Greed:

The Systemization of Greed

Edited by Drew Friesen

Photo by Kvnga on Unsplash

By Dr. James Spencer

    14 min. Read Time

Published December 1st, 2020

            In Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges describes the city of Las Vegas as a “spectacle.”  It is a place designed to cater to the fantasies of those who visit.  It amuses, or perhaps bemuses, those seeking to find some sense of happiness, however fleeting, or to enjoy, even for a moment, a virtual reality…an illusion…filled with (false) promise and hope.  Those who dismiss Vegas as a place of perversion that should be avoided if not eliminated miss the point. Vegas is not an aberration.  It is the logical conclusion of a system built to feed insatiable human desire.  It is the logical conclusion of human greed.  

            As Hedges notes, “Las Vegas strips away the thick moral pretension and hypocrisy of consumer society to reveal its essence.  The commodification of human beings, the heart of the consumer society, is garishly celebrated in Las Vegas.  Here there is no past, no history, no sense of continuity, and no real community.”[1]  Through its over-the-top extravagance Vegas becomes “the American market ethic stripped completely bare, a mini-world totally free of the pretenses and protocols of modern consumer capitalism.”[2]  While Las Vegas certainly offers an illusion, the illusion is not, as is arguably the case in other cities or with economic relations, subtle.  There is a blunt honesty about Vegas.  Whatever hope those who sit down at a blackjack table might have of winning, there is a pervasive sense that loss is inevitable and that the odds are not actually in the player’s favor.  Commenting on Vegas in comparison to the broader American market ethic, Cooper suggests, “All the pretense, all the sentimentality the euphemisms, the hypocrisies, the come-ons, loss leaders, warranties and guarantees, all the fairy tales are out the window.  You’re out of money?  OK, good—now get lost.”[3]

            In speaking of greed in the same breadth as capitalism does not assume socialism.  Socialism is certainly an option, but it is by no means the only options. Further, it seems to me that beginning with capitalism or socialism as the foundational philosophical underpinnings of a treatment of greed are wrongheaded.  As interesting and important as debates about the underlying political and economic models we adopt as a society may be, such models are not the root problem.  We are.[4]  We have always had a desire problem, a problem with greed.  We seem to want the wrong things for the wrong reasons, thereby losing any reasonable grip on what it means to choose God over greed.  We cannot lose sight of the fact that exaggerated spectacles like Vegas, dehumanizing industries like pornography, and the traffic-dependent gossip-column-framed-as-investigative-journalism have something in common: they draw a crowd.  They wouldn’t exist without us.  The law of supply and demand is one of the basic dynamics within a capitalist society.  No demand, no need to supply.    

            It would seem, then, that greed begets greed.  Suppliers exploit opportunities to “sell” product to ready buyers whose desires are endless and escalating.  The greed of suppliers reinforces the greed of consumers through “the organized creation of dissatisfaction,” which keeps buyers thinking they absolutely need the newest and shiniest product in order to feel their lives are complete.[5]  The greed of buyers and suppliers is reciprocal (greed begets greed) allowing capitalism to “shape people in its own image.”[6]  Capitalism may, in this sense, be framed in religious language as creating disciples dedicated to an unending cycle of economic life in which what we don’t have becomes far more significant than what we do have.  Our desires begin to form us spiritually through economic systems in which we are, to one degree or another, willing participants.  

            There are any number of treatments of material greed and consumerism.[7]  Greed often results in the accumulation of wealth or “things.”  The fact that greed often results in wealth, however, should not blind us to other objects of greed.  Greed is, to use the paradigm set forth by Pierre Bourdieu, field-based.  Essentially, Bourdieu argues that while desires for fiscal benefit are broadly influential, different fields tend to define the form of capital that is construed as important.[8] Take, for instance, Lawrence Peter’s assertion that academic quarrels are “so vicious because the stakes are so small.”[9]  The capital of academia is not primarily monetary. It is comprised of some mix of reputation, prestige, clear (often disciplinary) thinking, and the ability to convey such truth within the scholarly guild (and, in some cases, the classroom). There is also a strong sense amongst some faculty that what they are doing results in a public good. Money is surely a concern, but it is not a driving force.  Still, greed is not absent within academia.  It is possible to pursue the accumulation of non-tangible capital and to make such capital into a necessity without which one’s life is incomplete and unfulfilled.  Greed, when understood through the lens of Bourdieu, is not limited to “tangible” trappings, but extends to intangible forms of capital.  Greed makes us susceptible to all the seductive treasures the earthly realm has to offer.[10]  

            This movement away from a strictly materialist understanding of greed is important because of the habitus the pursuit of field-based capital cultivates within us.[11]  For Bourdieu, habitus is “a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions and makes possible the achievement of infinitely diversified tasks.”[12]  As I suggest in Thinking Christian,

“Perhaps the best analogy for what Pierre Bourdieu had in mind when he used the term habitus is the sort of coordination that one develops through dance. Movements are under control, fitted within a particular style and tradition, yet gracefully and naturally rendered in a unique combination of seemingly effortless movements.  Developing the ability to perform these movements requires immense amounts of time, thought, and repetition.  It requires an understanding of each individual movement, how multiple movements fit together, and what the movements are capable of communicating.  More than that, it requires dancers to sustain a certain mental, emotional, and physical state so that they are capable of performing the movements that they have worked so hard to learn and that have become so natural.”[13]

            The picture of a dancer is effective in so much as we recognize that to perform at a high level as a ballet dancer you generally need a body type that does not resemble that of an NFL lineman.  The requirements of ballet demand that participants develop strength and flexibility while maintaining a lean physique that not only allows dancers to perform the required movements, but to do so with an expected aesthetic.  The requirements and expectations of the discipline condition the sort of training and lifestyle those desiring to perform at ballet’s highest level are likely to engage.

            In other words, the fields in which we compete for particular forms of capital condition our behaviors by setting out the “rules of the game.”  Within the context of a particular field, our desires are directed and shaped by the field(s) in which we exist and the particular form(s) of capital for which we compete within a field.  While our greed may be directed and shaped, it does not follow that human beings are simply subject to the fields in which they exist.  Personal agency is not dissolved.  Greed is not some external force against which we have no control.  It can, along with various other earthly vices, be “put to death” (Col 3:5).  The point of utilizing Bourdieu’s framework is to highlight that the fields in which we interact are (a) seldom if ever neutral, (b) influential in determining the sort of activities and dispositions one might develop as greed for the capital of a given field manifests, and (c) often (and unfortunately) in competition for the hearts of the church’s members.  

            Our willingness, if not propensity, to (a) be fulfilled by something other than God, (b) overreach God-given boundaries in pursuit of our own aims, and (c) set agendas for God that relegate him to the position of little more than a genie in a bottle, reflect an orientation to reality that make field-based capitals objects of greed.  Such an orientation is disrupted by the “Christ-gift” in so much as it “bypasses and thus subverts pre-constituted systems of worth.  It disregards previous forms of symbolic capital and thus enables the creation of new communities whose norms are reset by the Christ-gift itself.”[14]  So, while Paul may rejoice at the spread of the gospel even when motivated by selfish ambition (Phil 1:15-18), selfish ambition stands “over against God, whose Son fully displayed God’s character when he took on a servant’s role.”[15] That particular motivation and desire for personal gain may not result in a situation that hinder the proclamation of the gospel (1:18), but it does not align with the character of the community that seeks to imitate Jesus’s self-sacrifice (2:1-11).  Greed springs, in part, from our unwillingness to follow the example of Christ.  Instead of imitating Christ, we choose to pursue the tangible and intangible capitals of the world by means the world determines proper and with the dispositions and motivations acceptable to the world.  In replacing Christ as the object of our desires and seeking to determine ourselves through accumulation, greed becomes idolatry (Ps 10:3; Eph 5:5; Col 3:5).

            Even our most legitimate desires when left unchecked and undirected by God and the community of faith can “effectively act as a screen between God and us.”[16]  If we (either individually or collectively) allow our unbridled desire for “goods” to become our aim and goal in life, we have forgotten what it means to be human.  If our guiding desire is not to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, we will learn selfishness and construct a god that will serve our needs and, perhaps more to the point, desires.  Greed is not simply about wanting more.  It is about wanting that which is incapable of fulfilling our true desires, thus leading to an incessant pursuit of more. 

            Greed is grounded in wanting rather than in the getting because what is gotten is never sufficient to sate our desires.  As Augustine notes, “...we call the greedy poor, who are always craving and always wanting.  For they may possess ever so great an amount of money; but whatever be the abundance of that they are not able but to want.”[17]  In connecting greed and idolatry, Paul points to the underlying dynamic by which greed orients our way of being in the world.  When we forget that there is nothing apart from God that will ultimately bring security and satisfaction, we subject ourselves to an endless, hopeless life of insecurity in which accumulating a surplus makes good sense.  Without a deep knowledge of and belief in a sovereign, wise, benevolent creator, greed may well find fertile ground.   Greed conditions us to orient ourselves to accumulation and the logics that support it. Greed keeps us from being strange in the world because in our quest for more of what will never truly satisfy we do not reflect God to the world..[18]  When we succumb to greed, we embrace a god of our own making.

            When greed becomes our way of being in the world, we forget that when we serve the God of the scriptures, we have the time to be patient and discerning.  We have the security to wade into the complexities of a fallen world and to discipline ourselves to find truth no matter how difficult, painful, or costly.  We have the hope that God will make all things new and the faith to obey God even if doing so seems to not fix the world.  We have the confidence to submit our misdirected desires to the Lord knowing that he will sanctify our desires and “do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph 3:20).  In essence, greed, as insatiable as it may be, is insufficient.  Not only is our greed misguided, it is also limited in its capacity by our own human finitude.  If, after all, we are unable to comprehend the depths of all that God desires to do among us, how could our desires ever match God’s fathomless generosity?  Greed is not easy to combat.  It sneaks up on us by becoming commonplace.  Greed is not unavoidable if we are willing to accept all that God has given as all that we will ever need.  Contentment is the antidote to greed and that contentment is rooted in a right understanding of God.  It is “learned as we acknowledge our insufficiency and Christ’s full sufficiency.”[19]  God crowds out greed.  When we embrace God, we have no need to want for anything more than more of Him. 

            What practical steps might we take to identify greed and root it out of our lives?  First, we must take a step back from the operating systems of the world and take the time to discern.  Greed and time (or our perception of it) are intertwined at least to the extent that greed makes time short.  By recognizing that time is not to be used solely for production and consumption, but as a means to experience and display the provision of God, we combat greed.  We engage in something akin to the Sabbath’s underlying theological rationale: God has rescued us from the hard labor of Egypt and brought us into a new Kingdom with a new ruler.  Just as Sabbath practice was “made possible by God’s liberation and continually reminds Israel that. they no longer live under the regime of Pharaoh, but under the benevolent hand of the Lord,” our refusal to accept the fast-paced cadence demanded by the world is a powerful rejection of the world’s logic and a means of embracing a more theological reality.

            Second, we must challenge ourselves to be a people capable of having deeply theological conversations and refusing to succumb to anti-intellectual evangelical leanings. While there is surely a place for more popular Christian content available through broadcasting and the internet, part of the solution for greed is the formation of a mindset for which greed makes little sense.  That may well mean stepping away from media that does not cultivate depth of thought and is itself based on principles of a market economy more geared toward ear-tickling than truth telling.  Can we expect to combat greed by leaning solely on those whose ministry platforms are dependent on ever-increasing consumption?  It would seem that in the marketplace of Christian ideas in which Christians compete for page views, listeners, and subscribers that there is more than a little reason to question whether what we see is all there is.  We would do well to remember that “popularity is no guarantee of wisdom.”[20]  Committing to depth in our theological conversations will require us to do more than parrot the perspectives of popular preachers or to discuss the concerns of the day.  In doing so, we can learn to resist the mechanisms of consumption and greed that, to one degree or another, influence evangelical conversation.[21]

            Finally, it seems that it is time for us to put God to the test.  In Malachi 3:10, God tells his people to test him by bringing “the full tithe into the storehouse.”  Though the holding back of the tithe is framed as robbery rather than greed in the context (3:6-9), there appears to be a conceptual connection between the Israelite’s robbery and the notion of greed.  In both cases, there is an overwhelming concern with security which motivates a hoarding of sorts and indicates a distrust in the sufficiency of God’s provision.  God’s invites Israel to test him and his promise to honor faithful obedience.  In our context, greed may well manifest in less-than generous giving.  So, while it is surely not the case, as some proponents of the prosperity gospel might advocate, that God will multiply our giving and return to us an abundance of earthly wealth, it is still time for us to test God by setting our hopes squarely on Him and recognizing with Yoder that “the criterion most apt for validating a disposition, a decision, an action, is not the predictable success before it but the resurrection behind it, not manipulation but praise.”[22]

 

Lord, keep us from being a people whose unbridled desires lead us to serve gods made by human hands rather than standing as your image and reflecting your glory in a world that does not know you.

________________________

Footnotes:

            [1] Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (New York: Nation, 2009), 63.
            [2] Marc Cooper, The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas (New York: Nation, 2004), 10.
            [3] Ibid., 10-11.
            [4] Kant argues, “…it is not his [humanity’s] nature to stop possessing and enjoying at some point and be satisfied” (Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment [Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987], 318).
            [5] Erik Larson, Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities (New York: Penguin, 1992), 20.
            [6] Kathryn Tanner, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 8.
            [7] See, for instance, William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) and Frank Trentman, Empire of Things: How We Become a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York: Harper Collins, 2017). 
            [8] See Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).  Note also David Swartz’s treatment of Bourdieu in David Swartz, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 65-94, 117-142.
            [9] Lawrence Peter, Peter’s People (New York: Morrow, 1979), 183.
            [10] While the lens of Bourdieu’s work is beneficial, a non-materialist notion of greed is also available in Scripture through such texts as Hosea 4:8 in which greed and eating are used metaphorically.  Note also Ephesians 4:19 in which Paul describes the unsaved Gentiles as “greedy to practice every kind of. Impurity.”  While it seems that the majority of scriptural references to greed have the insatiable, unchecked desire for material goods in mind (cf. Ps 10:3; Prov 1:19; 15:27; 28:25; Jer 6:13; 8:10; Ezekiel 16:27; Hab 2:5; 1 Thess 2:5;; 1 Tim 3:8; Tit 1:7), there are instances in which greed is used in a more symbolic fashion.
            [11] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. R. Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 72-95.
            [12] Ibid., 82-83.
            [13] Spencer, Thinking Christian, chap. 3.
            [14] John M. G. Barclay, Paul & the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 6.
            [15] Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 186.
            [16] Bruce Ellis Benson, Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida and Marion on Modern Idolatry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 18.
            [17] Saint Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009), 196.
            [18] Beale notes, “All humans have been created to be reflecting beings, and they will reflect whatever they are ultimately committed to, whether the true God or some other object in the creator order.  Thus, to repeat the primary theme of this book, we resemble what we revere, either for ruin or restoration” (G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008], 22).
            [19] Spencer, Thinking Christian, chap. 3.
            [20] Spencer, Thinking Christian, chap. 9.
            [21] Regarding the anti-intellectual trend of evangelical Christianity, James K. A. Smith notes, “The names and faces and radio voices that command evangelical attention (and tithes) are often horrendously unreflective, parading their anti-intellectualism as a badge of being “real Americans” and fomenting the worst of evangelicalism’s populist impulses” (James K. A. Smith, “The Future is Catholic: The Next Scandal for the Evangelical Mind,” in The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future ed. Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2018), 144-145.
            [22] John Howard Yoder, “To Serve our Godard to Rule the World,” in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical ed. Michael G. Cartwright (Harrisonburg: Herald, 1994), 137-138.

Terms of Service: Worthwhile Theology © 2020. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except as provided for by USA copyright law. If you would like permission for ministerial or academic use, please reach out to us at contact@worthwhiletheology.com.

© 2021 Worthwhile Theology Magazine

Worthwhile Theology LLC