Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Private Work for Public Good (Part I)

Last week I got a little history lesson when Cate Waynick, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, joined us for Sunday worship.  As part of her interactive homily, she told us that the word "liturgy," while often synonymous with "service," actually comes from a Greek word that referred to a form of "service" different from "ceremony."

Bishop Cate told us that the Greek word leitourgia is sometimes interpreted as "private work for public good."  The example she gave was of a merchant who built a bridge to get his goods to market ... and then left it for anyone else to use.

Intrigued, I did a little more research.   It seems that leitourgia -- literally, "work of the people" or "work for the people" -- originated with the ancient Greeks in the years 800-500 B.C., when the Romans were still clustered in central Italy and the Hebrews were in the Babylonian captivity.   The Greeks funded their civic enterprises -- temples, the military, and even gymnasia and theatrical productions -- by asking the wealthiest citizens to volunteer for the privilege of underwriting them.  There was great prestige in being named the "sponsor" of the costliest items.  Often this came with the benefit of serving as master of ceremonies at a related festival or feast.   Not unlike modern philanthropy, in a lot of respects.

Except this wasn't philanthropy in the modern sense.  It appears to have been much closer to their version of taxation.   A tax paid exclusively by the rich.   Has anyone told Mitt Romney about this?

It seems the ancient Greeks did have other forms of government revenue, that everyone paid, even if only indirectly -- primarily what we could call sales taxes and tariffs.  But at this point in history there was, apparently, no attempt to tax the income or "wealth" of the poor.  The Greeks didn't look beyond the wealthy. Like Willie Sutton's rationale for robbing banks, that's where the money is.


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