The point was that, like the soon-to-be-king Saul, we sometimes have so much of what the King James Version calls “stuff” (that’s really the word used) that we lose ourselves in the midst of it.
I was thinking about that sermon recently while trying to sort out the causes and meaning of the nation’s economic crisis.
And I’ve concluded that although preachers sometimes tell us that we have too much stuff, they rarely use the biblical witness to offer a Christian critique of an economic system that not only encourages the accumulation of stuff but that seems to require mindless materialistic ecstasy.
In fact, in many embarrassing ways, the church has become complicit in promoting an economic system that, in its current American form, relies on wasteful, unsatisfying, and even sinful consumption. Worse, it’s a system that sometimes treats workers as a commodity. The system is quite willing to ruin the workers’ dreams of economic security by spitting them out when things get tough.
Yet I agree with Glenn Tinder, author of The Political Meaning of Christianity, that capitalism may be imperfect but in its best forms it’s better than any current alternatives. Tinder also says, however, that Christians owe no unqualified allegiance to any economic system that oppresses or exploits human beings, as capitalism surely does.
Now, it’s true that various spiritual leaders have made statements about the current economic crisis. For instance, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has blamed it on “human greed.” The Dalai Lama has blamed a lack of spirituality among people. And Pope Benedict XVI has said money “is nothing” compared with the only solid reality, the word of God.
Fine, but why is it so rare to find preachers in Mainline churches willing to suggest that it is neither un-Christian nor un-American to question whether capitalism is always the perfect tool for accomplishing God’s will? Where are our 21st Century Dietrich Bonhoeffers willing to say with him that following Jesus “will liberate mankind from man-made dogmas” and that our flawed economic system is one of those dogmas?
It can’t be hard to find biblical texts that would lend themselves to such a message. (What was the “new wineskins” story if not Jesus’ call for a fresh look at the familiar?) Some years ago, I heard Tony Campolo say that the Bible is simply packed with admonitions about economic matters. He’s right.
Our preachers’ failures to be prophetic economic voices are even greater than their failures to be prophetic environmental voices. The problem is not that they don’t tell us we have too much stuff. They do. The problem is they don’t often help us understand the systems that lead to such bloat.
Similarly, the problem is not that preachers don’t tell us we can make a difference by recycling, driving fuel-efficient cars, and using energy-saving light bulbs. What we don’t hear as much is them calling for answers that require a broad social and systemic response to a social and systemic problem. (See Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty’s helpful “social gospel” discussion in the April edition of Theology Today.)
For without those broader critiques of our acquisitive society and polluted society, there’s little hope of solutions.
In my former associate pastor’s 1995 sermon, he warned, “The baggage of belongings and possessions … can obscure and confuse the path that will take us to true happiness. Beware of hiding amidst the wrong stuff — wealth and power, popularity, glamour, and youthfulness.”
All good admonitions. But our global economic trauma now presents the church with an opportunity to preach a broader message that can lead to changes in an economic system that has made indentured servants of many of the people in the pews.
Bill Tammeus is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at http://billtammeus.typepad.com. E-mail him at [email protected].