6 min read

Greed: “No, I’ll never have enough”

Jane Williams is the McDonald Professor in Christian Theology at St Mellitus College.

In the third of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, Jane Williams highlights how Greed destroys both individuals and societies.
Piles of money

In the old Humphrey Bogart film, Key Largo, the villain, played with a vicious childishness by Edward G. Robinson, is asked by Bogie what he wants. Rocco, Robinson’s character, thinks for a bit and then says that what Rocco wants is MORE!  ‘Will you ever have enough?’, Bogie asks, and Robinson thinks about it for a moment before replying, ‘I never have so far. No, I’ll never have enough’. 

That is Greed, in a vivid nutshell. Rocco doesn’t want anything particular, and he doesn’t value anything in itself; he just has a vast, unspecific, insatiable desire for anything and everything, particularly if it belongs to someone else. 

Rapacious greed does not love what it desires; it is driven to possess; it does not value what it has. 

Greed, like all the Seven Deadly Sins, is a ‘capital’ or ‘cardinal’ sin, meaning it is a disposition from which destructive, abusive actions flow. Having this over-mastering tendency to Greed makes us act in a whole variety of ways that are damaging and abusive to others and to ourselves. Greed leads to a variety of ‘sins’. Rapacious greed does not love what it desires; it is driven to possess; it does not value what it has, because while there is ‘more’ out there somewhere, greed must have it. It does not care what or whom it attacks or destroys: anything that stands in its way must be obliterated. It does not want to admire or use what it seeks, it merely needs to possess it, and the moment the sought after thing is achieved, all-consuming greed moves onto the next thing, always seeking ‘more’, always despising what it has, as not enough. 

Greed is destructive both on the personal front and also as it shapes societies. Individuals ruled by greed cannot maintain love or friendship or loyalty: their eyes are always on the next thing, always hungry for what they have not got. They leave behind them, without a backward glance, hurt and broken friends, family, colleagues, jobs. And if the fallout is clear for all the people around someone driven by greed, it is also obvious that it destroys the greedy, too.  

Overpowering greed empties even the greedy of worth; they can never be successful, because they do not have what they want – everything. 

Nothing can ever satisfy someone consumed by greed; there is no rest, no peace, no pleasure, because the world is full of things still to be grabbed at.  Jesus is quoted as having said, ‘Where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be’. It’s a warning to beware of what you long for, because we are so powerfully shaped by our desires. But if all Greed longs for is ‘more’, then, in the end, the greedy person or society has no heart at all. It is shaped only by a drive for possession, opening up a vast and echoing emptiness where an actual longed-for being or thing should live. Overpowering greed empties even the greedy of worth; they can never be successful, because they do not have what they want – everything.  

It is obvious how Greed is deadly for individuals, but it is also deadly when it becomes a motivating force for society at large. The media have recently been talking again about ‘greedflation’. The theory behind the term is much debated, but the word itself is instantly memorable. Institutions that are governed primarily by the need for ‘more’ drive an insatiable economy, always needing more consumers, more profit, more rewards. Dissatisfaction and envy are the necessary tools of a society, an economy, of Greed. Individuals and groups that try to opt out of this out-of-control consumerism are viewed as a threat, and must be diminished, dismissed, cast out. It is dangerous in such a society ever to ask, ‘Do we really need more?’ That is the Emperor’s New Clothes question, which must be avoided at all costs. Surveys that ask people at different income levels whether they feel that they have enough nearly always find that everyone would like just a little bit more. Everyone would like to be at the next level up of income and possessions; but if they achieve that next level, then, strangely, they find that it is actually the level above that that really want.  

Contentment lays an axe to the roots of Greed. It allows us to see what we have and value it.

The World Happiness Report, which has been regularly updated for the last 10 years, works with a complex set of definitions of what makes for happiness, for individuals and for societies. Finland regularly tops the chart of Happiest Countries in the world, which Finns find a bit puzzling, apparently. They don’t see themselves as cheerful, jolly people, but they do speak of a national characteristic that might be described as contentment. Contentment lays an axe to the roots of Greed. It allows us to see what we have and value it, rather than despising it because there are things we do not have. 

One of the values that The World Happiness Report notes as making for greater happiness is altruism – doing good and receiving goodness from others makes both parties happier. The Christian tradition has known this for a long time. Cardinal Sins have their opposing Cardinal Virtues, dispositions that we can cultivate to help us to free ourselves from enslaving habits, like Greed. ‘Charity’ is the Cardinal Virtue that undermines the sin of Greed. When we give to others from our own resources, of time, money, attention, care, prayer, help of any kind, we begin to loosen the deadly grip of insatiable Greed upon ourselves and our world. Greed can’t live alongside Charity, or altruism; charity sees real people and situations in need, and supplies what it can from its own resources; Greed sees only more and more objects to be acquired, never able to see what it already has, never able to share or be content. 

Deadly Sins lead to behaviour that makes for misery, both for those driven by them, and for those on the receiving end of them. That is why they are called ‘deadly’. They are not just a bit naughty; they are actively destructive of human flourishing, both personal and communal. There is so much in our society that positively encourages Greed, the reckless desire for More, which can never be satisfied. But there are ways of combatting this most pernicious of habits.  

One is the practice of gratitude: instead of thinking about what we haven’t got, or would like to have, or what someone else has, we can think of what we have got, and think of it as gift, something to say thank you for. It’s a good habit to build into every day, perhaps as we go to bed, taking just a few minutes to think about the good things that have come to us that day: a child’s smile, a gleam of sunshine, a hug from a friend or partner, a delicious piece of bread; everyday things that we can take for granted, in which case they go unnoticed; or we can see that they are  gifts to be grateful for, which enlarge our spirit and our wellbeing. Gratitude is a virtuous circle: it is lovely to be on the receiving end of gratitude, as well as to practice being grateful. And gratitude often leads to another excellent practice for undermining Greed, which is charity, or altruism. If we are learning how to say thank you for what we have, we may also want to share what we now notice that we have. If we’ve given the gift of gratitude, and seen how it makes us and the receiver feel, we may want to extend that further and further. Worth a try? 

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7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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