Friday, January 23, 2009

Scarcity is not the problem

"The conflict between the narratives of abundance and of scarcity is the defining problem confronting us at the turn of the millennium. The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being. The baptismal service declares that each of us has been miraculously loved into existence by God. And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. In the words of St. Paul, neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor things -- nothing can separate us from God.

"What we know about our beginnings and our endings, then, creates a different kind of present tense for us. We can live according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious, frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for."

- Walter Brueggemann, "The Liturgy of Abundance and the Myth of Scarcity"

My ethics lecturer at Moore College, Andrew Cameron, would often say "scarcity is not the problem". At first, I thought he was crazy. Of course scarcity is a problem. There are people starving for lack of food or ill from lack of clean water, others who sell themselves into slavery for lack of money, or who go without medical care and suffer apparently unnecessary pain, farmers whose crops fail due to drought and changing weather patterns. All these people cry "we do not have enough!"

But that is not what he was saying. He was saying (I think) that scarcity is not the problem. Scarcity only becomes a problem due to other, deeper problems: our unwillingness to share, our ignorance (willful or otherwise) of the needs of our neighbours, our confusion of wants and needs, our fear that unless we hoard all we can then we might miss out, our delusion that endless economic growth is necessary for a healthy society or that boundless consumption will make us happy. These are the real problems. Scarcity is the symptom of a world out of joint. And lives based on the assumption of scarcity compound other problems. If I fear that there will not be enough to go around, I will be more reluctant to share.

The quote with which I began is from this article by well known Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. It is worth reading in full (it is not too long) as a great articulation of the fundamental Christian belief in God's generosity. God is not stingy. He has not shortchanged us. He provides abundantly (though not infinitely as our childish dreams desires). There is enough. There will be enough. Be not afraid.

Give us this day our daily bread. Amen.


Megan said...

I preached on this last year - there is a good quote attributed to Gandhi:
Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed.

the don said...

byron, thanks for the link to the article. I heard Brueggemann's lectures at Regent College recently on this very topic. They are worth downloading and listening to!



byron smith said...

Megan: a nice coincidence - I was discussing this B article at a reading group a couple of days ago and someone else mentioned that same Gandhi quote, which I hadn't heard before, but which seems perfectly apt.

Josh: thanks for the tip!

Mike Bull said...

Great article. I particularly like his reference to idols as the 'gods of scarcity.'

His interpretation of Achan's sin is incorrect, because they were allowed to plunder in later conquests. Jericho was 'holy war' - a firstfruits that was devoted entirely to God. This is more complex than just plain old greed. Achan wasn't covetous. He was impatient like Adam, which put Israel on the wrong side of the angelic swords. Obedience comes before glory.

Unknown said...

Totally! Steven Covey's book 'Seven Habits of Highly Effective People' has a couple of pages on the downsides of the scarcity mentality.

They do define it in terms of wonderful 80's Coke/Pepsi market share battles - and say that once Coke stopped comparing themselves to Pepsi and only compared themselves to themselves - they took off. (Which is a wonderfully cliched example if you want to sell management books to aspirational middle-management types)..

But it does illustrate a broader truth - too often people take on a behavioural characteristics associated with scarcity - when they simply don't need to.

(I think even the Mathematical Game of Prisoner's Dillemma borders on this.)

Isn't it fantastic that we a transformed by Christ, that we take on a Kingdom view of the world. That we can choose to be generous, regardless of how people treat us, because our God is generous to us.