Now thus says the Lord of hosts: / Consider your ways! / You have sown much, but have brought in little; / you have eaten, but have not been satisfied; / You have drunk, but have not been exhilarated; / have clothed yourselves, but not been warmed; / And whoever earned wages / earned them for a bag with holes in it.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: / Consider your ways! / Go up into the hill country; / bring timber, and build the house / That I may take pleasure in it / and receive my glory, says the Lord.
Haggai 1: 5-8
Most of us have met or known people who are self-centered and narcissistic, as well as knowing these tendencies in ourselves. Those who suffer this self-preoccupation to a significant and damaging degree usually do so as a result of a deep and unhealed wounded eros, that is, their capacity to receive and to give love has been adversely affected through experiences of neglect or abuse in their formative years. To suffer deeply from such wounds is to be, in relationship to others, something of “a bottomless pit.” That is, no matter how much attention, care, or love another tries to give them, it is never enough.
In today’s reading from Haggai we hear of a comparable, and instructive, experience at the social level. The Prophet hears and utters God’s word to the people: “You have sown much, but have brought in little; / you have eaten, but have not been satisfied; / You have drunk, but have not been exhilarated; / have clothed yourselves, but not been warmed; / And whoever earned wages / earned them for a bag with holes in it.” As one of the many comfortable American citizens in the early 21st century, I shudder with recognition at this description.
This morning’s news brings with it reports that as recently as last weekend, Russian “trolls” have been infiltrating social media in such a way as to exacerbate the divisions and tensions in the United States — acts which follow upon the words and actions of a President who seems intent on stoking the rage, resentments, and divisions of his people. If we ask, however, what would motivate such actions in the inner and outer political spheres, what makes it so easy for either our own politicians or outside forces to provoke such dissension and antagonism among us, we must admit that it is because we are disposed to it. We are the people of Israel to whom Haggai speaks. Despite the deplorable poverty and lack of far too many, the United States is a country and a society of enormous wealth. Yet, what our affluence and comfort seem to have brought about is but a increased sense among many of entitlement and grievance. For the most part we sow without experiencing joy as we reap; we eat and remain hungry, we drink without satisfaction; we cloth ourselves yet enviously desire something more; we work and work, but it is as if the bag in which we hold our wages has holes in it. We are so easily set against each other, it seems, because collectively we suffer from wounded eros.
What is the wound that seems to be killing us? Haggai affords us some insight. He says to the people that they must consider the self-centeredness of their ways and turn their attention and their efforts toward building the house of the Lord. Their problem is our problem. As self-centered narcissists, we are bottomless pits. When we forget ourselves and turn our attention outside of ourselves, towards making our common home a “domus Dei,” a house for God, we shall experience joy, satisfaction, fulfillment, and gratitude rather than a constant demand for more.
We live in a time when our political discourse seems unable to find space for accommodation, compromise, care, tenderness, and social concern. Perhaps for many years, if not decades, the values of an extreme capitalism have increasingly dominated our “common sense,” our shared cultural consciousness. When taken to their extremes (an extreme reflected in the popularity among many of our political leaders of the thought of Ayn Rand), these values perceive the world of the other as but a stage for the manipulation of others in service to one’s own self-interest. The world is essentially a place of conflict, as the narcissist sees it, and the other’s self-interest is ever a threat to one’s own. So, in highly affluent situations, raw competition becomes the norm from early life, as, for example, when four and five year olds compete for the few places at the most elite pre-schools. Our higher education system is so unequal that students throughout their secondary education are competing for the very limited available spaces in the few most elite institutions. Culturally, we feel the need to maintain classes and races of people who must be kept below us, for our sense of the world is not of bounty but of scarcity. The richest country in the world is about to set an immigration quota for refugees from war torn and impoverished nations that will be by far the lowest of the largest world economies. Yet, the more we live from such values, the greater the holes become in the bag that holds our wealth.
Especially since 1980, with an occasional rare interlude, our political discourse has been limited to empty promises to satisfy the bottomless pits that we as individuals and as social groupings have become. Listen as one might, there is, for the most part, no call from our current or would be political leaders calling us to turn our attention from our self-centered needs to the common good. Be the topic economic, political, or religious the appeal is consistently to each individual’s benefit. This inevitably makes enemies of “the other.” When we speak of relief for “working families,” for example in the current “tax reform” debate, one must ask “working families” as opposed to what, families that don’t work. And, whoever they are, are we saying that they should not have “relief” of some kind? When as segments of the population we claim the virtue of patriotism on our terms, do we mean that others whose experience is very different and who challenge us to widen our vision are not patriotic?
The reason that narcissistic persons and narcissistic cultures are “bottomless pits” is because human beings can only experience being cared for in the act of caring for another or others. As long as we demand to be taken care of and foster resentment towards those who don’t take care of us, we shall remain hungry and thirsty although we eat and drink, and however much we have we shall feel impoverished. Yesterday several of us were engaged in a discussion about the theological discipline of “missiology.” In the course of that discussion, a friend explained to me that, from that theological perspective, missiology precedes all else. We see from the very nature of the Trinitarian God that going out to others in love is the primordial human call. It is only by “going out” to others, by working for the common good of all, that we can know that we ourselves are cared for.
Some religious leaders seem convinced that religion is under attack in modern secular culture and is prohibited from having a voice in the public sphere. I fear, however, that often such leaders merely want a voice in the impoverished and combatitive discourse of self-interest and domination. The place they seek is a place of dominance for their values and their perspectives. Yet, to truly bring faith into the public square would be to attempt not to constrict but to expand the boundaries of the discourse. It would mean to remind our society that we have a responsibility to a Mystery that is beyond what any of us are able to know and which calls us to be servants of the common good, of the good of all. Of course, there must be a “right” to practice our rituals in accordance with our traditions, but such a right carries with it the responsibility to practice our religion in service to the common good.
The call to realize that to live is to be sent out must begin, of course, with ourselves. We all struggle with the conflict between living for ourselves and for the common good. Our own woundedness will always, at times, get the better of us, and we shall live at those moments with a demand to be healed that no other can fulfill. But if we remain alive and mindful to our own lives at such times, we shall hopefully awaken to the truth that our healing comes from caring for the other. The scriptures make clear that we flourish when we tend to the poor and the needy in our midst. American cultural consciousness has fallen prey to the illusion and delusion of scarcity that is the energy of unbridled capitalism and libertarianism. If we truly long to restore ourselves and our culture to one “under God,” it is time for us to consult the scriptural teaching that it is as we care for the widow and the orphan, for the poorest and most oppressed among us that we shall all begin to experience gratitude for God’s abundance, and we shall together reap in joy what we have sown.
Our life together can be better. Ours is a shallow and selfish age, and we are in need of conversion – from looking out just for ourselves to also looking out for one another. It’s time to hear and heed a call to a different way of life, to reclaim a very old idea called the common good. Jesus issued that call and announced the kingdom of God-a new order of living in sharp contrast to all the political and religious kingdoms of the world. That better way of life was meant to benefit not only his followers but everybody else too. And that is the point of it.
Christianity is not a religion that gives some people a ticket to heaven and makes them judgmental of all others. Rather, it’s a call to a relationship that changes all other relationships …. The call to love our neighbor is the foundation for reestablishing and reclaiming the common good.
Jim Wallis, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good