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Stuff Love (December 5, 2018)

We’re in the middle of that great orgy of consumerism again. It’s the great religious festival of the year for North America. Malls and stores are decked out in their finest, seducing shoppers to come on in and sample the wares. Long want lists are mailed off to the North Pole. Mailboxes are stuffed with glossy flyers featuring television sets and audio components and toys and jewelry. Television ads feature beautiful young women and men pitching everything from perfume to laundry soap to computers and even cars, promising us a golden future if only we buy what they’re selling.

A European observer made a visit to the US; he summed up the insatiable drive to accumulate: “Americans cleave to the things of this world as if assured that they will never die … They clutch everything but hold nothing fast, and so lose grip as they hurry after some new delight.”

When did he make that observation? Was it during the recent economic downturn? The time a few years ago when bankers and automakers asked for a bailout? During the dot–com boom of the late 1990’s? The previous era of greed on Wall Street during Reagan’s presidency? During the heyday of the 1950’s?

Nope. Wrong century. Those words were written by French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830’s. Before Ivory Soap was 99 and 44/100% pure. Before Tony the Tiger growled his first “Grrrrrr–eat!” Before McDonald’s served up even one Happy Meal. Before we knew that we deserved a break today. Before the Pepsi Generation. Before the lonely washing machine repairman. Before plop plop fizz fizz oh what a relief it is.

It’s easy to blame advertisers. Indeed they are guilty to a certain extent. They are hazardous to our health in many ways. They fuel our hunger for more stuff. They stoke our restlessness and dissatisfaction with our lives. They often use tactics which stretch ethical standards. They have learned to use modern technology to target us, enticing and alluring us to feed our addiction even more readily.

We have been on a drunken orgy of greed and consumption, fueled by sophisticated marketing and easy credit. We live in a culture of entitlement, in which we think that we’re entitled to all the stuff we have. And so we are seduced into wanting more and more stuff.

Here’s an image for that sense of entitlement. Do you remember a few years ago, when car makers needed a bailout from the government? There they were, the three CEO’s of the automakers in front of Congress with their hands out for a bailout, having flown there in three private jets. They saw nothing wrong with it — even when one of the congressmen asked, “Couldn’t you have jet–pooled? Couldn’t you have downgraded to first class?”

As a friend said to me, “They want to be bailed out so they can keep living that way. They care nothing for the thousands of jobs that might be lost. They only care that they keep their private jets and caviar. Trickle down economics doesn’t work because the top people put all of their energy into not letting that money trickle down. They spend most of their time trying to figure out how to keep it for themselves.”

Even now, as I write, I received an email telling me I could get a $10,000 line of credit. Just like that. No mention of paying it back. Just “imagine what you can do with $10,000 to make this Christmas a really good one.”

It’s time to stop the madness. This kind of over–consumption is antithetical to the life of faith. Consumerism harms us. Consumerism damages our spirit and destroys community. It is dangerous. It is a false religion which makes empty promises of a future it cannot deliver.

But it’s not all the advertisers’ fault. We also bear responsibility for participating in this culture of entitlement. There are selfish desires rooted in the human heart, and we give in to those desires all too easily.

James Twitchell, in his book “Lead Us Into Temptation” states what seems to me to be a self–evident truth about human nature: we like having stuff. We want … more and more.

Another book, “Affluenza” (which was first a PBS documentary) pokes fun, opening with a cartoon of a viewer watching the show about over–consumption. When the show ends with the standard announcement, “for a tape of this program, send check or money order to …”, he pops up eagerly and says, “I need two!”

What we need is a stronger desire to stop looking for others to blame, and to accept responsibility for ourselves. That won’t be easy. But it is necessary if we are to save ourselves and our communities and our world from the dangers of this addiction to stuff.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt