catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 21 :: 2010.11.19 — 2010.12.02


The appetite of North America

A call to contentment

True happiness flows from the possession of wisdom and virtue and not from the possession of external goods.
Aristotle (B.C. 384-322), Politics

The Bible depicts the early church as a flourishing body of individuals devoted to Christ and committed to each other. Acts 4 says the believers were of one heart and one mind, sharing everything that they had — even going as far as selling their land and houses in order to redistribute wealth to anyone who was in need. Their most radical practice? Not one of them claimed their possessions as their own. Take a moment to really think about that. Imagine all of your stuff suddenly repossessed and redistributed to any number of the two billion Christians in the world today: your house, your car, your laptop, your cell phone, and yes, even your underwear, suddenly shipped around the world leaving you nearly homeless so someone else can be nearly housed.

The thought doesn’t sit well with most of us, because we love having our own stuff. Here in North America, we are culturally wired to call things our own as soon as we possibly can. It is an ideology birthed from our over-consumption that can interfere with our willingness to give: we claim ownership over possessions far too quickly — in some cases, even before they are legally ours. While this strategy may work for narcissistic children in the toy aisle of your local grocery store, it doesn’t appear to be what worked for the apostles.  

Today, I see my Christian family (globally speaking) as a mostly divided body of individuals who believe there is a God, but have lost the unity we were designed to share. Segregated by denominations, distance and race we are still very much called to practice the sort of behavior demonstrated in the book of Acts. But sadly, westernized culture has perverted the Lord’s vision for his community. In the name of renovation and relevance we have transformed our church buildings into gigantic entertainment centers by replacing fellowship, prayer and social interaction with coffee shops, computers and HDTV. That’s not to say a warm cup of coffee or a Google search is bad (in fact, I really like both, especially the coffee). But I think that these sort of activities within the Church are worthy of additional consideration.

Honestly, I don’t believe that the dedicated Christian is capable of over-consumption due to the nature of our theological standards. The Bible tells us that Jesus came so that we might have life and have it abundantly and many times I have heard those words used to justify the overconsumption of Christians. However, something has been lost in translation when abundant living dissolves to excessive materialism. The question is not how much we are consuming, but what we are choosing to consume.

As Christ followers we are called to live peaceful lives of humility, forgiveness, obedience and love. Note that we are never commanded to make decent money. We aren’t called to drive luxurious cars (or even cars in general, but that’s another story). We aren’t advised to fill our closets and dressers with clothes we will never wear, pack our churches full of media sources or to load our plates with food that we cannot finish. None of the things we are supposed to be fighting for involve abundance through tangible accumulation. They involve abundance through experience, love, care and joy — in other words, the things that are life-giving (thus, have life abundantly). This is where I believe we have missed the boat.

The focus of most of our continent (and the rest of the world, for that matter) boils down to gaining social power in some way or another. Ask anyone, regardless of their current socio-economic status, and chances are they would report a willingness to participate in the lottery if they knew ahead of time they would win. You would be crazy not to, right? Wrong. There are a number of studies indicating that the correlation between wealth and happiness is negative. In other words, winning the lottery will — contrary to popular belief — leave you unhappy. 1 Timothy says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” and according to University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener, “Materialism is toxic for happiness.”

So why do we desire such gross wealth when it is clearly discouraged by both science and our theology? Personally, it’s hard to imagine turning down millions of dollars, even though I know that if I accepted the money my chances for depression, alcoholism, drug abuse and bankruptcy would all increase. Maybe I should make that a kind of spiritual challenge. Note to self: if you win the lottery, turn it down or give it away.

About two years ago, in my pubescent splendor, I got pretty passionate about “going green.” I did my research on over-consumption and all its ill-effects. I then began to recognize how wasteful our culture had become. When I took a look around our school, I saw a lot of room for improvement so one of my teachers and I sat down and started brainstorming. After a couple days we came up with the idea of founding a student-based environmental club at school. A few weeks later, exhilarated by the spike in membership, we collected a day’s worth of trash from the lunchroom, gathered the entire school in the gym and tossed the small mountain of waste center court. The slop of chili leaking from the bags added a dramatic effect to the demonstration. We ended up persuading the lunch staff to reconsider what kind of products we were using. Though we couldn’t get them to revert back to washing dishes (which was obviously ideal), we did end up switching from styrofoam to sugar cane trays as well as plastic to biodegradable utensils. After the whole thing was over with, I made the commitment to stop using disposable materials (unless of course, they are biodegradable).

I often get questioned when I am out to eat as to why I don’t use straws. What’s really funny to me is that I usually receive odd feedback for my commitment to minimize my waste production. Seriously though, what are the benefits of using a straw? One might argue that using a straw is less of a reach to your cup, cleaner or simply more fun than sipping from the rim (yes, I am now comparing the pros and cons of drinking straw procedure: bear with me, I am a cultural nerd). However, when you objectively consider the logistics of using a straw it seems…well, stupid. You’re creating unnecessary waste — both plastic and paper, spending unnecessary time and energy to both open and use the straw, setting a cultural standard of harboring disposable mentalities, and contributing to the more generalized paradigm that our actions don’t have consequences. McDonald’s serves 52 million people a day. Imagine how many of those people used a straw when the alternative of not using one produces the same result: putting fluids into your body.

You may think, at this point, that I am being rather frivolous. However, I think that these are exactly the types of acute problems we need to discuss but tend to overlook because of our cultural defaults. If we are really trying to be like Jesus, we have to take every action we make into consideration. I’m not saying that unless you are an analytic freak, you will fail at Christianity. What I am trying to describe is the responsibility we have as followers of Jesus. When you chose to live your life for him, it needs to be an all or nothing sort of arrangement. The book of Revelation warns us that the lukewarm will be spewed from the mouth of God. His teachings must affect every aspect of our lives right down to our methods of beverage consumption. We must allow him to saturate our entire being to the best of our ability. And then, we must question and correct anything that conflicts with what he practiced. If we can’t give up the use of straws for the preservation of the goodness God created, how then can we expect to be taken seriously for our faith?

It’s pretty obvious that there is a major problem concerning the management of waste among us. There is something quite disturbing about our continent’s desire to consume in addition to our inability to see the big picture. However, there is nothing wrong with wanting more than we need when what we want is Jesus. The Bible is clear that our focus is to be on God. He is to be the Lord of our lives and we are to be submitted to him and his teachings before anything else — before science, before money, before everything. If we can accomplish that kind of surrender then I don’t think we would buy or consume half of the products we do. It’s as if we have all become sinking ships, temporarily patching our leaks with the fleeting possessions of the world. And every time a patch fails, we take on more water and find ourselves in deeper trouble than we were before we plugged up the leak.

It is when society reaches the point of possessive recklessness that we will see an economy of enough reveal its beauty. Abundance is not found in physical properties of this fallen world, but in the spiritual growth and experience of following Christ. I pray that we could be a body of believers permanently satisfied and content with what God has for us instead of desperately seeking temporary happiness in exchange for our “hard earned” money. Jesus is the only source of absolute contentment. He is the only constant authority. He is the only one who can keep the world afloat. 

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