Things Fall Apart: One Center Holds – Paul Santmire reflects on a counter-cultural alternative to a consumer economy.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday September 25 – October 1, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Some of the most quoted lines of poetry in the modern era are these, from the poem “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939):
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
These words have not lost their claim on us, as we hesitate to open the daily paper or turn on the news, for fear that some new political or ecological disaster is upon us. Think of the Cuban missile crisis or the events of 9/11 or the increasing number of disastrous droughts or tsunamis around the world.
Sadly, things may be worse than we realize. Never mind the loud noise of world history, which Yeats seemed to have in mind. We also are faced with a quiet crisis (Stewart Udall), which appears to be even more insidious. Call this the Walmart crisis. In a sense, Walmart rules the world, from rural America to urban China, and back again. Our lives, or the lives of many of us, and the lives of many around the world are focused on getting more things. Ours is the world of global consumerism. Consumerism makes the world go ‘round.
The problem is—to cite some innocuous sounding words from the Yeats poem—“Things fall apart.” Consumerism has its costs, and they are indeed costly. Think of the Pacific Ocean. Discarded things that have fallen apart—garbage, it’s called—form a kind of floating island in the Pacific that’s bigger than the state of Texas.
And worse. The “throw away culture” of global consumerism gets us in the habit of treating the whole earth in throw-away terms. One writer has called this the “creeping commodification of everything.” Unconsciously, if not by conscious choice, we treat people, as well as material things, as commodities. Everything gets discarded.
Consider how many Americans are in the habit of “shopping around” for churches that might better satisfy their needs, discarding along the way relationships they’ve built up in the congregations they’re leaving behind. Some even shop around for a new spouse, discarding one husband or wife for another.
Seeking still higher profits or to cut their losses, corporate executives sometimes discard thousands of employees, with little apparent regard for the impact of such decisions on local communities or families. Coal companies blast away the tops of whole mountains, with little serious regard for the human communities in the valleys or the plant and animal communities on the mountains.
Throw it all away! Both the things and the people! That’s how the system of commodification of everything works. A way of life that concentrates on getting more things is a way of life that falls apart.
The Church of Jesus Christ, when it’s faithful to the Word of God, offers a counter-cultural alternative. Instead of a throw-away culture, the Church serves as a “redemption center.” Instead of “my way or the highway,” the Church is committed to God’s way as the right way. The Church puts God first, not things. This is the God who wants to give us life. And this God is the center that will hold, even when things are falling apart.
So, according to the prophet Ezekiel, God says to the wayward souls of Ezekiel’s own time: “get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live” (Ezek 18:31b-32). The Psalmist speaks with the voice of one who has already decided to put God and God’s Word first in his life: “Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths” (Ps 25:3).
But which God is this, really? Most Americans say they believe in God and things still fall apart. How is the faith of the Church different? Answer: the God whom the Church celebrates and announces to the world is not the God who blesses the American way of consumerism. This God is invested in a saving culture, not a throw-away culture. Accordingly, when you’re a church-member, you’ve really left the Walmart way behind.
So Paul says to the Philippians: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:5). And how do we do that? Paul answers: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). Then Paul quotes an early Christian hymn, in order to make it absolutely clear who God is. God is the God who empties God-self (kenosis is the Greek word Paul’s thinking of) for the sake of the whole world in Christ: “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). The God whom the Church celebrates and announces to the world is thus not a “god” of getting, but the God of giving, indeed costly self-giving.
And more. According to the Word of God, this self-giving God has a passion for the poor and the lowly. Jesus was notorious in his time, because of the focus of his ministry: on prostitutes and tax collectors and widows and others who’d been pushed to the edges of society. So, for example, the Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying to the leading religious authorities of his time: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Mt 21:31b).
If you’re looking for Jesus in our world, then, where should you go? Jesus did spend a good deal of time in or near the Temple. But for the most part, you’d have found him elsewhere, with the down-and-out people of his own day.
So, then, don’t stop at Walmarts. Drive by Nieman Marcus, for sure. Continue on into the city. Pass the elegant high-rise condominiums, where the rich and powerful live. Head over to the back streets. See the homeless wandering around. Visit the shelter for abused women and their children. Walk along the river downtown, whose waters are so polluted that fishing is prohibited (notice, though, that some immigrant families still fish there). Go to church some Sunday in the inner city. That’s where you’re most likely to find the Son of God on any given day in our world.
Some wag once proposed that we should think of the local church as “Consumer’s Anonymous.” You go there to deal with your addiction to things. You know that things fall apart, but you can’t break the habit, just by working at your addiction on your own.
You go to church because you know you need hear stories about the true God, who stands over against the false god, Mammon: the true God who, according to Ezekiel and the Psalmist, wants you to have life, not death. You go to church to hear stories, as Paul tells them, about how this God has given God-self in Christ, on the Cross, for the sake of the whole world. You go to church to reacquaint yourself with who the Son of God really is: the One whom we know from the Gospels, who came to minister to the outcasts, the godforsaken, and all creatures of no account in this world.
And then, during the week, when you feel the urge to go shopping, because you think that that will make you feel really good, you call up a friend from your church, and he or she comes over to talk you out of your consumerism, once again. After you two have finished talking, you decide together to take some food to the food bank downtown and, on the way back, you make plans to attend a rally in your city to protest American inaction on climate change.
Originally written by Paul Santmire in 2014.
For further theological reflections on consumerism, see John F. Hoffmeyer, “Sacramental Theology in a Consumer Society,” Dialog 53:2 (summer 2014), 127-133.