for a police officer's "excessive force," a jury awarded him $51.135 million-about 98 percent of it for past and future anguish. These are the times we live in.
"Be on your guard against all kinds of greed," Jesus warned (Luke 12:15). Well, how many kinds of greed are there? I wondered.
There is the world-class kleptocrat kind, of course, men like Nicolae Ceausescu. He built a palace for himself in Bucharest the size of the Pentagon, at the cost of the annual income of every man, woman, and child in Romania. "Papa Doc" Duvalier, dictator over the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, pocketed most of his "children's" wealth. Mobutu Sese Seko, presiding over the Congo's vast reserves of diamonds, gold, copper, and hydroelectric power, reduced it to poverty.
Slightly lower on the food chain, Wall Street firms last month got sent to the woodshed for shenanigans with investment bankers resulting in the bilking of millions in investors' nest eggs. (What's a stock-brokering guru to do when he wants his toddler in a posh New York preschool and all he has to do is say he likes AT&T?)
But these examples are almost unhelpful for pedagogy, playing into the self-serving fiction of "us and them," of capital Greed versus innocuous suburban kinds.
Jesus proves the distinction specious. You would like to think that you are not a murderer, but Jesus says you have killed a man in your heart. You would like to think that you are not an adulterer, but Jesus says you have lain with your neighbor in your heart-you only lacked opportunity in real life. Regarding greed, you have not done what Duvalier or Ceausescu or Saddam Hussein have done, but only because you don't have that kind of power. Thank the Lord for that.
But what you have done is sue McDonalds for millions for spilling hot coffee on your lap in Albuquerque-though I should think a few grand would have covered the ER bill. And you haul your groceries home to "Tanglewood Estates" in your fully loaded Ford F-150 SVT Lightning pickup truck that never saw a dirt road. And you developers in New Jersey, subverting the intent of the 1983 state Supreme Court affordable housing law, strew the landscape with more lucrative McMansions. And you CEOs pocket 400 times the pay of the average production line worker.
Physicians in Pennsylvania are leaving the state in droves for lack of a cap on awards for "noneconomic" (intangibles of pain and suffering) losses in lawsuits. A woman on the Sci-Fi Channel's new Scare Tactics was scared out of her wits recently by the show's "reality" stunt and needs a lot of money to make her feel better.
There are perfectly legal pursuits that Jesus still calls "greed": "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me" (Luke 12:13). But as Solzhenitsyn had the guts to say to the USA: "A society with no other scale but the legal one is also less than worthy of man.... [In America] if one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint or ... call for sacrifice."
"The Christian businessman will take profit, but he will not do everything he could do in exacting all the profit he could exact" (Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man).
Jesus, for his part, calls for enlightened "greed"-the man who finds treasure in a field, and in his joy sells all he has to buy that field (Matthew 13:44). Do you want to be first, He asks. Fine, here's the way: Make yourself last. Today, tomorrow, the next day, and the rest of your life. In fact, till you forget you ever wanted to be first. And then you will have mansions in heaven-fully loaded, cup running over.