(c) Sue Cline, Guest Speaker at the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Good morning. Thank you for being here to hear my thoughts on a topic that seems all
too pertinent today. I have absolutely no academic credentials to make such a
presentation, so I am even more grateful for your presence. I am a qualified cynic,
however, having been reprimanded for same in a job performance review.
So, I knew I could not stand before you and rant about my decidedly one-sided
opinions. I needed to be better informed and a bit more objective, and informative. So in
preparation I have done some reading, questioning, and reflection to try to present some
thoughts on the topic of greed, and leave you with perhaps one thing to think about
going forward. I do offer apologies to economists and historians in the room: something
I have learned in this process is that I have certainly bitten off more than I can
chew—YEARS of study are required to get a proper handle on this subject, to
understand it in an historical perspective, and to speak with any authority. So we are
back to observations and opinions, which I hope can at least spur on some thought for
others in my particular boat.
Years ago Luke Scott Peck, the author of a popular self-help book, The Road Less
Traveled posited at the conclusion of the book that the “original sin” was/is laziness.
This made sense to me at the time and still does, IF one believes, so to speak, in original
Over time, as I’ve become better read, more reflective, and thoroughly psychoanalyzed,
my own “conclusion,” if you will, is that “original sin” is greed.
Thinking that original sin is greed is fairly easy – it seems to be everywhere and in
everyone, to some degree; it’s pretty obvious in most instances; and, for ME, it provides
a foundation – and an excuse — for my own greed, for my own natural and well
cultivated cynicism, and gives me ammunition to be highly judgmental of others and
personally conclusive about all our global problems.
The problem with this view, however, is greed itself. I don’t believe original sin is any
more than a myth created, first, to explain “bad” people, and then, to keep the common
poor under the thumbs of those whose “greed” for power had put them in positions in
which they could benefit from the human condition of the “common man.” So there
goes my excuse for my own greed.
Of course, as we know, greed is not all about money. Greed for power comes to mind,
for fame, for notoriety, also. I think one can also be greedy for love. This is a big topic,
and a subjective one. When does enjoying life’s pleasures honestly become greed?
My former pastor and friend, Rev. Steven Van Kuiken, was a huge help to me. I
actually have a copy of his 2000 sermon on Greed, which he delivered at Mt.Auburn
PC. It is so good, I was sorely tempted simply to begin with a big quotation mark and
read it to you. But I know better.
Greed, defined as excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions, is
a topic that has occupied me for quite some time. I think my obsession began when I
would read the annual articles in local and regional news about “the wealthiest people in
Cincinnati, etc.” I would go on a days-long rant, saying “NOBODY needs that much
money”, etc., “What do they do with all that money?” I took names, and personally
boycotted their businesses. Years later, during an hours-long procession of a local
businessman’s hearse through the streets of Cincinnati (so that all the people he affected
could pay tribute) an African-American friend and cafeteria worker at Cincinnati
Children’s, where I was working, countered my incipient rant about his apparent racism
with, “I don’t know about all that, but he did a LOT of good for the poor in downtown
and Avondale—we are grateful to him.”
That caused me to reflect on my opinions, and even on some of the facts about this man
and his family, and try to look at the larger picture. So, my biased blinders slightly
opened, I will confess that while I resent the establishment of suburban schools in the
name of religion, that allow the wealthy and white to escape the “OTHER,” I no longer
boycott UDF. I am not sure whether to be proud of that.
And I am striving, as I begin to make a personal judgment about someone based on
appearances, to remind myself that, unless it has been made public, no one’s personal
story is known to me.
I worked several years for an advertising agency in Cincinnati, and there began to grow
a bubble of questions and doubt about our motivation and methods. Advertising, most
basically, exists to create and sway opinion, and furthermore, to create desire for the
objects being advertised; the objective is to promote sales and, therefore, to increase
income for the purveyors and returns for the investors. How many things do we see
advertised that no one really needs, after all, and how many ads do we endure that
advise us to “Talk to your doctor about this miracle medicine, etc.”
Advertising isn’t all bad; it is deployed to promote the United Way, Artswave, pet
adoption, awareness of racism and xenophobia, and a myriad of important and good
causes, but these are, in my opinion, mere sidebars to the real goals of advertising.
(There’s that cynical cap creeping up again….)
So I went from advertising to selling beer and supporting first-hand the establishments
that carried our brands. I ended my working career at Children’s Hospital, a worthy
institution whose mission is undeniable (but one which, sadly, is beholden to the bottom
line, just like so many, even “non-profit” institutions).
Greed is mentioned in the sacred writings of all the major world religions. And not in a
In the Quran greed is condemned, as is usury and even charging interest on loans.
“Greed makes men ignorant towards all the suffering around them.” Charging interest
on loans was condemned also in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Bible.
There are many references to greed and covetousness in the Hebrew Scriptures: In
Psalm 10, Verse 3 we hear “For the wicked boasts of his heart's desire, And the greedy
man curses and spurns the LORD.”
In the story of Job, Job confesses his greed "If I have put my confidence in gold, And called
fine gold my trust, If I have gloated because my wealth was great, And because my
hand had secured so much…”
In the New Testament, Jesus and his disciples had a great deal to say about greed. “For
the love of money is at the root of all evils.” And another, “For where your treasure is,
there also is your heart.” And the memorable analogy, expressed by Jesus himself:
“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich
man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I could go on…
Native American lore is full with references to greed, avarice, and inequality. There are
too many to choose or quote. With this, Google is a help….
In Buddhism, there are three “poisons” which prevent us from reaching contentment:
GREED, aggression, and delusion.
In my reflections on this topic, I considered the opposite of greed, and determined that it
is perhaps the Buddhist principle of detachment from material goods and the cares of
the world. Another clear opposite is generosity, about which, without surprise, much is
written in all the sacred writings.
Recent history is rife with examples of greed. (This is my favorite part – a mini-rant.)
Banks grant loans to those who, clearly, cannot afford to repay them; stock brokers
receive millions in pay even when the funds they manage crash and burn; CEOs of
public corporations rake in 150 times the pay of their front line workers; insurance
executives become wealthy while the average worker cannot afford to purchase their
products and has to rely on government and taxpayers (if that fund is not stolen from us)
to receive medical treatment; senior government executives are willing to put citizens’
lives at risk, ignore real and urgent danger to our planet, extract fuel with dirty and
dangerous methods, dismiss scientific facts, ignore sacred lands of our ancestors,
decimate the world’s animal, fish, and bird populations, and more, of course, ALL in the
name of profit for the corporations, their CEOs and their shareholders. Universities,
publicly or privately funded, hire disproportionate numbers of adjunct faculty rather
than provide the salaries and benefits that accrue to tenured experts. Churches’ pastors
live lavishly while exhorting their congregants to pray, and to give more to the church,
to secure eternal life.
We live in an economy, a global economy, of institutionalized greed. The US, and
indeed most of the global economy, actually are dependent on greed to keep going, and
growing. Economic growth, or GDP-Gross Domestic Product, is the global
measurement of success. Unfettered, deregulated free market capitalism is the enemy of
the workers who are the foundation of that GDP, and is a friend only to those for whom
wealth is the only measure of success. Without greed at the top, there is no motivation
to grow, or even to work. As one can see, greed is a slippery topic: would we be
motivated to work, for instance, if there were no greed? Interesting question.
Yes, I am little bit of a socialist. I am all for capitalism that pays a fair and just wage for
the services that a person performs or the goods that they produce, but we have strayed
far. In preparing this talk I have read about Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth” in
which those who amass great wealth have a duty to share it with those who have less.
There are a few examples of those today—Bill and Melinda Gates come to mind, as
does Warren Buffet (But here comes that subjectivity again – when one observes the
luxurious lifestyles of these individuals, could one / SHOULD one conclude that there is
some hypocrisy there? I don’t know.)
And then there is Ronald Reagan’s “Gospel of Greed,” which describes riches piled on
the tables of the wealthy, with mere crumbs trickling down to the floor for those less
fortunate (or less intelligent, or less worthy), according to this philosophy. To provide
more crumbs for the lesser people, just pile more riches on the tables of the wealthy.
I also have been reading a rather dry, but ultimately fascinating book titled From Greed
to Wellbeing: a Buddhist Approach to Resolving Our Economic and Financial Crises by
Joel Magnuson. It explains the movement toward institutional change based on
Buddhist economic ideals, SEBE, for Socially Engaged Buddhist Economics. It offers
hope for change of our institutions through first changing ourselves and then changing
our local communities before attempting to take on the entire globe. A huge effort, and
not easy, to be sure.
There is another measure of success, employed in a few places on the planet where the
business of wealth-gathering is conducted with the wellbeing of the people at the
forefront. The small Himalayan country of Bhutan measures its success on the Gross
National Happiness Index, which takes into account the general wellbeing of the
country’s citizens. Now, Bhutan is a Buddhist country and its government and its
spirituality are deeply intertwined. The four pillars on which Bhutanese government
policy is established are: equitable economic development, environmental preservation,
cultural resilience, and good governance. There’s nothing particularly Buddhist about
those principles, however, but there is basic morality.
We read frequently about “the happiest places to live,” etc. In fact, Monday, March 20,
was International Day of Happiness, (I had no idea….) according to the fifth edition of
the World Happiness Report, an initiative of the Sustainable Development Solutions
Network (SDSN), created by the United Nations. This report ranks 155 countries on the
variables of income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived
freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity. Not a word
about GDP, or top executive salaries, or the stock market. Norway is no. 1 and the other
9 in the top ten are: Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands, Canada, New
Zealand, Australia, and Sweden. Interestingly, each of these countries provides
healthcare and education, including higher education, for the wellbeing of its citizens.
The U.S. is no. 14, and quite frankly I am surprised it is that high in the list, given the
current general morale of the populace.
There is a movement among Buddhist economists to change the entire paradigm of the
global economic systems, measuring wellbeing of the people, not the wealth of the top
1%, or the GDP, or the stock market. This begins, as with most things Buddhist, with
individual change, for institutional change cannot come from without. There are
communities where inhabitants take wellbeing of citizens and the planet seriously and
where even alternative economic systems are being established. I am eager to learn
more about these.
We know that change must come from within. We as individuals need to adopt an
attitude of mindfulness about all things economic, and that includes the economics of
fairness and justice, the economics of sustainability, of environmental responsibility, of
equality across all facets of our lives. Solely as individuals we can be mindful of our
spending, our use of cash vs. credit, the “need vs. want” motivation for shopping, the
motivation for gift giving, our acquisition of things. And not only our material
resources—we need to be mindful of how we spend our time: is it purposeful, is it
healing or destructive, is it selfish or generous?
We need to detach ourselves from our obsession with possessions and acquisitions. We
need to be generous. We need to use our resources, be they many or few, for good.
“For where your treasure is, there also is your heart.”
Thank you for this opportunity.