Overcoming the destructive forces of greed

The great Bengali poet, writer, philosopher and social reformer, Rabindranath Tagore, visited Penang and the rest of then-Malaya several times in the early 20th Century, while on longer journeys to East Asia.

Apr 24, 2021

By Anil Netto
The great Bengali poet, writer, philosopher and social reformer, Rabindranath Tagore, visited Penang and  the rest of then-Malaya several times in the  early 20th Century, while on longer journeys  to East Asia.

During one of his voyages, Tagore reflected on the beauty of the natural world. But  upon his arrival in Penang, as he surveyed  the bustling activity at Penang port, the poet  could not help but ponder over the greed that  plagues humanity. 

What was it that saddened him? Maybe it  was a premonition of what the world would  be like a hundred years from his day, i.e. our  present era.

In one of his writings, Tagore reflected: 

“The greed of gain has no time or limit to its  capaciousness. It’s one object is to produce  and consume. It has pity neither for beautiful nature nor for living human beings. It is  ruthlessly ready, without a moment’s hesitation, to crush beauty and life.”

How prophetic those words were, written  all those years ago. 

Greed. Pure unadulterated greed. This is at  the bottom of what ails society. And power  – not to serve the common good but to profit  from it. 

The dictionary definition of the word  greed reveals more: “an intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth,  power, or food.” Two words jump out here.  It is not just a simple desire to possess more  than what we have. The desire is intense and  selfish - uncontrollable.

Those who succumb to greed do not look  at what kind of impact their selfish desire  will have on society or the common good. 

If the forests have to be felled to increase  profits for a small group, if land has to be  ravaged so that vested interests can benefit,  so be it. If ministers and elected representatives  have to be paid huge salaries, allowances  and perks to buy their support, so be it.

If company directors are paid fees and  salaries that are many times more than the  average workers’ pay, who cares about rising  income inequality and families struggling to  put food on the table?

If shoddy materials are used in construction, who cares about public safety being  compromised?

If lorries belch out smoke and bulldozers  cut down forests, increasing carbon dioxide  in the atmosphere, who cares about climate  change — as long as bank accounts are filled  up?

If security guards, cleaners, drivers and  delivery personnel have to work long hours  to earn a decent income, who cares as long  as their companies reap hefty profits?

It is greed too that drives people to take  shortcuts to wealth — and what easier way  than by indulging in corruption? The greed  that has swamped much of the world has  also taken its toll on our land. 

Even before Jesus entered the temple, he  knew he had to speak up against how even  worship and sacrifice had been subverted.  The religious leaders then were making use  of religion to live comfy lifestyles while  they burdened the people with all sorts of religious rules, regulations – and punishments. 

The faithful had to observe rituals, pay  taxes and maintain ‘purity’ to be considered  a ‘practising’ member of the faithful. The essence of the faith — justice, mercy, love and  compassion — were neglected. 

All the while, the leaders of the Temple  wallowed in comfort and were even perceived to be corrupt. Even the Temple priests  came largely from one family which was  happily – and sometimes not too happily –  collaborating with the Roman oppressors. 

Jesus saw right through this rank hypocrisy and called it out in dramatic fashion. 

If greed is extended to corporate greed,  then we can see why some psychologists  have analysed corporations as psychotic or  psychopathic. Corporations exist solely to  maximise profits and shareholders’ wealth.  They are narcissistic, lacking in empathy  towards the ecosystem, the society around  them and, often, even their own workers. 

Many of these corporate predators couldn’t  care less about the impact of raw material  depletion, low wages, lax environmental  standards, toxic effluents and emissions, and  pollution and carbon emissions. Some try to  evade taxes or minimise their taxes through  all kinds of tricks. Not that the tax rates are  high – as taxes for the wealthy and corporate  taxes are being pushed downwards, leaving  public coffers drier. 

All that matters to most companies is the  bottom line, with sometimes just a cursory  nod to ‘corporate social responsibility’, perhaps to placate a guilty conscience or indulge in some greenwashing. 

Meanwhile, the forests are cleared, the  hills butchered or flattened, the orange soil  clearly visible, gushing down as a muddy  torrent during downpours. Our rivers and  seas grow murky and polluted, while precious fishing waters are destroyed by unnecessary land reclamation.

Often directors are not held personally responsible for the damage their companies inflict on society. What’s more, their salaries,  fees and other perks are usually many times  more than the average worker’s income. 

As Tagore observed succinctly, “The newer people of this modern age are more eager  to amass than to realise.”

In the Old Testament, the people of Israel  were supposed to be the alternative model to  the greed and ambition displayed in the construction of the Tower of Babel. That Tower,  the first mega-project, was a symbol of state  domination and power, of humanity trying to  act as gods, reaching out to the heavens. 

Clearly, the unsustainable system we  know is breaking down around us. When  greed, selfishness, corruption, oppression  and abuse of power rule the day, it is only by  turning to the love, compassion and justice  that we can salvage Creation, which is now  groaning ever louder. 

We are so used to thinking a political leader will save us from this mess, just as some  of Jesus’ followers thought he would turn  out to be a political messiah. 

But in Scriptures we see how God did not  raise Moses up to replace Pharaoh. Instead,  he inspired an alternative community to carry on his vision of a just world that is in harmony with itself and with its maker, just as  Jesus left behind a band of faithful disciples  to be the salt of the earth.

This is the challenge we face today as well  – we need to shun the destructive forces of  greed that threaten to engulf the world in  darkness and walk along the brave new path  – not just as passive sojourners but as active  participants of the new Kingdom that Jesus  proclaimed.

Total Comments:0