‘The beatitudes (Matthew 12: 1-12 par.) have taken on an entirely new meaning for me’ and ‘we will open the book-fair with the children at 11am’ – two sentences that, taken together, made a substantial impression on me lately. The first of these came from a meeting at Holy Trinity Church one evening last week, held with one of the couples we support in their overseas work. Dawn and David work with CMS (the Church Missionary Society) in Pakistan, where David (a doctor) works in a TB-clinic in a programme jointly run by CMS and the local Anglican Diocese. Dawn and David are currently back in the UK for a time, and have been visiting churches that are supporting their work to give talks and deepen friendships. What David meant and shared with us was that it is only since he has been living and working among those whom Jesus calls ‘blessed’ (or ‘happy’, depending on the translation you use), the poor, those who mourn, those who are persecuted for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, that he has truly understood those words and the way in which they contradict much of what our own society here regards as important. Thus, our ‘materialism’ and ‘consumerism’ is more recognisable for what it is in the eyes of the Gospel when viewed from ‘outside’ – a problem, a concern, in the way in which it promises happiness through the acquisition and possession of ‘things’ when Christ attaches such promises to entirely different matters.
The second sentence was something I overheard a teacher at one of the local nursery schools say to people one morning – and, innocent enough in themselves, in the light of David’s words it suddenly dawned on me what this actually means: for in bringing small children to an event essentially designed to arouse in them the desire for possessing ‘things’ and make them (and their parents) buy them, the second sentence in a flash shows just how our society’s values work, namely by rooting in us all, from the earliest possible age, the concept that to be happy is to possess, to have, to buy, to consume. By the time we are teenagers (if not before) this attitude will have become so deep-seated that ‘having’ and ‘being happy/fulfilled’ are one and the same thing, and life becomes a matter of having and having more.
There are three problems with this, of course: (1) that it is untrue, ‘to have’ and to be happy are not the same thing; (2) that the attitude of wanting ‘to have and to have more and more’ is the opposite of what will make for ‘sustainable development’ in a world increasingly aware of the finitude of natural resources and the fragility of the environment; and (3) that it is thoroughly unbiblical and in many ways the opposite not just of the beatitudes but of much of Jesus’ teaching.
And yet: all this may not be true, or good or Christian, but it is powerful – acquisitiveness is a vice strong in us all to a greater or lesser extent because it becomes part of our worldview and values at such an early stage in our lives. In consequence, it remains a thing hard to fight not just in society around us but inside us. So what to do about it? A start might be to engage with the excellent new Mothers’ Union campaign ‘Bye Buy Childhood’, which seeks to tackle the problem at its root (see www.byebuychildhood.org or speak to our local branch members) – for nobody should grow up ‘believing they are what they own’.