What is the pandemic teaching us about love? This is the second in a series answering this question. See Part 1 here.
COVID-19 is teaching us that our cultural gold standard for love is measured in … gold. That is the underlying message of those demanding the economy be reopened, at any cost.
Sometimes it helps to draw in popular images to demonstrate a point. Here goes such an attempt.
There’s a scene partway through The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies where, having reclaimed their home and riches under the Lonely Mountain, the leader of the Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, is settling into his role as King Under the Mountain. There is vast wealth in his keep, and he is soon overcome with “dragon sickness”– a sort of gold poisoning of the mind, changing him into a caricature of individualistic greed.
Outside his doors, several armies threaten to battle one another – some because they want the riches owed them within the mountain; some because they are bent on total annihilation of the Other (and the riches are a nice spoil.)
Thorin, trapped in his poisoned mind, resists joining the battle–which is the valiant thing, here–and forbids his company to unite with their kin outside the mountain. All he can think about is his gold and protecting his gold.
One of his company, the dwarf Dwalin, comes to speak to him, trying to persuade him to be the courageous leader they need him to be. Thorin has none of it. The gold is of more importance: “There are halls beneath halls in this mountain. Places we can fortify…We must move the gold further underground, for safety.”
Dwalin, incredulous, responds, “Dale is surrounded. They’re being slaughtered, Thorin.”
Sneering, Thorin replies, “Many die in war. Life is cheap. But a treasure such as this cannot be counted in lives lost. It is worth all the blood we can spend.“
The parallels between this exchange and our present commentary on the worth of life are unmistakable. Present-day leaders, channeling their inner, greed-sickened Thorin, are figuratively saying, “Many die in pandemics. Life is cheap. But reopening the economy cannot be counted in lives lost. It is worth all the blood we can spend.”
In other words, our economy is hungry for lives and must be sated. The lives of “essential” workers and persons of color are plentiful and expendable. They are the first to be sold on the COVID-19 auction block, enslaved and sentenced to a meaningless death for the sake of amassing wealth for a few. The commitment to protecting personal wealth, at the expense of all else and everyone else, is “worth” whatever it takes.
Have you noticed? The ones who want the status quo back are those who benefitted most from the way things were.* The ones who prefer to let others fight the battles, while they slink further into their cavernous mountains of gold, waiting for danger to pass. The ones who command the labor in our modern day Plantation Complex.**
We live in a culture where the love of money trumps the love of life. The pandemic is teaching us about the corrupting love of gold.
When it comes to the economy, we know many are itching (or violently scratching) to get back to work.
In my line of work, I can imagine some churches, who rely heavily on the literal passing of the offering plate, are similarly itching to open up their doors, in part to be able to pay mortgages and salaries again. In both the sacred and secular economies, the overarching question is, “But at what cost?”
In this post-Easter season, the Revised Common Lectionary includes a reading each week from the book of Acts. The early church, too, had to contend with a similar question, “What is the financial cost of faithfulness?” There are some rather “striking” stories of gold poisoning, if you will, where the love of money leads to one’s demise. There are also incredible stories of redistributed wealth and economic equality amongst members—where a material cost to the individual (i.e. their money) is transformed into spiritual wealth for the community. (One commentator called this the “golden age” of the church.)
The financial cost of faithfulness need not result in ridding oneself of all material wealth for the sake of avoiding gold-poisoning, though that could be argued. Money, at least in the early church, was used as a means of transforming society. How it was used, and the core values that shape its use, was what mattered more. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages his followers to reconsider the purpose of “treasure.” Is it used to show off, having excess when others are starving? Is it used to push others into poverty? Such uses of wealth are counter to the good news, for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If your core treasures are based on Love, then drawing lines about money (e.g. “How much is too much?”) will never become a question.
In this COVID-19 time, and really, in all times of unchecked consumerism, the love of gold demands the cheapening of life. And we must all answer, “At what cost to our souls?”
*To be fair, there are also those who are pushing for the reopening of the economy not because they will personally, materially benefit as much as those in power, but because they fear the loss of privileged identity if patriarchy and white supremacy do not maintain a firm grasp on the economy. These folks, who are far more numerous than the powerful few, are beholden to the gold-sickness even though they will likely never share in the treasure; they are the dwarven miners working for the King.
**The “Atlantic Plantation Complex” is a term I first heard used by Christy Clark-Pujara in Justified Anger’s African-American History Course, 2/3/2020. It’s meant to encapsulate the intricate, widespread, and insidious nature of plantations – an “unprecedented international economic system of labor management, capital and investment.”
Check back in next week for Love in the Time of COVID, Part 3: Others.