Commentary: 2,000 sacred years in 60 profane minutes
I spent last weekend in Calgary, Alberta. I was invited to give a speech covering all of Christian history; I had an hour. I called the lecture, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Two Thousand Years of Sacred History in Sixty Profane Minutes.”
The location was one of the oddest venues I have ever had for a speech. The organization is called WPO, World Presidents Organization; it is a group of CEOs of fairly big to huge companies.
I was told that the officers had decided not to have any programs this year in hotel dining rooms. They wanted to move around and meet in interesting places. So I gave my speech at the Ferrari dealership in Calgary. In attendance were about 30 CEOs plus their spouses and two Ferraris.
I am not unaware of the challenge of telling the story of the followers of a poor itinerant preacher from Palestine to a group of Ferrari-affording folks. In fact, I spent a bit of time explaining that one of the most important stories in Christian history is how a group of powerless and persecuted people ultimately saw their beliefs accepted by the most powerful and richest people of Rome.
How did this change those people, how did it change Rome, how did it change Christianity?
These are important and difficult questions. For example, the Emperor’s conversion meant no more persecutions of Christians for their beliefs and far more converts to the faith. On the other hand, the Church became rich with imperial support. Furthermore, the Emperors expected and usually got the blessings of the leaders of the church when they went off to battle in the name of the Prince of Peace!
Before my talk, I got a half hour ride in a Ferrari, top down, through downtown Calgary and on the highway.
I must say that this is quite a different experience from driving my 2001 car with 125,000 miles through a city.
I confess that I am not tempted to own a fast and sexy car. I cannot imagine that if I had a billion dollars, I would spend a quarter of a million on a car, let alone one that only seats two and you really can’t park in the Wegmans or Wal-Mart lots.
Of course, this is easy to say since the likelihood that I can ever test that claim is rather slim. Hey, I’m psyched to start drawing social security in December!
After the speech, we had good Italian food for lunch, surrounded by several Ferraris. The red sauce was a nice color match.
Incidentally, the dealership sells Ferrari gear as well as the cars. I looked at a T-shirt as a possible gift for one of my sons. It was $72. Then I found a tasteful Ferrari tie for a mere $208.31. What planet had I just migrated to, I wondered.
While chatting with one of my hosts afterward, it just came up in conversation that he had just bought a 5-passenger helicopter that he had flown to Calgary from Palm Springs, CA. Now it is parked at the airport next to his jet! I mean, some of these folks are into very big and expensive toys.
All of this seems quite excessive to me. However, I think too often my definition of excess is “anything more than I have.” I was with a couple students in Italy last spring when I bought a tie for about $70. They found this excessive and decadent while it seems just about right, or at least under some theoretical moral maximum.
My students may just be right. And I suppose the beggar family I know from Slovakia think that what those students paid for some of their toys is excessive and immoral.
You can feed a lot of hungry folks with the cost of a helicopter. You can also feed several for what I paid for my tie and at least a few for the cost of the clothes and gizmos that my students buy. How do we justify any of those habits in light of the poverty and suffering of the world? How can folks with helicopters and $70 ties and phones that do 5000 things identify themselves as faithful followers of that preacher from Galilee?
The family with the helicopter took me to the nearby town of Banff in the Rockies. After a lunch consisting of meatloaf made of beef, deer, elk, and caribou, we visited some of the most beautiful mountain scenery I have ever experienced. I learned that this family also had homes in Hawaii and British Columbia. I’m sitting in the luxurious back seat, half wondering to myself how these folks sleep at night.
Soon, however, we were talking about their charitable work. They do a lot to help the homeless of Calgary. They give and raise huge amounts of money for cancer research. And their list goes on.
For all I know, they give as big a percentage of their worth as do lots of generous people I know. They certainly can leverage what they give because of their influence in the community. Jesus said that the poor will always be with us, so shouldn’t we have people who can contribute big chunks of money and services to help those folks?
Of course there are arguments to be taken seriously that suggest that what we need is a more equitable distribution of wealth rather than a few with a lot who agree to share a bit of what they have with the have nots.
These are tough issues that have been ‘bothering’ Christians for more than a millennium and a half. There are those who themselves chose to be poor and to live with the poor but who respected those who shared their wealth. Among these are Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa. Is there one Christian way of dealing with the morality of great accumulations of wealth in a world of great want? If the holding of great wealth is a fault, then am I not as guilty buying my tie as my host is buying his helicopter?
Good questions for thought and prayer.