Count the Cost | Bitcoin and Proverbs

El Salvador adopted bitcoin as legal tender on September 6, just a week ago. In doing so, they became the first country on earth to make bitcoin an official currency.

Free Marketeers and other cryptocurrency enthusiasts cheered the development, even as bitcoin lost ten percent of its value on that same day. Proponents believe that bitcoin is the future of currency because of its unregulated nature. Freedom from central banks, with their rates and rules, inhibit the growth of wealth and tend to favor those who already have money, so say supporters.

But it’s not just that: cryptocurrency holds potential for the developing world. Because it is unregulated, universal, and easily acquired, anyone with internet access can have bitcoin and use it for anything they desire. Also Bitcoin, over time has proven to have an astounding rate of return: 7,593% in the last five years. In other words, if you bought $100 of bitcoin five years ago, today that $100 would be worth $75,930. Because it’s unregulated, you would owe no tax on those funds unless you converted them to dollars.

I thought of bitcoin when I read this week’s scripture from the book of Proverbs. The selections provided by the lectionary, that weekly cycle of scripture readings for worship and preaching, focus on the rich; specifically calling upon the rich to recognize they are no different than the poor before God and to ensure that they do nothing with their wealth and privilege to oppress the poor. Cryptocurrency offers a means to alleviate poverty by providing a tax-free, unregulated, high-return currency that can be used by anyone anywhere in the world.

But, we must count the cost.

Let’s hear our scripture for this morning. It’s selections from Proverbs, chapter 22.

Scripture

Count the cost.

To open his lecture on Proverbs, my Old Testament professor in seminary began by reading selections from Amy Vanderbilt’s famous Book of Etiquette. He read to us until we were both bored and very curious, wondering how this relates. He then said he was reading from the a modern form of Proverbs.

We think of Proverbs as wisdom and, certainly, it’s that. But it’s also like the Book of Etiquette; specifically for young courtiers in the court of the kings of Judah. We might subtitle Proverbs this way: how to get ahead, make friends, and find a good wife when in the court of King Jehosaphat. The collection of sayings focus on wisdom for those who have power, privilege, status, and wealth; the concerns only of the rich. They speak to how to handle that power, privilege, status, and wealth, to ensure that they’re used for God’s purposes, which is God’s glory and the betterment of humanity.

At moments in Proverbs, there’s a theme. Earlier chapters focus on Woman Wisdom, for example, personifying wisdom by portraying it as an enlightened woman, elevated above all men. But here, we just have a collection of seemingly random sayings.

Out of that collection, we find these words to those who have resources at their disposal. And while it has much to say about how the rich treat the poor and how the rich perceive of themselves, the greater issue at stake here is this: to ensure that those resources are used in a way that does not cause injustice and oppression.

Those with resources must manage them in a way that does not cause injustice and oppression. That is the wisdom of Proverbs here in our scripture this morning and, compared with the rest of scripture, that is the will of God.

In other words, before utilizing them, those with resources must count the cost.

Which brings us back to bitcoin. Here we have opportunity for those who have few resources to be able to garner wealth through this tax-free, unregulated, high-return currency that can be used by anyone anywhere in the world. It holds promise for poverty and to provide equity across the first world and the developing world. That would seem to be in line with what Proverbs is saying here about the rich and poor being alike before God and about the rich ensuring that the poor are not oppressed.

Until we count the cost.

First, bitcoin is highly volatile. Unlike regulated currencies, it can make and lose huge fortunes in a matter of minutes because there’s no central bank controlling the flow of capital and responding to the vagaries of world markets. For individuals, that’s problematic enough. But El Salvador, a highly debt-laden country, could see its debt significantly grow if bitcoin took a dive. Actually, knowing bitcoin, we should say when bitcoin takes a dive. That could saddle the country with oppressive debt, which would lead to further impoverishment of its people in a country already known as one of the world’s poorest.

Second, bitcoin causes massive amounts of pollution. Analysts at Cambridge University concluded that bitcoin causes more pollution than the entire country of Argentina. That’s because new bitcoin is produced by mining blockchains. The mining of blockchains requires powerful computers running nonstop. That, in turn, uses a ton of electricity, much of which is produced by fossil fuels. And pollution that causes weather anomalies and disasters affects the poorest regions of the world the most.

Bitcoin holds potential for the poor. It also holds potential to oppress the poor.

We must count the cost.

Most of us probably don’t use bitcoin. This sermon might in fact be your introduction to bitcoin. So let’s bring the issue a little closer to home.

Consider electric cars. I like the idea of electric cars. They’re fun to drive, simpler to maintain, less costly to own, and get great tax credits. I love the idea of an electric truck, with its frunk; literally a front trunk. With a tiny engine attached to the chassis, there’s room in the former engine compartment for a trunk!

But of course, the main pull for many people toward electric cars is the promise of being greener; of being more environmentally-friendly.

To charge a car around here requires plugging it in at home. And therein lies the cost to be counted: our power comes from coal. To charge the car at home is to pull more power from our coal power plant, which increases coal pollution. So, when driving the electric car, I’m not really helping the environment. I’m trading the pollution of burning gasoline for the pollution of burning coal.

We must count the cost.

Right now, I’m preaching from my iPad. I love technology and especially apple devices. When I’m not preaching, I use my desktop iMac to write the sermons that you hear. I use my iPhone on a daily basis. At home, we watch TV on Apple TVs. This worship service will be/is live-streamed using a MacBook Air. These devices are convenient, reliable, fun, stylish, and powerful.

Deep inside the recesses of all of them, and in fact of all the phones currently in this room and all your computer and mobile devices at home, regardless of brand, are minerals; specifically these: tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold. Processors and other hardware cannot be made without them. Some of them, like tin, are extracted from countries like Canada and Argentina, but much of mining occurs in central Africa, specifically the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

There, militias and other armed gangs rule various regions of the country. The government of the DRC has little control over much of the country itself. These militias and gangs finance their operations through the mining of tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold; mainly to intermediaries who then sell those same minerals to other intermediaries, who eventually sell them to the Chinese companies who make the devices we use on a daily basis.

Those intermediaries are important. It makes the exact location of the mining of particular minerals difficult. So, if your iPhone is made at a Foxconn plant in China, and it probably was, it’s difficult to know if the tungsten inside came from a mine in the DRC ruled by militias or a legitimate company.

And that’s important because those militias and armed gangs who sell these minerals are modern-day enslavers of their own people. They work some literally to death. They abuse and mistreat. They turn children into soldiers and send them off with their armies to fight rival gangs for control of mines. The extraction of these minerals comes too often from conflict-riddled zones, and thus these minerals of tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold are called conflict minerals.

Chances are some blood was spilled in the process of making some of the phones in this room today and some of the devices being used to watch this service at home right now. This is another way that our consumer behavior can, however inadvertently, oppress the poor. And in conflict minerals is an example of verse 8: “whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.” In our purchases of electronics, we potentially sow calamity.

We must count the cost.

There are plenty of other examples like this. We could talk about cheap clothes and shoes that might come from sweatshops somewhere around East Asia. We might talk about the ethics, or lack thereof, of our investment portfolios and the business practices of the companies whose stock we own.

In any of these ways, we can say that we have violated much of what we read in Proverbs this morning. In purchasing the new iPhone, we might have “crushed the afflicted.” When we went and bought those new cheap clothes, we might have “oppressed the poor in order to enrich [ourselves].” In these ways, we have “sow[ed] injustice” and thus will “reap calamity.” This is all true because these are the costs, however hidden they might be, of being a consumer in the global marketplace.

We buy that new shirt for $12, not asking ourselves if it’s cheap because the worker in some hovel made it for a few cents a day. We buy that new iPad for $500, not wondering if some child was deep in a mine, ruled by warlords, extracting the tungsten for its hardware. We might even go buy an electric car, thinking that we’re doing this great thing for the environment, not considering that we’re still contributing to pollution by pulling power from our local coal power plant. I doubt many of us mine bitcoin, but for those who do, they add to pollution around the world and destabilize markets, which hurt the poorest the most.

Tracking all of this is difficult. Just about anything we purchase may have come at the expense of the oppression of the worker who helped make it, supported a country whose policies are unjust, lined the pockets of an African warlord, or had some other unforeseen outcome. We can try and track where our purchases are made and the practices of those companies, but that’s difficult at best. I once went through Apple’s website, trying to confirm that they guarantee none of their products contain conflict minerals. They come very close to a guarantee but stop just short, saying that it’s basically impossible to make such a guarantee, no matter how hard they try.

That’s the complexity of the global supply chain. That’s the reality of our modern global economy.

We might want to count the cost, but how?

What are we, mere consumers, to do?

The answer starts in the first two verses we read. Consider verse 2: The rich and the poor have this in common; the LORD is the maker of them all. The beginning of ethics, the beginning of morality, the beginning of acting with justice and releasing those under oppression; the beginning of all of that lies in this verse and verses like it that proclaim that we are all images of God. God made no one more or less equal than anyone else. On Ash Wednesday, we put it this way: remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. We are all dust, made of the same stuff, created in God’s image.

To count the cost, then, is to shop mindful that there are humans behind everything we purchase; humans sometimes working for a fair wage in good conditions, but sometimes not. We must allow that awareness to change our consumer behavior, doing our level best to ensure that we’re purchasing items from companies that do their level best to not engage in oppression of the poor.

So we must be mindful when we shop. There are human beings behind everything we purchase. How are those human beings, images of God just like us, being treated when they produce what we purchase?

The answer as to what we as mere consumers are to do continues with the very first verse we read: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” Can it be said of us that, in our consumer behavior, we have a good reputation? Certainly, no one is watching our Amazon cart, but if they did, how would it impact our reputation? When we interact with workers at Wal-mart, at any store here in town, or with waiters at restaurants, do our interactions glorify God and build a good name for ourselves or do we treat these workers as somehow less than us, being demanding and difficult when we don’t get what we want?

When we purchase something, are we considering all the costs? The example of the electric car is a great one for this: how many electric car purchasers think they’re helping the environment but have not considered how the power at home, the power that will fuel their car, is generated? Some undoubtedly have inadvertently traded one form of pollution for another.

Then there are the smaller, more local things. Take for example when we are at a fast food location here in town. Can our behavior there be said to give us a good name? When the drive-thru gets our order wrong, when the person behind the counter is rude or difficult, in our reactions to those situations, does our good name hold up? That’s consumer behavior, too. And the way we treat those employees speaks volumes about who we really are; if we think with our wealth and status we are somehow better or if we see them as images of God, just like us, of equal value before God.

This is the cost we are to count. We are to count how our purchases affect other humans, equal to us, around the world. We are to count how our purchases reflect our reputation for good or bad. We are to count how we treat others when we are engaging a service, such as dining out.

What are we, mere consumers, to do?

We are to count the cost.

When we opened this sermon, we talked about how Proverbs calls upon all of us to ensure that those with resources at their disposal use them in a way that does not cause injustice and oppression. Most of our resources are dollars; so Proverbs calls upon us to ensure that the way we use our money does not cause injustice and oppression.

In other words, we are to be stewards of the resources entrusted to us. Whatever we have is a gift from God. It’s up to us to do our best to ensure that those resources, especially our main resource in our finances, are not used in a way that causes injustice, oppression, or harm to anyone else. We must be mindful of the people behind the products we purchase and the services we use.

Nothing is a silver bullet, not even bitcoin. There’s a cost behind everything. The question is, are you aware of the cost to your fellow human beings who bear the image of God, same as you?

Count the cost.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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