Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Free Markets, American Consumerism and The Great Commission

The church must become aware and continue to be aware of the influence that American culture and its free market economy has on it. The free market creates situations that often lead to the abuse of humanity by humanity. Wendell Berry spent much of his time discussing this problem in the essays contained in What Are People For?. He points out that our market driven economy, with its emphasis on technology and efficiency, is producing an urban society in which people are becoming devalued. He asks,


Is the obsolescence of human beings now our social goal? One would conclude so from our attitude toward work, especially the manual work necessary to the long-term preservation of the land, and from our rush toward mechanization, automation, and computerization. In a county that puts an absolute premium on labor-saving measures, short workdays, and retirement, why should there be any surprise at permanence of unemployment and welfare dependency? Those are only different names for our national ambitions, (p.125).


He quips that the economy and its emphasis on material expansion has led persons to gain from another’s loss and to not feel bad about it, but to rather view it as part of life. He thinks that this is violence. Where our society would never advocate or accept physical violence, such as murder, as being acceptable ethical behavior, we have little problem accepting acts of economic violence,


Leaving aside the issue of whether or not murder would be acceptable as an economic means if the stakes were high enough, it is a fact that the destruction of life is a part of the daily business of economic competition as now practiced. If one person is willing to take another’s property or to accept another’s ruin as a normal result of economic enterprise, then he is willing to destroy that other person’s life as it is and as it desires to be, (p.131-32).


All of this emphasis on economic development has actually resulted in much destruction, rather than progress, “The centralization of our economy, the gathering of the productive property and power into fewer and fewer hands, and the consequent destruction, everywhere, of the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community,” (p.128, emphasis in original).


At the heart of the issue is the consumerism that the free market has created, which it needs in order to survive. Berry states that the consumption is being done irresponsibly, and that it is not only the fault of those involved in the mass production of cheap, worthless products that are meant to only work for a limited time, but that all of us are responsible, “But our waste problem is not the fault only of producers. It is the fault of an economy that is wasteful from top to bottom—a self-indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom—and all of us are involved in it,” (p.127).


This problem of consumption has also radically impacted the church and how it functions in society. Ever since the religious disestablishment that took place with the inception of America and its policy of separation of church and state, churches have been left to themselves to survive financially. This has led to an emphasis on numbers and having many members. The more members a church has the more monies it has, which entails more security. This has led to churches incorporating the same methods being used by secular businesses in order to grow their churches. The gospel has become a commodity that must be handled rightly. This has led to churches offering the gospel through many programs—provide people with enough options and choices that meet their felt needs (which are more than their real needs since their felt needs are driven to want more than they actually need—a byproduct of our economy) and they will choose your church.


This has also affected how people choose a church. They are smart consumers who look for a good deal, they want the most bang for their buck. So they shop around at the different churches to see which one is offering the best deal. The one that comes closest to meeting all their felt needs wins. What is resulting is that the churches are no longer separate from the world and reflective of the spiritual truth of the gospel and proper biblical ethics, they are now reflecting the world. They have become the world. Berry says that this is tragic because the result is that the church becomes unable to fulfill its calling and mission,


The organized church makes peace with a destructive economy and divorces itself from economic issues because it is economically compelled to do so. Like any other public institution so organized, the organized church is dependent on ‘the economy’; it cannot survive apart from those economic practices that its truth forbids and that its vocation is to correct. If it come to a choice between the extermination of the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field and the extermination of a building fund, the organized church will elect—indeed, has already elected—to save the building fund. . . . but the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field can be preserved only by true religion, by the practice of a proper love and respect for them as the creatures of God, (p.96, emphasis mine).


My point: we need to become aware of this problem so that we do not perpetuate the evils of society in the process of trying to offer the only solution for evil. The church is to be separate—it should be a place of truth in the world. I am by no means advocating socialism or communism (which are fraught with evil of their own), but I am advocating that the church see herself and her mission as separate from any particular culture in which she finds herself, and therefore, fight to keep herself as unstained as possible. The church in America needs to be aware of these dangers so that she can be a repenting people and try not to perpetuate the agenda of secular society by accident. This will necessitate contemplation about how to live in this world as the church. We must learn how to responsibly handle free markets and American culture, and not fall asleep at the wheel and perpetrate evil that puts other humans in economic bondage for the sake of our own sense of liberty, while offering liberation from evil and the bondage of sin. We must come to grip with the reality that the Constitution and Bill of Rights, as wonderful as they are, make promises to us that the Bible does not. As Edward E. Ericson, Jr has advised, “It is not the case that with common grace anything goes. Some ideas are just plain false and must simply be rejected.” The church must not try to baptize the practices of common grace into her mission of spreading the free offer of redeeming grace. We must remember the antithesis.

2 comments:

  1. I find this post pretty interesting, but I can’t tell how much you are summarizing the book and how much you are stating where you stand. Nonetheless, I really have to disagree with some of the conclusions made here. I do not at all agree with the assumption that we have a free market system to begin with, so I don't see how free-market thinking should be blamed for any of the problems with our society that are addressed here. I also don’t think that a free market system would result in the devaluing of human lives, the consumerism, violence, etc., but rather would be quite compatible with Scriptural principles. I am curious how much of this is the view of the author and how much is yours.

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  2. I understand that just how "free" our market is has been debated, but nonetheless, our market is certainly "freer" than others. There are more choices in our market than others, just follow a visiting couple from a different country through a grocery store. But I am not blaming the market, per se, but the attitude of uncritically embracing our system and all its choices and unwittingly enslaving ourselves to it, so that we think that we must have all these choices. From there, people begin to think that since they can go to the grocery and pick from over a hundred different types of cereal, that we should have that same level of choice in church. And yes, with the centralization of economic power, there will be the loss of liberty and the devaluing of human lives, just as with the centralization of political power, which leads to violence. The abuse and uncritical use of the system is a problem, and when we unwittingly adopt that in the way we do church, we are contradicting our calling and our message.

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