Consumerist Economy or Kingdom of Life?

A couple weeks ago, I was sent this outstanding article about Mr. Obama's recent speech at Georgetown University addressing issues of the economy. Below are several quotations that convey much of the meat of the argument. I believe that this author (a professor at Georgetown) has "hit the nail on the head" in his analysis of our collective problems in the US.

Yesterday our President spoke at length about the economy at the school at which I teach, Georgetown University. A nominally Catholic University, it might rightly have been the place where a new vision for a humane economy might have been advanced. It might have been a stage on which the great teachings of the Catholic tradition about an economy that is subordinate to concerns about commonweal based upon a true understanding of human nature and natural limits might have been advanced - rather than a stage on which the symbols of Jesus Christ were obscured so not to disturb the viewing audience from any inconvenient symbol of the actual Messiah.

Widely touted as an opportunity for the President to lay out a new vision for the economic future of the nation, instead it was a commitment to do more of the same, albeit with more centralized control and command, with an aim to “restoring” an economy whose sole purpose is to generate a wasteland of consumerism, debt-driven distraction, endless hedonic opportunities and the destruction of human communities everywhere in the name of efficiency, meritocracy and opportunity...

...We have replaced an actual economy with this “bubble” economy because of a deep, pervasive, and wholly unjustified expectation that we deserved to live as well or better than that “greatest generation” who happened to live in a time of extraordinary and exceptional (and temporary) national wealth. In that decade or two after World War II, America attained a remarkable position in the world, with its industrial machinery wholly intact and ready to roll, a national and worldwide market poised to buy American goods, and a resource base that appeared to be limitless...

...And so, we are told, our current economic crisis is due to a few bad loans made by a few bad eggs who work on Wall Street. What is neglected in this explanation is a broader and deeper perspective: our current crisis is due to the fact that we have, as a civilization, refused to live within our means - and the means afforded us by the natural world - over roughly the past 50 years. Mistaking a temporary glut of post-war wealth and resource plenty as a permanent condition, we are told by our leaders - indeed, we demand of them that they tell us - that we can continue to have it all, costless plenitude. Yet these past thirty-odd years of our “economy” have been one in which we have maintained our wealth simultaneously by transferring the accumulated national wealth abroad, importing oil and debt, while refusing to face the mounting costs of this exercise...

Might there be an alternative to continuing the cycle of greed, self-indulgence and dissatisfaction? Pray God that they Church may cry aloud: "Yes! the very symbols of the Cross and IHS (that were concealed while the President spoke), they point us toward a more excellent way!"

It wasn't just corporate greed that got us here. It was just plain greed. One of the seven deadly sins according to the Christian tradition...but then traditional religion is just some pre-modern backward way of thinking with no relevance to the real world...or so we thought.
Yes, our collective greed has led to this crisis. We, 'the People', are responsible: we have been living above our means for years, and we have been listening to one commercial after another that tells us that it is somehow our 'right' to do so. Maybe we should critically re-examine the meaning and use of that word.

So given that our debts are totally out of control already, I wonder if "getting the banks lending again" is just what we really need? I mean is taking on even more debt going to help us get out of this crisis?

Maybe we should try something else: Joy

I believe we Christians are called in these circumstances to a renewed commitment to simple living, and to finding and sharing deep joy and freedom - not from stuff - but in prayer and communion with the living God and his people.

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Blogger Stephen said...

Interesting read...

Several points jump to mind readily...

1. One of the richest if not THE richest organizations in the entire world is the Roman Catholic Church. The value of their property, holdings, and reserves most likely cannot be calculated. Angels and Demons points this out in many ways. How can a church of so much remain a viable voice for the subversive Kingdom of God? Even in our own context: I can remember my SMU days of a "Christian University" catering to a select few of the richest of the rich.
2. I can barely get church goers who pull up in Mercedes and Lexus and Infinities to come to worship most Sundays. How can we communicate the message that the very car they drive is killing them?
3. What other system of economy works? As much as I disdain freemarket capitalism as a way of structuring our economy...I have yet to see a viable alternative outside of small pockets of resistance in Christianity such as monastic communities. Communism proves the greed argument as well as socialism most would say...so what do we do as people following Christ?

As always no real answers...more questions.

10:08 PM, May 26, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

ha, your comments remind me of the Switchfoot song lyric: "our convenient Lexus cages"

I'm pretty sure that no economy can 'work' perfectly on the massive scale that we require - it is composed of fallen men. And though I'm certainly no "Neo-Con" market-worshiper, but given the options I do prefer free markets to managed markets or socialism or communism.

I'm afraid, I don't see the connection to the Catholic Church? My point (and that of the Georgetown professor) was not that riches are bad - what is bad is greed, and an economy built upon greed and false expectations in such a way that we ignore reality in favor of our expectations. I would expect most any organization that is over 1000 years old and have a billion members to be quite wealthy in terms of the worth of their properties (although, they probably could not literally sell them all if they wanted to, so the value is hypothetical in many cases - I believe I read a while back that the US church was actually struggling to pay off the clergy abuse survivors).

I have no particular problem if the members of the church bring objects of great worth into the community to be used for the worship of Jesus (remember the woman with the alabaster jar of expensive perfume who anointed Jesus?) - indeed such a use itself may be counter-cultural if we remember the aghast reaction of the disciples and onlookers.

8:28 AM, May 27, 2009  
Blogger Stephen said...

My comment about the RC was one more about idea of holding property is also one aimed at myself as well: What does the idea of holding property do to my soul? When does my property not add joy (using your term) to my life but siphons joy away from my true calling. I recall the words Jesus said to the rich young ruler, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

When I look at us as Americans today (both as individuals and organizations) I see a society of rich young rulers. And while your point is that greed not riches is bad...I believe Jesus was referring to the idea that riches can lead us to putting our hope in something other than God. I know it is a struggle I have: Do I really need that new iPhone??? :)

9:06 AM, May 27, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

say no to the iphone! ha. Well owning property certainly does add many complications to your life, in addition to perhaps giving us a feeling of security or permanence (that we might be tempted to trust in) that is unrealistic in light of the nature of the world.

2:45 PM, May 27, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Here is an interesting follow up:

Another global crisis is inevitable unless the US starts saving money:

Unfortunately, saving money flies in the face of consumerism - the point of having money (and indeed of life itself) is to spend it on stuff!

11:15 AM, June 02, 2009  

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