A Disease of the Heart
In the 1500s, a lust for gold and silver drove the Spanish Conquistadors to feats of horror that would appall any normal human being, or at least one not caught up in the frenzy of a powerful addiction. Not unlike many for whom their drug means more than life itself, Francisco Pizarro  was said to be modest, gentle, and affable with his countrymen or with those who won his favor, but ruthless with any Peruvian who interfered with his passion for wealth, power, and control.  His compatriot and cousin, Hernándo Cortés  was just as obsessed. As historian Inga Clendinnen tells us, he mockingly justified the theft of precious metals and the slaughter of the Aztec people, by claiming “that Spaniards suffer from a disease of the heart for which gold is the only specific.”  I doubt he recognized the irony of his words.
In medicine, a specific is a remedy that prevents or cures a particular disease. Sometimes we believe certain practices or medications will heal us, only to discover that they made things worse. Bloodletting is one example. Opioids are another. Not only do the drugs cause dependence in susceptible individuals, but it appears they are less effective at easing most types of pain than are NSAIDS.  Similarly, gold may seem to cure the maladies that ail us, when in reality, it makes things worse.
Greed and Suffering
Kwasi Kwarteng and Farnaz Fassihi point to their greed. As they explain in their book War and Gold, the Inca and Mayan peoples regarded the Spanish “as supermen, endowed with magical powers and equally superhuman greed.”  If greed twists our minds and blackens our hearts, then “superhuman greed” will surely distort our values so much we can justify any atrocity. Paul had good reason to declare that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Those who crave wealth “have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (Timothy 6:10 NRSV)
That sounds about right. Though Cortés and Pizarro may have called themselves Christian, they did not live out the dictates of their faith. Probably they felt little connection to a higher power. I suspect they were also pierced with pain. Perhaps they struggled with loneliness, insecurity, emptiness, or bitterness. Some discomfort drove their passion.
In the United States, we are not immune to clinging mindlessly to what we think will make us feel better. During the latter part of the last century and the early part of this one, for instance, most of us were swept up in that collective covetousness called consumerism. We eagerly borrowed money we could not pay back, eventually leading to the 2008 financial collapse. 
Money and Corruption
Even now, we don’t appreciate the value of delayed gratification, the virtue of frugal living. We want to buy, use, own, and we want to do it now. Ten years ago, we hit bottom in a deep recession. Now in 2018, we seem to have forgotten how painful it was. Like addicts, when we feel better, we risk returning to our old ways. We see this in our caustic insensitivity to the marginalized and in our tolerance of the indiscretions and outright abuses of the wealthy.
Corporate leaders and politicians have long fallen prey to the lure of wealth and power, gladly sullying forests and oceans, mining metals in sensitive habitats, drilling off our shores for a dwindling supply of oil. To a greater or lesser degree, we Westerners have always craved wealth, even at the expense of our families, our communities, our environment.
Yet today, this kind of grasping is stark and raw. Columnist Eugene Robinson describes how corruption has invaded the White House. Because “Trump and his family have refused to divest themselves of their businesses,” he writes, the potential for conflicts of interest has become insidious. He points, for instance, to Trump’s policies in Panama and Qatar, wondering if they’re related to the dispute over his hotel in Panama City or Jared Kushner’s unsuccessful attempt to get Qatar to invest in his real estate company.
“As in many countries whose governance we scoff at,” Robinson concludes, “Americans must now wonder whether policy is being tailored for our leader’s gain.” 
Men and women in positions of power have a greater obligation than others to recognize and manage their lusts, conflicts, and addictions. Unfortunately, they often do not bother to try.
Our Own Addictions
If we feel justifiably shocked at the disdain for human life shown by Cortés and Pizarro, by our own president, that does not mean we personally are immune to avarice nor even to the ugliness it arouses. Unless we are in positions of power that allow us to steal immense wealth, we have not been tested. How can we know for certain how we would respond? It is easy to judge another when we have not faced their choices.
At the same time, we might not seek a life of opulence and ease, at all. We might be uncomfortable with displays of dominance and control. Though some of us will do almost anything to make money, even sell our bodies and souls, others of us feel guilty if we have any disposable income at all. Money often represents strength, success, or love, so how much we have determines our value. Even the wealthy worry about money, and some of us curse it.
In some form or other, most of us suffer from a malady of the heart for which gold – or money – seems to be the only cure.
My own relationship with money is difficult. For most of my adult life, I chose freedom over money. While not always a bad thing, it means that I have at times struggled to pay rent and buy food. One year, for a few months, our family had no home. While we didn’t sleep on the street, we moved from one awkward situation to another. When my husband finally found a job, and we had collected enough money to get into the downstairs flat of a triplex, I was immensely relieved and grateful. I never want to be homeless again.
Pema Chödrön might suggest, given my attachment to my house, that I learn to let go of it. She suggests that whatever we are most attached to is what we should release. She describes one woman who visualized “giving away whatever she most feared losing.” Another went beyond visualizing and actually gave that thing up. 
I wouldn’t mind doing the visualization, and maybe it would help me, but to give away the thing I most fear losing? Whether that’s my house, the people I love, my health, my piano, or any number of my possessions, I do not want to let them go, not even to reach spiritual enlightenment.
The Pain of Holding On
Siddhartha did that. So did St. Francis of Assisi. They gave up prestige, wealth, and comfort for the life of the spirit. In this way, they found a deeper joy than any material comfort can bring. Sometimes I do fantasize about walking away from all my responsibilities and embracing the freedom of pennilessness. It has a romantic appeal. Yet I like watching my savings account grow, and I love having enough money to give some away.
Although I do not crave money so much that I would cheat, lie, or steal to amass a fortune, I can empathize with the craving for more and more wealth. I can understand how greed can overwhelm us. I can also see what Chödrön is trying to explain, that the degree to which we would do evil to satisfy our lust is the degree to which we will suffer. “Pain is always a sign that we are holding on to something.” 
What kind of pain traps us? Grief, loss, shame, fear, resentment? Chödrön tells us that if we can let go of that to which we are attached, whether it’s the stories that feed our emotions or our piano and our house, we will find relief. We will feel at one with the universe, at peace with our god, and we will know generosity and freedom.
The Fears that Get in the Way
Easier said than done. But what gets in the way?
According to Gerald May, our craving for security keeps us trapped. Although in the end none of us are really secure, we can sure fool ourselves into thinking we are. We’ll even compromise our freedom for that sense of safety. May says that the extent to which we relinquish our freedom is the extent to which we are addiction, and most of us have some level of addiction to security. 
Parker Palmer talks about the fear that lies beneath that longing for security. In our fear, we mindlessly amass wealth, staples, gold, or money. Lost in our addiction and grasping, we make the procurement and maintenance of possessions the purpose of our lives. In an interview with Krista Tippet of On Being, Palmer says, “Once you go down the path that stuff is where my meaning lies, you can never have enough of it.”  No matter how much we own, we never feel satisfied.
We don’t have to reach this level of grasping to appreciate the peace of mind that comes with having money in the bank. If we’re middle class or wealthy, we might even admit to enjoying our power and privilege. Still, that doesn’t make us as greedy as the Conquistadors. Most of us may find we’ve imbued money with some aspect of life we are greedy for, such as security, meaning, fame, respect, success, love, or even God’s approval.
Addiction to Security
Although the judgmental side of our Christian culture has tended to correlate worldly success with God’s grace, the reality is that the more attached we are to money, the less connected we are to God, or our families, or our creativity, or our joy. That’s why May points out that if we allow our need for security to control us, we can no longer love one another nor love God. The answer is to “relax our grip and ease our concern about all the lesser sources of security to which we have become attached.” We must somehow trust God or our friends or life or the universe to take care of us. 
This is scary. Our society doesn’t support this kind of risk-taking. Driving fast, hurtling downhill on skis, having unprotected sex, smoking cigarettes, and gambling on the stock market are all risks our culture condones. Giving up our need to establish a secure financial base seems foolish and irresponsible. As May reminds us, in our culture, we trust possessions, power, and human relationships.
Unfortunately, our attempts to find freedom by amassing more and more wealth only constrict us. Having a lot of money can also lead to its own kind of worry, as M. Scott Peck describes.
The Balanced Use of Money
Early in his marriage, Peck and his wife struggled to make ends meet. Once he started selling his writing, however, the couple became comfortable, then fairly wealthy. With their wealth came new responsibilities. They had to figure out what to do with their money. They had to hire staff to help them manage their assets, their business, and their time. Since they still wanted to live out their values of compassion and generosity, they had to figure out what organizations to donate to. If used well, Peck maintains, money can enhance our freedom. 
After some research and discernment, the Pecks used their wealth to start an organization that allowed them to fulfill their sense of mission and purpose in a way they never could have had they been poor. As the Bible says, it isn’t money itself that is bad. It is the love of money.
How do we use money in a positive, healthy way? Starting a nonprofit is one possibility. For Richard Rohr, the purpose of money is to enhance relationships. He says that instead of seeking money as “an end in itself,” we should use it to nurture right relationship. If we do, it can can bring us joy. 
Right Relationships and Money
I don’t have a great relationship with money. Now that I’m financially comfortable, I don’t want to go back to the days of depending on God to keep me housed and fed. If we all renounced money, wandering around like a supplicant without a roof over our heads, who would make us clothes to wear or grow food for us to eat? Imagine the entire city of Portland reduced to hunting squirrels and picking miner’s lettuce. Even with God’s help, most of us would starve.
So what would it look like to use our money to nurture right relationship? Rohr doesn’t give examples, but he does invite us to ask, “Do I want to be rich and famous and comfortable and popular, or do I want to be faithful?”  Being in right relationship means being faithful to God, to family, and to our neighbors. Being in right relationship means giving away our money freely and creating organizations that enhance the public good. It means making sure we don’t lose our souls to earn wealth. Do work that provides value to others. Recognize how much is truly enough, and don’t try to earn more than we need. Be ready to release what we most desire, so we can be free to meditate, garden, or spend time with loved ones.
Healing Our Malady of the Heart
Earning enough to pay our bills is not a bad thing. Saving for retirement is not evil in and of itself. It does not mean we have forsaken God. Yet if we long for security, approbation, or friendship, we might seek wealth to ease our anxiety. Whatever pain drives us, whether shame or trauma or grief or betrayal or any number of unnamed sufferings, we might seek comfort in money. Like any addiction, a lust for money and all it symbolizes can cause us to betray everything we care about.
Most of us suffer from some malady of the heart. Unlike Cortés, few of us kill in an effort to secure a specific. Nonetheless, if we explore our relationship with money, we may find a bit of anxiety here, some craving there, or an old pain that limits our freedom. Whether we spurn wealth or cling to it, feel undeserving or entitled, we are not free. To manage our money with generosity and ease, we must understand our suffering, admit our longings and fears, forsake false security and meaning, and learn to let go. In this way, we can live in right relationship with ourselves, our loved ones, and our higher power.
In faith and fondness,
- Pizarro led the Spanish expedition to Peru where he conquered the Inca nation, killing their king, Atahualpa. “Francisco Pizarro,” WIkipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Pizarro, accessed 3/6/18.
- Kwarteng, Kwasi and Farnaz Fassihi, War and Gold: A Five-Hundred-Year History of Empires, Adventures, and Debt, New York: Public Affairs, 2014, 14-15.
- Cortés did the same as Pizarro with the Aztecs. “Hernán Cortés,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hern%C3%A1n_Cort%C3%A9s, accessed 3/10/18.
- Clendinnen, Inga, Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003, quoted by S.E. Grove in The Golden Specific .
- “Teater, Donald, “Evidence for the Efficacy of Pain Medications,” National Safety Council, http://www.nsc.org/RxDrugOverdoseDocuments/Evidence-Efficacy-Pain-Medications.pdf, accessed 3/8/18.
- Kwasi and Fassihi 13.
- Ibid 321.
- Robinson, Eugene, “Trump’s Damage to U.S. Could Take Years to Undo,” The Oregonian, March 6, 2018, e-edition extra, 2.
- Chödrön, Pema, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion, Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2002, 135.
- Ibid 135.
- May, Gerald, Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions, New York: HarperCollins, 1988, 31.
- Palmer, Parker, “Repossessing Virtue: Economic Crisis, Morality, and Meaning,” On Being, Krista Tippet, December 11, 2008, https://onbeing.org/programs/parker-palmer-repossessing-virtue-economic-crisis-morality-meaning/, accessed 3/6/18.
- May 31.
- Peck, M. Scott, 174.
- Rohr, RIchard, “The Danger of Money,” Homilies at Holy Family Church, Albuquerque, NM, September 21, 2013, Center for Action and Contemplation, https://cac.org/the-danger-of-money/, accessed 3/6/18.