Today we come to the seventh chapter in Parker Palmers’ The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring, titled “’Loaves and Fishes’: Acts of Scarcity or Abundance.” We will begin with a review of Palmer’s main points. I agree with his general conclusion in this chapter but I find his path to his conclusions problematic (more below.) The story in this chapter is the story of the Loaves and Fishes from the Gospel of Mark:
The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes
The apostle returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves. Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them. As he landed he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the hour is now late; send them away, to go into the country and villages round about and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them. “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he commanded them all to sit down by companies upon the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people; and divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand people. (Mark 6:30-44, RSV. Inclusive language by Palmer.)
Palmer sees action and contemplation as inseparable in this story. Jesus and the disciples intend to take a break but the crowds follow them. This pressed home ever clearer the gifts they had to give and their own need to give them. But unlike the Angel in Buber’s story, these actions are not from “above.” The passage says Jesus acted out of compassion. It was responsive, not reflexive. It sprang from a sense inner truth, much like that the experience of the woodcarver.
But the focus of the story is this:
Hunger and food, of both the literal and metaphorical sorts, are the dominant images of this story. I want to translate these images into generic terms of scarcity and abundance. … In this story, as throughout his active life, Jesus wanted to help people penetrate the illusion of scarcity and act out the reality of abundance. (124)
The Scarcity Assumption
The quality of our active lives depends heavily on whether we assume a world of scarcity or a world of abundance. Do we inhabit a universe where the basic things that people need – from food and shelter to a sense of competence and of being loved – are ample in nature? Or is this a universe where such goods are in short supply, available only to those who have the power to beat everyone else to the store? The nature of our action will be heavily conditioned by the way we answer those bedrock questions. In a universe of scarcity, only people who know the arts of competing, even of making war will be able to survive. But in a universe of abundance, acts of generosity and community become not only possible but fruitful as well. (124-125)
From here Palmer enters a critique of contemporary economic systems. He views competition as a result of a false consciousness about scarcity. He says:
When we Americans, who comprise some six percent of the world’s population, consume over a third of the world’s resources, we create real scarcity for others. (125)
By extrapolation, I understand him to believe that there is a fixed amount of resources in the world. Those resources would be more than sufficient for all if redistributed. A direct consequence of some having too much is that others do not have enough. Furthermore he complains:
The cash-exchange mechanism makes it so much easier for us to ignore the gross inequities in the distribution of food and shelter around the world. (126)
In contrast …
When we are in community, many things we think we must buy in the marketplace suddenly become available free of charge. (127)
… and …
Community and abundance go hand in hand; the two words are nearly synonymous. (128)
… and …
… the first step in any action that assumes abundance and wants to amplify it is to perceive, and receive, those resources already present to us in the abundance of life itself. (129)
In my estimation, Palmer is a profound philosopher/theologian but not a very good economist. More on that at the end.
The True Miracle
Many people focus on a “magical” quality in this story. But they may be missing the intended personal application. Like the woodcarver in the earlier story, we might say “the Spirits did it,” seeing ourselves as bystanders. Palmer writes:
What Jesus does instead of magic is to act on the assumption of abundance. First, he divides the crowd into “companies” of hundreds and fifties and commands them all “to sit down … upon the green grass.” His miracle begins with the simple act of gathering the faceless crowd of five thousand into smaller, face-to-face communities. This is the stock-in-trade of every good community organizer, this clustering of people into more intimate settings where everyday miracles have a chance to happen. (130)
… and …
In the faceless crowd we experience scarcity – a scarcity of contact, of concern, of affirmation, of love. But as the crowd is replaced by community, an invisible sense of abundance arises long before the community produces any visible goods or services. True abundance resides in the simple experience of people being present to one another and for one another. (130)
Palmer says he feels no need to dismiss a supernatural interpretation of the story but he suspects a miracle of a different sort was going on. As the small groups of people saw the disciples being generous, they were inspired to share what they had with each other. He writes ...
… the experience of community it is itself abundance. In the faceless crowd we experience scarcity – a scarcity of contact, of concern, of affirmation, of love. But as the crowd is replaced by community, an invisible sense of abundance arises long before the community produces any visible goods and services.
… and conversely …
Our refusal to believe that we have enough is one cause of the competition that has resulted in such an inequitable distribution of resources at home and around the world. (132)
Leadership for Community
Palmer closes the chapter noting how action and contemplation are intertwined in this story. The presenting issue is the need to feed so many people. That leads to contemplation of the problem. That contemplation informs Jesus that there is enough. There is abundance. But the realization is pointless without action. So by active participation in the truth of God’s abundance and sending his followers to act on such a basis, a miracle happens. That miracle transforms individuals and communities, leading them into deeper contemplation of God and the truth of the world God created. Abundance requires our participation but it is not our creation. So also with community.
“But even as we act to evoke community, we must remember that community itself is a gift to be received, not a goal to be achieved. We have a strong tendency to make community one more project among many, to struggle and strain to come into relationship with one another, only to find that the stress of the very efforts exhausts us and drives us apart. Still, time after time we try to “make” community happen in the same effortful and self-defeating ways. Why? Because as long as we are the makers, we remain in control; and as long as we are in control, we will not be vulnerable to the risks of true community.” (136)
Palmer has some very important truths in this chapter but his misunderstanding of economics shades things in some unfortunate ways.
First, scarcity is real! God may have created a world of abundant natural resources but none of these resources are useful to humanity without human action (apart from maybe air and sunshine). Matter, energy, and data must be transformed from less useful forms to more useful forms through human imagination and labor. Everything we need cannot be fabricated at once. Each human being has a finite level of labor, combined with a finite number of hours to work in any given day. Priorities must be set. Production capacity is scarce relative to what we need at any given moment. How will we decided which things to do in which order? How can abundance best be realized given the absolute scarcity of goods and services? Economics studies how we go about these decisions. We can acknowledge the abundance of resources God has entrusted to us. But economics acknowledges the scarcity of goods and services with the appreciation that generation of abundance is humanity’s aim.
Second, Palmer says, “When we Americans, who comprise some six percent of the world’s population, consume over a third of the world’s resources, we create real scarcity for others.” (125) This statement is incorrect in two technical ways.
- The USA may have consumed one third of the resources the world consumed in year but it did not consume one third of the world’s resources. Each year, only a small fraction of global resources are consumed.
- At the time Palmer was writing twenty years ago, the USA percentage of the global economy was about 23%, and the USA share of the world population was about 4.5%. Since 1999, the USA share of the global economy has been shrinking by a fraction each year, down to about 19% today. The share of world population is only slightly smaller.
But his statement and analysis is indicative of deeper conceptual flaw: Palmer sees the world economy as a zero-sum game. There are a fixed number of goods and services (not just resources) in the world. That number is constant from year to year. If someone has more than the average, then others must have correspondingly less. With generosity, we would equal out the imbalance in the zero-sum game.
The world economy is not a zero-sum game. Since the time Palmer wrote his book, the world economy has grown by about 50%. The USA share of the world economy has declined to 19% over the last two decades. The share has also dropped for Europe (27% to 21%) and Japan (9% to 6%). Yet all of these economies have grown of over the same time period. How is it possible for their shares of the world economy to decline as their economies become larger? Because regions outside of these nations are growing even faster (like China 2.5% to 12.5%, and India 2.5% to 5%), growing the size of the global economy. Again, the world economy is not a zero-sum game.
Mohammad Yunnis, “Banker to the Poor” wrote Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism.
“To me, the poor are like Bonsai trees. When you plant the best seed of the tallest tree in a six-inch deep flower pot, you get a perfect replica of the tallest tree, but it is only inches tall. There is nothing wrong with the seed you planted; only the soil-base you provided was inadequate.
Poor people are bonsai people. There is nothing wrong with their seeds. Only society never gave them a base to grow on.”
Just as there are bonsai people, there are also bonsai economies in nations across the globe. Given the right soil they can flourish just as much as the other trees.
(I know some will interject here that such growth will exhaust all of our resources. It will not … or at least it need not. Such thinking discounts human creativity and imagination. That discussion is for another day.)
Third, Palmer fails to distinguish between face-to-face community and commercial society. He correctly identifies the need for face-to-face interaction with others if community is to emerge. I affirm all he has to say about community. Within such community we come to truly know each other. We can share and care based on personal knowledge of need and merit. Attempts to substitute market exchange as a means for fulfilling many of the things we find in community is rightly challenged. But each of is only capable of being in true community with a few dozen people, at most. How do we coordinate economic activity beyond the scope of face-to-face community?
Most of the things we use today, from #2 pencils to high tech gear, require the seamless coordination of countless thousands (millions?) of people scattered across the planet. We cannot accomplish them in face-to-face community. Prices in a market system help people know the demand for the work they do and the goods they produce. Prices are an information system that coordinates our behavior. Without prices and monetary-exchange there is no way for people to know how much to buy or sell. Without this information, there is no way to achieve substantial prosperity. People are left only to the resources immediately available to them in local community. There is much less to be generous with.
“The cash-exchange mechanism makes it so much easier for us to ignore the gross inequities in the distribution of food and shelter around the world.” (132)
No! As I said above, employing the cash-exchange mechanism in face-to-face community is often inappropriate, but the cash-exchange mechanism is absolutely essential for commercial society and for reducing inequities around the world. Certainly generosity in the form of aid to relieve immediate need is required, but the bigger issue is that bonsai people need to be transplanted into better soil. They need to be included in networks of productivity and exchange. Just as it is foolhardy to make face-to-face community a matter of market exchange, so too is it foolhardy to view commercial society as face-to-face community writ large.
With all this in mind, what do we make of the story? I begin with a question: If the story is about people being inspired to share with others based on the actions of Jesus and the disciples, where did the bread and fish come from that the people had stashed away? The bread came from the labor of clearing a field, planting seeds, nourishing a crop of wheat, harvesting the crop, adding ingredients to make dough, and then baking that dough into bread. The fish came from putting a boat into the water, dropping a net, hauling in a catch, salting and preserving the fish, and then retrieving the fish for such an occasion as this. Because of human imagination and labor, people had something they could share with others in face-to-face community.
Jesus inspired generosity with offering the loaves and fishes. Elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus tells us we will accomplish much greater things than he did. If generosity in face-to-face community is first grounded in productive labor, then how much greater can the generosity be if each of were radically more productive, generating more to share? We can’t be in community with millions of other people. But we can be sure that bonsai people are given better soil and included in networks of exchange and productivity, making the most of their imagination and labor, creating the opportunity for them to be generous with each other in face-to-face community.
I think Palmer is right about scarcity and abundance in the sense that we too often mistake want for need. Our drive for these “needs” inclines us to depersonalize others, to abuse nature, and become stingy with what we have been given. This is not to say the only things we are to pursue are minimalist needs. Rather, we must prioritize our wants in relation to other considerations within the Kingdom of God. We need to be grateful for what we have. When superfluous wants rise to the status of needs, we experience a scarcity created by our own imagination. We become fearful and turned inward. Community is lost.
Leadership for community is not just about inspiring generosity. It is also about inspiring and creating the optimal conditions for expanding abundance, about ever increasing the fruitfulness of the garden in ways that honor God. Like the woodcarver, it requires delving deep into the reality of our context (economics in this case) to know how to act truthfully.
In what ways have you felt scarcity? When have you felt scarcity the strongest? When have you been most aware of abundance? What do these experiences teach us about action in our daily existence?
Does my critique of Palmer ring true with you? Why or why not?
What do you think Jesus was intending to communicate with his actions on this occasion?