GOE 4: Contemporary Society

Limited Resources: Annotated, non-electronic one volume Bible (e.g., Oxford Annotated Bible, HarperCollins Study bible)

“Affluenza, n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” (John de Graaf, Thomas H. Naylor and David Wann Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic [San Francisco: Berret Koehler publishers, 2002], p.2.)

The term “affluenza” has been coined to name the contemporary societal disease of over consumption in our culture. In a three-page essay address the problem of affluenza from a biblical, theological, and global perspective by including the following:

What are three examples of affluenza in our society today?

What are some of the global consequences of our society’s dogged pursuit of more?

Choose three biblical texts or stories which help you understand the problem of affluenza then employ them to answer this question: As a Christian, what is your response to affluenza? Offer biblical and theological rationales for your response.

Finally, in the midst of our consumer society, where is the Good News?

That our society currently exists in a state of over-consumption is beyond question. At
the same time it has become increasingly difficult for low-income families to achieve stability and improve their condition or their children’s opportunities. There are many reasons for this situation and multitude of examples that demonstrate over-consumption in our society.  There are three examples that stand out particularly well in our context however.  The first of these may seem like an old hat given its prominence in political debate over the past few years, but its importance is clear, namely oil. Another example of over-consumption lies in the realm of corporate farms and the attendant environmental and economic damage that often follows them.

Finally, an example of poor consumption resulting in over-consumption of other resources: the growing trend of expensive homes and businesses being built in areas of the country that are most susceptible to natural disasters, that therefore place a strain on the economy for their restoration.

Much of our current situation has as one of its causes the current trend toward ever-
expanding capital markets and the resultant need of companies to expand in order to survive in the global system. In the case of the United States, our economy is built upon the back of an interstate and international commerce system that depends upon fossil fuels. America is a driving society—we tend to live much farther from our places of work than our global counterparts, and drive more frequently and greater distances than people in other countries.  As a result of America’s mobile lifestyle we consume an amazing amount of gasoline each year.  Political perspectives aside, it is impossible to argue that American foreign policy has not been dramatically shaped by our economy’s dependence upon fossil fuels. Internationally the dependence of other countries on fossil fuels is becoming more apparent, for while they may not consume as much fuel as we in the United States do, their economies too are dependant upon it, as recent difficulties between Russia—a developing supplier of oil—and the Ukraine demonstrate.

The continued growth of capital markets means that corporations, if they wish to survive,

must grow. This growth trend is driven by the need for collateral to maintain value and expand credit. If one takes the agriculture industry as an example, there has been a marked trend away from family or small farms and toward large corporate farms. The reasons for this are manifold, but largely it hinges upon the tendency of global markets to encourage larger corporations and the inability of small corporations or privately owned companies to compete. As farming became more mechanized small farmers were forced to invest in larger and more expensive pieces of equipment to compete with their corporate competitors—who, because of their structure, maintained a deeper pool of credit. This situation worked until economic down-turns left the small farmers unable to pay their creditors and forced them to sell out to larger conglomerates. Internationally, small farmers in Poland and other eastern European countries are experiencing this scenario as the European Union expands. Many farmers, after regaining their land from the communist era government, are once again facing the prospect of loosing their farms as they attempt to compete with larger agriculture corporations by taking out loans to buy equipment and meet new EU mandated health regulations. An additional cost of such activities is that in their desire to compete in global markets, many poor nations are tempted to cultivate more and more land (arable and non-arable), sometimes cutting down indigenous trees or rain forests to do so. Many times these countries are thinking of short-term profits and neglect to implement sustainable environmental practices, and as a result there is an increase of desertification in regions such as South America.

Another issue that speaks to our current state of “affluenza” and the strain such
consumption places upon society as a whole, is the increasing number of Americans who live or own second homes in regions of the country which are prone to natural disasters or have limited natural resources. No doubt this is an unpopular issue to address, but it is one that is keenly felt after the recent hurricanes and becomes more and more clear every time California experiences a drought. Because only the wealthiest Americans can afford to live in many of these desirable locations—mostly in Florida or California—the prices of land and buildings are very high; as a result, whenever a natural disaster strikes, the cost of clean-up and restoration is very high as well. The high cost of this clean-up costs Americans in two ways; first, it results in higher insurance costs and secondly, federal disaster relief money is funneled into these areas to aid at restoration.

The second of these issues is more applicable to California than the first, and it relates to
the availability of natural resources, specifically water, to supply areas such as Los Angeles. As the recent book Water Wars illustrates, water as a resource is extremely important and will become more so as populations increase and vie with one another over its limited quantities.  The question of over-consumption as regards water becomes important in areas such as LA, not only because water is rising in value globally, but also because of the stress the consumption of so much water can place on the environment surrounding Los Angeles and her water sources.

Each of these examples of societal “affluenza” serve to illustrate how important it is that
Christians seek wisdom, pray and discern how best to live their lives. Although it is incorrect to argue that life is a zero-sum game and there is no way capitalism can be positive—there is much to admire about the system, especially in comparison to others that have been attempted during the 20th century—and yet, one must also understand, as Rowan Williams maintains in Lost Icon’s: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, there can never been a time in which I can allow myself the luxury of thinking that my choices don’t have consequences, that they may not be causing harm to another in some way. Accepting this fact is the first step toward understanding the task that lies ahead of us as Christians in the United States.

Like the prophets of old, our task is to remind people that there are times when their
choice for something is a choice against the poor or weak of the land, and that our choices, when taken together, may have major ramifications not only for us, but for men and women around the globe. It is helpful to consider the words of scripture when approaching this task, the warnings offered by the prophets to the people of Israel. One of the most memorable warnings was that pronounced by the Prophet Amos:

“Hear this word, you cows of Ba shan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’ The Lord
God has sworn by his holiness: the time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. Through breaches in the wall you shall leave, each one straight ahead; and you shall be flung out into Harmon, says the Lord.” (Amos 4:1-3)

This warning reminds me that my first task is not to see to my comfort or to surround myself with extravagance, but to consider whether my mode of life is one that in some way oppresses the poor or crushes the needy, and if so, to change it. Scripture tells me that I should “not love the world or the things in the world,” because to do so is to reject God, “The love of the Father is not in those who love the world.” These things that exist in the world, “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches,” are the very things that allow us to loose our focus, to loose sight of the human in our interactions and become callous. Such callousness “comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:15-17).

This callousness may not be the type that we would normally consider when we think of
cruelty to our fellow human beings—often it presents itself as thoughtlessness, as simple
idolatry. Consider the parable of the Rich Fool as recounted by Luke:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.   And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16b-21).

The failure of the rich fool to take account of God or the poor in his plans illustrated a subtle idolatry at work. It may not have been an idolatry that required sacrifice to a pagan statue, but it was one that circumscribed the heart of the rich man, preventing him from seeing what good might be done through his good fortune. Because he did not recognize the gifted nature of his success, he was unable to conceive of sharing his wealth with those less fortunate. This is the danger we risk as a society, and one that each Christian should take to heart to avoid.   Our hope is not in storing things up for the future—we are even commanded not to worry, not to say “‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is [the unbelievers] who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” God knows our needs, and will provide for them. This is the Good News for our society and any other. Our task on earth is to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and in so doing, accomplish our tasks in life and be assured of God’s provision (Matt. 6:31-33).

Bibliography

Harrelson, Walter J., Donald Senior, Abraham Smith, Phyllis Trible, and James C. VanderKam, eds. The
New Interpreters Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 2003.

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