My new job has me doing a lot more flying than I am used to. That is why it took me so long to notice that British Airways does not have a row 13. It is pretty obvious why – many people regard it as unlucky. What is perhaps not quite so obvious is the statement this omission makes about the power of money.
Now I do not believe that money is inherently evil. It is simply a powerful tool, like literature or music. When it is wielded by one whose motivations are to build and develop and restore, it has the capacity to facilitate enormous good. When it is used carelessly or maliciously, the effects can be devastating. So I am not cynical about money. I am, however, distrustful of human nature.
The missing row 13 on British Airways flights is a fascinating comment on the power of money. I am convinced that nobody in their right mind – certainly nobody in senior management at British Airways – genuinely believes that the inclusion of a row 13 would jeopardise the safety of a plane. But management at British Airways does recognise that there are many people out there who are not in their right minds. And many of them will end up flying. They recognise that the omission will not perturb right-minded people to such an extent that they will refuse to patronise British Airways, but they do not wish to isolate the paranoid few. Money talks.
What do we learn from this? Everyone is trying to sell you something: a physical product, a philosophy, a lifestyle, an image of themselves that will make you like them. Every word – written or spoken – sent in your direction is a sales pitch. All words expect reward. Sometimes the reward is financial, but often the benefits of a successful sale are less tangible: self-esteem, a sense of security, your trust. So when I talk about “money”, I use the term in a very loose sense; I refer to all forms of reward, not only those with somebody’s head printed on the back.
My British Airways experience got me thinking: if a person or an organisation wants your “money”, they will be prepared to tell you what you want to hear in order to get it. They will be whomever they need to be to make you like them and trust them. People will wear whatever mask they need to if doing so will prove profitable.
Wherever there is a potential cash-cow, you can bet that somebody has found a way to milk it. That, for example, is why I believe preachers like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes are so successful. I am not taken in by their acts for a moment. They use the right kind of lingo, make the right kinds of promises, exploit a need for comfort and certainty in a hostile and unpredictable world, and reap the benefits. And while their organisations undeniably do a lot of social good, it is difficult to argue that such preachers are not – at heart – religious entrepreneurs, at a time when religion is a very productive cow.
In a much misquoted verse, Paul warns young Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10, my emphasis). It is clear that the problem does not originate with money (or literature, or music etc.) itself; evil acts are birthed in the heart whose desires are twisted. In that same chapter, Paul warns against men “who think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (verse 5). But there is an allure to charismatic men and women who speak to our pain that blinds us to their really quite obvious intentions.
Science is not exempt from corruption either. If you are interested, perhaps you should read the very interesting paper by David E. Wojick and Patrick J. Michaels, talking about funding bias in scientific research (http://www.cato.org/publications/working-paper/government-buying-science-or-support-framework-analysis-federal-funding). Don’t misunderstand me. I am not claiming, as Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal did, that “Most scientific studies are wrong, and they are wrong because scientists are interested in funding and careers rather than truth.” I don’t believe that any more than I believe that all preachers are after your tithe. But it is true of some.
The point is this: if you want to learn to be discerning, if you want to understand the world around you, take all the truth claims that are presented to you and ask a very simple question: who gets the money? When our president claims that allegiance to the ANC is more important than loyalty to the country, I ask, “If that is true, who gets the money?” Nkandla would suggest …surprise, surprise… the president himself. When T.D. Jakes (or any tele-evangelist, for that matter) talks about prosperity, and urges us to give so that we can be blessed, I ask “Who is blessed by all the money we give?” Do yourself a favour and pick any of the celebrity preachers. Then do a quick internet search for a picture of his/her house and/or a figure for their net worth. It won’t take long to yield results. Interpret those results as you will. As for me, that tells me all I need to know about where their hearts are. When planes fly into the Twin Towers or French bombers pummel Syria, and I see the way those events are reported in the media, it doesn’t take much to convince me that somebody is getting rich off these tragedies. Ideologically as well as financially. The reason for the presence of so much of the suffering and injustice in the world becomes clearer when you ask “Who gets the money?” People use money to create truth. To shape it and twist it and repackage it to suit their own ends. When you begin to see that, you will have discovered an even more valuable treasure than money. And – like me – you will end up a little wiser and a lot more jaded.