Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shop Like Jesus

My smarmy and endlessly off-color treeplanting friend Jon used to gleefully say that Jesus was "the great shit disturber." I call it "gleefully" because, like me, Jon was raised in a highly conservative Christian missionary environment where putting the words "shit" and "Jesus" in the same sentence was anathema -- a gold-plated, first-class, one-way ticket to the darkest, most burningest regions of Hell. Having become disillusioned by this environment at an early age, Jon took great pleasure in disturbing my more delicate sensibilities at every available opportunity.

In the estimation of my childhood community, just quoting Jon probably has me licked by flames, but the truth is, I don't really care. First, because while I question the wisdom of savaging a cultural convention just to shock and annoy those of a more "delicate" moral constitution, the prohibition against the word "shit" is most definitely a cultural convention -- one which, while I adhere to it somewhat religiously (and hypocritically), I have heard violated of late by countless conservative Christians. Either the culture has changed, or these folks have gotten tired of the hypocrisy of acting all uppity about the word while playing fast-and-loose with its more socially acceptable cousins (crap, poop, turd).

My second reason for ignoring convention and risking the scorn of people I love is that if we can overlook his "earthy" terminology, the fact is that Jon is right. I've spent a fair bit of time reading about Jesus, and the fellow seemed to always have been jumping from one set of toes to the next -- almost like he thought it was just as important to disturb the comfortable as it was to comfort the disturbed.

One of the main ways Jesus did this toe-stepping was by talking about money, because the way a person uses money is usually a pretty good indicator of what they value in life. If you've spent too much time around average North Americans who claim to follow Jesus Christ you might find this hard to believe, but Jesus himself actually talked more about money than he did about sex. A lot more. So I think that in the spirit of Jesus I would like to try to disturb you by talking about how you're spending your money, and by questioning whether that lines up all that well with What Jesus Would Buy.

Chances are good that if you're reading this, you are fairly comfortable when it comes to money. Wealth is a relative term and relative to the population of the world, you are really, really rich. You've got a computer, leisure time, and a good education - hence, rich.

So, my rich friends, let's start big by asking if Jesus would buy a rocket ship to fly to the moon. On that one,  I'm going to have to say a pretty firm, "no." First of all, because if Jesus wanted to go to the moon, he would just say, "KACHOW!" and beam himself over. But secondly, Jesus would not buy a rocket ship to fly to the moon because Jesus strikes me as both extremely intelligent and loving, and when it came time to lay the fifty billion dollars down on the table, Jesus would think about the fifty million starving children in the world and he just wouldn't do it. I am sure Jesus would be a huge fan of the curiosity and wonder inherent in the modern scientific mindset, but I'm also pretty sure he'd say, "let's take care of the kids first."

What about on a smaller scale... would Jesus buy a McMansion? I'm talking about those monstrous suburban houses with the postage stamp lawns, which are usually occupied by only two or three people. Would he buy one of those? Well, I'd have to say... maybe. Jesus would be living in this culture, and if he had a house he would undoubtedly be using it to host a constant stream of guests, so he would need a lot of room for all the the feasting and partying he'd be doing - not to mention at least one room dedicated exclusively to his unparalleled wine collection. Still, given that the modern McMansion is usually built with zero environmental consciousness (most of them will end up in landfills in sixty years) and that most of the people who own them never let homeless people stay in the spare rooms, I am guessing that if Jesus were a real estate adviser, he would probably counsel against it.

It is probably useful to pause here a moment and mention that I am fairly confident that Jesus would not be particularly swayed by our modern forms of advertising. He would probably laugh at all the commercials promising great sex, family satisfaction, happiness and so on. Or maybe he would cry... yeah, I have a feeling Jesus would cry a lot if he were watching the televisions of America. This is, I think, because he would have a flawless understanding of the distinction between "I need" and "I want," and he would clearly see the ways in which our confusion of the two leads us into slavery to our destructive economic machine.

If you want to shop like Jesus, then, I suggest you pause a moment and think about what you really need. An ipod? New Clothes? Huffy's Sweet New White Heat Bicycle (dang, I wanted one of those!)? Don't be ridiculous. What you need is enough food, water and shelter to stay alive, and enough good work and community to stay sane and healthy. That's it, and it is the reason why, when Jesus was telling people how they ought to talk to God, he didn't say to ask for a Hummer with laser beams, or a good grade on that test they didn't study for, or a perfect spouse, or a gift card for the Olive Garden, or excellent traffic conditions all the way to Poughkeepsie. Nope, he just said to ask for Daily Bread -- premium organic raspberry jam not included.

This is not to say that Jesus was all that into scarcity and asceticism. He wore a nice robe that some ladies gave him, enjoyed a good party, and thoroughly chewed out his friends for picking on a woman who "wasted" some expensive perfume by using it to wash his feet. Nonetheless, there is a big difference between the little extravagances that Jesus enjoyed and the endless procession of extravagances that we demand in our fated attempts to find satisfaction in stuff. You may have noticed, my fellow richies, that these attempts don't exactly work.

I would like to suggest that you try something a little different. I would like to suggest that you begin to grow in your awareness that every time you open your wallet, you are making a moral decision. Will you shop like Jesus, or will you allow the market forces of your economy and the constant pressure of the marketers to convince you that in all their unnecessary products you will find meaning, joy and, ultimately, life?

When you purchase food, will you buy the quickest, cheapest thing that takes the least amount of work and, because of its high sugar, caloric, and sodium content sends little eddies of endorphins rushing through your brain tissue? Or will you, rather, buy with a conscience - purchasing lovingly-grown food in a less processed state - food that requires more work to prepare but is infinitely more nourishing to the body with which you live?

What about entertainment? Will you seek with your purchases to get more and more intensely pleasurable entertainment experiences, or will you see the fated folly of this fool's errand and instead learn to take pleasure in more simple things, like the joy of working and playing alongside the people whom you love?

Will you constantly buy new clothes before the old ones are worn out in an effort to stay on top of the pure fabrication that is "style," or will you learn that you are lovely and loveable regardless of what you are wearing (or not wearing, tee-hee).

I could endlessly parse this out into smaller and smaller financial decisions, but I have discovered that it is just this parsing that was turning me into a slave of the very thing I was trying to escape; because it is just as possible to become enslaved by money by obsessing about trying not to spend it frivolously. It is, once again, a question of motivation - a question of love. I am not here to proscribe some sort of system for figuring out the difference between a financial decision made in love and one made in a fool's attempt to find meaning in stuff - that just isn't possible.

What I am hoping to suggest is that in our culture the balance is far more likely to swing towards the latter, and that any attempt to actually follow Jesus would require a constant, concerted effort in the opposite direction. Perhaps you don't care about all that "following Jesus" stuff. My intention in this particular essay is not to convince you that Jesus is the cat's meow and it's pajamas (as well as the bees' knees), or even to see if I can type the word "shit" five times and get away with it. Rather, I am writing in the hope that if more of us would get disturbed enough to begin to use our wallets to vote for love, then perhaps there would be more love -- and a little less hunger, thirst and pain.

4 comments:

  1. Another great one... Have much to say about this post, but not the words to type it, hope we can hang in person soon (hint hint).

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  2. Ditto son. INTeresting and worth the read. Need/want is a huge cultural conundrum although literally it is none.

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  3. I thank God that you're at CDS

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  4. So do I, Phil. So do I (and not just because of the free bagels).

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