by Pastor Doug Kings
In my sermon last Sunday, I said that our economy is based on keeping people dissatisfied. We are continuously made aware of what we lack, primarily by the unending creation of new products. When we see them, an inner voice says, “I need to have that,” and we feel incomplete until we acquire it. And then, we see something else.
Often, we are attracted to a product because of its use by people around us, especially those now called “influencers”: the rich and famous, royalty, athletes, actors, musicians, and various kinds of “personalities”, i.e. people famous for being famous. The use of something new by friends, neighbors, co-workers, or family members will also have us pulling out our credit card to “be like them.”
There’s nothing new about any of this. Going back thousands of years we can find countless of examples of royalty and nobility following the example of others in their class. Styles of clothes, jewelry, housing, furniture, art, etc. were copied in an ancient version of “keeping up with the Joneses.” Having such things gave them the status they needed to project their power and influence over those below them.
What’s changed is the expansion of this behavior to basically everyone. Hence, our identity today as consumers. Our function is to buy the things our economy produces, endlessly. It’s assumed that we will never say, “I have enough now.” We would be failing in our duty and out economy would collapse.
This cycle “worked” while the economy grew, and people felt they were climbing the economic and social ladders. No one ever had enough, but most people were satisfied because they felt they were “getting ahead.”
This continued in the US for its first two centuries, but then it slowed and has now stopped for many if not most people. This is may be difficult to accept, but it is simply a statistical fact that average wages, adjusted for inflation, have been largely stagnant since the 1970s, especially for the lower two-thirds of the economic strata.
This reality goes a long way towards explaining the increasing social and political upheaval of recent years. Compounding this is the awareness that our economic doldrums are not being shared equally. Rather, a small wealthy minority have seen their economic fortunes rise, often at a dramatic rate.
Many economists and other researchers say the current economic situation is directly related to the global economy running into fundamental limits of our planet. I can remember discussing in junior high how the whole world could never achieve our American lifestyle because there just weren’t enough resources. Since then world population has doubled and people everywhere are indeed striving to “be like us.” But as my teachers said, there isn’t enough to go around. The disappearance of “cheap oil” is just one of the consequences. The backfiring of our reliance on cheap foreign labor, whether by importing workers or exporting production, is another.
Compounding these global economic limits is our awareness of the earth’s profound ecological limits. We are, as the saying goes, fouling our own nest. We now create garbage—trash, chemicals, plastics, exhaust—beyond the planet’s capacity to absorb it. Its ecosystems are being damaged, many beyond repair. Increasingly erratic weather is bringing chaos to the lives of millions, most of whom are already poor.
Young people are saying, “Enough is enough; this has to stop.” I agree. We are facing a global political and economic crisis unlike anything before. But resolving this crisis is proving to be very difficult and, frankly, I don’t see what the answer is.
But I also see an enormous spiritual crisis underway. Its origins were in the Enlightenment and the rise of the market economy, which set us on the path of trying to acquire what we already have. In short, Thomas Jefferson got that last part wrong when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence, that all people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, … Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Happiness, according to Jesus and all the world’s great spiritual traditions, is not something we “pursue” but something we discover we already have. This was Jesus’ point in the Beatitudes, where “blessed” is better translated as happy. Confoundingly, Jesus declares (Matthew 5) the poor, mourning, meek, hungry, persecuted, and reviled to be “happy.” But then explains this incongruity when he announces to his listeners, “You are the salt of the earth, … the light of the world.”
This is the good news Jesus announces, that the presence (“kingdom”) of God, the ultimate source of our value and happiness, is already here, in our midst and within us. So, to put in bluntly, our economy, which has now spread around the world, is based on a lie: that happiness is found on a store shelf, in a catalogue, or on the Internet.
This week in The Guardian, a psychotherapist writes about the miseries of his uber rich clients.
My clients are often bored with life and too many times this leads to them chasing the next high – chemically or otherwise – to fill that void…. There is a perception that money can immunize you against mental-health problems when actually, I believe that wealth can make you – and the people closest to you – much more susceptible to them.
It astounded the disciples when he said it, but this therapist sees every day the truth of Jesus’ declaration, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” For “to enter” doesn’t mean being admitted by St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, but to discover that we are already there, no matter who we are or how much or how little we have.
The recently ended COP26 showed again how “tweaking” our global systems is not the answer. As Jesus knew in his day, what we need is nothing less than a revolution, a global death and rebirth. For we will only be able to genuinely live at peace with each other by discovering we all already have all the meaning, value, and joy we could ever want.
Blessings in your life and ministry.