This country is engulfed in a deadly STD epidemic. No, not AIDS or some other sexually transmitted disease. The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK, says that this country is engulfed in a different kind of STD -- Socially Transmitted Disease. Specifically, he is talking about the rampant materialism that he says that this country is engaged in.
In his sermon today, Lavanhar said that the symptoms of this insidious disease include an unquenchable drive for more, which leads to stress, a disconnect from the world, the sense of being overwhelmed, heart attacks, cancer, stress, and tremendous clutter. But the worst thing about it for Lavanhar is that it leads to a state of mind which he terms "soullessness."
Lavanhar quoted Mother Teresa as saying that this country is the poorest place that she had been to in her life -- spiritually, of course. In fact, Mother Teresa had much more to say about it in an interview with Dan Woodling. Woodling is a journalist who worked for various UK newspapers before starting off on his own with Assist News Service, a faith-based news service. In it, Mother Teresa had plenty more to say about what she saw as the spiritual poverty in the US:
As a young reporter, I immediately warmed to this gentle woman who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for she had seen more poverty than anyone I had ever met. Speaking in the founding, festering slum where she made her simple home, I was surprised to hear her express pity for the “poverty-stricken West.”Lavanhar said that the point was that there were much worse things than financial pain and said that the dissatisfaction level in this country is at an all-time high. Googling this statement will turn up articles that state that there are extremely high dissatisfaction levels with the government, teachers, and work, among other things.
“The spiritual poverty of the Western World is much greater than the physical poverty of our people,” she told me, as the fan whirred above us, trying to alleviate the unbearable heat of that Indian city.
“You, in the West, have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don't know what it is.
“What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God.”
Mother Teresa cited the case of a woman who died alone in her home in Australia. Her body lay for weeks before being found. The cats were actually eating her flesh when the body was discovered. “To me, any country which allows a thing like that to happen is the poorest. And people who allow that are committing pure murder. “Our poor people would never allow it.”
And the teeming millions of the poor of the Third World have a lesson to teach us in the affluent West, Mother Teresa declared.
“They can teach us contentment,” she said, her leathery face gently smiling. “That is something you don't have much of in the West.
“I'll give you an example of what happened to me recently. I went out with my sisters in Calcutta to seek out the sick and dying.
“We picked up about 40 people that day. One woman, covered in a dirty cloth, was very ill and I could see it. So I just held her thin hand and tried to comfort her. She smiled weakly at me and said, ‘Thank you.’ Then she died. “She was more concerned to give to me than to receive from me. I put myself in her place and I thought what I would have done. I am sure I would have said, ‘I am dying, I am hungry, call a doctor, call a Father, call somebody.’ “But what she did was so beautiful. I have never seen a smile like that. It was just perfect. It was just a heavenly gift. That woman was more concerned with me than I was with her.”
He said that we can easily be caught in the pattern that has a "dog chasing its own tail." He characterized the state of our nation as being in a state of "mass psychosis" always in a dogged pursuit of more and the sense that we can never have enough. Coaches in sports frequently tell their players not to be satisfied with their accomplishments when their teams are doing well. However, this, under Lavanhar's reasoning, can backfire when applied to material things.
Lavanhar said that part of the problem was biological -- it used to be that our instincts would drive us to excess because we would not know where our next meal would come from. This has been true of most of the world since the dawn of civilization. This, he said, helped us to survive lean times. However, he said that these impulses were now leading us to self-destruct.
He quoted Lee Atwater, who gave this candid quote to Life Magazine:
"My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The '80s were about acquiring -- acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn't I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn't I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul."As Lavanhar noted, it's been 20 years since then.
- Lee Atwater, 1991
Now, there are more shopping centers in this country than high schools. The CNN article notes that they attract more than 200 million shoppers a month -- around two thirds of the entire US population. Well, say the economists and politicians, that is good because it is obviously attracting money into the country and putting more money into the economy. But Lavanhar said that the price we pay is that it has replaced the church as a symbol for people; he said that there were even people now who get married at the Mall of America. "People used to turn to spiritual teachers to fill voids in their lives; now, they turn to the mall," Lavanhar said.
Lavanhar said that people decide that they want more respect; therefore, they go out and get a new car. However, he said that it was really a matter of something internal and spiritual that material goods cannot satisfy. "What we really want is something worthwhile to do with our lives," he concluded.
He said that it used to be that there were two model phones, one for the desk and one for the wall. Now, there are all different kinds of phones and features and that buyer's remorse means going out and getting something else. "It carries into relationships," he said. "People are seen as expendable. People wonder if there is a better spouse out there." We might add that over the last several decades, employees are seen as more and more expendable by corporations, who routinely lay people off in order to relocate to some country that pays cheaper wages.
We are exposed to anywhere from 247 to 3000 ads per day, depending on the source. Sources will disagree on the figure, but we know that it is a lot. But in contrast to that, Lavanhar said that the solution for us was to live more simply. He said that this was not a matter of voluntary poverty or shutting one's self off from the world. Instead, he said that it was a matter of finding 4 or 5 priorities that were important and then getting rid of the clutter. "We didn't come here to be saddled with junk," he said.
Lavanhar said that the point of the teaching of the Rich Young Man was that his life was defined by his possessions. By contrast, he cited Thoreau, whose purpose during his time of isolation was to live worthily and profitably. He later became an abolitionist and his teachings lived on well after his death, influencing King and Gandhi in their struggles. He noted that the US was fighting an unjust war back then and was struggling with the problem of materialism back then as well.
Lavanhar said that living simply was not a matter of escaping one's responsibilities or being ignorant. He said that it was a matter of discovering for one's self what things did and didn't matter. He said that as long as we as a society were focused on attaining more, then regulations would continue to become more lax and more disasters like West, TX would occur. He said that the reason why the Oklahoma Legislature could get away with passing a law allowing horse slaughter in the face of the opposition of 80% of Oklahomans or the Senate rejecting universal background checks in the face of 90% support for that measure was the fact that we as a society were asleep. This explains why Congress remains the same despite record low approval ratings -- people think Congress is part of the problem, but they don't think that their Congressman is part of the problem. "That was how Hitler and the fascists came to power," said Lavanhar.
But as Truthout reports, there may be a crack in the wall. More and more groups are forming to fight what they see as the corporatization of agriculture.
From the school cafeteria to rural tomato farms, and all the way to pickets at the White House, people are challenging the ways in which government programs benefit big agribusiness to the detriment of small- and mid-sized farmers. Urban gardeners, PTA parents, ranchers, food coops, and a host of others are organizing to make the policies that govern our food and agricultural systems more just, accountable, and transparent. They are spearheading alternative policies on the local, state, national, and international levels. Some advances include the following:This will create an alternative to the corporate-funded research that has dominated our food policy and generate more debate about foods and food safety.
The National Family Farm Coalition is educating and lobbying to restructure the subsidy system so that it benefits small farmers instead of agribusiness. Together with other groups like Food and Water Watch, Food First, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, they are engaging in research, education, and strategies to help turn us all into effective policy-change advocates.
And there is a wide perception that unhealthy foods are cheaper than healthy foods. However, a new USDA study shows that is not the case; healthy foods are actually cheaper.
So while 20 years have passed since Atwater's lament that the country has become too materialistic, it is a problem that we have had to deal with since our founding. And given this healthy food movement, it is possible that this trend is starting to reverse itself in some areas.