Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Getting our priorities straight

Over the last hundred years, under the malign influence of Madison Avenue, we’ve managed to corrupt the concept of “need” almost beyond repair.

Take a look at the Bowflex doing duty as a coat rack in your rumpus room. You don’t have the discipline to do free sit-ups every day for six weeks; what made you think you had the discipline to do the dozen or so exercises on that thousand-dollar machine for the same length of time? But it looks cool, the pitchperson promised “fast results”, so you said not “I want this” but “I need this!” Now you have a household traffic obstruction and a beer-keg belly.

(I’m not blaming pitchpersons; my cousin by marriage, Laura Kristi, has done a few commercial shoots herself.)

Welcome to the wonderful world of social engineering, where various enterprises of dubious morality routinely screw up our priorities by transforming our desires into psychologically completing must-haves. We never knew how empty and unfulfilling our lives were until we learned about the Sham-Wow. Just how did we manage to survive so long as a species without the ability to surf the Web and video chat from the most barren spots in the US?

For a large part of my grown-up life, I had to do without things that other people even in my age bracket take for granted, including the occasional necessity like a car, a phone, and (briefly) electricity. Even now, when I’m in much better circumstances, my TV in my bedroom isn’t even plugged in, I spend a lot of time not listening to any of my 1,100-plus .mp3 files, and my staggering collection of books has yet to be replaced by a Kindle.

But I haven’t completely escaped Madison Avenue’s clutches. My love affair with the PC has turned into an unhappy marriage, which I’m desperately trying to keep together for the sake of my little blog children and my pet Facebook. I have a cell phone and a Bluetooth, but it’s not a piece of liberty so much as an electronic leash by which I can be dragged back to quotidian responsibilities; God please help me from ever “needing” an iPhone or CrackBerry!

The idea of having the computer and the cell phone were cool; the reality has turned out to be something like watching my mother-in-law drive over a cliff in my car … and I’m not married. But I … um … need them.

And so I go on, contributing to the capitalist system, which squeezes labor out of me so the rich can pay me then squeeze that money back out of me in order to accumulate it for themselves. Of course, the system is rapidly becoming socialist, which means squeezing the labor out of me so the state can take my pay to redistribute it inefficiently and ineffectively.

To get that money out of me, I’m being told night and day that I need a whole bunch of material gizmos and doodads that will supposedly make my life more exciting, more alive, more fulfilling. You remember that bumper sticker, “The one who dies with the most toys wins”? Guess what — the one who dies with the most toys is DEAD! Toys don’t do corpses one flipping bit of good!

And then I read about Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42).

Martha meant well. In running around, trying to make sure all the Lord’s disciples were served, she was doing what first-century Judean society expected of women. She didn’t question or challenge her role; in fact, she worried about carrying it out well.

Imagine her frustration and shock to see her sister Mary not only not fulfilling her social role by helping her but sitting down—with the men! As a disciple yet!—at the Master’s feet. So her challenge to Jesus wasn’t just to ask him to make Mary help her; it was a demand that the Master reinforce Martha’s sense of priorities and role expectations.

Jesus’ reply — “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled by many things; one thing is needful” — isn’t a radical dismissal of all social roles and earthly priorities. Rather, it puts them back into proper perspective. In the end, they’re all secondary to our roles as disciples of the Lord and children of God.

Jesus didn’t come to solve all social inequities for us. Rather, in his preaching mission, he concentrated on teaching us our right relationships with God and with each other.

For instance, slavery was very much an accepted social institution; despite its manifest injustice, Jesus didn’t condemn it. But it’s only obvious to us now because of our long years of slowly learning and unfolding the implications of Christ’s gospel message. Once we put ourselves in the right relationship with God and each other, we can see social inequities better.

In the same way, once we put ourselves at the feet of the Master as his disciples, we begin to escape the junk culture of material solutions for artificial needs created by the social engineers. We don’t necessarily stop buying things; they just become re-prioritized in our lives. We become better able to distinguish the necessary from the merely “cool”, and more aware of the spiritually dangerous.

Building the perfectly just, perfectly equitable society will always be just beyond our reach this side of the Second Coming, as Jesus reminds us: “The poor you always have with you” (John 12:8). And poverty isn’t measured solely in money; there are many millionaires out there who are spiritually impoverished, many people whose souls are malnourished despite having plenty of toys, gizmos, and doodads. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve things, though.

But we can’t even begin to make an improvement until we get our priorities straight. We can only learn to do that by sitting down next to Mary at the Master’s feet.