“Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with ‘more’ — and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us, and the theological question facing us is whether the Gospel has the power to help us withstand it.” – Walter Brueggemann, Christian Century, March 24, 1999
I stumbled across this quote from Dr. Brueggemann this morning in a Facebook post from the Stewardship of Life Institute, and suddenly a light bulb went on. Not so much the critique of consumerism, but the way Brueggemann describes it. “We have a love affair with ‘more’ – and we will never have enough.” What struck me is that I’ve often heard recovering addicts and alcoholics describe the experience of addiction in the same way: “I was addicted to MORE.” More booze. More pills. More money, more sex, more power, more possessions, more (fill-in-the-blank) . Usually, when someone describes their experience of addiction in this way, there are a lot of nodding heads in the room; a lot of us can relate, and I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when I say that a lot of us could relate to the idea of MORE being “a demonic spiritual force among us.” This got me thinking about the way we talk about consumerism in our faith communities, which I believe is (yet another) place where the church could learn some things from the recovery communities.
One “learning locus” is the way we as church, and especially we as clergy, talk about consumerism or materialism. Not to rat out my colleagues here, but often it seems like when we talk about this, we talk about it from a position of moral superiority: those people who don’t get the true meaning of Christmas, those people who trample one another on Black Friday for a cheap TV, those people who have a consumerist mentality about church or faith or life in general. Maybe there was more of this moral superiority complex on display than usual since Black Friday fell so close to the beginning of Advent, or maybe I’m just getting more sensitive to it, but it seems to hang in the air year-round. And while having a regular Sunday gig means that I rarely get to hear a sermon other than my own, my hunch is that it seeps into our proclamation of the gospel as it relates to money and possessions, too. I know it seeps into mine sometimes.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is that pronouns matter. One of the “rules” I try to abide by when sharing in AA meetings is to say “I” a lot, “we” rarely and “you” never (or almost never). The reason for this is simple: I can’t speak for you. I haven’t walked around in your shoes or lived your life. This is especially true in writing a blog, since I have no idea who “you” might be. Thus, I need to not say “you” very much. I can use “we” slightly more freely, if I’m talking about an experience or perspective that I’m reasonably certain most of us share, whoever the “us” happens to be. If I really want to be safe, though, it’s best to talk about “I”, about my experience, my perspectives, what I think and know and believe and see. And I need to be willing to listen attentively to the experience of you, because I rarely learn anything from me. In fact, the whole reason Twelve Step fellowships work is because of the credibility that comes from hearing someone else share an experience that others can relate to.
And so, perhaps we as clergy need to watch our pronouns when it comes to talking about the addiction of consumerism, because in my experience, we’re just as prone to it as any of the folks in the pews on Sunday morning or at Walmart on Thanksgiving night. I spend a lot of time around other pastors, and I rarely see many of us driving ten-year-old clunkers or wearing homemade clothes. I rarely go to a meeting of clergy where I don’t see appointments being made on high-end smartphones and notes being taken on iPads or other electronic gizmos. I’m not casting judgment here, nor am I saying there’s anything wrong with such devices. I’m simply pointing out that we clergy aren’t exactly taking vows of poverty here. And speaking just for ME, I know I am just as prone to the addiction of MORE as anybody else. I have a long list of “wants”, most of which are shiny, sparkly and expensive. About a month ago I picked up my fifteen-year-old Epiphone acoustic guitar again after a multi-year hiatus and set about re-teaching myself to play it; by last weekend I had convinced myself that I NEEDED a brand new Fender Telecaster. As they say in recovery circles, “If ya spot it, ya got it,” and heaven knows I got the consumerism bug, too. Maybe as clergy we would have more credibility on this subject if we were more willing to be vulnerable and to own our own consumerist urges.
As important as how we talk about consumerism is how we think about consumerism. If it is indeed “a demonic spiritual force among us,” then maybe we need to think about it (and, by extension, talk about it) as something other than a moral failing. One of the greatest advances in the treatment of alcoholism and other addictions was the shift, beginning in the 1930s, to talking about them as a disease rather than as a lack of willpower, irresponsibility or moral failure. Twelve Step programs are able to hold this tension of describing addiction as a disease while still maintaining the alcoholic’s or addict’s responsibility for the damage they do while caught up in their addiction. Perhaps we as church would be better able to speak to the demonic force of consumerism in our culture if we could hold that same tension: recognizing this as a widespread, rampant disease of addiction to MORE and addressing it from the perspective of treatment and recovery rather than shrilly casting judgment on those people.
Finally, if we really believe this is a demonic spiritual force among us, then perhaps we would do well to treat this as a spiritual issue and remember Jesus’ words to his disciples after they failed to cast out a demon: “This kind can come out only through prayer.” (Mark 9:14-29) If this really is an addiction, both at a personal and a societal level, perhaps we need to treat it like one, admit our own powerlessness over it, and turn it over to the one whose power never fails. Admitting you have a problem is, after all, the first step.
[This post is the thirteenth in a series called “Humans Anonymous” on the spirituality of twelve-step recovery and the insights it offers for anyone wanting to live a spiritually-centered life. Links to all articles in the series can be found by clicking here or by clicking the Humans Anonymous link under “Categories” on the right-hand side of this page.]