Column: Living in a Material World

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I think we have a money problem. I’m not really sure. Yes, we’ve been through the Great Recession, and it did take a serious toll. And yes, I agree that the deck is stacked in favor of the wealthy, but I think it’s more serious than that. I keep witnessing a deep reluctance to understand wealth and money, and I think we — as a community and to our detriment — have anathematized wealth.

Many of us ruminate that money is about energy exchange. Others question whether we should have paid clergy or pay for services like spiritual consultations. We question the value of vendors, artists, and craftsmen when they charge for their wares and services.

[photo credit: S. Ciotti]

[photo credit: S. Ciotti]

Too many of us appear to be uncomfortable talking about money, categorizing it with other subjects to be avoided, like religion and politics. We treat it as a necessary evil as though a more perfect society can exist without it. But, the theme is certainly clear: money is ruinous, corrupt, and even shameful. And, I see evidence of this money issue in quite a few places.

First, I see a lot of attention to the idea of prosperity, while at the same time focusing on spiritual rather than material wealth. Don’t get me wrong, I think spiritual wealth is incredibly important. But I also think that few things stifle spiritual development more completely than worrying about being able to pay for your child’s medication, education, or clothes. We seem to categorize material prosperity as a flaw; even a weight on spiritual development. We describe material wealth as a counter-current to spiritual progress even invoking — as I have heard — Christian theology to gird the opinion.

Second, I notice a palpable Pagan avoidance about discussing money, let alone participating in financial systems that create material wealth. For example, at a recent Pagan event, a workshop focused on building a financial future attracted exactly one participant out of several hundred attendees. We don’t discuss income or saving, but we are quick to lament not having enough resources or financial security. We are open about not having any money; we will easily say that we cannot afford something. But we seem less open to discussing what to do about it or our responsibilities on a personal level.

Again to be clear, that’s not a criticism; it’s a concern. Because sometimes, I don’t understand what someone means when they can’t afford something. Is it just the thing they’re looking at buying? Is it more serious, like basic needs? Like food?

I raise that questions because, third, in my own research, I find evidence that Pagans do in fact struggle with money in both practical ways as well as actual incomes. In a set of random interviews, Pagans who participated in my investigation described the usual challenges with money including a lack of understanding about it, its use, and how to save. Their comments were no different than those made by members of other faiths.

But in one random sample (Tejeda, 2015), Pagans reported an annual household income of about US $51,000 –- a healthy sum. However, the paired sample of Christian households reported an average annual income of over 25% higher at about US $67,000. And that difference — over a period of 35 years — represents a deficit of almost US $3 million in retirement assets. So while the interviews pointed to similar concerns about money, as we might expect in the general population, the actual reporting of income made the context far more serious and sobering. The sample was random, and may not have been representative. But, it raises a possible and important concern.

Fourth, I notice how our frugality seems to suggest something more fiscally serious. We quadruple up on hotel rooms (but that’s also fun); we split meals (but that can also be healthy); we carpool (but that’s environmentally conscious). We look to the community for help with medical and funeral expenses; and we come through, because we’re a community. Yet, those requests, that frugality, that caution with money always hints at something more fiscally grave.

Many of us also often use language from the edge, the language of worry and sometimes of frustration and resignation as it relates to wealth. I’ve heard it before. I recognize it not as desperation but as an anxiety about money. A worry about our own capacity to care for ourselves and our families.

I wasn’t raised in poverty, but my parents did struggle. I never had to have sleep for dinner but we did have to make choices. Decades later, my appearance and behaviors still describe my socioeconomic status of childhood. And I did experience the excuses and embarrassment needed to decline invitations to social gatherings during high school and college. I went to a great university, but was also keenly aware that I was from a financial place that was very different than my colleagues. They had experienced more, had access to more, and simply had more. This plays out in subtle but very real ways with very real physical, emotional and social consequences.

And then, on a broader level, I notice that many of our Pagan institutions are struggling, failing or simply lacking. To be blunt, our community is embarrassingly weak in resources for those we serve. We have no real networks that parallel Catholic Charities or the Jewish Community Centers Association. And our apparent lack of wealth has resulted in having no real parochial system for education, no health systems, no elder resources nor retirement communities. We are abundant in community love and support, but we lack community infrastructure.

Those are all echoes of hardship with money at its core.

The Crown of Oyá [artwork credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

The Crown of Oyá [artwork credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

I’m not sure why. Asceticism — or other forms or material avoidance — are not theologically prescribed in the Pagan movements with which I’m familiar. Moreover, there are gods of prosperity. Plutus is one of them. Our ancestor Aristophanes tells us that Plutus was blinded by Zeus so that the gifts of prosperity that he offers would be dispensed without prejudice and accessible to all. Mercury is the god of commerce and profit. Our ancestor, Lucan, describes the Celtic god Teutates as a dispenser of wealth and protector of the tribe. And Freyr and Freya are witnessed as gods of wealth. Lakshmi embodies both spiritual and material wealth. The list goes on.

And what they are saying is that it is okay to not have money. And it is also okay to have money. Just use it wisely and share your wealth.

Orisha Oyá — my mother Orisha — is the fiercest of warriors. Her crown is made of copper and holds nine tools which she uses as needed. She is swift against her enemies riding into battle with host of weapons that include winds, magic and money. While she is often recognized as the Orisha of storms and the gates of the dead, she is also the Orisha of the marketplace. And there, like in no other place, she means business.

As her story tells us, Oyá lived a solitary life in the forest and suffered tremendously. People called her ugly and shunned her. They detested her intelligence, especially because she was a woman. She lost her children, nine of them; each one dead. After, she dressed in nine different colors, each representing one of her stillborn.

Her life drove her to be a loner, a characteristic that she imparts to her spiritual children. While she remembers when her community humiliated her for being without children and treated her like an outcast because of her suffering, her intelligence and her power,  her experiences transformed her. She became independent and nurturing, and she rails that her spiritual children never endure such burdens.

Oyá teaches that we must build our own future, our own independence in recognition of the vast instability of the world. She is the Orisha of change and demands that we prepare for it and we submit to it. Without change the elegant process of the creation cannot unfold. But more importantly, there was a time when no children added poverty upon suffering. So she became shrewd in business and took command of the marketplace because of its chaotic nature.

But Oyá is also particularly concerned that her children have the needed resources so they will never suffer as she did, so she whispers to them her secrets of change, of magic and of markets. She wants her children skilled in business and insists that they — especially the women — become adept with money. She becomes enraged when others try to subordinate her children; so she wants them to have the resources to not fall to envy, to fortify them against the shocks of change and perhaps most importantly to have the financial stability to promote their self-determination and their community’s prosperity.

Like Orisha Oyá and the Gods of other peoples, our ancestral cultures didn’t appear to see wealth or money as a problem. It was only a problem when it failed the community.

[Courtesy In Guadalajara]

[Courtesy In Guadalajara]

And, possibly to some surprise, capitalism was conceived in exactly the same way; it was to be an ethical pillar against social ills from corruption to poverty. That capitalism was described by another ancestor: Adam Smith. He called it the “commercial society” and it was built upon liberal realism; the kind that requires a deep attention and commitment to freedom, equity and justice rather the pursuit of profits as a singular goal. The kind of capitalism Smith wanted promotes economic prosperity through rational self-interest and competition in the context of equality and economic justice.

For those unfamiliar his seminal work, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” (1776), Smith was obsessed with defending an economic system sternly rooted in a morality of social and economic justice. He keenly understood how his “commercial society” could be hijacked to become amoral and unrestrained. As he underscores over and again, that there must be fairness and justice always present for his system to produce amd ethical wealth.

He argued that when markets are free and fair, society will benefit from economic gains. He further argued that it is the poor that would be the marker of that benefit. “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath [sic] and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed [sic] and lodged.” (I. viii. 36)

Adams saw endemic poverty as the consequence of injustice and its remedy as the most urgent of issues on behalf of children “But poverty, though it does not prevent the generation, is extremely unfavourable to the rearing of children. The tender plant is produced, but in so cold a soil, and so severe a climate, soon withers and dies.” (I.viii.37). Smith saw taxation as a sign of freedom and necessary for effective societies. He called for taxes on luxuries, and he wanted the rich to pay their way proportionally.

Now, he did get other things wrong; the benefits of colonization being one of them. But, his economic system, on the whole, was free and fair commerce for the purpose of poverty elimination. He wanted the government to use those taxes and the power to make laws specifically on behalf of creating a just and fair environment to help the poor and the workers.

Returning to Oyá for another moment, she teaches us that the power of consent is also the power to withhold. She wants us to have resources to build our independence and equality because subservience will never be a path for her children. She insists we understand that we only have power when we can walk away, and that money is the path of voice, power, independence and protection: to serve the poor, to protect the workers and to promote personal and community freedom.

What she demands that her children understand is that money is a tool. Nothing more. It does not incite anything by itself. It does not create greed or war; nor does it save lives or stop poverty. Like the nine tools of her crown, money is simply another device. Sometimes you need a machete. Sometimes you need a sickle. But you fear neither, nor make them forbidden. They simply help you accomplish your task. In doing so, they also reveal who you are. The machete can open the coconut for a neighbor and it can murder them as well. That is what money does too, like any tool, it manifests the ethic of the user.

We, as a community still  have much to manifest. There is much work to do against poverty. There is much work to do against injustices. It’s perfectly fine to be wealthy and continue those struggles. In fact, I think, wealth will strengthen one’s resolve to see more of us out of hardship, hunger and worry.

Our community history has never shied from experimenting with tools: magical, spiritual, even pharmaceutical. We have always embraced the radical and celebrated the taboo, and money is no different. We can build the skills to master the tool, and we have the discipline of magical, traditional and spiritual practice to guide our use of money and learn to use it well. We study the most complicated and esoteric pieces of our existence. There is no tool we cannot master; no situation we cannot understand and prepare for. We can learn how to use it effectively and to manifest our ethics on behalf of our community to give us a stronger voice for equality, justice and equity. Like a hammer and chisel, we can use it to carve institutions and manifest the ideals demanded by our paths that we can call to benefit our society. We can begin to sculpt some very Pagan futures full of community resources — from elder care and justice to housing to environmental healing — all, I think, are ripe for manifesting.