December 6, 2016 at 8:08 am, by Carl

Thanksgiving was early this year.  Typically that is met with much rejoicing among both the business owners of the country and the consumers.  One extra weekend of sales is supposedly a good thing for us as a country.  I, however, disagree.  I think the sickness of greed, of gluttony, has ruined us;  worse, the Christian community has led the way in a worship of the god of consumerism.


At the beginning of November, I had the privilege to return to Oaxaca Mexico for another mission trip with Growers First.  Similar to when I was there in 2014, the experience was deep and rich for me.   Like before, my takeaway centered on a reflection about the state of the USA.   It stunning and humbling to sit among a few thousand Mexicans who stopped their worship of God to pray for our country just days before the election.  Deeper still, though, was to watch these people so thankful for the most basic of things.



To see these people was to be reminded how far the USA has changed in the past century.  Our focus on material gain and possessions…what I call addicted to excess and luxury…is a sickness.  For many of our Founders (and here, I mean the roughly 2 million people living on the Eastern seaboard by the 1780s), this was never the point of the country.  The fear of this sickness was part of the division between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  The roots of it go much further back, however, than the late 1700s.


In the 1200s, the Church reacted to a cultural shift in what leaders believed to be the main sin or vice confronting people.  Previously it had been pride, but by the 1200s, more Christian leaders were speaking out against greed.  This concern with greed would continue to rise through the next two hundred years as the early stages of the Renaissance emerged.  The principle cause was perhaps the emergence of the early capitalistic economy based on money, on coinage used for purchase.


Previously, during the Middle Ages, barter was the main way that exchange of goods occurred.  There was not “profit” per se, though certainly both people in the exchange would be attempting to get something for the trade, even get something “more.”  Yet with the return of towns in Europe in the 1100s and 1200s, more trade and travel of merchants began to occur.  “Coin was the perfect means of exchange between geographically distant peoples, allowing them to cultivate a commercial relationship that was impossible in a gift economy.”


Along with that, though, came the ability for merchants to charge more for the item that it actually cost to make….the creation of profit.  Now, the idea of profit is not in itself evil, nor is somehow this to demonize the return of towns.  As I teach my class, towns were part of the end of the feudal system and the start of the idea of personal freedom and liberty.  Capitalism actually aided that societal journey too.


Yet, with the explosion of prosperity that emerged over the next 300-400 years came also a focus on material goods.  The Italian city-states were forerunners of this, and a bustling middle class of merchants, bankers and traders rose in power.  But, a middle class meant that there was also a poor or low class, people who simply could not have enough coinage to make ends meet.


To the church this posed several problems, as Professor Greg Peters (who I quoted above), states in his book The Story of Monasticism:


There are two related problems with a money economy. First, a profit mentality arises, in which a seller charges a buyer more than a product is worth….The church saw these transactions [to gain a profit] as unjust because they involved dishonest gain at the buyer’s expense; anything unjust was immoral and thus forbidden.  Second, money repaid to a creditor [whether a banker or lender] becomes more than was given out. The medieval church considered this theft and therefore forbidden.  IN moral terms, it was usury, a practice prohibited….

Thomas Jefferson would have agreed.  For him, the major concern with Alexander Hamilton’s plans for the national economy in the 1790s was that it centered on the concept of making money without actually doing anything.  Our modern jobs like banking, investment, credit and the like were seen as evil…even for someone like Jefferson who in no way considered himself a Christian.


Though coin and currency took off in the 1200s, the barter economy was still an active concept into the 1800s even in the USA.  And, whether barter or purchase by cash, as Jeffrey Sachs has pointed out, the economy of the US in the 1800s was not that must stronger than any other country, including those in South America or Africa.  The 20th century, though, changed all of that.


Previously, people wanted to immigrate to our country because it was one of the very few to present a future of liberty.  As I have written previously, the American Dream was never about possessions, but about the freedom to pursue whatever life one wanted.  Now, though, I think many come here because we are seen as this rich country where anyone could be a millionaire.  Of course, here, anyone CAN become a millionaire, but that was never the focus point.


It has become such because the Church in America, since the 1970s at least, has equally pursued excess and possessions in an attempt to attract participants.  Sadly, when the church should have spoken out against such luxuries, many churches had wasted millions on buildings and salaries.


I know its tough.  I live here too.  Scanning through the newspaper ads for Black Friday, I too was lured.  And its impossible to draw lines.  As one of my friends and I discussed once, how many blue jeans is okay?  Why do you need 4 pair?  Why, then, 2 pair?  I often criticize people who have more than one TV, but I also have a household with multiple computers.


Maybe what we need now is what emerged in the 1100s…new monastic sects that could both preach against excess and model simple living.  But in lieu of that, as you move through the advent season, realize that if you really do want to see the country become great again or become more kind or lose the anger…it starts with you.


It starts with me.


I don’t know if we really can get off the consumer rat-wheel, ever running after nothing.  In each of our own lives, though, we can determine to live a more simple life.  Purchase less.  Share more.  If you own a business, take less profit.  Reduce your own salary while raising the salaries of your employees.  If you are a Christian leader, do a deep inventory about where your church’s priorities lie. Give away more.  Reuse older items.  Resist buying….


Do that and we might not need a new monastic order.  We might also help turn the country back towards something really great…