Following Christ in a Consumer Society

28Aug07

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I recently read with interest the Idaho Statesman article dated Monday, August 20, 2007, titled “BSU professor works to help less fortunate.” The article relates Will Rainford’s efforts to establish Sanctuary. The shelter was a result of his efforts along with various denominations coming together to house the poor during the most brutal, winter nights. Sadly, the article mentions that, “he gets mostly hate mail – and a good percentage come from Catholics.” Dismayed, I wondered how my fellow Catholics end up sending hate mail when themes of Catholic social teaching encourages us to respect human life and provide an option for the poor and vulnerable.

“In a world warped by materialism and declining respect for human life, the Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.” – United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Themes of Catholic Social Teaching

Perhaps our secular culture has had a stronger influence than our own Catholic social teachings on our perception of the homeless. I’ve have just finished Following Christ in a Consumer Society by John F. Kavanaugh where he makes a splendid case for the Personal Form of relating to our world versus the Commodity Form currently encouraged by our society and culture of consumerism. Kavanaugh helps explain what I observe, puts those observations into context and provides concrete ways to live a life that is more Christ-like. I’d also highly recommend his bibliography which provides a variety of reading material to broaden our perspective on culture and faith.

According to Kavanaugh (33), the theme of the Commodity Form is “that persons do not count, unless they are certain kinds of persons. If they are not endowed with value by power, affluence, productivity, or national interest, they may be sacrificed at the altar of ‘our way of life.’” For example, at the Dorothy Day House we have witnessed residents entering treatment centers, receiving diagnosis, being released, at which point their Medicaid runs out and the medicine needed for a full recovery suddenly becomes unaffordable. The lack of affluence subjects our resident to the vicious cycle of self-medicating to ease debilitating pain. The National Alliance on Mental Illness ranked the state of Idaho 51st in the nation for mental health spending (including Puerto Rico). I believe this reflects the attitude certain kinds of persons do not count.

Grading the States 2006: Idaho

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Kavanaugh contends that our society currently “degrades humans to achieving and producing forms.” Most of the people I know wouldn’t consciously degrade anyone. I find the degrading occurs in more socially acceptable forms where the following comments are heard; “People are tired of hearing about the poor”, “They should get jobs” or my favorite, “You know, some really want to be homeless.” All I can think of is that to be homeless means freezing in winter, dangerous sleeping conditions, questionable food and most likely, unaddressed mental health issues and self medicating if possible with drugs or alcohol. Now, if that was me I wouldn’t “really want to be homeless.” By the grace of God, I am not living on the streets. However, what if I was so profoundly wounded that I did live on the streets? I am not talking about victimization but acknowledgement of circumstances that result in inherent inequality. Christ came to comfort the poor and vulnerable.

The Sermon on the Mount reminds us in Matthew 5:7 “God blesses those people who are merciful. They will be treated with mercy!” The productive and achieving are called to use their God given gifts for good, not the further degradation of our fellow human beings by comparing who is worthy of shelter and/or food by what they can produce or achieve. Thankfully, the book provides a counter cultural way of living called the Personal Form which calls us to faith, hope and love. I have never considered faith, hope and love counter cultural, but perhaps considering the influx of media promoting consumerism, in this day and age, it is!

Kavanaugh goes on in Chapter 11 to define the Personal Form with four basic areas of focus so faith, hope and love resonate through out our lives; prayer, use of our gifts in relationships, simplicity of life and finally social justice.

1. Through solitude praying we become vulnerable to our own weakness and strengthened in Christ. Prayer allows us to be tested in relationships and bears fruit in the works of mercy and justice. Dorothy Day noted that it was her relationships in community with other Catholic Workers that tested her more than her actual work with the homeless.

2. The use of our God given gifts will become self-serving if prayer is not part of our daily existence. There is nothing wrong with using our gifts to produce and achieve.It is only when we compare others to ourselves or judge others worthy of the basic life necessities, of human dignity, that we begin to distort our gifts.

3. Simplicity in life is about attitude or the style of life we choose. Thankfully, the book points out that an examination of consumerism doesn’t mean you have to stop consuming which would be impossible for starters. There are many beautiful objects that enrich our lives. However, we must have a developed interior life through prayer and social justice so consuming doesn’t become the goal in and of its self. Advertising does a good job convincing us that the product they are selling will solve our interior aches and pains when in reality a closer walk with God through prayer and service is what is needed to ground us.

4. Finally, laboring for social justice springs forth as a result of our faith, hope and love. Therefore, “we deliberately enter the presence of persons for who the consumer and commodity ideology is not a dream but a nightmare.” (Kavanaugh 188) It is the ability of the poor and vulnerable to evoke love that makes them valuable. In their vulnerability, they are unable to hide behind accomplishments or accumulations but still move us to love. That is the greatest gift any person can give another, to evoke love.

So at the Dorothy Day Place and Thomas Merton House, we meet Christ in hospitality and try to help restore the human dignity while putting the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. My favorite truism came one day on the sidelines of a field, when a soccer mom from the opposing team glanced over and stated, “We are all in this together.” I had to smile and agree.

Kavanaugh, John F. Following Christ in a Consumer Society. 2nd. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1981.

“Grading the States 2006: Idaho.” NAMI. 2006. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). 25 Aug 2007

Written by Laura Hudson, a Boise Catholic Worker and a member of St Mark’s Parish.

Boise Catholic Worker is a group of Lay Catholics who study and live the social teachings of the Catholic Church in their daily lives through the guidelines set down by Catholic Worker Movement founder Dorothy Day. Catholic Workers give comfort to the homeless and suffering as well as promote social justice through education efforts and action. We welcome all faith based volunteers to Boise Catholic Worker.

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One Response to “Following Christ in a Consumer Society”

  1. 1 John

    Thank you! Very well written article. I also suggest reading “Affluenza” Second Edition by DeGraaf,Wann, and Naylor.


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