So I am leaving for England for a year, which means that for the last three weeks I have been shopping and packing and living at home. I have had a few more thoughts on materialism that I need to get out of my head – not necessarily a rant against American capitalist consumerism, but more of a personal awakening to what’s behind it and away from it.
I parked my Mazda 6 (new to me but not new) in front of Best Buy. It was a cloudy day. The car was a gift from my grandfather who sold his farm and wanted to pass on the bank account to the family. I make no apologies for the car. It is a nice car and it was expensive. I’m not going to say that I got it on sale or that it was really affordable. My grandfather told me to buy a car after I graduated college, and so I stopped resisting the gift. So I parked my new car and went through the sliding doors at best buy, looking for a new digital camera. As I was walking through the cd aisles and as I came up on the teenagers glued to televisions playing guitar hero and Madden 09, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau came into my head. Maybe also some Ralph Waldo. These were the first thinkers who influenced me in high school. They are solely responsible for the counter cultural, stick to your opinions and don’t conform sort of attitudes that I have. They also opened my eyes to the ways societies get wrapped up in their materialism and forget that there are other civilizations out there that don’t spend billions on consumer goods and electronics every year. And then I balanced these thoughts with Christ, who said to be able to give all you own to the poor if you have to and follow Him. He said to feed the hungry, look after the widow, clothe the clotheless, to love others as you love yourself. When I walked out of best buy with a two hundred dollar camera and a hundred dollars of cds, I asked myself:
Would you spend money on a homeless person the way you just spent money on yourself?
I don’t feel convicted about buying those things. It’s not wrong to have possessions. What’s wrong is the selfish heart behind it. And this is what I think America needs Jesus for – to change our outlook on materialism. For the last three summers I have spent time observing families who host large banquets for people they don’t know, who trust strangers with their boats and jet skis, who buy plane tickets or write checks for their friends when they are in need. I have been witness to some amazing selflessness. Additionally, I have spent the last five years at a public university who puts quite a large premium on social justice work – going to Africa or Nicaragua to love on kids and build chicken coops and feed the hungry. At this moment, looking at my receipt and unlocking my new car, thinking about the new clothes that I had bought and the house full of food I was returning to, I felt the farthest I had ever felt from living those sorts of idealogies.
America thinks we are a superior nation because we have a superior culture, superior army, and superior economy. We have the power and freedom to think whatever we want and to buy whatever we want. Our future happiness is in our hands. It’s the American Dream. But I often wonder what we are missing out on by not having these things. African and Asian families in poverty have something we do not, I guarantee you that. I often wonder whether all of the “stuff” ever really makes us happier, or if, silently, it is really killing us. I am guilty of this too. When I drive my car around on the interstate, I am instantly comparing it to other new models that I pass. I covet other people’s cars, and think “well one day I might be able to afford that BMW.” Perhaps that sort of thought life is killing me and I don’t even know it.
To me, this doesn’t mean I have to go to Africa and live in poverty to justify myself as a consuming American. It just means I need to have a heart change behind my materialism. It’s not wrong to have a BMW. It’s simply wrong to need one. If only we could see past the money and see people and moments for what they are on the unseen part of life, I think we would find true satisfaction. If I am not able to part with any of these possessions, I have idols in my way. If Christ’s teachings do not mean more to me than living this sort of American life, I have idols in my way. If I am not willing to tithe and write checks for friends who are in the mission field, I have idols in my way. I don’t think I am going to go pull a Walden Pond or anything, but this sort of moment made me realize that I need to start putting my money where my mouth is. Literally.
I also had this thought lately: Christianity is a pretty Romantic religion (ie, it’s not all that down to earth and has a lot of idealistic teachings and utopian values). Christ must have been the ultimate Romantic. But he was at the same time the ultimate Pragmatist. Through his Spirit, he convicts and teaches us how to do and be all the things he says we can be. What a great psychology – completely idealistic, but at the same time completely functional and practical. Off topic, but on my mind.