by Wayne Muller
The following excerpt is from SABBATH
by Wayne Muller. Copyright © 1999 by Wayne Muller.
Used by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House,
Inc. For online information about other Random House, Inc.
books and authors, see Internet website at
Consider the lilies of the
field, how they grow;
They neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you
That even Solomon in all his glory
Was not arrayed as one of these.
-- MATTHEW 6:28-29
During World War II, Britain was desperate
to find a way to keep track of the resources necessary to
fight the war. Economists developed a method whereby they
could record and combine the value of all goods and services
bought and sold each year, and use this figure to calculate
the overall wealth of the nation.
With the war finally over, the newly formed
United Nations decided the British model would be a useful
tool for understanding and comparing the relative wealth
of the nations of the world. If the number of goods and
services bought and sold increased, it would indicate a
solid, robust economy. If they found there was a decrease
in the manufacture, production, and sale of goods, it would
indicate the strength of the nation was in decline. An expanding
economy was seen as a good and necessary thing for the healthy
survival of the country; a declining economy was an alarming
indicator that the nation's well-being was in danger. The
U.N. urged its members to adopt this method as the worldwide
standard, and today, all countries use this measurement--called
the Gross Domestic Product, or G.D.P.--to calculate their
At first glance, this simple accounting method
seems a useful, reasonable and relatively neutral tool.
Upon closer inspection, however, we quickly see it is both
astonishingly myopic, and insidiously dangerous--even violent--in
its application. For when wealth is measured only in terms
of goods and services bought and sold, only those actions
involving money are seen as good and useful. Anything done
in time is seen as useless.
Consider a woman in Somalia who rises early
to walk two miles to the nearest well to get water for her
family, returns to feed her children and ready them for
school, spends the morning working the soil of the family
garden, the afternoon tending to the sick and infirm of
her village, then in the evening cooks and mends clothing
and sings songs to her tired children and makes love with
her husband. As measured by the G.D.P., this woman has no
value. She is useless; a drain on the nation's wealth.
Now let us look at her cousin, who was lucky
enough to go to military school and become a soldier. As
a government-employed pilot, let us say he is ordered to
bomb a mountain enclave deemed sympathetic to some rebel
cause. In this case, a great deal of money must be spent
to bury all the dead men, women, and children, to rebuild
the destroyed buildings, to pay soldiers to police the area,
fly in emergency personnel, hire extra doctors, and recruit
foreign aid--not to mention the money needed for fuel, bombs,
and military aircraft. By murdering innocent children, our
young pilot has done a very good thing; he has provided
an enthusiastic boost to the economy. The woman who draws
water and tends the sick and feeds the children has, according
to our official measurement of growth and wealth, provided
nothing at all. At the end of the day, it is the pilot,
not the mother, who will get the medal for service to the
This horrific paradox is the very foundation
of the world's official economic policy. It is repeated
a billion times a day, everywhere on earth. Actions performed
with love are dismissed, while actions performed with money
are honored and rewarded.
What is the true measure of the wealth of
a people? The creation and preservation of beauty? A strong
and healthy citizenry? An educated and compassionate leadership,
ensuring justice for all? A palpable sense of civic joy?
A collective sense that serving our neighbor is our highest
civic good? Sadly, none of these rises to the top of our
list. By current standards, the Holy Grail on the altar
of civilization is the health of the economy, measured by
the G.D.P. Economic growth is the measure of a life well
lived, a nation well run, a civilization well built.
Medical science has a very specific name to
describe unrestricted cell growth in the human body: cancer.
Just as undifferentiated cell growth is medically toxic,
so is unrestricted economic growth ethically toxic. When
we measure only the manufacture and sale of goods and services--regardless
of the uses to which those goods are put, and regardless
of the quality of the days and lives of the people using
them--we create an economy unintentionally skewed toward
military expansion, war, destruction, and other profitable
and expensive endeavors. Waste, stupidity, and evil all
cost money, and are, by extension, economic goods; each
feeds the machine of growth.
Today we are relearning to assign economic
value to parks, endangered species, air and water quality,
and even solitude and sunsets. We estimate the ratio of
benefits to costs when we build roads and parks and reservoirs.
But these "nonmarket" values are not reflected
in overall measures of the national wealth. In fact, G.D.P.
rises if we replace a park with a factory, and it rises
even more if the factory happens to pollute the environment.
Paying for the cleanup adds yet another monetary benefit
to our total.
What have we done? How have we so disordered
the value and meaning of human endeavor? My friends Ben
and Carolyn visit the New Mexico State Penitentiary on Sunday
evenings, where they lead a Bible study and discussion among
the inmates about their lives, their decisions, their actions,
and the consequences of those actions. It is a rich and
fertile communion, punctuated with prayer and reflection,
yet in the eyes of the G.D.P. it is waste of time. How then
do we understand the value of such a ministry?
And what of Pat and Dottie and the other parents
in Espanola, New Mexico, who volunteered countless hours,
and the teachers who taught for free, all to create an after-school
gymnastics program so the children would have positive experiences,
time with their parents, and learn physical and emotional
confidence? What of my friend Cora, who serves meals to
the homeless? Or Cornelia, who loves to weave, and who donates
her looms and her time to teach this disappearing art to
young women in northern New Mexico? What of Max and David
Cordova, who last winter organized a drive to provide firewood
for poor families, out of the simple motivation that it
needed to be done? How do we value these simple acts of
kindness? This is what the official statistics will show:
Nothing. Nothing noteworthy, nothing of any value was achieved
through these actions.
Yet every time someone gets cancer, the G.D.P.
goes up. Every time an infant dies, the G.D.P. rises. A
drive-by shooting improves the economy by $20,750. If the
victim dies, and there is a murder trial, the benefit to
the economy leaps to well over $100,000. An oil tanker spill
can contribute between five and twenty million dollars of
"growth"; the benefits of an airline crash or
terrorist bombing can be far greater. And consider the value
gained from trade with countries our own State Department
has cited for torturing their citizens. In 1995 alone, this
boon added an estimated $400 billion to our national worth.
And so it goes: Land mines, civil wars, church burnings
-- each provides a boost to our bountiful economy.
In short, we have converted destruction into
an economic good. But anything that grows without money
changing hands--parents who care for their children, people
who voluntarily care for the sick, the dying, or the homeless,
people who pray or meditate or walk in the woods--these,
at best, have no value. At worst, they take away precious
time and energy that could be used to grow the G.D.P.
Who would make such choices consciously? Yet
they have become part of our collective belief system, encoded
everywhere, and we cannot help but participate in a society
governed by these preferences.
My friend Janie was visiting the home of an
old potter at Santa Clara pueblo. She was admiring the enormous
collections of pots her host had on display throughout his
home. "How many do you have?" my friend innocently
inquired. Her host lowered his eyes. "We do not count
such things," he replied quietly.
During Sabbath we stop counting. How do we
count friendship or laughter? How do we count the value
of honesty or bread from the oven? How can we count the
sunrise, the trusting clasp of a child's hand, a melody,
a tear, a lover's touch? So many truly precious things grow
only in the soil of time; and we can only begin to know
their value when we stop counting.
During Sabbath, things that grow in time are
honored at least as much as those things we would buy and
sell. At rest, we can take deeper measure of our true wealth.
If we do not rest, if we do not taste and eat and serve
and teach and pray and give thanks and do all those things
that grow only in time, we will become more impoverished
than we will ever know.
To learn about the Genuine Progress
Indicator, an alternative to the Gross Domestic Product,