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  • Christian Perspectives on Overcoming Greed in a Consumeristic Society:Buying Fear as Collusion with Greed versus an Economy of Grace1
  • Paula M. Cooey

My thesis is simple: Overcoming greed depends on overcoming fear. Both fear and greed are variations on desire. To overcome them requires nothing less than the transfiguration of desire. Transfiguring desire leads to a lifetime of dissent against the corruption that presently produces the greed and fear characteristic of this world. Christian traditions provide resources particularly suited to transfiguring desire and sustaining a lifetime of dissent.2

The human conditions of greed and fear are hardly new to the twenty-first century. However, in the aftermath of 9/11, as complicated by the already-in-process economic downturn, greed that benefits the few who exercise the most political and economic power has accomplished its ends far more successfully by getting ordinary people from the upper middle classes downward to buy fear. We now live consumed by and consuming fear, or terror, on a daily basis, terror brought to us not only by international guerrilla forces, but also on a far grander scale by our own political and economic leaders. Once I have developed what I see to be the relationship between greed and fear, I propose further to suggest very briefly redress to this situation. I will argue from a Christian perspective that desire itself requires transfiguration—a transfiguration grounded in an economy different from global capitalism, driven by a mediator different from self-interest, and supported by a discipline other than the cultivation of consumption, including and especially the consumption of fear. In this vein there are resources both christological and practical already at work in history that provide a framework and discipline for this transfiguration to occur. I confess at the onset that I have no quick fix or grand plan, and that what I propose here may be way too little, way too late. [End Page 39]

Social Analysis

While we may well differ on the precise meaning we give to the concept greed, we would probably agree that greed constitutes desire gone amok.3 Said another way, greed is piracy.4 Its worst crime is theft of the future. Greed is thus a social phenomenon construed along lines of power. Although it is systemic and entangles us all, our roles differ according to social location. Everyone does not have equal access to greed, nor do most people or the rest of the planet actually benefit from it. Greed maintains and extends itself by means of the cultivation of consumerism, through exploitative labor practices, by appeals to divine authority of Christian fundamentalism, and through militarism. These interactive forces work to construct, regulate, and police the desires of citizens as consumer-workers. In short, greed breeds a culture of fear and then trades upon it. Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, fear itself has moved to the center of this network of interactive forces. Our capitulation to fear marks in part our collusion in the greed that benefits the few. It is on fear that I wish to focus.

The fear that sustains greed represents the distortion of what I consider to be normal desires to meet fundamental human needs for food, shelter, and relative stability. To the extent that fear reigns, it entangles everyone. We collude in the greed of the most powerful not simply for the short-term satisfaction of purchasing beyond our needs and economic means, but because we fear for our future survival and the survival of those whom we love. Our fear has at least three consequences. Fear prevents the possibility of identifying any way but up, a concept I will shortly explain. Fear further has serious, horrible implications for human rights at home and abroad, as well as deleterious effects upon all planetary life. Finally, the exploitation of fear produces its own cottage industry of additional goods available for consumption.

"Identifying up" refers to the cultural phenomenon of identifying with those who have realized or exceeded one's own socioeconomic aspirations.5 A product of the legacy of individualism, identifying up mediates or drives the desire for upward mobility. Identifying up does serious...