Sunday, January 23, 2011

Greeds: Corporate and Otherwise

Public displays of agreement across spiritual/religious traditions are always nice, but often feel a little fluffy. So, to find a shared willingness to publicly stand together and challenge the abuses that occur under the dominant economic model in the world is always a plus in my book.

This is a few months old, but it's worth sharing.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand/GENEVA, 17 September 2010 (LWI) – A group of leading Buddhist and Christians has underscored the urgency for faith communities to engage with government and financial institutions to transform personal and structural greed and help promote the equitable distribution of wealth.

Thirty leaders, scholars, economists and activists from the two faith groups meeting under the auspices of The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the World Council of Churches (WCC) affirmed that Buddhists and Christians shared similar teachings on greed, which should constitute the basis for engaging today’s economic crisis.

“Engaging Structural Greed” was the theme of the LWF – WCC consultation hosted by Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand from 22 to 26 August.

Participants stated that one of the main reasons for the current global economic crisis was the drive for the maximization of profits by capital owners, and they lamented the de-regulation of the financial markets. The present situation, they said, was a moral and spiritual issue.

“The dismantling of these regulations a few decades ago resulted in an environment for the explosion of personal and structural greed, leading to a debt and mortgage crisis, to unparalleled disparities between the super-rich and those who go hungry every day and to the accelerated degradation of the environment,” states the consultation’s final statement titled, “A Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed.”

The consultation included Lutherans, Reformed, Anglican and Roman Catholic Christians, and Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists from 14 countries, and aimed at continuing the host organizations’ ongoing engagement with questions of economic justice.

I recently had a short e-mail discussion with my father and step mother about the American health care system. One of the points I made was that companies should not be allowed to make piles of profits on human suffering, birth and death. There's no ethical position, in my opinion, to justify the obscene amounts of money being made in the insurance, pharmaceutical, medical device, and other "medical industries." My step mother kind of disagreed with me, saying she didn't have any problem with insurance companies making profits(that was the focal point of that particular discussion). We never did get into "how much profit" is ethical, but I think the basic problem with holding the "it's ok" position in this economic climate is that the bottom line is almost always the bottom line, no matter how much bullshit window dressing is applied.

Greed is such a snake you know. I remember taking some pens from work awhile back because I didn't have any at home. Even though I could have easily asked if I could have a few, I decided it didn't matter because someone else had given them to the school. That's a tiny example from my own life, which didn't really hurt anyone else, but which did reinforce sloppy thinking about objects within myself.

During our zen center's board retreat last month, there was a discussion about putting some dharma talks on-line that our head teacher and a few others have done around Buddhism and 12 Step programs. They're quite popular, and a few members of the board felt we could make some money off of them. Something about it struck me funny, but I kept using those talks as examples of "products" we could consider anyway. It was part laziness(I could have easily brought up another example if I had reflected on it for a moment), and it was part offering support for the enthusiasm of my fellow board members. This is one of the quandaries of being the President of the Board - balancing support for each person on the board with recognizing that a discussion needs to be shifted. In this case, I wasn't sure why I felt uneasy about the Buddhism and 12 Step material being sold online, so I let it go. And we ended up getting back together as a whole board (the original discussion had been in a small group setting), and suddenly the topic was raised, and both our head teacher and another board member offered their uneasiness with using that work to bring in profits to the center.

Now, it's important here to distinguish something. Our sangha isn't rolling in money, nor have we had any history of selling stuff online in the way places like Big Mind Zen Center do. We're a low budget, and until very recently, low tech community. It's only been in the past few months that we could consider bringing in money from doing something or selling something online.

However, when I consider the discussions that we were having about money and fundraising, and specifically the one that led into the Buddhism and 12 Step topic, I can see how there was an element of greed lurking about. The three of us in the small group all were trying to figure out what would bring in the money, instead of what might be of most value and support to potential students online. It's not that money should never be discussed, it's that the whole thing was gone about backwards. This is how our economic system tends to organize things. Profits first. Anything else, like ethical considerations, a distant second.

Greed is a snake. Actually, that's an insult to snakes, who are fine members of the world community, thank you very much. But anyway, I think you get what I mean. Believing that for-profit health care entities have human health and well-being first and foremost in their missions is absolutely foolish. Just as taking donated pens from my school and thinking that was ok was foolish.

And as such, I applaud the group of religious leaders that spoke out above, and wish that more of us would drop our allegiance to globalized capitalism and do the same. It's high time people put to rest tired cliches like anyone who denounces the injustices in capitalism must be a communist. Or that global capitalism may be flawed, but it's the best system "we" (whomever we is) have got. Even if it is the "best" (and I wish anyone interested good luck in trying to prove such a view that any economic system is "the best"), that doesn't make it ok to turn our backs on the real suffering being created every day under said system.

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