On any given day, airwaves and satellites are jammed with information regarding healthcare, poverty, crime, taxation and the environment. The lingering and occasionally vociferous debates over these issues reflect what many already know – that these are often nuanced discussions with deep, abiding roots that run to the neural nexus of the American consciousness.
The root of the problem, by very definition, is not exposed, but occasionally emerges as it twists and turns through the soil of democracy. Whenever former presidential candidate Ron Paul goes on NPR’s Weekend Edition and, in refusing to acknowledge medical care as a basic human right, he appeals to a Libertarian twist on an historic idea: “You have a right to your life, your liberty and you should have a right to keep what you earn.”
When a local Atlanta radio station highlights the perceived increase in burglaries within the city, the reporter says blithely, “Whether crime is up, or perceived to be, people are taking actions to protect their stuff.”
The very thing that Paul equates historically to the “pursuit of happiness” is the right of the individual to keep his or her earnings. The fear of crime in the city is part personal safety and part safety of property.
There is a latent fear that someone, somewhere, is waiting to steal everything from us (as evidenced by the bumper stickers I see more than once a week: “Don’t steal. The government hates competition.”).
It isn’t just a fear problem, but a deep-seated place in our psyche that craves excess. I wasn’t aware of how deep this runs in my own consciousness until just recently.
As I took our Teva-wearing son to his private pre-kindergarten class, we carry in his “Vacation Totem Pole” – a class art project that is a twist on the “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essay for the 4-year-old set. We had intentionally put pictures from fun trips to the beach and to the petting zoo with grandma and grandpa, but we had also put pictures from his time with us at our youth mission-camp – his “big friends” as he calls them – including a shot of him serving lemonade to other kids and community members at the soccer game we held.
I was so proud of him and the work he had done. As I watched him hand his Vacation Totem Pole to the teacher, I began surveying the other entries. Some were big and elaborate with seashells and separate poles for family friends and sports. Lest I succumb to the mortal sin of totem pole envy, I settled instead for pride, quickly thinking why my son’s was superior to all the other totem poles.
I think I visually blushed as I walked out, realizing how ridiculous I was being. Where did this latent sense of competition – this bloodlust for having the biggest, baddest and best – come from? And how can I get rid of it?
What had once laid dormant, or occasionally surfaced only in feelings of moral superiority, such as buying fair trade coffee at an independent shop while silently sneering at the Starbucks crowd, reflected a basic, human, sinful tendency. Our greed isn’t checked by our culture; it’s amplified.
It is so deep in our subconscious that we scarcely notice when a politician says, “Don’t let Uncle Sam take your stuff!” or when we spend more on security systems than we paid for improving schools through property taxes.
A few months ago I was challenging our youth at church to consider the hard teachings of Jesus – the ones that run counter to our understanding of culture. We read his charge to the disciples, “If someone asks for your coat, give them your tunic as well.” I even talked about how Walter Wink says our resulting nakedness shames their excess and exposes their greed.
The next week we did art projects as a response to Jesus’ parable of the rich fool, who kept building better barns. One sophomore painted a bright green $100 bill on fire. He said it was a metaphor: “Everything burns.”
A junior-high kid painted a man drooling over a pile of gold coins while an adequate yet humble house sat in the background. A high-school art student fashioned a perpetual pyramid of triangles – ever-expanding, never satisfied with what he had previously created. Another collaged pictures of opulence in church architecture – angels and cherubs – with the headline “Why do we sin?” and a picture of change, a bowl of rice and an old ad for pea soup.
Those teenagers see the myth for what it is – a never-ending lust for more power, more wealth, more toys, more stuff. They could hear the words of Jesus and get the message: We don’t need bigger barns, we need to help build barns for those who don’t have them. They get it. And sometimes they remind me that I’ve forgotten it.
Somewhere among the thousands of ads we’ll all see today is the voice of Jesus warning us: “Don’t build bigger barns, don’t accumulate more stuff, don’t hoard your wealth. And while you’re at it, chill out with the totem poles, okay?”