Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Consumerist god reigns supreme

Ian Harris                        Otago Daily Times                13 April 2017                   
What’s the point of society taking time out to celebrate Easter when its true devotion is to the greatest of all contemporary gods: consumerism? That is, to a credo where human purpose is focused on getting more and more, and human fulfilment is measured by the possessions we accumulate.

A token of this is Parliament’s genuflection to the consumerist god by allowing local councils to open the door to tinkling tills on Easter Sunday, and the number of communities opting to do so. Nothing, it seems, should get in the way of the sacred duty to make money.

Till now, and still for those communities that have chosen to live by a different standard, Easter Sunday has been a public sign that there are other values for men and women to live by, other approaches to the great questions of life, meaning and purpose. For those willing to stop and reflect, Good Friday and Easter Sunday will remain such.

Church folk have sometimes blurred the issue by defending Easter closures as protecting a religious privilege validated by an obsolete supernaturalism, instead of promoting a response to those great questions in a way that engages the open-minded among religious and nonreligious alike. It’s too late for that now, and where Easter Sunday drifts slowly away on the tide of commerce, Good Friday and Christmas Day will one day logically follow. The consumerist god, worshipped enthusiastically in hymns praising freedom, choice, even basic rights, is all-consuming. It will not be content until people are at last enslaved by their possessions, for it is those that are increasingly reshaping our values and thus, ever so surreptitiously, how we choose to live.

American priest Matthew Fox, advocate of “original blessing” instead of original sin, sees consumerism as a modern idolatry. “Indeed, our very economic system, to the extent that it creates and whips up consumer fetishes, is running on idolatry,” he says. This is because it flourishes on the view that the acquisition of more and more goodies will somehow satisfy the deep longing of the human heart – “even if such idolatrous buying results in other people going hungry or the earth itself being exploited, species rendered extinct, and climate change raising the seas, destroying cities and homes and the future for our great-great-grandchildren. “Such idol-worship fails to satisfy the heart. But dissatisfaction is at the heart of economic idolatry – it feeds the machines of advertising to keep us buying. And buying. And buying. The addiction of shopping is a special form of idolatry, born of consumer capitalism.”

So there is more to freedom and choice than being able to shop on the traditional holy-days. Indeed, Easter itself is about freedom, choice and basic rights – but on a level that leaves consumerism for dead. It is the freedom, choice and right to be more, not have more. And it springs from a very different vision of what human happiness and fulfilment are all about.

At the heart of this vision is a concern for relationships. Accordingly, the churches have interpreted Easter in a variety of ways over the centuries. Traditionally, emphasis on a theistic God has been central, so the focus was the individual’s relationship to that God. Befouling that relationship was people’s sin, which led to guilt and fanned the fear of hell. Jesus’ death on the cross, however, could cancel their sin, absolve them from guilt, and assure an after-life in heaven.

In a world where heaven and hell were believed to be as real as Earth, and the church’s narrative fitted neatly within it, immersing oneself within that framework made sense. It brought genuine release and newness of life, along with meaning, purpose and fulfilment. In the 21st century that imaginative superstructure has crumbled, so for many Christians, celebrating Easter within its confines is now impossible. They still celebrate, however, for the core meaning of the season remains constant in freedom, choice, and the right to be fully human, all underpinned by unconditional love.

Jesus was put to death because he ran foul of the power structures of temple and state. Yet out of that tragedy, and all that had preceded it, his followers found inspiration and opportunity – not to buy things whenever they felt like it, but of genuine choice in becoming new people. And they asserted the basic right of everyone to do the same in relationships where love, not money, is the touchstone. For that, “death to the old” and “resurrection to the new” are appropriate metaphors – and it’s got nothing to do with shop trading hours.

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