Traveling through Thailand one cannot avoid the national focus on the Thai king as benefactor of the poor, the good shepherd of all his people. (Sound familiar to any of us raised in company of a religious tradition with Mid-Eastern roots?) So on a long drive back to Bangkok from a beach resort this evening I could not help but compare the wealth of royalty, multinationals, religious institutions (hidden in real estate and treasure troves of sacred trinkets and ornate architecture and statuary) and a relatively few locals with the mass of ordinary citizens eking out what seems to this new outsider to be surely very little more than subsistence wages.
I found it hard to relate to the arguments that (1) the multinational intruders sincerely believe that their operations are doing much more than tokenism in raising living standards, or that (2) the royal and its subsidiary establishments are moving mountains as fast as they possibly can. I still have a hard time swallowing the Dalai Lama’s giggling suggestion that a village without even public sanitation should raise funds for a Buddha statue or temple on some rationalization that made Jesus’ “you have the poor with you always” quip sound banal.
So what does my Western Christian tradition have to offer as an alternative?
A thought experiment started working itself out on my drive back to the home of my hosts. . . . .
The New Testament is not alien to the thought of a central government or any rich company or person instituting a plan to assist in money creation. We all know the parables of the talents and pounds in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27. But those had to do with the rich man’s money and methods by which he utilized his employees or staff to make him even richer. And the poor timid bugger who did his best not to take any risks with losing someone else’s money got sent off to suffer death by torture.
But maybe with a little tweaking perhaps this antiquated Christian parable can still inspire some virtue.
My slightly tweaked parable for modern times:
What if the king in the parable, instead of distributing his money to his servants to see how much they could increase the royal coffers in his absence, opted rather to distribute a small portion to each and every citizen who had an idea how he/she could use the money to establish some enterprise that would make a better living for themselves and their friends and kin.
Then when the king returned he had his servants check how each recipient had done. Those who had done well with the money on behalf of themselves and their loved ones were offered reasonable terms by which they could repay the loan without interest. Those who had managed to improve their lot a little were offered more appropriate repayment terms. Those who had not managed to succeed with their hoped-for enterprises were offered consolations and best wishes that some time still not too distant they might still make good. Till that day, the topic of repayment was not even raised.
So the king would lose a few bucks in the short term. But balance that against the mushrooming prosperity and living standards within his kingdom, and the wealth that would inevitably still find its way to the royal coffers.
A morality parable for an alternative to a mercantilist / capitalist system that current Christianity appears to favour?