Opium and Envy

Internally Displaced Person

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

If you ask a serious baseball fan to name the best baseball town in America, chances are the answer will be “St. Louis.” The combination of passion, knowledge, and civility, plus the Cardinals’ history (the second-most successful franchise behind the Yankees) makes St. Louis a lot of fans’ second-favorite team.

All of this makes the possibility that the game’s best player, Albert Pujols, will end his career in something other than a Cardinal uniform painful to imagine.

Some folks in St. Louis find it so painful that they’re willing to use Pujols’ faith as a weapon. (H/T Mollie at Get Religion) An article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asks, “In Pujols’ Case, What Would Jesus Do?”* Not surprisingly, for many of those cited in the piece, the answer is “whatever makes me as a Cardinal fan happy.”

Of course, they don’t put it that way. Instead, they ask, “What does holding out for the largest contract in the history of baseball say about Albert's Christian testimony?” One pastor tweeted (just the format for nuanced discussions of moral theology and Christian ethics), “how is AP’s testimony affected if he holds the Cards hostage for $30m/10yrs? @ what pt does 1 Tim 6:10 apply here?”

(For the record, the "$30m/10yrs" is based on media reports, not anything Pujols or his representatives have said. Those reports, in turn, are, at best, based on sources many of whom are either trying to spin the coverage or have an axe to grind. Then again, punditry, especially Christian punditry and even more especially, Christian tweeted punditry, isn’t a fact-driven enterprise.)

For those of you keeping score at home, I Timothy 6:10 reads, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

As if to drive home the threat to Pujols’ soul if he doesn’t take what the Cardinals offer him, another pastor added that “Nobody really confesses to [greed] . . . Lust, anxiety — sure. But very few people say, ‘I’m greedy,’ and I absolutely think that (Pujols) should be on guard for that.”

(Anxiety on a par with lust? Really?)

Pujols’ biographer came to the first-baseman’s defense. Scott Lamb told the Post-Dispatch, “I reject any idea that a person’s Christianity should cause them to step away from what the market would demand for them. Referring to Pujols’ well-known generosity, he added that “Albert will go down in history as one of the great ones — someone who grabbed the money, and gave it away at the same time.”

(Mind you, I can easily imagine circumstances in which a person’s faith could prompt him to accept less than his full market value. In any case, we don’t know what Pujols is demanding, much less why he is demanding it.)

Like I said, as a baseball fan, I want Pujols to stay in St. Louis, but when I read the Bible-dipped whining that passes for Christian ethics, I wouldn’t blame him for leaving. The one-sided take on Christian faith and the marketplace makes Marx’s assessment of the role of religion in political economy seem generous. It isn’t only a “sigh of the oppressed” that keeps them from opposing their oppressors — it condemns them for seeking to be paid what the market, which they don’t set, says they’re worth.

If Pujols or any other employee, i.e., labor, is sinning when he wants to be paid full market value for his services, why doesn’t the same censorious logic apply when employers, i.e., capital, seek to do the same? Why the double standard?

Part of the answer lies with another one of the deadly sins, envy. It’s a misunderstood sin, which is unfortunate, since it is one of the defining sins of our times.

For us, to envy someone is to wish, however fleetingly, that we were like them in some way. We wish we were are as rich, attractive, popular, etc. That’s not envy — that’s covetousness.

St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, defined envy (invidia) as “sorrow for another’s good.” It is the opposite of pity, which is sorrow over the evil that befalls another person. Instead of rejoicing with those who rejoice, we begrudge people their good fortune, not out of a sense of justice, but, as Kant wrote, out of “a reluctance to see our own well-being overshadowed by another’s because the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others.”

To Aristotle, Thomas and Kant, let’s add WDJAS, “What did Jesus actually say?” His take on envy is sort of hidden in plain sight. The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16) ends with a confrontation between the owner and those whom he hired first. After hearing their complaints, the owner reminds them that he paid them what he had promised them. Then he added, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (“Do you begrudge my generosity” in the ESV.)

What Jesus actually said was much stronger than that: the Greek — ἢ οὐκ ἔξεστίν μοι ποιῆσαι ὃ θέλω ἐν τοῖς ἐμοῖς εἰ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι — can be translated “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

Anyone from the Mediterranean world (or eastern Europe) would know that Jesus was referring to the “evil eye.” It’s the look/curse used by the envious to inflict harm on the fortunate. Only in this case, instead of giving the fortunate laborers the “evil eye,” the envious workers cast their malicious gaze at the vineyard owner, i.e., God. Instead of being content with God’s provision for their needs, they felt resentful that God would be generous to those they regarded as their inferiors.

Our tendency to measure our well-being by comparing ourselves to others is what makes envy a defining sin of our time. Studies by behavioral economists have shown that given a choice between making 25 percent more than their neighbors or making 25 percent less, people will choose the former even when the latter amount is more money.

And whereas Aquinas couldn’t conceive of an ordinary person envying a king or any other stranger, the combination of mass media and egalitarianism has exponentially increased the number of people whom we can give the virtual evil eye as well as ways to deliver that gaze.

Throw in tough times, our sense of personal entitlement, and the (uniquely?) American belief that whereas my success is earned, other people’s are the result of politics, “reverse discrimination,” connections, and a whole host of nefarious factors, and the last thing you want from your neighbor is eye contact. Better send a tweet, instead.

* Can we please dispense with the whole “what would Jesus do?” nonsense? The only honest answer is “Since I’m not the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, I have no idea.” Thus, the answer given to this inane question is “what I think ought to be done” plus sandals.

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