‘You shall not covet’ says the ancient commandment. Yet this is what humanity has been doing since time immemorial—maybe even before Homo erectus. It is still with us, causing economic crises.
These, bizarrely, politicians want to encourage. They do this by asking for more coveting, and more consumerism. For research shows that the greatest cause of unhappiness is not having what the proverbial Joneses already have.
Thus, people today can only attain a similar level of happiness to people in the 1950s when they have twice as many possessions as the previous two generations.
One thing absolutely dominates the glossy weekend magazines—an obsession with materialism.
This almost amounts to a religion, if, by this, we mean that from which people draw their main meaning and purpose in life, namely, to acquire more possessions.
But the same source which commands that we should not covet, also paradoxically commands that we should covet.
But not those things which feed an antisocial spirit, but those things which feed a prosocial attitude.
For a piece of wood can be used to make a beam to support a roof, or to fashion a club wherewith to kill and injure. It is not a question of breaking the strong man’s arms, but of teaching him to use his strength rightly, as John Ruskin pointed out (“Unto this last”).
In Aesop’s fable, the covetous man, when given a wish to have whatever he wanted, provided his neighbour had a double share, could not—he would rather lose an eye! So the lesson must be – servus non sum – I am a slave no more—to material possessions. Rather, they should be a servant and a means to spreading good.
Ancient Israel had a radical solution to both, greed, poverty and covetousness—redistribution every 49/50 years: the Jubilee. While this may not have been fully practiced, some of its ideals certainly were.
They provided, for example, an impetus to redeem daughters who had been sold into sexual slavery. It was the year for the redemption of debts. As always, cunning evasions and legal subterfuges were skilfully invented to avoid such prosocial action, and oppression continued.
Yet, enforcing the law, in order that behaviour can change (albeit voluntarily) does change attitudes, as research on American desegregation laws shows.
So, then, there are two potential outcomes, either material things are, as writer Joy Davidman once put it (“Smoke on the Mountain”), the ‘currency of love’, or they become the currency of revolution, as President Sukarno of Indonesia has said. Which will you choose?