Thursday, March 02, 2017

Song Talk #6: Judgment Day (from the CD "The Devil's Day Off")

“ Man must have no idol and the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry! No idol is more debasing than the worship of money! Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately; therefore should I be careful to choose that life which will be the most elevating in its character. To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery.” 

        --Andrew Carnegie, Scottish American industrialist who led the expansion of the American steel industry in the late 19th century, and one of the richest individuals in U.S. history.  (He wrote this before age 35.)

The title of the song “Judgment Day,” from my CD The Devil’s Day Off, alludes to an idea that probably required no explanation to previous generations.  The concept of a final judgment in which the living and the dead will be called to account for the good and evil they have done in their lifetimes is a prominent one in Christianity and other religions.  Some believers envision it as an event that happens once, for everyone, at the end of time; others anticipate a judgment that happens for each person at the time of death.  Traditional theologies set the stakes very high, i.e. eternal bliss for those who are judged worthy (or at least forgivable) versus eternal damnation for the hardened sinners. 

Whatever one’s views are regarding heaven and hell, there is no denying the appeal of the idea that justice, so inconsistently available in the world we live in, is somehow built into the deeper fabric of the universe, so that good or bad behaviour ultimately counts for something.  Indeed, unless enough people have that belief in some form or other– unless we have a strong conviction that the good and evil that we do matters– we may find ourselves well on the way to creating hell around us during our own lifetimes.

Whether or not there is a final judgment, all of us (with the debatable exception of psychopaths) are subject to the ongoing  judgment of conscience, that “still, small voice” that nags at us whenever something we have done or neglected to do clashes with our sense of what is right.  For most of us, most of the time, it is pretty easy to drown out that still, small voice with rationalizations and distractions.  This can be the case even when the issue is something pretty big. However, when the flow of conscience is plugged, so to speak, it’s possible for the pressure of suppressed guilt to build up until something gives way, resulting in powerful insight, epiphany, repentance, even conversion.  I’m convinced that such an experience, if genuine and deep, can change lives in a profound way (though emotional repentances have a depressing tendency to come to nothing once the emotion passes).

The barons of industry of the 19th and early 20th century included a number of men with roots in Protestant Christianity (Scottish Presbyterians, for example).  By and large these tycoons were a ruthless, tight-fisted lot, corrupt by modern standards, who appeared to insulate their business practices quite thoroughly from the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount.  However, the human soul is complex, and in some cases there is evidence that conscience would occasionally break through the avarice and the drive for dominance (at least to some extent).  For example, Andrew Carnegie, who levered himself out of poverty through a combination of hard work, insider trading, business acumen and the old boys’ network, seems to have struggled inwardly with the “idolatry” of amassing wealth.  That did not prevent him from accumulating the equivalent of $6.5 billion, from consenting to violent anti-union tactics (Homestead Strike of 1892), or from dodging his share of liability for the collapse of a dam of which he was part owner (Johnstown Flood, 1889).

Carnegie and his family of origin were never conventional Presbyterians, but in later life Carnegie reportedly softened his view of religion and devoted much of his time and about 90% (ninety percent!) of his fortune to philanthropic works.  For example, my home town, like many others in the U.S. and Canada, owed its central library to Andrew Carnegie’s late-onset philanthropy. Whether this dramatic change of focus reflected a crisis of conscience, an epiphany about the inability of wealth to satisfy his soul, or both, I can only speculate. However, I imagine in his old age he may have called to mind the Scottish ministers of his youth preaching from Matthew 19:24: “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

At the best of times it is virtually impossible to see into the soul of another human being. Still, it seems to me that, in contrast with the industrialists of Carnegie’s generation,  modern multi-billionaires mostly lack even the vestiges of a spiritual foundation that might help to shift them away from the psychopathy of mere avarice and never-ending conquest.  Warren Buffet sometimes shows signs of having a conscience, but he still “doesn’t mix morals with money.” Bill Gates has entered a philanthropic phase, and there are many other rich philanthropists, but it’s not clear what their deep motivation is, and they seem like outliers among the 0.01%.  Increasingly it is the corporation that determines the morality of the CEO rather than vice versa, and corporations (despite being “persons”) are incapable of repentance.  So we have to hope that humans, pending their complete and final subordination, will find it in themselves to exercise higher moral choices despite the massive downward momentum of corporate agendas. Granted, the odds are never good that the people at the very top of the pyramid will go against the machine that put them there.

 Could people like the Koch brothers (supposedly Roman Catholics ) and their ilk ever have a conversion experience and change their ways? It seems implausible, but I set myself to imagining something like that it in this song. Miracles can happen...

To win the market share and swing the deal
There is no truth I wouldn’t twist or conceal
I  burned the forests and I poisoned the sky       
But now it’s different and I don’t know why

It’s like a Judgment Day...