Friday, September 9, 2016
Concentrations Of Wealth And Power - A Willing Exchange Of Community For Influence
Christianity began simply. The apostles and their immediate disciples were the first to spread the gospel of Jesus throughout Asia Minor, Europe, and Palestine. As the number of Christians grew, they organized themselves into local groups and met regularly in private homes There was no ‘Church’ per se, but groups of believers guided by the pastoral counsel of the apostles or their disciples and, they believed, by the spirit of the Holy Ghost. These churches were counseled and tutored by the apostles, their disciples, or their followers; and the words of Jesus Christ, heard through the gospels or the epistles of Paul became part of the ritual of their faith. There was neither canon nor liturgy, but all followed to a certain degree, the tenets of the new faith.
Ceremonies in these home-churches were at least informed about Christian teachings and basic rituals. Communion – the breaking and sharing of bread – was common, and baptism was a rite of entry. There were no priests or bishops and leaders of each community church were nominated by those closest to the apostles and disciples.
There were many heretical schools of thought in the first and second century – Marcionism, Montanism, and Gnosticism to name only the most important; and those closest to the descendants of the first followers of Jesus saw them as a definite threat. All of them based their heresies on early Christian teachings and either added to them or edited them. Their theologians understood that the complex and subtle premises of Christianity – the dual nature of Christ, the tripartite nature of the Trinity, the crucifixion, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the influence of Old Testament scriptures – were subject to interpretation. Orthodox Christians therefore, became apologists and defenders of the faith – first within the early Christian community and only later outside it. It was important to consolidate the church.
It didn’t take long for a hierarchy to be constructed. Those in power and authority who saw and realized the nascent power and potential influence of their church, were anxious to consolidate it; and the institutionalization of a theological canon and an official hierarchy of bishops, deacons, and priests was begun.
The history of Christianity is no different from any secular, social movement. There is a natural tendency to institutionalize simple purpose and belief – to give it structure, definition, canon, and identity and the apologists and troops to promote and defend it. Before long the Church was the Catholic Church – a highly-organized, hierarchical, bureaucratic institution in which the authority of God was immanent.
Such tendencies to incorporation are common throughout society. Small entrepreneurial start-ups are invariably bought up by larger companies which offer the marketing, distribution, and advertising resources which smaller firms do not have. Successful community organizations especially responsive to local neighborhoods are incorporated by larger public service non-profit groups which can offer the same value-added as their corporate counterparts. Small groups protesting urban upgrading and the replacement of affordable housing units with high-income, tax revenue-producing condominiums are quite happy to be assumed by larger regional or national organizations defying gentrification.
The growth and proliferation of multinational corporations, major non-profit, public interest organizations, and major religious denominations are logical outcomes of this natural, understandable trend.
Local authority is willingly exchanged for increased power and influence. For the most ambitious starting small is never the end but the beginning. Assimilation, incorporation, and full integration within structures which share the same values but are better placed to promote and defend them is de rigeur in society.
Dostoevsky in the Grand Inquisitor chapters of The Brothers Karamazov, defied the returned Christ who, he said through Ivan, betrayed mankind in the desert. Man not only might live by bread alone, but must, said The Grand Inquisitor; and Christ, in suggesting a moral and spiritual alternative, consigned him to a life of misery, penury, pain, and want.
Worst of all said Dostoevsky through Ivan/The Grand Inquisitor, was that by his defiance of the Devil, Jesus enabled the primacy of the Catholic Church – a venal, self-serving, corrupt institution which preyed on man’s need for only ‘miracles, mystery, and authority’.
In other words, the growth of the Christian Church into the Vatican was not surprising but still disappointing. One would have thought that the simple gospel of Jesus Christ might have been dissimulated by more honest and less selfish means. Yet any student of history knows that the trajectory of human institutions always follows the same course.
Martin Luther defied the arrogant supremacy of the Catholic Church, but by then it has become so powerful and extant that its influence was hard to counter. Yet, Protestantism in all its forms has survived and prospered.
At the same time, the mainline Protestant churches are losing congregants to store-front, alternative churches which, like the early Christian church, are local, community-based, and independent. If history is any guide, these evangelical, fundamentalist, Pentecostal churches will soon be subsumed by larger more influential denominations.
Silicon Valley startups are bought by larger corporate IT entities. Small environmental action groups are incorporated within PIRG, Save the Bay, or The Environmental Defense Fund. Feminists, gay activists, civil rights defenders, pacifists, and income equality-first advocates soon find that their local constituencies are too indifferent and too unwilling to support or contribute to the cause. Incorporation within larger national organizations with clout in Congress if not Wall Street offers a better, quicker means to an end.
Local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) have always been the first to adopt innovative measures to promote social and economic progress in the developing world. These NGOs, all of whom with local, loyal, and activist members were in the forefront of public health responses to HIV/AIDS in the 80s and 90s. They had known constituencies. Their leaders, workers, and community outreach staff were known to and respected by the community. With limited financial and human resources, they were able to address the needs of the community by providing vital information about prevention and treatment of the disease.
USAID, the development agency of the United States State Department, campaigned to recruit these small groups and incorporate them within the aegis of larger American private, voluntary organizations – non-profit companies with access to State Department largesse and influence. Yet, once they are so aligned and associated with other similar groups, their lifelines to their particular communities was severed. They were one of many, and by so grouping lost their local credibility.
These large NGOs, now made up of smaller groups which gave up their natural constituencies, had no character or uniqueness and competed for government financing on the basis of routine competitive bids. Before long they collapsed or were edged out by firms which were no more creative or innovative, but who understood how to manage their potential within the government system.
One should never be surprised that in a dynamic, liberal, capitalist society religious, secular, and private groups quickly lose their identity, autonomy, and legitimacy.
Nor should anyone be surprised at concentrations of wealth, power, and influence within highly structured, hierarchical organizations. Not only have such concentrations been formed in every culture, every empire, and every historical epoch in human history; but they have been formed in the same way - informal associations of shared belief which become more and more structured in order to protect and promote orthodoxy; more militant and aggressive in proselytizing to expand their territory and influence; and finally highly hierarchical in order to better manage their increasing wealth and human resources and to exert control over a larger and larger membership. Eventually these institutions become hidebound, inflexible, and impervious to new ideas and collapse under their own weight only to be replaced by new ones who in their turn follow the same trajectory.
The current populist attacks on these concentrations - the one percent, the elite, 'Washington', and 'Wall Street' - are misguided, for those promoting a more equitable distribution of resources and power ignore history. Resources always flow from bottom to top because of the natural tendency of small firms and local groups to trade and exchange individuality for influence. Resources may flow from top to bottom but only to consolidate political support from low-level constituents or shareholders.
Great civilizations are the result of concentrations of power and wealth. The Catholic Church after the 4th century grew into one of Europe's most powerful institutions. The courts of English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian kings were the loci of art, literature, music, science, and culture as well as political power. When kings were beheaded because of an undue arrogation of power or an abuse of it, princes were elevated in their stead. Empires grew, expanded, and were defeated; but along the way European civilization grew in influence, capacity, and importance.
Rather than criticize center of power and wealth, one should focus on promoting small scale enterprise, new religious expressions, innovative schools, and especially highly intelligent, motivated, and ambitious individuals. In other words, the line from bottom to top should be kept moving; for only with a constant source of new ideas and innovation can the top be refreshed, kept flexible and dynamic, and expand its sphere of influence.