One of my favorite bands, The Avett Brothers–from my home state of North Carolina–have a wonderfully evocative song entitled Ill with Want on their major label debutI and Love and You. I’m a fan of many of the Avett’s lyrics, but I’m especially fond of this song because it seems to capture an aspect of wanting, of desiring things that isn’t often touched on in our society, even among those who chastise us for “consumerism.”
When we are challenged for our consumerist tendencies, it most often seems to be based upon several things, some of them religiously motivated, some not. For example, some lament the consumerism and waste of our society because of the ramifications for our environment. Others condemn greed because they believe that there are finite resources and taking more than our share inherently means we are depriving others in some way. All of these criticisms may be true, and all of them may be motivated by other ethical or religious concerns. But one rarely hears another concern raised amid these criticisms: the effect that having too much and wanting too much can have on us personally. This is why I love this song. It’s captured in the phrase from which the title is taken: Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed.
Greed is a poison. It is a poison because it is, like other idols–or addictions, to use a modern term to convey a similar idea–destructive. The “love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) because it tricks us into believing that we have control, but that control is illusory and results in destruction.
One of the most ardent critics of wealth in the history of Christianity was probably St. John Chrysostom (349–407 A.D.), Patriarch of Constantinople. Chrysostom was infuriated by and impassioned about the inequality he saw between the wealthy elite of the imperial capital and the poor who lined the streets. Chrysostom colorfully describes the physical ills associated with over consumption:
Riches are vain, when they are squandered for luxury. But they are not vain, when they are dispersed for the poor (cf. Ps. 112:9). But when you squander them for luxury, we see what sort of end they have: fatness of body, belchings, panting, abundance of excrement, heavy-headedness, weakness of flesh, fever, and faintness. For as someone who draws water into a cup with a whole in it acts in vain, so also the one who lives in luxury draws water into a leaky cup. (“Silver Chamber Pots and Other Goods Which Are Not Good” in Having: Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life, p. 105)
The physical and the spiritual can never be completely separated, and the physical effects of over-consumption are finally symptomatic of a spiritual disease, one which leads to precisely the sort of thing described in the song:
I am sick with wanting and it’s evil and it’s daunting
How I let everything I cherish lay to waste
I am lost in greed this time it’s definitely me
I point fingers but there’s no one there to blame
Of course, few people actually set out to over-consume or to be greedy (fictional and real-life Gordon Gekkos aside). Instead, people are looking for safety, assurance, control–all of which wealth promises to provide.
In the end though, wealth–or Mammon–is finally, like other idols, lifeless. Because it is lifeless, attempts to bring life from it are doomed to failure and destruction.
In the end the Avetts (channeling Augustine) are right:
Free is not your right to choose // It’s answering what’s asked of you // To give the love you find until it’s gone
I can almost see the Golden-mouthed one nodding in agreement…
-~Read all the Lyrics below~-