A landowner encounters a peasant walking across his estate. “Hey! Who gave you permission to walk on this land?”
“Why do I need permission?”
“I own this land and I say you can’t walk here without my leave.”
“How did you come to own this land?”
“I inherited it from my father.”
“How did your father come to own it?”
“He inherited it from his father.”
“And how did he get the land?”
“He was a general who fought in the King’s war. He was given this land as a reward for his service.”
“So he fought for it?”
“I see. Let’s you and I fight for it now.”
This story was part of a recent talk at the Unitarian-Universalist church where I take the Spotted Opossum every other Sunday morning. The speaker was talking about the economy of Christmas, which he dubbed “Excessmas”, the nature of ownership and the value of regifting. I thought his points were well-made, but one detail of the story stood out and that was the fact that the land had been obtained in the first place because of violence. The landowner’s grandfather, a general in the King’s service, got the land as reward for fighting in the King’s war. That is how all land was once obtained. There ain’t a square foot of habitable ground on God’s green Earth that somebody didn’t kill somebody over. With the land come the resources of the land: gold, timber, oil, slaves, crops, water, trade routes and so on, all the ways land can be exploited. All tradable goods which derive from those resources have their beginning in violence.
I observed Black Friday this year, as always, by buying nothing for a day. It’s a meager protest, but tiny drops add up. And of course, I read the headlines about Black Friday shopper carnage with cynical satisfaction. The grotesque spectacle of an angry mob stampeding into a Wal-Mart, trampling each other in their crazed rush to grab up an Ipod or Xbox always makes me laugh. Laughter is a coping skill. It works and I use it, because I need it.
Black Friday’s consumerist feeding frenzy isn’t strange. It is, in fact, the exact same thing that happens every day, everywhere goods are sold, only a little more. Wal-Mart is always a hair’s breadth away from a riot. And Wal-Mart is just an example. The entire economy of America is based on violence: wars of conquest, exploitation of workers, exploitation of land, the relentless and utterly unnecessary competition which is inherent in the capitalist system, greed, status, the degradation of human beings. The wealthy have their wealth because they have taken it from the poor. The poor are exploited because the wealthy can pay the soldiers. Children toil in sweatshops because adults will trample each other to get cheap clothes. It’s a vicious and heartbreaking cycle.
Nonparticipation is impossible. Well, I guess one could follow the example set by Thích Quảng Đức and self-immolate in front of the nearest big-box retail store, but that wouldn’t really do any good. Quảng Đức’s action didn’t accomplish anything and most people think he was protesting the war in Vietnam, which he wasn’t. I’m not saying people shouldn’t burn themselves in front of Wal-Mart, but I’m not going to. I have other work that needs doing.
I participate as little as I can. Buying nothing on Black Friday is a small thing. I don’t buy much for Christmas in any case: little thing s for the children in the family, simple toys that require assembly or encourage outdoor play. I like to give kites. I buy from thriftstores, dumpster-dive and trash-pick, repair what can be repaired, pass on anything that someone else can use. Most of my daughter’s clothes and shoes came from her cousins and will be worn by another kid when she outgrows them in a few weeks. I have friends who live off the grid, collect rainwater to irrigate the garden and compost their shit. They’re doing more than I am to participate less, but they still drive and buy and enjoy the luxury of relative safety.
The reason for the season, obviously, is the birth of the baby Jesus, who became the Christ and who never had a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. Prince Gautama started off rich, but became the Buddha only after leaving all that to become a wandering mendicant. Frances of Assisi was originally viewed as a threat by the Catholic establishment for his aestheticism - they decided to ignore him, thinking that no one would follow his lead and his radical ideas would soon die out. Gandhi and Mother Teresa lived in poverty, voluntarily. Crazy Horse was, in addition to being a great warrior, a respected spiritual leader who eschewed unnecessary possessions. This list could go on and on.
Conversely, I can’t think of a single individual who I would consider spiritually great who is or was rich. Okay, I’ll admit, the current Dalai Lama and the current Pope seem like pretty decent guys and ain’t neither of ‘em worried about the rent, but they’re functionaries of established religions. Their jobs are to lead their flocks in the footsteps of the dirt-poor beggars who had the visions. The fact that neither of them is dripping diamonds like Liberace means they’re good, not great.
Wealth and spiritual greatness are incompatible. Or, in the words of the Apostle Matthew, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24 KJV). True that.
And so what? Who cares about spiritual greatness, whatever the fuck that is? Well, I do. Spirituality matters to me and I’m aiming for greatness. What else would I aim for? Mediocrity? There are more than enough people in the world straining and striving for that. There are also more than enough people engaged in the heartbreaking struggle for wealth. They are guaranteed to fail. The idea that anyone can be rich if they work hard enough is a lie. For every rich person, there must be ten-thousand who are not. It’s a pyramid scheme and the top slots are filled.
Fuck that. There is no amount of money capable of buying the ability
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”
to quote William Blake, but I can do it. My four-and-a-half-year-old daughter can too.
Back to the story I started with: the peasant caught trespassing on the landowner’s estate was a clever enough fellow, but in reality that poor fucker would’ve been hanged for that shit. The wealthy have power and they don’t take too kindly to smartass trash getting uppity. We can only hope the peasant had a knife.
Embrace poverty, says me, it’s the way to Heaven. And if you’re trespassing, don’t get caught.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.