The Respectable Sin of Materialism

I’ve often said that as we look back and question our ancestors’ racism within the Church of Jesus, our kids and grand-kids will possibly look back and question our materialism. Years ago the Christian culture, especially Southern Christian culture, allowed racism to exist without nearly enough response, remorse, and repentance. I’ve wondered through the years how those who called themselves followers of Jesus could have been so blinded to the blatant bigotry demonstrated in their communities and churches.

And yet … today I see a country that is more and more consumed with having more and more, and less and less concerned with people in poverty and distress. And the Church is definitely not immune to a love affair with money and the things money can buy. We say that money can’t buy happiness, but it sure does appear that people don’t believe that. The pursuit of personal gain to the neglect of giving to mission efforts worldwide is so prevalent that it will be difficult to defend our greed to future generations.

In the book I’m reading, the authors express the relationship between Westerners and their money and the lack of applying biblical principles to our giving and receiving/keeping. Maybe it’s just that we are all misreading it. I fear it’s more than that.

Westerners have a complicated relationship with money. We don’t like it when wealthy people receive special treatment or look down on the rest of us as riffraff. But many (can we say most?) of us aspire to “the good life.” So while we’re aware of the dangers of wealth-that having a lot of money can open us up to certain temptations-we’re willing to risk them, because we don’t consider being wealthy morally questionable in and of itself. On the contrary, we more often associate immorality with poverty. This is due, in part, to how Westerners understand wealth. Westerners instinctively consider wealth an unlimited resource. There’s more than enough to go around, we believe. Everyone could be wealthy if they only tried hard enough. So if you don’t have all the money you want, it’s because you lack the virtues required for success-industry, frugality and determination. A nineteenth-century biographer of George Washington put the matter this way: “In a land like this, which Heaven has blessed above all lands … why is any man hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in prison? why but through his unpardonable sloth?”” There appears to have been a trend from very early in American thought to invert Paul’s proverb “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess 3:10) to read, “If a man can’t eat, it is because he doesn’t work.” People know what they need to do to make money, we think, so if they’re poor, they must deserve it. This understanding of wealth is the very opposite of how many non-Western cultures view it. Outside the West, wealth is often viewed as a limited resource. There is only so much money to be had, so if one person has a lot of it, then everyone else has less to divide among themselves. If you make your slice of pie larger, then my slice is now smaller. In those cultures, folks are more likely to consider the accumulation of wealth to be immoral, since you can only become wealthy if other people become poor.

More significantly, Westerners often assume that the wickedness in “trusting in great wealth” has nothing to do with the wealth but solely with placing our faith in wealth instead of God’s faithful provision. The psalmist implies something different. The wicked person, we’re told, piles up more wealth than he or she needs. In the ancient world, there were always those in need (according to Jesus, there always will be; Mt 26:11). The condemnation came not in accumulating wealth but in piling up “great wealth.” Only a wicked person would continue to pile up “great wealth” and so destroy others.

(Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Binders to Better Understand the Bible, 
by E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O’Brien)

I pray that I’ll continue to seek God’s truth from His word despite what the culture says is acceptable. I know many people who have strong opinions about how the “world” has crept into the Church, while themselves being blinded to how much money they are keeping and how little they are giving.
It is especially difficult in present-day America to live out what I believe is a biblical perspective regarding money, and 
I must constantly question myself and pray for God to keep me from pursuing more … just to have more.

Previous post about my summer reading intentions

My next post will cover how reading the Bible in our Western culture applies to racism.

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