The Myth of Scarcity, Part 5

“Jesus talks a great deal about the kingdom of God -- and what he means by that is a public life reorganized toward neighborliness.” (Brueggemann)
So, to return to our question, what happened with Jesus and those thousands in that deserted place?

Neighborliness happened.

Neighbors gather, community happens, and abundance flourishes. That’s the kingdom – the kin-dom -- of god Jesus was talking about: public life reorganized toward neighborliness. A crowd of people in the grip of scarcity thinking had gathered to hear Jesus teach. They had secreted away for their own use food for themselves. Under the influence of this remarkable teacher, they began to open up, began to sense the intrinsic abundance of the life they breathed, and the universe in which they swam. From that sense of boundless provision welled up an urge to share of this manifest plenty of which they were suddenly so acutely aware. From the bottoms of bags and folds of clothes came forth food to share. From the divinity within them, the divinity that is always there, lying too-often unnoticed, came forth this food.

So, yes, it came from God – from Goddess, from Buddha nature. It came from God, which we call by many names, one of them being neighborliness.

As Parker Palmer exegetes:
“The disciples, asked to feed the crowd, are sure that food is scarce; Jesus performs a ‘miracle’ to reveal how abundant food is even when there is none in sight. In this story, as throughout his active life, Jesus wanted to help people penetrate the illusion of scarcity and act out of the reality of abundance.”
Parker Palmer relates this story about the miracle of abundance in community, the kin-dom of God that is realized in neighborliness. Palmer was a passenger on a plane that pulled away from the gate, taxied to a remote corner of the field and stopped.

The pilot came on the intercom and said, “I have some bad news and some worse news. The bad news is there’s a storm front in the west, Denver is socked in and shut down. So we’ll be staying here for a few hours. That’s the bad news. The worse news is that we have no food and it’s lunch time.”

Everybody groaned. Some passengers started to complain. Some became angry.

But then, Palmer said, one of the flight attendants did something amazing. She stood up and took the intercom mike and said, “We’re really sorry folks. We didn’t plan it this way and we really can’t do much about it. And I know for some of you this is a big deal. Some of you are really hungry and were looking forward to a nice lunch. Some of you may have a medical condition and really need lunch. Some of you may not care one way or the other, and some of you were planning to skip lunch anyway. So I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. I have a couple of breadbaskets up here and we’re going to pass them around and I’m asking everybody to put something in the basket. Some of you brought a little snack along—something to tide you over—just in case something like this happened, some peanut butter crackers, candy bars. And some of you have a few LifeSavers or chewing gum or Rolaids. And if you don’t have anything edible, you have a picture of your children or spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend or a bookmark or a business card. Everybody put something in and then we’ll reverse the process. We’ll pass the baskets around again and everybody can take out what he/she needs.”

“Well,” Palmer said, “what happened next was amazing. The griping stopped. People started to root around in pockets and handbags, some got up and opened their suitcases stored in the overhead luggage racks and got out boxes of candy, a salami, a bottle of wine. People were laughing and talking. She had transformed a group of people who were focused on need and deprivation into a community of sharing and celebration. She had transformed scarcity into a kind of abundance.”

After the flight, which eventually did proceed, Parker Palmer stopped on his way off the plane and said to her: “Do you know there’s a story in the Bible about what you did back there? It’s about Jesus feeding a lot of people with very little food.”

“Yes,” she said. “I know that story. That’s why I did what I did.”

Unitarian Universalists know that story too. We Unitarian Universalists have fashioned a wiser understanding of the miraculous. The uninterrupted causal nexus of history and nature is replete with the miracle of community – the miracle of abundance.

One more illustration of this point is the illustration that comes from a congregation's members. It’s the miracle that Unitarian Universalists enact every time we agree to serve on a committee, every time we help out cleaning up the grounds, every time we teach an RE class, every time we fill out a pledge form.

Everybody puts in, and everybody takes out.

It’s a wonderful, awesome miracle of the creation of community and thereby the creation of abundance.

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "The Myth of Scarcity"
Previous: Part 4.
Beginning: Part 1.


  1. Rev. Garmon: I appreciate your discussion of economics, as a lifelong UU and a career-long economist.

    However, I find your discussion in this five-part series, while thought-provoking, to be a bit too general for me to feel that I fully understand your meaning. Perhaps that was your intent.

    If what you mean is that we sometimes are too obsessed with wealth and work and consumerism, who can quarrel with that? At least one famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, would have strongly agreed with you: http://www.econ.yale.edu/smith/econ116a/keynes1.pdf .

    If what you mean is that there are potentially gains from cooperative endeavors, then again this is true. For example, there are broad social and economic gains for all through reducing skills inequality through investments in early childhood education: http://www.investinginkids.info/your-taxes-preschool/

    If what you mean is that economic well-being needs to be defined more broadly than just dollars and cents, and needs to look at how the broad range of all people are benefitted in what capabilities they have, this again is true, and in fact this "capabilities" approach increasingly has been used to think about development policies around the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capability_approach

    But if what you mean is that continued economic growth is not important, then I must disagree. For most of human history, until the Industrial Revolution, almost all the human population existed at the margins of survival, at a subsistence level. Economic growth since 1800 has brought great benefits to many people. In recent years, a big worldwide story is the increase in living standards for many people in China and India, which has helped improve many people's quality of life.

    Now, a huge problem is the uneven sharing of the benefits of growth, so that inequality both within and across countries is still much too great. But that doesn't mean that economic growth doesn't have great benefits. And we have to reconcile economic growth with environmental sustainability. But that also does not mean that economic growth does not have broad social benefits.

    We need broadly shared economic growth, both for many people around the world, and for many people in this country. In addition to helping many people more fully achieve their capabilities, economic growth seems in practice to be a necessary condition for a liberal, tolerant society: http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2011/07/the-moral-consequences-of-economic-growth.html

  2. Hi, TIm,

    Thanks so much for your thoughts! It wasn't my intent to avoid being understood. It just wasn't my intent to offer a "discussion of economics." (I suppose maybe I do speak of a kind of oikonomika -- with both "household" and "management" in scare quotes -- but not what is generally meant by "economics" today.)

    You suggest four things that I might mean. In fact, in this series, I do not mean any of them. The first three of the four, you agree with. I agree with them, too -- but they aren't what I was saying in this series. (I do make those points from time to time, but wasn't making them here.) Fourth is the possibility that what I might mean is that economic growth is not important. That's also not what I mean to say in this "Myth of Scarcity" series. I advance no claim for or against the importance of economic growth; what I say does not depend on economic growth being important or on it being unimportant. That's just not my topic here.

    Were I to take up the topic of economic growth, my first concern would be what I see as the slippage between #3 and #4. That is, even when we get agreement about #3 (that "well-being needs to be defined more broadly than dollars and cents"), once the conversation turns to #4 (the importance of economic growth), it seems that the concessions of #3 too often go out the window, and all we're talking about is GNP and GDP. Indeed, given the current state of public discourse, if one says "economic growth," then GNP and GDP just ARE what is meant -- and Amartya Sen's or Martha Nussbaum's capabilities (or "Gross National Happiness" measures: http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/) are NOT what is meant.

    My second concern would be the possibility that there is no such thing as reconciling economic growth with environmental sustainability. It's easy to say "we have to reconcile" them -- but maybe it isn't possible to reconcile them. I don't know that it isn't -- but that would be my concern.

  3. I guess that leads to the natural question: how should repudiating the "myth of scarcity" affect any action by individuals or by governments? What does this actually mean in how we act in this world? I would be interested in what you would say in response to these questions.

    My interpretation of your words is based on the notion that part of the reason why economic growth is a good thing, all else equal, is that there is in fact a great deal of scarcity in the world, for many individuals, groups, and nations.

    So, I don't think scarcity is a myth. It's a reality.

    Now, how to deal with scarcity -- that is an issue. Sharing helps, but in my opinion, is insufficient -- which is why scarcity is not a myth. We also need economic growth.

  4. Thanks, Tim. So what I'm saying, following Parker Palmer, is that "we create scarcity by fearfully accepting it as law." Which says both that (1) yes, scarcity is real, and (2) Its reality is a product of our fearful belief in it. It's self-fulfillingly real. I went on to mention for instance food supply -- of which there is enough to feed everyone if it were better distributed.

    Whether to count "sharing" as sufficient would surely depend (wouldn't it?) on how broadly we define sharing. In some sense, all of economic activity could be called various forms of sharing, couldn't it? What is "economic growth" except more stuff changing hands (sharing).

    What Palmer calls attention to, in various ways in much of his work, is the parallels between the economic and the spiritual. The economic problem of stuff being hoarded (inefficient distribution) has its roots in the same spiritual problems that also lead to, for instance, jealousy that chases away our beloved, or competing for success and thereby never having security, or getting into power struggles.

    Palmer also, elsewhere, analyses "depression" in the economic sense and in psychological sense as paralleling each other -- they both have to do with getting out of touch with reality and needing to be de-pressed back down to ground on which it is safe to stand.

    Since I am, now, rather taking up the topic of economic growth, what say you about the two concerns (raised in my previous reply to you) on that topic?