I’ve been reading. Yanis Varoufakis, eapecially his recent books, “And the weak suffer what they must?” and “Adults in the Room” with pleasure, and some amazement at his ability to make complex economic matters clear to this ageing brain. These are books which challenge to the prevailing ethos that we are here to consume and must struggle to get a decent share of scarce commodities. Of course everyone would like to consume lots, but because our banks went mad, we all have to be very restrained and put up with austerity, all of us that is, except the bankers and other rich people who contributed to the madness. Varoufakis thinks that the planet is very rich and that if its resources are used intelligently there’s more than enough for everybody. What’s more, the true richness of life does not consist in consumption, but in sociability, adventure, knowledge, healing and creativity. The sense of scarcity and the insistence on consumption, he says, benefit those who already hold wealth and power but still want to consume more. He does not think that the purveyors of austerity are wicked, but that their love of power and its rewards has blinded them to any fact that might disturb their illusion.
I recommend his writing to anyone who wants to understand our contemporary problems, and who would like to be liberated from an economics of scarcity.
Because I am a biblical scholar, his critique reminded me of a great and little understood chapter in the Gospel of Mark., namely chapter 6 from verse 14, half of which is about King Herod, and the other hallf about Jesus. Mark is providing his readers with two vignetttes of royalty.
In the first we are introduced to King Herod, who is reminded by reports about Jesus of John the Baptist, whom he had executed. The execution had been prompted by a royal banquet, at which his step-daughter Salome so pleased him and his his guests by her dancing that he offered her anything she might wish. After consultation with her mother Herodias whom John had denounced for marrying Herod, her dead husband’s brother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Although Herod was reluctant, he did not want to lose face so John lost his head, which was fetched to the banquet table in a dish.
King Herod is depicted as a consumer of food, drink, women and the admiration of his rich friends. Indeed, as the head of John is brought to the table, he becomes symbolically a cannibal, a consumer of his people. There is no doubt that the bankers and the rulers of European economy have preserved the lifestyle of the Herods of our time, who daily consume the lives of those they impoverish.
Jesus, on the other hand, is shown as a different kind of leader. His banquet is in the wilderness and is given for a large crowd who have sought him out, perhaps because they believed him to be the Messiah, a God-given king. Although his disciples think there is a scarcity of food, it turns out that there is an abundance. The crowd is not treated as an assembly of consumers, but as people in partnership, able to sit with each other face to face, in small groups. In the abundance which flows from Jesus’ blessing, people are freed from competition and mere consumption. In the image of the baskets of leftovers the writer hints that there would have been enough for the twelve tribes, that is, for the whole of Israel. This is Mark’s picture of King Jesus.
In our own time the task of pointing to abundance, of denying the lie of scarcity which only serves the rich, is one that followers of Jesus could usefully adopt. If there is real scarcity it is caused by the misuse of the earth, the injustice that forces people to live in unfruitful places, and the greedy over- consumption of goods and services by a small number of people. Reminding people of the abundance of natural resources, the fruits of cultivation, industry and the intelligence of humanity may also predispose them to share these goods intelligently for the benefit of all.
But that is only one part of following the example of Jesus. The other is the rediscovery of human wealth: that as soon as human beings can sit down as equals at the one table to share food, they become com-pan-ions ( bread-sharers) and not consumers, knowing how precious each one is.
An appreciation of abundance, of the fruitfulness of the earth, might also persuade us not to pillage the earth for its sources of energy, and poison it for additional yields, but to cherish it as our bountiful mother. Much of the harm we do rests on our assumptions about scarcity.
I am grateful to Varoufakis for his searching analysis of European economic problems, and even more, for his vision of plenty, which, he might be surprised to find, has deep roots in the biblical tradition.