The great spiritual battle of the 21st century

The great spiritual battle of the 21st century April 21, 2016
"Trophies," Terren in Virginia, Flickr C.C.
“Trophies,” Terren in Virginia, Flickr C.C.

One of the most poignant ironies of the great spiritual battle of the 20th century between godless communism and “God-fearing” capitalism was a decision made by Congress in 1956 to engrave the phrase “In God we trust” on all US currency. I’m not sure that there’s ever been a more perfect textbook violation of the third commandment not to use God’s name in vain. The money on which you write “In God we trust” is the God in which you trust. Now that capitalism has mostly done away with communism, we face a very different spiritual battleground of two radically opposed value systems: the commodity and the sacrament.

The commodity is an object whose value is assigned by market exchange. Its worth is whatever other people will pay for it. Commodities are shaped and packaged by market forces. They are mass-produced and designed to fit target constituencies. In recent years, everything has become a commodity. Education is a commodity. Health care is a commodity. Our bodies are commodities. Even the Christian gospel has become a commodity shaped by middle-class anxiety into afterlife insurance. When the value of the objects in our world is based upon their market exchange, the secularization of our world has run its full course. When the world becomes a plantation of commodities, there is no longer anything that can be called sacred.

The sacrament is an object whose value is intrinsically endowed by its divine creator. Sacraments are valuable because they are signs that point to the God who made them. While different Christian denominations recognize certain sacraments more officially than others, the basic Christian teaching is that all of creation is sacramental. Merely calling the world creation signifies that every piece of matter has infinite worth because it’s covered in the fingerprints of its divine creator. When the objects of the world are sacraments, they do not exist to be bought, sold, and consumed. They exist to glorify God with their beauty. This isn’t to say that we cannot eat sacraments or put them to other practical uses, but when we appropriate them as sacraments, we treat them with reverence. If I view a forest as a sacrament, I will use its resources completely differently than if I see it as a commodity.

The apostle Paul used two Greek words for two very different ways of life that he put into contrast: sarx (flesh/meat) and pneuma (breath/spirit). Living according to sarx is appropriating the world as a plantation of commodities. It is a life whose ultimate purpose is consumption. The reason sarx is such a perfect metaphor for this way of life is because meat is dead life. It’s the root of sarcophagus, the fancy word for coffin. Life as meat is death. You will literally die of heart disease if you eat too much red meat. But this works metaphorically as well. Our world is dying from “heart” disease because everything has been turned into meat to be devoured.

When you live according to pneuma instead of sarx, the world is a beautiful garden of sacraments. Your life is not about consumption but worship. To live as breath is to be fully alive. It is a light-hearted, buoyant existence. You still have to eat to survive, but you breathe between bites so you can relish every meal as a gift from God instead of anxiously gorging yourself. Humans were created to live as the breath of God. We are meant to be beautiful sacraments expressing the deep love at the heart of the universe. Our value does not come from how well we conform to our era’s market standards for human bodies. We are irreducibly particular, and our value lies in the unique way that God’s breath passes through each of us.

To what degree are all our social and political problems an outgrowth of our slavery to commodities? I really think that everything that’s wrong about sex in our society is a product of viewing our bodies as commodities rather than sacraments. A sacramental view of sex sees it as a sacred intimacy rather than an act of consumption. Of course, I would also contend that the intolerance of queer bodies reflects market normativity more than a defense of sacramentality, though I also think it’s a fair question to ask to what degree our sexual identities are based on a view of sex as consumerism rather than divine encounter. Have we allowed our categories to be defined by the marketers who want to profit from those categories?

Now if we view bodies as sacramental when we’re talking about sex, why shouldn’t we do the same when we’re talking about labor? I saw an important meme today on Facebook which said, “If you think sex workers sell their bodies but miners do not, then your view of labor is clouded by your moralistic view of sexuality.” I would say that many Christians selectively appropriate Christian teaching about our bodies’ sacramentality. When the topic is sex, they become arch-conservative, but in every other economic sphere, they are neoliberal. If workers are icons of God rather than cogs in a machine, then the market cannot be the sole arbitrator of how much money they earn. Setting a mandatory living wage is not an act of godless communism; it is a means by which working class people could actually gain enough free time to pray and worship God. Working class people in our country are the most neglected unchurched constituency. If your economic philosophy is creating a Dickensian dystopia for them to live in, then don’t pretend to be concerned about their salvation.

Similarly, a sacramental view of creation does not allow for dumping pollutants into the ecosystem irresponsibly. It ought to be completely irrelevant whether or not climate change is derived from human activity, because pollution is completely disrespectful to God’s creation. People who view the world sacramentally clean up after themselves even if it costs money to do so. We abuse the earth because we’ve made it a plantation of commodities to be exploited. There is nothing “God-fearing” about doing that.

So we have to choose if we’re going to take the side of sacraments or the side of commodities. Do you believe more strongly in the sanctity of life or the sovereignty of the market? This is where the ghastly trinity of family values, laissez-faire capitalism, and military adventurism reveals its astounding incoherence. Because the market will steamroll everything into perfectly secularized and efficiently utilitarian consumerism unless we actively resist it. You can be a capitalist Christian only if you are actively resisting capitalism every moment that you have to spend doing business within it. Otherwise you will become a market-worshiping functional atheist. Every time I go to my morning mass and receive the body and blood of Jesus, I am resisting capitalism and refusing to let my body become an anxious sack of meat.

I’ve just started reading Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, which is such an incredibly humble and beautiful document. The Pope recognizes the utter incompatibility of commodities and sacraments. As such, he is the one true conservative in the Roman Catholic Church, unlike half-neoliberals like Ross Douthat. Even though the Pope and I disagree about some things, I’m definitely on his team.

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