Saturday, February 7, 2015

Trust in Material Objects Leads to the Highest Form of Vanity

In his Fourth Sermon on Ecclesiastes, St. Gregory of Nyssa sets the evil of slavery into a wider pattern based in the motives that lead to it and a larger series of economic sins, including the worst of those, in which people become objects of utility and commerce.   Today, even where official slavery is abolished, it merely continues under other legal pretenses, sometimes with an pathetically inadequate wage paid to cover it up, sometimes even that much is stolen with official, if tacit, permission. 

His description of the lifestyles of the rich and powerful as the generator of evil and the motives that lead to it is unusual, even within the abolitionist literature.  I doubt he was under any illusion that the wealthy and powerful were going to immediately give up what led them to enslave other people, slavery was such an entrenched practice that it must have seemed almost hopeless that it could be ended, universally.   When he delivered this sermon, some say on Easter, some say during Holy Week, he must have known that he was leading with what would be a radically strange idea to most of the people who would be hearing it.  He must have felt the need to go into unusual detail, getting into the motives of those who kept slaves to try to pry their consciences loose from that convention, following the structure of the verses he took as his text.  

To the extent that we follow the kind of life he describes is the extent to which someone else is ground down and enslaved.  For most of us the bling might not be gold but a new I-phone or something else.  The relevant mineral might not be gold but one of those rare earth elements contained in our technology and produced by the misery of people in the countries where that is found, their environment destroyed and the government corrupted in the ways commonly practiced by extraction industries.   Gregory of Nyssa's insights were sharp and took into account the wider context of the motives of people who do evil things. They are as relevant today as they were in the late Roman Empire.  

As a way of locating him in conceptual time, his maternal Grandfather was martyred under Maximinus II, during the last imperial Roman persecutions of Christians, his parents had their property confiscated due to their Christianity.  His own group of Christians hadn't established themselves in control, he was deposed at one point in his life.  Being a bishop at that time, in that place,  was not a particularly secure position.  Constantine may have ended the official persecution of Christians but they weren't part of a secure establishment until later. 

There was no guarantee that an emperor might not come to power who would mount another brutal period of oppression, enslavement, confiscation and killing. Apart from outright murder, the descriptions of the punishments under Maximinus include the worst kinds of enslavement, including in mines and sexual slavery.   Exactly the same thing that happens today under international trade, which includes blood diamonds, prison sweatshops, people enslaved to produce gold and other minerals and the destruction of the environment in countries around the world to the total oppression of those who live there. 


The Fourth Sermon on Ecclesiastes continued. 

We now observe many wealthy persons living pitiful lives; if it were not for people capable of healing them, they would not deem life worth living. If neither body nor soul benefits from [J.341] our opinion of gold's abundance, then how much more futile is it to prove gold's value to persons who possess it! For what material advantage is our lack of taste, smell, hearing or the sense of touch? As for me, let no one offer food or clothing in exchange for gold. The person who gives bread or clothing for gold exchanges a benefit for something useless in order to live, whereas anyone who takes nourishing food instead of gold lives. What profit, advise, lesson, warning or consolation for bodily pains can we derive from such material aggrandizement? A greedy person counts money, stores it up, signs documents, seals them, denies requests and swears falsely to another unfaithful person. Such is his happiness, the goal of his efforts and pleasure, as long as prosperity fuels his false oaths. However, this person claims that gold's appearance is lovely; it is more beautiful than the color of fire, the star's beauty and the sun's rays. Who hinders your enjoyment so that [J.342] you must provide pleasure for your eyes through gold's beautiful color? Yet Ecclesiastes says that fire goes out, the sun sets and our pleasure derived from such beauty is transitory. Tell me, how does gold differ from lead when it becomes dark? But Ecclesiastes says that necklaces, buckles, girdles, armlets, crowns and such adornments come neither from fire nor the stars. Trust in material objects leads to the highest form of vanity. With this in mind I now ask what type of person craves gold decorations, earrings, skins which adorn the neck or any other bodily limb? The body assumes the gleam of gold's splendor when we adorn ourselves with it. Anyone who sees a person wearing gold thinks it were for sale as in a market, but the person wearing it [J.343] is more concerned about its nature. If gold is well-wrought or carved, even though its color is green or has fiery gems, it does not assume any of these accretions; rather, if we suffer any kind of mutilation, or if our eyes exude pus [M.672], or if a scar horribly marks our cheek, such deformity belongs to appearance only and gold's gleam cannot cover it over; also, if the body suffers any calamity, gold cannot relieve its distress.

Is there any beautiful object worth pursuing which brings neither health to the body nor relief to pain? And what about deceived persons who cling to gold with their whole heart even though such possessions trouble their consciences? What do they promise themselves when they have something of so great a value? If they could change gold's substance, would they also desire to change their humanity into gold, a substance which lacks reason, intelligence and sensation as well as being pale in color, heavy, speechless and without soul and feeling? I do not think they would choose these things nor crave after [J.344] gold. If people of sound mind curse the properties of inanimate nature, what insanity makes them commit murder and steal to possess such a useless object? Not only do they carry this out, but they fail to see how it differs from the fruit [tokos] of evil thoughts, robbery or murder. How does a burglar differ from other robbers when he establishes himself as lord by committing murder or when he possesses what does not belong to him through usury [tokos]? Oh, how terrible is this usury, the name of a thief! Oh, what a bitter marriage and evil wedlock of which our human nature is ignorant while the disease of avarice has begun anew in lifeless persons! How grievous is that conception which gives birth to such usury!  

It shouldn't ever be forgotten that slavery is always, in every case, accomplished by a threat of violence and death.  One way or another, and always with the permission, explicit or unstated, of judges, politicians, police and military establishments.  Whenever those are successfully resisted and people are freed, the force doing that has to be sufficiently powerful and I think religion has proved to be the only force capable of doing that.   And, historically, it hasn't been all religion that makes that claim, the religion, itself, has to contain the demand of equal justice and any self-deprivation required to produce that justice.  Without that, selfishness has practiced enormous ingenuity to find ways to accommodate slavery.   That icon of the enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, even as he was intensifying the regime of slavery at Monticello and his properties, arranged his house and life so he and his guests would see as little of it as possible.   Our ruling elite does the same thing through international trade agreements, to their benefit, placating the ever falling middle class with cheap junk produced by foreign wage slaves. We're no better than the people addressed by this sermon, we just like to pretend we are. 

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