Money, Murder and Merton

I have recently read two stories which go in widely diverging paths but which have led me unexpectedly to a single destination.  I write that sentence with some trepidation however because it seems to suggest, by the use of the word ‘destination’, that I have arrived at a conclusion or a program that I can in turn share with the world and wait impatiently for the inevitable adulation which must necessarily follow. Nothing of the sort has occurred.  Instead, my destination is a tangle of observations, possible paths, hints and guesses which come together to form a tendency of thought and nothing more.  I will depend on people smarter and better organized than myself to help me refine these thoughts into a more coherent form.

One of these stories is a recent, mindless, tragic event in which three teenage boys from Oklahoma (alright, ‘young men’ if you must, but to me still boys) who were bored one day and decided to go and kill someone.  Their victim turned out to be a real young man who was jogging down a road.  There was no connection between these individuals that I know of; the teens needed a target and the jogger provided one.  As a result of good police work these teens were stopped before they could kill more, which is what they intended to do.  The other story is an autobiography of a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  In his book he comments on capitalism, and while he is not accurate if the point of his statement is that capitalism is innately evil, I believe that his analysis of capitalism within the philosophical framework of a mechanistic and materialistic worldview is true and has a lot to say, in a roundabout way about the horrible event in Oklahoma.

Before I launch into my thoughts I would like to clarify some terminology.  I hate it when really smart people write as if only other really smart people are going to read their work, and then when a working class schmo like myself comes along I have to hope that I can figure out what the meaning of their words is by the context in which they are used.  I usually fail miserably in that task.  By ‘mechanistic’ I mean a view that the universe and everything in it is like a machine; it runs by perfectly logical rules without any input from supernatural sources and if science could learn perfectly the rules of the machine then science could perfectly predict events and eventually perfectly predetermine outcomes.

By ‘materialistic’ I mean that there is only ethically neutral matter in the universe.  We are only matter ourselves and we struggle to obtain and protect other bits of matter.  Since matter is ethically neutral there are no confusing values to guide individuals in their behavior.  The notion of ‘good’, if it arises at all, is of infinitely less importance than the notion of ‘mine’.  If this bit of matter will increase my happiness, or even if I only think that it will increase my happiness, then I must have it.  And that, I suppose, you may call ‘good’ if you wish.  For an example, there is no intrinsic notion of a rock being good because it is cold and hard and another rock being bad because it is hot and just was ejected from a volcano.  A rock is a rock; you may describe it’s physical features but you cannot confer upon it greater intrinsic value because it is hot of cold.  In the same manner, in a truly materialistic world one cannot ascribe to the action of an individual the value of good if he stops his car to allow a mother pushing a stroller to cross the street and bad if he speeds up so that he can hit them both (with due respect to Sartre, which in my case means no respect at all).  If either act made the driver feel good who, in a materialistic world, is to judge his act as being right or wrong?  Of course the family of the deceased mother and child might find that they gain pleasure by tearing the driver limb from limb and who am I to pass judgement upon their action?  My point is that with this worldview no innate value is placed on life or things or abstractions such as good, honor, justice, mercy, and the like.

With that in mind I will quote Thomas Merton from his autobiography:  “It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of [worldliness].  And nowhere, except perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome, has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money.  We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest”.

Merton had no idea that his observations on capitalism would be applied to a case like the murder in Oklahoma I think, but the application can be made.  The teenage boys have grown up in a culture which truly strives to “excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension…” and “to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible…”.  In the absence of a culture which teaches definitively that individuals have worth which is established by authority higher than ourselves and that the violation of the values established from above us will result in severe personal loss on an eternal scale, these boys acted in a rational manner; they were bored, killing people on video games was no longer stimulating enough, and the next level was to kill something or someone in real life.

So how are these boys and capitalism to be connected?  What on Earth do three bored juvenile murderers and an economic system have to do with each other?  In a material sense, other than the boys being small-time consumers and the gigantic edifice that is international capitalism supplying the microscopic amount of goods that the boys consumed, nothing.  In the realm of ethics however, everything.  In the absence of an ethical framework to guide behavior that is more than a vague list of suggestions which might be followed if one feels so inclined on any particular day, the behavior of the boys and a businesswoman and everyone else is predictable and not subject to condemnation.

In our society we have some do’s and some don’ts, but we have no clearly explained moral reason for why they should be followed.  We are told not to use certain words but we are not taught why we should not use them.  “They will hurt someone’s feelings” you say.  “So what” I reply.  “It is demeaning and dehumanizing” you add.  Again I reply “so what”?  “You cannot paw at the body of a coworker who does not desire your attention”.  Why not?  The answer to all of these and other such questions is that you may be sued, fired or worse, forced to take sensitivity training.

Social rules are enforced only by the coercive potential violence of the state.  So what”  You will be punished if you do.  Why not?  You will lose your job and be sued for all you are worth.  But nowhere does society seem to be willing to say “do not do that because there is a supreme entity which has made all things, including you, and will hold you accountable for your actions.  I wish to point out that this picture is not a very accurate representation of the judeo-christian God but a more generic concept of deity.  Still it will suffice to represent a yardstick, a balancing scale external to our rational little rules made up in our own rational little minds to try to make people be nice.

Because people still won’t be nice.  In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s several television programs in America portrayed ideal families.  As a child growing up in those years I was aware that almost none of the kids I knew lived in homes like the Cleavers’ in “Leave It To Beaver”.  Probably the few who did seem to live in such homes actually lived in homes where their family dysfunction was just better hidden.  Still, we knew that families were SUPPOSED to be like that.  Love, respect, duty, justice were all supposed to reign in the home.  Love was the guiding principle in these homes and everybody tried in the end to do good and be reconciled with others in the family.

We knew that this was just a model and that there was a wide range of variation within the context of the greater society, but the model reflected function rather than dysfunction and for a while we bought into it.  Later, as cynicism became a dominant theme of society we opted to throw that model out, rather than to encourage husbands, wives and children to aspire to emulate the model with their own personal variations to the best of their ability.  Since we were not living up to something like the ideal, let’s just chuck the ideal out the window and do our own thing, be the captain of our own ship, make ourselves happy any way that we can.  We know how the unrestrained pursuit of happiness as a supreme goal has turned out:  The happiness of the three boys in Oklahoma consisted of putting at least one .22 caliber slug through the back of a runner whom they probably had never laid eyes upon before that sad day.

And where does capitalism fit into this?  Basically the problem is the same.  The two competing economic models are capitalism and socialism, and socialism has proven to have the same negative social drawbacks as capitalism plus the additional negative that it doesn’t work.  Capitalism as an economic system clearly does work but where it fails is in exactly the same place where society failed in the lives of the four victims in Oklahoma (yes, the boys are victims too; they will pay for their poor but materialistically rational choice by spending the rest of their lives in jail, where they unfortunately belong).  A capitalism which is not restrained by a concept that people are more than economic statistics and that the Earth is more than a pool of raw resources is a beast that devours it’s own children and then defecates in it’s own nest.

An otherwise good man or woman may live in a comfortable home in the developed world and make a living producing or selling goods which were made by impoverished or even slave labor in another country, who’s factories pour their effluent into the waterways of that country, and which do nothing towards improving the lives or economies of those countries.  A singer or actress may begin a line of cosmetics because her glamour attracts followers who wish to be like her, an how many animals are mutilated and killed as this product is tested?  The list of such miscarriages goes on and on.

The problem is not capitalism itself; the problem is capitalism without supernatural values from an absolute, supreme Source, which demands that the lives of laborers, retail employees and the environment be considered in the economy of businesses.  So many times I have read of a capitalist who says, sincerely I believe, “I would love to not do _____, but my competition does it.  I will go out of business if I don’t do it too”.  This is a place where government could do good if government were guided by the same external Source of values.  Realistic regulation of labor and environmental practices by governing agents untouched by bribes, either made in the back room or through campaign contributions should be something that an ethical government answerable to a deity could do.  Extending those regulations to factories and capitalists who work overseas but sell their products in our country would be a nice addition to that formula.

Ultimately we suffer from a lack of any good material reason why we shouldn’t exploit labor, pollute our environment, or murder random joggers.  The state, which has represented itself as all the religion that we need, will not tolerate competition from real religion.  The priests of that religion; university administrations and faculty, the entertainment industry and the machinery of government among many others advance their empty and destructive faith while hampering the challenge of any competition.  The system will not reform the system. The lot then falls to the Christian who fulfills the mission of Jesus Christ as it is given in the Bible; he is to love the Lord his God and her neighbor as herself.  Christians must apply themselves to the society in which they live rather than draw back from it to avoid being polluted by it.  Government, business, education law, entertainment, must all be infused with Christians who do not compromise their faith but who do not seek positions of authority within those fields in order to impose values from the top down simply because they have their hands on the controls of the coercive power of the state.  In other words love, not power, must win.

None of what I have written is original, and it has mostly been written better by somebody else.  The chance reading of the Merton quote just a few days after the murder in Oklahoma caused me to see a connection which I believed fit to share.  I hope that I have made some sense and will spur some further positive thought.  Christians must enter into the service of society in these and myriad other professions, bringing that supreme ethic into how they perform their duties.  The goal would be to become an ethical leaven which suffuses society from within rather than a Christian movement which seeks to mold society by seizing the controls of power.  But as I said in the beginning, I offer no roadmaps, other than that offered in the Gospels and by St. Paul.  We must find our own way in the desert, guided by the Holy Spirit.

If I have encouraged one person to think of the spiritual emptiness of our culture and to then initiate one act to bring the Kingdom of Heaven into this sick and hurting world I will consider that to be a wonderful thing and itself a gift to me from God.

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