My friend Scott Gunn has a very interesting and timely post at his blog, Seven Whole Days. The post points to the rampant commercialism and consumption that have become part of Christmas. He offers the option of the “buy nothing Christmas”. This will no doubt be an appealing option to some, especially given the uncertainty about the state of the global economy. The critique, an accurate one, is that we seem to have an insatiable appetite for cheap goods. Christmas is the time, it is most visible and even celebrated.
However, our Christmas buying habits are only a symptom of a much more pervasive issue. Our relationship with currency and commerce needs to be examined. I want to understand the core issues that lead us astray.
We have seen huge shifts in economic activity over time. In a relatively short period, we have transitioned through various economic cultures. We started hunting and gathering, then we became an agrarian society. We learned to barter as a means of exchanging produce. We shifted into small-scale production of useful tools, only to explode into bigger manufacturing. A tech revolution occurred. We have seen a shift to a more service-based economy.
Credit developed as a convenience first, then became part of the speculative process of business and procurement. Capital became more available. Money flowed. Some became rich, and some did not. Land was critical in the beginning, but is less so now. Now, we look toward the next big idea.
What has happened to our thinking about money and goods? I suspect few think intentionally about this. It is easier to just roll along with the trends and expansion. Sure, some develop business plans. Others plan budgets. Some set long-term goals. Others only hope to pay the next bill. There is little philosophical conversation about money. Most conversation is about acquiring more to have more. Commerce is a religion, and we all bow down at the altar.
Short of packing it in and moving to the woods, we all have to participate in economic culture. Can we find ways to participate that reflect our faith, and honor our values? I would say yes. However, I also recognize that Jesus spent a good deal of time addressing money and property. He eschewed placing faith in wealth and property, and criticized abuse as a result of economic inequality. The Apostles, we are told, held all things in common, and gave to anyone that had need. I think it safe to say that Jesus’ criticism of wealth had more to do with the obsessive and abusive behavior of people, than material wealth itself. Yet, it is perfectly clear that Jesus was aware of the stumbling block the material world poses.
Some of the problem is garden variety idolatry, whereby we grant ultimacy to objects, and not God. It is also more complex and difficult to understand than that. We fail to se the consequences of our consumption. I want to pay x for a suit of a certain quality. The company that makes the suit can only mach my desire to pay x, if they manufacture it in Poland using underpaid workers. I feel better driving a Land Rover, than a Prius, despite the ecological implications. I want the newest MacBook Pro, even though my current MacBook Pro is a little over a year old, and meets my needs. Why these feelings, appetites and desires? They are not rational.
I think they stem from our feelings of existential despair. We attempt to fill the voids in our lives with stuff. A tangible bobble is something that can be held and, for whatever reason, it makes me feel just a little more in control and less desolate. The trouble is that that feeling is transitory. When I go that route, it is like the cycle of addictive behavior. I need more and better things, than the last time, to make me feel as good.
We are chasing something that we will never apprehend through more and better stuff. The hard part is that we do need certain things. The addict can put a drug down and stay away from it, but we have material needs. There is nothing wrong with the material world; the problem is how we have adapted to it. We are in over our heads, and the use of credit, not as a convenience, but to finance our lifestyles is a symptom. There is little differentiation between needs and wants. Our thinking needs to catch up to the economic transitions, we have experienced as people.
Ultimately, our hope resides in Christmas. We recognize and remember that our hope, against despair, became flesh. Jesus came, not to free us from the world, but to enable us to live abundant life in it, and beyond it. A new bobble need not be another graven image, threatening to replace God in our lives. A new bobble will not “make” Christmas. What if gifts were selected and given with a sacramental kind of reverence? What if gifts were not mass quantities of cheap plastic junk, but were given as real signs of affection and love in light of God’s gift to us? Gifts could be more than anesthesia, if we sought to be thoughtful, deliberate and sensible. What if gift giving weren’t a melee, but the celebration of God’s ultimate gift of God’s self, celebrated intentionally, with an exchange of tokens of love, not hinging on quantity or dollar value, but meaning?
For those of you that follow these things, the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth voted to leave the Episcopal Church last Saturday. This Saturday, Bishop Jack Iker was inhibited. For one analysis of the situation, go to Katie Sherrod. Here is a link to Iker’s convention address. I also came across his list of issues. I would argue that Iker glosses over the nuanced perspectives, those he opposes, hold.
I will save you the link.
From the Diocese of Fort Worth: “We are contending for the Faith”
I am told that there are still some people in the pews who wonder what this is all about – what are the real issues that separate us from TEC? Allow me to provide a brief summary of just a few of them:
• Our Diocese believes in salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. TEC believes there are many ways to salvation and that all religions lead to God.
• Our Diocese believes in the authority of Holy Scripture in all matters of faith and morals. TEC believes the Bible needs to be revised and adapted to meet the changing culture and that it may mean different things in different social contexts.
• Our Diocese believes that the essentials of the Christian Faith have been revealed once and for all in the teachings of Jesus Christ and are not subject to change. TEC believes in a revisionist approach that says only the votes of successive General Conventions can determine doctrinal and faith issues for Episcopalians as times change.
• Our Diocese believes that all ordained clergy are under the obligation to model in their own lives the received teaching of the Church that all its members are to abstain from sexual relations outside Holy Matrimony. TEC believes that active homosexuals and bisexuals ?should be ordained to the sacred ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.
• Our Diocese believes that marriage is the exclusive physical and spiritual union of one man and one woman for life. TEC believes same sex relationships are good and holy and should be blessed and celebrated.
• Our Diocese believes in the sacredness of human life from conception. TEC affirms abortion on demand.
• Our Diocese has endorsed from the very beginning the position of Lambeth Resolution 1.10 (1998) on sexuality, the recommendations of the Windsor Report (2004) on how to keep us together as a Communion, and the need for an Anglican Covenant that will define the limits of diversity. TEC has repudiated the Lambeth resolution on human sexuality, acted in defiance of the Windsor Report, and will only accept a future Covenant if there are no consequences for breaking it!
• Our Diocese believes that the theological issue of the ordination of women as priests and bishops is a matter of conscience and must not be forced on anyone. TEC believes this matter has been decided for Episcopalians and that acceptance of it is mandatory in every diocese.
• Our Diocese has constitutional and canonical provisions that place all church property in the name of the Corporation of this Diocese, to be held in trust for the use of each local congregation. TEC claims that all church property belongs to them, a claim first made by General Convention in 1979.
• Our Diocese believes that heretical teaching by the church causes separation and division, that unity and truth must go together. TEC believes we should tolerate heresies and false teaching for the sake of remaining together.
• Our Diocese maintains that just as we voted to come into union with the General Convention in 1982, so we have the right to dissolve that union in 2008. TEC believes our affiliation with General Convention is irrevocable.
• Our Diocese stands with the vast majority of Anglicans around the world. TEC is a declining body and very much out of the mainstream of orthodox Christianity, both here and abroad.
The list could go on and on, but I think these few examples should suffice. The choice before us is clear. Will we contend for the faith as we have received it? Or we will accept the ongoing innovations and revisions of General Convention religion?
The Rt. Rev. Jack Leo Iker Bishop of Fort Worth October 2008
This came from the Faith and Theology blog. It presents an interesting view of our relationship with money.
A guest-post by Scott Stephens (originally written for an Australian church newspaper)
Credit is the lifeblood of the modern economy. It saturates our lives – from the personal credit we each use to purchase household items or to buy our homes, to the shadier, more mysterious world of credit default swaps (CDSs) and other derivatives that commercial banks now trade like a currency.
But it’s the very ubiquity of credit that prevents us from seeing its true nature, like being unable to see the wood for the trees. Credit is, in essence, the promise of limitless, indefinite, unfathomable wealth. And we need credit is because of the kind of lives that we have become accustomed to living, or the size of the profit margins your investors demand. Credit is, like most facets of our economy, an invention, a form of technology for generating more money. But the real innovation of the last two decades has been the willingness of banks to trade debt and risk itself, and thereby to make the economy both more profitable and more volatile.
Likewise, on the personal front, it has been the availability of “cheap money” in the form of low interest mortgages, the subsequent housing bubble, and the conversion of home equity into another line of credit that has pumped billions of dollars into national economies. What we have witnessed, in other words, is a natural extension of the very logic of money, which has aimed from its very beginning at generating more and more of itself, seemingly out of nothing.
This surprisingly modern idea – money generating more money – was actually first put forward by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. He observed the introduction of markets into the first great metropolises of Asia Minor, and even described trade as “the salvation of the states.” But Aristotle was then shocked to observe that the efficiency and simplicity of the market seemed to unleash something monstrous in the human heart. As people saw how much money there was to be made, they began lusting after “profit without limit.” They traded “the good life” (namely, a life organized around virtue and the common good) for lives of excess. Aristotle concluded that, whereas trade had the potential to be “the salvation of the states,” the seemingly limitless flow of money trade introduced into the life of the city brought along with it vices or moral impairments that would be the destruction of the city.
The vices he named were: greed, an inability to be satisfied, a lack of sobriety or self-control, and the willingness to profit through usury. The great tragedy, of course, is that the very vices that Aristotle identified as most corrosive to the common good have become the celebrated virtues upon which the modern economy is built. Capitalism thrives only through these vices.
While we hope and pray that those in positions of influence will find a just and effective response to the current credit contraction, should we not also reflect on our own indulgence in the greed and uncontrolled lifestyles that have brought us to this point? Shouldn’t we hope that out of this comes a rediscovery of a keen sense of the common good, and of new forms of community that nurture the virtues that have long since seemed to disappear from our society?
The onus, then, is on the church – not merely to pray in some benign way that God would mollify the effects of this financial crisis, but really to constitute that alternate form of community. To give the formation of Christian virtue and Christlike generosity priority over misguided “stewardship” (which so often is ecclesiastical code for white-knuckled miserliness). To have the courage to tell our congregations that participation in the Body of Christ means wanting less, using less, wasting less, so that we can distribute more. To embrace those sacramental resources that have been entrusted to us to keep us faithful to our calling, and which themselves enact a radically different kind of economics to that of corpulent capitalism.