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COMMENTARY: Love of stuff can control us Bishop Sally Dyck, Mar 4, 2011
Bishop Sally Dyck
By Bishop Sally Dyck Special Contributor
The economic downturn of 2008 caused many Americans to come face-to-face with the overconsumption of goods in their lives, especially as it affected credit card spending and debt—the “something for nothing” mind-set, getting a good deal today that they didn’t think through well enough to know how to pay for it tomorrow.
In his book Tell It Slant (Eerdmans, 2008), Eugene Peterson describes greed, or our love of stuff, as a virus that overtakes us like an infection. It’s as if the virus greed worms its way into the imagination, causing us to imagine that we need things.
United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton points out in his book Enough (Abingdon Press, 2009) that three of the seven deadly sins relate directly to the problem we have with money and possessions.
First, we are afflicted by envy or covetousness. We want what others have, and we will do whatever we can to get it—whether that means taking it or buying it for ourselves. Second, we are afflicted by greed or avarice. We have an intense desire for more and don’t want to share what we have. And third, we are afflicted with gluttony. We keep consuming, even when we are full and our needs are met—and we finally make ourselves sick.
And deeper and deeper in debt.
Mr. Peterson and Mr. Hamilton use the analogy of disease, and the dis-ease is in our relationships with God and others. Therefore the man’s actions in Jesus’ story about building bigger barns (Luke 12:13-21) will be corrupt and abominable because “I will . . . I will . . . I will” denies others entrance into his heart.
Jesus makes it clear in his parable that when we strive for money and possessions we minimize the importance of the relationships in our lives. The perceived injustice between the man and his brother has ruptured the man’s relationship with one meant to be closest to him.
Acquiring stuff keeps us separated from our literal neighbors as well as neighbors around the world. Jesus didn’t use the word neighbor in this story, but he made it clear that ultimately our greed, or love of stuff, “divides the family.” The separation into the haves and have-nots comes from a fundamental love of stuff. What would break down the barriers between the haves and have-nots, as if it were an economic question instead of a question of “who is my neighbor?”
Could it be that connecting Jesus and the environment is so controversial because it challenges an American core value: individualism? Individualism is in opposition to the ways in which Jesus wants us to live. When we practice more environmentally sound behaviors and make changes to our lifestyle, we rediscover more and more community in our lives.
United Methodist environmentalist Bill McKibben has given voice to the reality that we are more isolated from our neighbors. He’s puzzled about why Christianity hasn’t been more on the forefront of addressing what we’re doing to our earthly home, too.
He has written: “It’s almost mandatory . . . that the churches help lead the way. Mandatory because by now this is a theological issue . . . because taking on climate change would mean taking on the central unchristian element of American culture: its wild individualism.
“More than anything else, fossil fuel has allowed us to stop being neighbors to each other, both literally—we move ever farther into ever emptier suburbs—and figuratively—we depend less and less on each other for anything real. . . . The crisis we face is at least as morally urgent as the civil rights movement.”
Mr. McKibben challenges Christians to address the “selfish individualism that has come to define too much of our culture,” that makes us care more about our stuff than about our neighbors, near and far, now and in the future, and therefore alienates us not only from our neighbor, but also from God.
Jesus has a lot to say about our accumulation of and reliance on material wealth because it affects how we relate to God. If we place our trust and security in God, we have less need for things that do not last. By calling the man in the parable a fool (Luke 12:20), Jesus was also implying that the man missed out on his relationship with God, no longer trusting God but trusting in bigger barns.
Greed, or love of stuff, reveals that we are placing our trust in material and earthly things, but more accurately it means that we’re living as if there is no God; that fool idea raises its head again. We might say we believe in God, but we’re acting out of a functional atheism, trusting in what we can see instead of investing in what will last—even eternally.
This is an excerpt from the new book A Hopeful Earth: Faith, Science and the Message of Jesus (Abingdon, 2010) by Minnesota Bishop Dyck and Sarah Ehrman.