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America’s God

As even ancient theologians could have seen, the U.S. worships at the altar of Pluto: the god of riches and death.  Our Plutocracy has become desperate in its end stages.  The gap between the rich and the rest is now bigger than it was during the Great Depression 80 years ago. Robert Reich reports that the richest 1% of us own more than 50% of all shares of stock.  The next 9% own 40%.  Most of us own only a tiny sliver of the stock market, including the stocks included in our 401(k) plans – if we even have such plans. The only real wealth most of us own is in our homes, but our President is helping, if not cheerleading, as the bankers foreclose on millions of our homes, hoovering what’s left of lower and middle class wealth up to the top.  Then, without any financial leverage, the political and economic significance of 90-95% of our citizens evaporates. (1) It’s not immediately clear why riches should be lead to death. That link came from the older Greek god Hades, on whom Pluto is based.  Hades was god of the underworld, which we call Hell.  We’ve been carried to Hell in a gilded hand basket, dumped into the abyss of insignificance. These are Theological Issues It’s a tough time to be a theologian, since membership and attendance at worship services has been declining for many decades. Church attendance is now around 18% and still falling.  The first words that come to mind when people hear the words “church” or “preacher” are apt to be “sex scandal” and “hypocrite”.  When asked to rate eleven groups in terms of respect, non-Christians rated evangelicals tenth.  Only prostitutes ranker lower, though some see this as an unfair attack on prostitutes. (2) But even if religion is in wholesale decline, theology offers a unique way of framing gods, lives, integrity and fulfillment: a here-and-now – rather than elsewhere and later – “salvation,” meaning a kind of wholeness and authenticity.  This may sound like good psychology, and it is: “psyche” is the Greek word for “soul.” But understanding our gods as the psychological allegiances that show our priorities – our “ultimate concerns,” as Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich put it – isn’t a newfangled idea.  Martin Luther said we all had gods, which could be seen from our behavior.  It’s good psychology, but also good theology.  It’s most helpful to understand theology as a “grammar of faith,” whether it involves one god, or thirteen in the Greek Olympic deities. (3) So. To say that America’s god is Pluto, the god of riches and death, is a theological – mythical – way of saying that the excessive love of money leads to the death of our full humanity and wholeness, both as individuals and as societies.  Both mythology and theology are best understood as psychological studies. No one would say that even a significant minority of Americans act in the imitation of Jesus.  But most would agree that we are a capitalist society with a lot more emphasis on buying than praying.  After 9-11-2001, President G.W. Bush advised us to get back to normal: “Go shopping.”  Jesus may have thrown the money-changers out of the Temple, but here, some megachurches have ATM’s. Pluto’s realm as the patron deity of Plutocracy and capitalism has family resemblances to St. Paul’s line in his letter to the Romans: “the wages of sin are death”.  The word “sin” comes from a word in the Hebrew scriptures.  The word het that’s usually translated as “sin” came from an ancient archery term that simply meant “to miss the mark.” The “mark” in this theological sense is living as God intended – which means how to live in a way that is useful to us, and worthy of the highest, most compassionate ideals we know. By tradition, the highest ideals are associated with God (or Good, in philosophical tradition). It’s a bit clumsy to use theological concepts that we’ve been taught to associate with supernatural realms.  But once the concepts are translated into ordinary language, they can be useful.  It’s the only way they are useful.  Since our gods represent the constellations of values that determine so much of our behavior, one of the most important questions is whether or not they are worth serving.  Most gods, including Pluto, are not.  So theologically speaking, if Pluto – the god of economic riches – isn’t worth serving with our lives, then doing so would be missing the mark of becoming more fully human and living a life we can say we are glad we lived that way when we look back on it in one year or fifty. In 23 years as a Unitarian minister, I conducted a lot of memorial services, and always encouraged family and friends to augment my eulogy by coming forward and sharing their own memories about this person.  I never once heard anyone praised for how rich they had been, how seductive, powerful, how attractive, intimidating or frightening they had been, or how rigorously they toed the line of whatever orthodoxy they had been taught to parrot. The things we most cherish about people are so very commonplace: they cared, they touched us, they were generous with their compassion: they seemed to embody the spirit of life itself.  They were – in Gibran’s lovely phrase – inspiring examples of life’s longing for itself. When framed this way, very few people would buy the idea that exalting the pursuit of wealth above all else could mark us as very wise, or even very fully human. (Homo sapiens means “man the wise.”) And what of the “death” associated with exalting the lust for wealth to the status of a god? It leads to some interesting questions. To what extent is the decline of the American Empire due to our placing profit above people?  We’re the only developed nation on earth that defines health care as a commodity, available only to those who can pay for it.  We’re spending trillions of dollars on illegal invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and four other wars of choice in Yemen, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa and Columbia – a defense budget larger than those of all other countries in the world combined!  Our society is in such a frightening state of economic and political disarray at least partly because we have been taught to worship capitalism – the creedal form of Plutocracy. Our wars are deadly examples of Pluto hiring Ares/Mars, the god of war, who is always an eager mercenary. We are on a road toward death when our government – and our President – are rushing to serve Plutocracy’s high priests on Wall Street, off-loading the trillion dollars of debt they created through greed, deceit, and incompetence – letting them return to their old habits with the blessing of our government, while trampling the vast majority of citizens underfoot in their rush toward all that glitters? If so, the death will come from serving an inadequate deity, and pledging allegiance to a god that’s so woefully self-serving it acts like a cancer, killing both its host – the U.S. economy and culture – and itself. These involvements absolutely contribute to our loss of respect and power in the world. Will we find that throwing trillions of dollars toward our effort to steal oil or location from others, kill them by the tens of thousands, and sacrifice the lives of thousands of our own soldiers … will we find it contributing to the death of the American Empire, as it has killed so many other dreams of empire? There is a deadly inhumanity in this worship of Pluto, which received its classic expression in the myth of King Midas.  The ability to turn everything we touch into mere gold is missing the mark by a mile – or a lifetime. Signs of Hope There are a few signs that people may be coming out of the capitalist trance. On May 29, 2009 The New York Times carried a story by Leslie Wayne titled, “A Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality”: When a new crop of future business leaders graduates from the Harvard Business School next week, many of them will be taking a new oath that says, in effect, greed is not good.  Nearly 20 percent of the graduating class have signed “The M.B.A. Oath”–  a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good”.  It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others. Bill Gates has put a third of his wealth into the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the largest private endowment fund in the world.  In 2006, Warren Buffet announced that he would start giving away 85% of his billions to charities – over 80% of that to the Gates’ foundation.  Others with far more money than they could need are learning how to start charitable foundation as well. If the pursuit of wealth were enough to fulfill a life, there would be no urge to start charitable foundations.  Yet there seem to be growing numbers of rich people starting such foundations.  Right now, America has the feel of F. Scott Fitzgeralds’ 1925 book The Great Gatsby, saying that the (capitalist) American Dream didn’t even work for the rich. This urge seldom goes the other way: we couldn’t imagine the Buddha, Jesus, the great saints, prophets and sages, or more contemporary spiritual giants like Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. or the Dalai Lama chucking it all and sending their resumes to land a corporate job (though their resumes would be interesting to read). Ghandi was reported to have a net worth of less than five dollars at his death. But almost no one thinks that’s any measure of his worth. Tellingly, our citizens don’t admire the Arab leaders – and the Arab citizens don’t admire our leaders. The real strength of these movements is that they are class wars, where the great majority of citizens are rising against the self-important leaders who control the wealth, and push their people down into poverty and fear.  There will be losses, and right now it looks like Libya may be one of them. Today, movements from inside and outside our Plutocracy are staging remarkable citizen uprisings, from the Middle East to England’s UK Uncut movement and the US Uncut movement targeting the businesses of rich corporations and individuals who pay no taxes. Pluto’s reign is under attack.  If the citizens can replace their leaders who – in addition to whatever other charges can be made against them – have, as Amos put it 2500 years ago, sold the poor for silver (or coltan) and the needy for a pair of Nike’s, this second decade of the 21st century may become the decade when the spirit of life rose up to reclaim and reassign the power from leaders who want to rule their citizens rather than serving them. Both individually and collectively, the narrow pursuit of wealth is the worship of a god that’s just not worth worshiping. And the “wages” of this kind of missing the mark can include the death of our empathy, compassion, humanity and empire. Endnotes: (1) See Robert Reich’s blog of 2 February 2011, “The Bulls on Wall Street Not Helping Main Street.” (2) Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, p. 143. (3) Originally, there were twelve Olympic deities.  Six were male: Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, Poseidon, Hades, and Hephaestos.  Six were female: Hera, Athena, Demeter, Artemis, Aphrodite and Hestia.  By the time of Plato, both Hestia and Dionysus were mentioned as gods, then the legend has it that Hestia stepped down from her place among the twelve Olympic deities, letting Dionysus take her place.  Hestia was goddess of the hearth.  She was almost never drawn or sculpted.  She was the spirit of what made the difference between a house and a home, or a church service and a worship service.  The reason Hestia had to be dropped from the dozen deities is because the number twelve, in the ancient world, was a symbolic number implying that all the astrological bases were covered.  It’s also found in Israel’s twelve tribes, the twelve labors of Hercules, etc.

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