“We are bombarded by advertising in every working hour, in every possible medium and in every single space…” (Easter Pilgrim Day 16)
The middle class cry of “Too many adverts! Too much greed! Too much of the things that define me! I must jettison them all and give it all to the poor.” OK. Go on then. Then watch “Throw it away”, a recent Family Guy episode in which Lois Griffin declutters, on the basis that you keep it only if it brings you joy. Soon the entire house is stripped bare: even her family are gone. The self within becomes dominant and the only joy is to get rid of everything: including, eventually, herself.
It isn’t that easy. We need to pause and pray. Otherwise these living parables of our relationship to the whole of creation are transformed into woeful narratives. The theology they provoke is misused to portray our heinous modern avarice and self-centred world. They are treated as little more than self-help books from the late Iron Age.
“Advertising has a single goal: to make us unhappy with our lives so that we will buy more stuff.” Rubbish, if I may be so bold. Advertising wants to sell us stuff. That is the end of it all. Capitalism wants to make more capital. That’s the end of it. This prejudicial critique of a subterfuge of within the advertising industry is pretty superficial. Some products have inbuilt obsolescence, for sure. iPhones and so on rely on incessant upgrades. And Gambling Online sites are pretty sordid for the way they seek to appeal to our inner desires for wealth. But to argue that that is all advertising is about is utterly to miss the issue of our own desire to be secure, safe, warm, fed and watered. So, we acquire things. Sofas, TVs, phones, curtains, carpets, beds, and the kit goes on. We buy helpful items like washing machines. We visit garden centres to purchase plants for the garden. We like fine clothes because they make us look good and feel good. And, yes, of course some of that is superficial. But equally some of it is very uplifting. That is why we celebrate and give joy to the world when we can. We wear Sunday best, not necessarily on a Sunday, and maybe only our best rather than the most wonderful perfect best (which, lets face it is an impossibility anyway).
This passage from Matthew is only superficially suggesting that we rid ourselves of all that we don’t need or things that we over value. In a more profound and positive sense it is also pointing out the basic beauty and joy of the natural world. Do not worry about tomorrow. Just today (Mt 6:34). And in fact, the extended theology is to suggest that we don’t need to worry about that either (although that is not said).
The reflection associated with this passage is trite beyond words. “Daily bread” is the most challenging line of the prayer? Since when? Why deconstruct a unity in the first place? Every line is the most challenging and altogether the prayer digs deep into our soul. It comes back up gorging on our facile entrails; this passage forces us not to throw them away with revulsion but to investigate them and consider how we fit into God’s cosmological intentions.
So much of modern Anglicanism (I cannot speak with authority for any other denomination, but I suspect…) is about pretending to throw away all those dreadfully bad things that we have decided are a trap. We moralise about wealth and avarice, and periodically get ever so guilty and so decide we need to change our way of purchasing. We then have to demonise all purchasing, all commodification, all consumerism. Yet the forces that operate between people are where we find the extra value in our existence. Trade, for all its fallibility also provides the means for each of us to live: the cost of living is that we need to balance.
When we get to the challenge for this Easter Pilgrim (day 16) the fluffiness is notched up. Give away what you don’t need. Or sell it and give it to the poor. What confused thinking. The passage in Matthew isn’t about economics and consumption but about the value there is within and around all we are in the eyes of God. Economics is about balance, about wealth and value, for sure. But Matthew 6:25-34 is about beauty, ecology and our place within it. If we follow the challenge for day 16, then all we are doing is adding to the troubles of today. Wouldn’t it be better to rest in our own soul, encounter God and through that relationship become comfortable with who we are? Enforced decluttering doesn’t encourage us to live for the moment. What it does is force upon us a despair that our tomorrows will overwhelm. Walk lightly on the soil, recognise the beauty in the slimy slug, the mouldy chicken carcass and the woodlice at work in the compost. But don’t throw away things that are not hiding this from you. Look around them. Don’t buy without conscience and don’t hoard. But look for the sunshine and hold onto the rain.