Sold! (Wrestling the Angel of Consumerism)

X-Box 260

This is my X-Box. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My longtime friend Paul, a preacher, responded to my last post, and I think what he had to say was important.  He pointed out that it’s not just the ministers that are responsible for consumerism and massive spending in American churches.  In my experience, he’s right.  Sure, there are the occasional music ministers who spend $10,000 in lighting for a Christmas musical for a church with 250 members.  But most of the time, it’s actually the congregation that controls the purse strings.

It’s the congregation that votes “yes” on gaudy church palaces.  It’s the congregation that says “yeah, let’s spend $5 million to move from the city center to the ritzy suburb.”  They’re not saying “we have no responsibility to this city or to the poor,” well, not out loud, but their actions sure look like it.

[I hadn’t actually meant to imply that it was the preachers’ fault, but I can certainly see how it looks that way.  Using the term “ecclesiastical bling” was probably my main mistake.  It serves me right for putting an attempt at wit above accuracy:  that path leads to Ann Coulter territory.]

The truth is, we’ve all been soaking in consumerism our entire lives.  Even the 116 year old woman can’t remember a time when producers sought to fill needs, rather than manufacture wants.  Newspaper ads as far back as the 1890’s sold health and beauty aids of various types, using loaded language to make people feel insufficient without the products.

Of course, the media of transmission and frequency of contact have increased.  With smart phones advertisements can reach us even when we’re not in front of a television.  And their message is, uniformly, you are not good enough without our products.

The truth is, we’re all so deeply permeated by consumerism we don’t even realize it.  I’m thirty-seven years old, and I only recently realized how much I let piddling earthly wants pull me around.  And I think most people don’t even bother to consider it.  We may tithe, but we don’t push the church to use the tithe wisely.

Thunder may strike with me quoting John Piper, but he’s right: for most middle-class American Christians, giving only the tithe is robbing God.  I’d add that giving the tithe and encouraging the church use it selfishly is also robbing God.

But we’re so sucked-under by consumerism that we don’t even see our own selfishness.  My wants are so often so piddly – a new video game, a new movie, a new (or more accurately, an old and interesting) gun for my collection, a nice meal out.  And all of those are fine, until I count up how much I spend per year on stuff I won’t even care about in a few years’ time, and how little of my income goes to things that are, in some way, eternal.  I get mad at myself. And then I think that our churches are doing basically the same things, and I get mad at everyone.

It’s stunning to think of people in countries who live on $2000 a year, who don’t have clean water, whose children have no opportunity to go to school and improve their material situation.  Many times we turn away, because the images are too graphic, the damage too gruesome, and that’s understandable.  I have to praise World Vision for accentuating the good that can be done, rather than manipulating people’s sympathy with pictures of dying infants.  They tend to take the long view anyway, and guilt isn’t a long-term motivator.

I can’t ask anyone else to go where I won’t, so I’m going to take a first step.  Like many people in my generation, I have multiple video game systems, some quite old, some relatively new.  I’m going to put one of them (my Xbox 360) on Craigslist, and donate whatever money it brings to World Vision.  It’s a relatively small amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but the act of sacrificing one of my luxuries may be healing.

Growing up in this consumerist haze, we get addicted to so many things before we’re even old enough to know it.  We’re all like bulls with rings in our noses, led around by small men, by peddlers who sap our strength and freedom.  But like bulls, we are strong enough to break free, if we can bear the pain.

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Toxic Legalism (Jeremiad #1: Sexism, Lies, and Ecclesiastical Bling)

Lazarus and Dives by Fedor Bronnikov, 1886

Lazarus and Dives by Fedor Bronnikov, 1886

A new, toxic legalism, based on a shallow, piecemeal, combative reading of the scriptures, is choking the Evangelical faith like a clinging vine.  Our churches are shrinking, and our reputation is mud with the wider world – they think we are immoral in our vitriol and our intolerance.  They see us as less moral than non-Christians, as moralistic and manipulative and controlling.

And they’re right.  Our churches are segregated, even today.  Our divorce rate is no better than the non-religious.  Spousal abuse still lingers, and in some cases is even tolerated.  And our advice to abused women is often dangerously, even fatally wrongheaded.

You can proof-text me all you want, but homosexuals are not the ones degrading our nation’s culture.  We are, with our arrogance, our lingering racism, our commercialism and consumerism.

We build multi-million dollar churches, yet leave the poorest of the world (who often need things like $18 mosquito nets and $25 vaccinations) and the poor and homeless in our own cities to fend for themselves.

We keep spending money to prop up dying churches that exist only because a few elderly people don’t want to find a new church, but which are doing nothing for the community, spiritually or materially. We spend ungodly sums on “faith-based extravaganzas” on Easter, Christmas, and Halloween (“scare them to salvation with Hell House!”).  And all the while, like Dives, we watch the poor man starving at our gate.

We degrade our name, and our nation, when we let our political leanings dictate our theology.  Case in point: it’s no secret that the Southern Baptists are going whole-hog for Mitt Romney.

But when I was growing up, Southern Baptists considered Mormonism a “cult.”  Some still do.  Oops, never mind.  He’s backing Romney now.   So, which is it?  The answer no one will give you is this:  “it doesn’t matter, as long as he dislodges that black pro-death, pro-gay, liberal socialist we’ve got now.”

We bring shame on our name and Christ’s through our sexism and incredible insensitivity to the realities of women’s lives.  You can proof-text me all you want, but the truth remains:  when you pre-determine a woman’s role in life based on her gender, you take away her right to follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance, you take away her Imago Dei, and you make her less than human.

Who should we obey, God or Men?  The reality of complementarianism, as it is often preached, is this: Only men get to obey God.  Women obey men, and access God through the male spiritual heads – first their fathers, and then their husbands.  But I think we all know the right answer to the question, both for men and for women I think the answer is clear [Acts 5:29].  We obey God, not men.

Things I Don’t Understand – When America Was Righteous (Part 2 of 3)

Howdy Doody display.  Photo by Volkan Yuksel, Creative Commons

Howdy Doody display. Photo by Volkan Yuksel, Creative Commons

In Part 1 I deconstructed American history, briefly giving reasons why no decade could really be considered a time when America was “righteous.”  Today, I want to know why the “recapturing our more righteous past” and “moral decline” memes persist.  Why are they so powerful?  Do we really think there was a time of real goodness and Christlikeness in our nation’s past?

I think I can answer that.  When I was a child, when the Internet was just a tool for scientists and military techs, the world really was simpler.  I was a white, upper-middle class, heterosexual, boy from the dominant religion (Protestant).

I had the great outdoors, my toys, my friends, a lot of books, and three TV channels (ABC, PBS, and a  UHF station that later picked up the FOX programming, but mostly showed Star Trek, The Three Stooges, and black and white westerns).  If the weather was perfect, we might get CBS or even NBC, but generally not long enough to watch an entire show.  And on those five channels, the rules were strict.  MASH was about as risqué as it got.  I hardly even knew any swear words until elementary school.

I never thought of it as that idyllic – I was an only child with a high IQ and mediocre social skills.  On the first day of first grade I asked the teacher why Great Britain was apologizing to the Falkland Islands when they’d started the whole thing.  Not a question she was expecting, and not one that endeared me to my classmates.

I remember childhood as fighting bullies (almost constantly) and worrying about inflation, terrorism, and the waning Soviet Union.  I knew far too early that Mommy and Daddy couldn’t stop the bad guys.

But I was the exception.  Most of my friends and acquaintances weren’t only children.  They had brothers and nearby cousins to socialize them early.  Likewise, they didn’t notice world events, didn’t feel the Sword of Damocles that was the Cold War.  They were sheltered.

My parents’ generation?  While they were playing with their dolls in 1955, Emmett Till, a black child not much older than they were, was being lynched for talking to a white woman.  But they were sheltered.  They were children.  Their world was innocent, and they didn’t know.

And today?  Today the Internet brings massive amounts of information, both good and bad.  I still remember a man telling me that his grandson had been looking at Internet porn, and how shocked he was at the content (he found out because his computer got a bad virus, and the computer repairman told him.  I guess computers get STDs, too).

He said that boys of a certain age will want to know about the opposite sex, to find out what they don’t know, so to speak.  But that in his day they might find a Playboy with some nudity, but not full video of graphic (and sometimes really rough, demeaning) sex acts.  So in the past, even in adolescent transgressing, we were sheltered.

That shelter is gone.  And the danger, especially from pornography, has multiplied tenfold.  I won’t argue against that at all.  Kids can easily find ways to get into much more damaging trouble that they could even twenty years ago.

Information overload has made it hard for us to believe in the things that are going well.  Sure, here in America we have our lowest violent crime rate in 40 years and our lowest abortion rate in 20 years.  But we hear about everything, every crime that’s flashy enough to be newsworthy is played and replayed endlessly.  And it feeds our fear, creates a moral crisis.  Something has to be done!  But crime rates have been falling for 20 years, why don’t we keep doing what we’re doing, and watch them keep falling?

Another thing the flood of information has done has made it much harder to pretend that just because things are going well for you, that they’re going well for everyone.  Now we know, thanks to the Internet and media, about all the suffering in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East.  We know about eleven year old girls facing execution for “blasphemy,” and nine year old brides.  We know about brutal crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations in Syria and Iran.  We know about “vanishings” and torture and terrible things even our own government has done.

We know, if we bother to look, that the factories preparing our food torture the animals mercilessly, confining pigs in cages they can’t even turn around in, and leaving them there all their lives, cramming chickens in, stacked on top of each other, fed a constant diet of antibiotics to keep them alive.

A half dozen huge corporations get over 80% of all farm subsidies, and they treat their livestock horribly.  The proof is not for the faint of heart.   This includes a video that is definitely not for the faint of heart.

And we know that children whose parents live on $2,500 a year (less than I make in a month – not our household income, just my paycheck) struggle to find fresh water, die of malaria or dengue fever because of mosquitoes that merely annoy us here, and, if they live, end up as child brides, prostitutes, or slaves working to gather the cocoa that feeds our sweet tooth.

Meanwhile, we live in unearned wealth, granted by the good fortune of being born in the industrialized world instead of the developing world.

So, yeah, the fallen-ness of our world hits us like a jackhammer now.  We can’t sit, shielded by our white, wealthy, American privilege, immune to the pain of a suffering world.  Well, we can, but we have to actively tune it out, harden our hearts like Pharaoh, and lash out in anger at anyone who breaks the illusion.  It’s a defense mechanism, true, but it’s not one that our faith allows us.  Matthew 25 tells the story.  Are we Christ’s lambs, or the world’s goats?

On the other hand, it could just be that people are angry at cussing on TV and the gays.