In the course of doing some translation work this afternoon, I come across a reference to an Indian people of the Pacific Northwest of North America, a people called the Kwakwaka’wakw, for whom wealth and status were not determined by how much you had, but by how much you had to give away. « The status of any given family is raised not by who has the most resources, » I read, « but by who distributes the most resources. The hosts demonstrate their wealth and prominence through giving away goods. »
Needless to say, in the late 19th century, the American and Canadian governments saw this as the most dangerous aspect of the tribe’s culture and did everything they possibly could to eliminate it, even passing laws that forbade the formal practice of gatherings and ceremonies when the redistribution of wealth took place. They succeeded.
Meanwhile, tonight I see images on the television news of the people starving in Somalia. And of the crazed gunman in Norway. And of the French president playing his role to better his public image, so that he can garner more votes, so that he can maintain power, so that he can help his rich friends keep their riches and get more riches, so that he can be rich, too, so that…
And then later I come across Thomas Merton’s quote: « The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another. »