Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Camel through the Eye of a Needle

Some of the rich are even better than we could imagine or hope. Thank goodness!
by Charlie Leck

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a need, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

“A wealthy person who uses his wealth generously is also likened to a fertile field in which rice grows abundantly for the benefit of all.” (Most Venerable Dr. M. Vajiragnana Nayaka Thera Sanha Nayaka, a Buddhist)
Bernie Madoff stands as a symbol of the greedy rich – people who just can’t seem to get enough and who want more and more and more. It is sad!

Here in Minnesota, there is a similar story right now. A young man, who seemed to have the world in his hands and was handsome, popular, articulate and bright, and made many, many millions of dollars, wasn’t satisfied and had to push it to billions. Tom Petters crossed way beyond the line between ethical and unethical and then went way over to totally dishonest, immoral and illegal. Like Madoff, he created a wild Ponzi scheme that bilked huge amounts of money out of innocent investors. Like Madoff, he now sits in prison awaiting his punishment. Too bad!

Another local fellow, who didn’t cross the line as far as Petters and Madoff, went too far nonetheless, when he post-dated stock options he signed and drew off nearly 200 million dollars in bonuses from a HEALTH CARE DELIVERY COMPANY… Let’s talk about why health care is too expensive.

Anyone remember Ken Lay – yes, that Ken Lay – of Enron fame?

We’ve gone far enough down that corrupt and ugly trail. What we need to be thankful about is that not all the rich are corrupt and that some of them are downright creative about the way they use their wealth to benefit society and people in need. There are so many good examples and thank goodness there are.

Locally, I am so proud of so many of our rock solid, wealthy families. John Andrus and his family put together the Surdna Foundation (Andrus, spelled backwards) and I have been intimately enough involved with the Andrus family to know how deeply important that work is to them. The MacMillan family, founders and heirs to the Cargill fortune, have been equally involved in the community and shared their wealth generously both here in our state and around the world (see the Cargill Foundation). The Crosby family (General Mills) and the Pillsbury family (Pillsbury) have also been incredible examples of giving and sharing with the community. There are dozens of local families who could be mentioned.

Nationally, Bill Gates, who recently returned to the top of the list of the wealthiest people in the world, is a prime example of sharing one’s abundance. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is active all over the world and donates fantastic amounts of money to vital causes. It’s a treat to spend time browsing through this foundation’s web site.

Timothy Egan recently wrote an interesting blog about the father of Bill Gates and his daily efforts to distribute the fortunate accumulated by his son [read Greed and Need by Timothy Egan]. The senior Gates is a child of the depression. He doesn’t look at all like his son. I was amazed when I saw him once on a golf course in Palm Springs. He towered over me in height. I’ve been in the company of his son a number of times and he’s far shorter than I. However, the senior Gates is big in other ways also. He regularly lobbies for fair tax laws that won’t so favor the rich and will relieve the burden on people of little income. He favors the retention of estate taxes and thinks family accumulation of wealth (“economic aristocracy”) is unfair.

Warren Buffet, who until very recently was considered the world’s wealthiest human being, is of like mind with the Gates approach. He wants fairer income taxes that don’t so favor the rich and will unburden the middle classes. He also opposes the elimination of estate taxes. He’s committed the bulk of his wealth to the Gates foundation mentioned above.

Egan quotes Andrew Carnegie, an American philanthropist of another era: “No idol is more debasing than the worship of money!”

I think there are likely as many good examples of the wealthy using their fortunes in generous ways as there are of the Bernie Madoff type. I hope so.

This 2007 San Francisco Chronicle story about the founder of Gap is a good one. A billionaire, this 80 old gentlemen uses both his wealth and his clout to improve education, health services and the status of the not-so-well-off.

There are many, many dozens of stories like this to be found all around the nation.

One scholar has written that Jesus was trying to be funny when he made the comment about a rich man trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle in order to get into heaven. Perhaps so, but the comment emphasizes the struggle that the wealthy have to turn away from greed and the temptation to accumulate just for the purpose of accumulating.

There are ways to use wealth to produce a better world and I am anxious for the day when more of the wealthy will step up and lay out plans to make life better for all people, whoever and wherever they are on Mother Earth.
“The purpose of wealth is to facilitate the development of the highest human potential. Wealth is only a means to an end, not an end itself; it creates the conditions under which spiritual progress may flourish. If the creation of wealth is regarded purely as a selfish occupation, then the results will often lead to unhappiness because this activity is self-centred, based only on ideas of "me" and "mine". We should, however, regard wealth as something to be shared with other people. If human beings could expand their love to all other people, irrespective of their class, colour or creed, rather than confining it to their own people, then they might be able to part with things without expecting anything in return, and experience more satisfaction in doing so. This satisfaction comes not from tanha, a desire to obtain things to make ourselves happy, but from chanda, a desire for the well-being of others. In decisions dealing with every sphere of economic activity, whether it is production, consumption, or the use of technology, we must learn how to distinguish between the two kinds of desire and make our choices wisely.” (Most Venerable Dr. M. Vajiragnana Nayaka Thera Sanha Nayaka, a Buddhist) [click here to read entire address]

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