There is a fundamental tension between spirituality and materialism. Materialism is about accumulating wealth, focusing on the individual, as opposed to sharing with and helping others, and community building that is central to spiritual life.
The Bible talks about how difficult it is for the rich to enter heaven. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Matthew 6:19-20
This tension is commonly on display in our political discourse, where business and the wealthy work to protect their interests, which they think includes supporting massive, repressive military and law enforcement systems, and minimizing social safety net and other programs to help those in need. Unfortunately the wealthy have used their money to corrupt the political system and pass legislation and policies that have created masses of people who can no longer support themselves, through no fault of their own, significantly increasing the need for social safety nets. This is fundamentally wrong.
It also doesn’t make sense regarding business. The way business grows is by selling goods and services. The less disposable money people have on hand, the less they buy.
There are also fundamental questions related to the earth’s resources, and who they belong to. Air and, to a lesser extent, water are seen as “commons”–resources for all, not just certain individuals. Land was also once seen as a common. Private land ownership is a relatively new concept. Does wealth entitle one to claim common land as private, especially now that much of the land has been parceled up? Doesn’t everyone deserve access to enough land and water to grow enough food the sustain themselves and their families and communities?
It is natural to take the circumstances we are born into as the way the world has to be, often not realizing that much of how we live is new, and not always an improvement of what was before. It is important for us to learn as much as we can from history, to be aware of what worked well, and what didn’t. That is especially important now, because major global forces are at work that are changing our environment, commons and other resources, and will change even more.
Years of denial and hope that environmental damage will just go away have put us on a course many feel the human race cannot survive. The more extreme weather patterns with severe, sustained droughts and local deluges of rainfall will continue to get worse. The impacts on crops will result in more migrations of more and more people.
Along with that, modern industrial/technological economies will collapse when fossil fuel supplies dwindle. There is encouraging news related to the increase in renewable energy. But the energy density of wind and solar electrical energy cannot begin to replace all the work currently being done by internal combustion engines. It is a fundamental error to think that renewable energy supplies can simply replace oil.
As our economy continues to fail and people all over the world try to cope with more extreme weather, and decreasing supplies of water and food, social mechanisms to help those in need will be overwhelmed. Social unrest will spread and deepen as people become desperate to try to meet their most basic needs.
We are now being forced to find how to deal with these changes, with more extreme changes and needs rapidly evolving. Now is the time to shape the path we want to take. One path continues to embrace materialism and self preservation. That would require more aggressive and repressive actions to preserve wealth and property.
Or we can embrace the concept of the beloved community, opening ourselves and our resources to build strong communities, and in the process find just solutions to many of the problems we face. I hope we decide to build those communities.
To do so will require leadership. One thing these leaders must do is show their willingness to turn away from materialism. As Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21 This is really very clear.
So, thirty years ago I asked people to give up their cars. That is probably easy compared to asking people now to give up the rest of their possessions. Hopefully there will be a better response this time.