Imagine a better world

This is ultimately going to be a reflection on money. But to get there, we’re going to look at Propaganda’s Terraform, particularly the difference between empire and community, by way of Middle-earth. Trust me. It’s all going to fit together.

If you’ve read any of my entries up ‘til now, you probably know that I’m rarely reading one thing at a time. And I’m often reading a variety of things that make me think new thoughts and engage with the world in different ways. And I almost always see connections between them.

So, in Terraform, Propaganda got me thinking about empire vs. community. One is the way this world typically works and the other is based on ideas of “institutional neighborliness.” No surprise here; they’re radically different.

Empire sees the world with eyes of personal gain. Instead of seeing diversity, it sees otherness and wants to squash it. Instead of seeing the land as sacred, it sees it as a resource to be bought, sold, and exploited. It doesn’t see people as sacred, it sees them as pieces that can either be used or that need to be removed.

Community has a totally different set of lenses.

It’s kind of like the difference between Saruman and Gandalf.

Saruman has, in Treebeard’s famous words, “A mind of metal and wheels.” He doesn’t care for growing things beyond how they can serve his purposes. He plunders the land to feed the fires of his industry and turns this good, good earth to his advantage. He hasn’t yet reached Morgoth or Sauron’s nihilistic desire to destroy simply for destruction’s sake, but he’s well on his way. He functions with the mentality of scarcity. The resources are limited so I better get mine. If I don’t, they’ll get it instead and that means less for me.

Gandalf, on the other hand, is so willing to see the beauty in the mundane that he spends the bulk of his time with hobbits! Not the elves of Rivendell or Lothlorien (though he’s not unheard of in those parts) or with the mighty in Rohan or Gondor. No. He frequents the Shire – a place many in Middle-earth had probably never heard of before Bilbo’s famous exploits. Even hobbits, the smallest and least of those born of the earth, are not beneath his notice because they are not without their own inherent dignity that demands respect. They are not pieces to be sacrificed in anyone’s chess game. Just as the trees of Fangorn are more than just potential fuel.

Gandalf sees this because he sees with the eyes of community. He sees that no one truly thrives and flourishes unless we all do. He sees that unless everyone works against Sauron, all will be lost. He sees that if Sauron regained the Ring, even Tom Bombadil (upon whom the Ring has no power) would fall. And rather than seeking his own safety or to enhance his own reputation and standing among the great and powerful in the world, he seeks the joys and pleasures of true friendship among the least and lowest. He doesn’t make value judgments about who is more or less worthy because he sees and knows that all are worthy.

And we all know how things work out for Saruman and Sauron, don’t we.

You see, money as we know it was birthed out of empire. I mean, whose face is on the cash? Whether Ceasar or Washington or Queen Elizabeth, the money bears the stamp of empire. That’s why, rather than creating common good and benefitting the many, it accumulates in the hands of the few. That’s why the ground that none of us made and none of us can live without is bought and sold and exploited. And that’s why people who are sacred, each and every one of us, are bought and sold and exploited. Because money was born of empire. It was birthed from a colonialist mindset of scarcity that cannot recognize the good in difference, only the opportunity to exploit that difference.

But let’s follow Prop’s example and imagine a better world. Let’s imagine the now that could have been and the tomorrow that still might be. Let’s tell a better story than the one we’ve been saddled with.

What if money was born of community instead of empire?

What if money, by its very nature, lifted people out of extreme poverty and worked for equity rather than exclusion? What if money couldn’t help but contribute to the flourishing of the neglected and marginalized? And what if money didn’t function from zero sum economics (i.e. what if the poorest of the poor got paid while the balance in my account stayed the same)?

Whose image would this money bear? Would we choose to use it, or would we opt for empire’s status quo instead?

If it’s in my power, I’ll choose community over empire every time. I’ll choose to flourish with you, rather than at your expense.

And you want to know something? Some folks are building this dream, this better tomorrow, as we speak. A small team of people is working to create something radical, something they’re calling Glo. It’s the “anti-poverty dollar” and it looks an awful lot like money born of community rather than empire. Check it out for yourself.

A Prayer Project on Saruman

No surprise here, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Saruman lately (after all I am currently writing a chapter of my thesis on him). Most recently I’ve been thinking about the power of his voice to coerce and manipulate, to sway others to his point of view, and basically remove their personal agency from them to replace it with his own. What’s worst about it is that Saruman was explicitly forbidden from acting in this way before being sent to Middle-earth. The Valar forbade the Istari from unveiling their power to dominate Elves or humans, yet Saruman was swayed away from obedience by his desire to see a good end accomplished in the particular way he wanted to see it done. It’s sad to see one with such potential for goodness and redemptive influence go so wrong, but it has really only highlighted for me the ways that I live in similar (if much less dramatic) ways.

How often have I name dropped, or responded to situations so as to communicate that I already knew the information being shared–that I am well-liked and in the know, that my voice should be attended to and welcomed? How often have I disobeyed express commands from the One who sent me into this world? How am I really any different from Saruman?

Well, hopefully I’m different in the same ways the characters of the story are. They too are faced with life under the sun in the same way I am. They too are tempted toward self-aggrandizement and subtle pomposity. They are human, with the same struggles and foibles I have–with the same struggles Saruman has–but they actively resist. I can do the same. But, I have an advantage against these struggles that they do not have. I, like all Christians, have the Holy Spirit alive in me. The very presence of God breathing light and life into limbs prone to sin. I, by the grace of God, can choose obedience and faithfulness. I don’t need to end up like Saruman. Rather, I can end up like Frodo or Sam: granted passage aboard a ship bound for a port beyond the walls of the world. What a gift! What grace! Hallelujah! Amen.

Saruman’s End

Wow. One of the most striking scenes in The Lord of the Rings was the death of Saruman. That may sound odd at first glance, I mean he is a villain after all. But his death is tragic because, like all that is evil in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, he was not always so. He was corrupted. He was tainted. And in becoming so he was lessened and diminished. He lost the fullness he once displayed and became just a shell. This is powerfully displayed several hundred pages before his death when his power is stripped from him and he is cast down by Gandalf the White, also known as Saruman as he could have been. When we finally encounter Saruman again on the hobbits’ journey from Minas Tirith to Rivendell, we see the shriveled and shrunken soul he has become–bereft of power and dignity as the truth of his heart is laid bare. Again, he refuses the offered redemption, and again we are invited to pity him as we see how far he has fallen.

But all that is just the prelude, the table-setting if you will, for his truly tragic end. I found the passage so powerful that I will just include it in its entirety:

To the dismay of those that stood by, about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.

So why does that matter? Well, Saruman, like Gandalf and the other Istari (wizards), is from the West–from Valinor–the home of the Valar and the final home of the elves. He was likely one of the Maiar (the same kind of eternal being as Sauron, though of a lower order than Varda) and as such had chosen to follow the Valar into Arda for love of the world that was being made and the children of Iluvatar (elves and men) who would populate it. Once his task in Middle-Earth was completed, he was to return home, like Gandalf, to Valinor, but it seems his soul will never make that journey. He and the other wizards were sent from Valinor to contest the dominion of Sauron, to lend their aid to the cause of men and elves in their pursuit of freedom from the darkness. Their time in Middle-Earth was to be a short one, and then they would return to dwell with their kind, but Saruman becomes so debased that it seems no return is possible for him.

When Gandalf dies, he is brought back to Middle-Earth to continue his task and ultimately he is allowed to make the journey West at the story’s end because he has proven himself faithful, but Saruman is not. His soul is blown away by a cold wind from the West. His home and his people have rejected and banished him for his treachery and deceit. It seems his soul is not even granted access to the Halls of Mandos (a kind of temporary afterlife for those who have died while bound to Arda). There is no hero’s welcome for him. There is no homecoming. There is no hope–because he rejected the offered mercy time and again, choosing instead his own destruction. He chooses this doom, and that is the true tragedy.

Saruman’s Ring? Now that’s a scary thought…

in the Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien refutes the claims that his epic was inspired by WWII noting that if it had served as inspiration then

Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth.

Imagine that with me for a moment if you will. What a different meaning the title The Two Towers would have taken. And what a different story it would have become. It would be a darker tale, that is for certain. A tale very much lacking in hobbits who “would not have survived long even as slaves.”

I think we can all be thankful Tolkien found his inspiration in other countries Places than in the current events of his day. By drawing on older and deeper truths he was able to craft a story of lasting significance beyond what he ever imagined. And we are all reaping the benefits of that today.