Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Myth of Scarcity

I believe it was biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann who coined the phrase "the myth of scarcity and the gospel of abundance." The phrase sticks with me. The rest of this is from me, although it may owe something to Walter B as well. I just don't have the text in front of me to check! The myth of scarcity is a myth in two different ways. Perhaps you learned as a child, as I did, that myths were stories told by more primitive people "who didn't know as much as we do" to try and explain the way the world is. That use of myth - which represents a tremendous amount of European-North American arrogance - implies that "their" inferior lack of knowledge is replaced by "our" superior growth in knowledge - generally meaning through science.

Literary scholar (and United Church minister) Northrop Frye reminds us of the second, deeper meaning of myth. A myth is a story that is profoundly true. Despite its shape a myth isn't focused primarily on the "how" of something but the "why". Why is some aspect of the world around us or life as we experience it the way it is? So, four instance, the creation stories in Genesis are that kind of myth - a profound assertion of a people about why the world is the way it is. In summary, because God made it that way and declared it to be good.

The "myth of scarcity" is a myth twice over. At the surface level it is untrue: we demonstrate that it is untrue whenever we manage to find money to do something we really want to do. So when the government declares that there declares that there isn't enough money to have a credible national housing strategy but there is money to spend in a cabinet minister's riding. Or when world governments, confronted by the truth that an infinitesimal portion of the profits of banks each year could eliminate childhood deaths due to hunger and malnutrition and they do not step up to the plate - because money is scarce. Or when someone says that they cannot contribute to a charity or another worthy cause because money is tight - yet they have the latest gadgets or regularly take exotic vacations. In each of those cases those are myths that are untrue: the truth is not scarcity but our decisions around expenditures which, for whatever reason, we seek to hide behind the myth of scarcity.

The second, and more insidious form of the myth, comes when we have heard the claims of scarcity so often that they simply become accepted. So, when someone says, "Oh, we can't do that because money is tight" and everyone else nods sagely in understanding. That often masquerades as the practical, reasonable, commonsense response. And because we hear it so often in so many settings the expression has a currency and a credibility. Everywhere we turn there is someone declaring how times are hard and money is tight. If enough people say the same thing enough times it takes on an air of factuality regardless of the truth.

I am not denying that there are those - far too many in fact - in Canada, for whom life is very difficult financially. But, in how many cases, are their challenges related to the fact that the rest of us have bought the myth that resources are too scarce to address those grotesque differences? So let's bracket out those folk, not as proof of the myth of scarcity but as victims of it!

Like many myths that are repeated often enough and come to be accepted as fact (most racial and gender stereotypes are like that) the myth of scarcity which is so often repeated in our society creeps into the church. Governments have adopted the myth of scarcity to further the politics of division (promising to make sure that each group gets to keep its little portion when together we could be much stronger). In the church we often hear about how we can't do this, that or the other because there isn't enough money. In one sense that's true. In absolute dollars the Mission and Service Fund of my denomination is identical to where it was thirty years ago. Which means that the spending power has plummeted. Yet, when the Maritime Conference recently solicited funds to provide breakfast for survivors at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings in Halifax, more than double the hoped-for amount was raised! Look at the outpouring of relief for drought stricken Africa, earthquake ravaged Haiti, flooded Thailand, and the list goes on. The issue is not scarcity - the issue is helping people realize that this needs to be a priority.

The gospel of abundance is what Jesus came proclaiming, and we've been trying to truncate it and limit it ever since. We try and explain away his assertions about the power of faith or the breadth of the kingdom's welcome or the incredible results if we act in faith. We don't teach tithing because we say it's not reasonable. Maybe what's not reasonable is to expect much from a carefully rational and controlled faith. Maybe what's not reasonable is to expect to do the work of the kingdom of God while honouring the myth of scarcity.

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