Some years ago there was a movie titled The Gods Must Be Crazy. It concerned a tribe in the Kalahari desert that has essentially nothing but the food it can gather from its surroundings, which comes unexpectedly upon a gift of sorts: an empty Coke bottle. Before long, the members of the tribe come to blows over that bottle, from which the discoverer concludes that they are not meant to have it. He resolves to return it to the gods by taking it to the edge of the world and casting it off. Only thus, he believes, can the envy of his tribemates be neutered and the conflicts among them ended.
Sounds a bit odd, I’m sure. Yet it serves as an allegory of the effects of the internationalization of First World commerce. The spread of our products across the globe has elicited paroxysms of envy we of the prosperous West could hardly imagine.
Please don’t mistake me: the envious behavior of others is not our fault. What I have in mind is how a tribal society, not yet intellectually advanced enough to comprehend the value of property rights or the destructiveness of envy, will usually react to contact with a more advanced society. The pattern is near to uniform, wherever such contact has occurred. Indeed, I’m unable to come up with a counterexample.
Ponder this tale of a Ghanaian tribal chief:
This man had worked for thirty years in the offices of a number of European export firms. He knew that the only way to political influence lay in the accumulation of savings with which to finance a political organization. For him, this was enormously difficult. Whenever his relatives supposed him to have saved anything, they applied the thumbscrews of family obligations....The chief in question had to transfer his account from bank to bank because his relatives succeeded in eliciting information from the bank clerks about his savings. He began to build a house that he purposely left unfinished so that he could tell his relatives, “You see, I have no more money, I am a poor man.” At last they believed him and he was able to prosper without interference.
[Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour]
Helmut Schoeck’s mighty treatise brilliantly analyzes how pervasive, uncontrolled envy retards the societies where it persists. Very early on in the book he gives us a thought we should all bear in mind:
Most of the achievements which distinguish members of modern, highly developed and diversified societies from members of primitive societies – the development of civilization, in short – are the results of innumerable defeats inflicted on envy: i.e., on man as an envious being. And what Marxists have called the opiate of religion, the ability to provide hope and happiness for believers in widely different material circumstances, is nothing more than the provision of ideas which liberate the envious person from envy, the person envied from his sense of guilt and his fear of the envious.
In a society in which some will prosper more than others, uncontrolled envy is the stimulus for unending conflict. A society that accepts rampant envy as somehow justifiable (or at least, ineradicable) will be lucky indeed if those conflicts remain non-violent.
Yet in contemplating the social order of the West, which routinely grants respect to the demands of the querulous, such that those who ask nothing of the State except to be left alone are mulcted without limit to satisfy them, what conclusion can we reach but that envy, in the First World, has become one of the ruling principles of society?
Australia’s Reverend John Williams notes in his lectures that the only emotion mentioned in the Ten Commandments is envy: Thou shalt not covet. It should follow that among Christians, any indications of envy should be squashed at the instant they manifest. This in no way contravenes the desirability of charity toward those whose circumstances don’t permit them to support themselves. Rather it’s a matter of responsibility toward one’s fellows and their right to be left alone. To appease the envious is to feed their envy and increase its power. The envious are never satisfied with a single propitiation or a single target.
This is on my mind this morning because of a practice that’s become commonplace among American Christians: the doubly anonymous giving of Christmas gifts, purchased by the well off, to the children of presumptively needy families. At my parish a “giving tree” is used to solicit specific items as gifts, which makes it still worse. The implications of this practice appall me. I can’t imagine how anyone conscious of the dynamics of demand for the unearned – how attempts to satisfy such demands stoke the furnace of envy – could fail to grasp this.
I’m considered a modern-day Scrooge for thinking such a thing. To my shame, that’s often caused me to withhold or qualify my opinion, even when it’s been requested.
I know, I know: bleak thoughts for Gaudete Sunday, which is supposed to be an occasion of joy. Yet I can’t help but wish for the disappearance of the Christmas gift-giving tradition, and not merely for the crowds it engenders on the roads and in the stores in the month of December. It often seems to me that one whose fondest desire is to destroy constructive charity, neighborly affection, and genuine good will among men could hardly have come up with a better stratagem.
Bob Cratchit’s family demanded nothing. They were profoundly grateful for what they had, and delighted beyond measure with what they eventually received. Perhaps in framing their story that way, Charles Dickens was wiser than he knew. He was certainly wiser than our contemporary apostles of an unreflective, indiscriminate “charity” for which gratitude is seldom felt and thanks is never offered.