The Story of Stuff…

Perspective on unfettered capitalism’s toxic consequences.  GREAT education.  A few stats are cooked a bit to seem more extreme, but by and large, this is a great video. Annie Leonard is full of wise, generative, hopeful comments. Listen in! You’ll be glad you did.

I just have one extended thought in response to the video. It’s funny how far we will go to defend our way of life, even when it results in disaster. I say this because my first response to this video is a sense of deep guilt, which I generally try to massage away by either ignoring critiques or continuing to believe my way is better. I’m learning not to do this, but when the system Annie critiques in the video is as powerful and all-consuming (pun intended) as it is, people will look for any way to justify why we continue to feed the system.

Ex. 1.  When unfettered capitalism feeds the bloated corporations that make the system go, and these corporations make massive amounts of money off the average consumer, and when those corporations in their short-sighted actions refuse to adapt and get to the point where they are no longer solvent, who do we blame?  And who bears the cost?  Ask these questions about Ford or GM.  Who, generally speaking, in our society, gets the blame for Ford and GM’s problems?  Answer:  The UAW taking up too much of the bottom line.  And who pays to keep Ford and GM solvent?  The average taxpayer.  And who’s laughing all the way to the bank?  The corporate elites, who continue to be enabled in their greed.


Sermon Visuals from March 30th

This was the second Sunday worship gathering in a multi-week focus on “Practicing Resurrection” as we celebrate Easter (which is a season of the church year, not one Sunday). Last Sunday, I mentioned that the deepest meaning of the resurrection was not that Jesus rose from the dead. A deep understanding of the Bible shows that God did that to more than a few people (among them, Lazarus, and later, a guy who fell out of a window while listening to what must have been a terribly boring message from the apostle Paul). And the deepest meaning of the resurrection was not even that Jesus didn’t die, because two others in the pages of the Bible never died a natural death. Of course, this may sound shocking for me to say this, but I’m no Jesus Seminar-follower with their belief that the resurrection was merely metaphorical and their confident assertions that the disciples knew this too *cough* BS *cough* (sorry, something in my throat).

Of course Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven.

But that wasn’t the deepest meaning. Take a gander at 1 Corinthians 15, and look for three red-flag themes; futility, hope, and firstfruits. The link to the sermon is here. It’s just a raw copy and paste job right now. I’ll shape it up to follow the flow of thoughts here in a bit, but I’ve got schoolwork.

My basic contention is that Jesus in his resurrection placed the rebellious power of death under his feet, scoffed at peoples’ attempt to thwart his purposes, and in so doing, freed us from the fear and finality of death by giving us the hope of resurrection. In order to carry that hope, we must invest all of who we are in his kingdom, and freedom from the fear of death enables us to live with hope now; that no situation is too dark for God’s light and life to enter, even if our lives are snuffed out in the process.

So this Sunday we talked about my friend at seminary Robert Russo, his organization Christians for the Mountains, and their battle against the disgusting practice of Mountain Top Removal (driven mainly by the corporation Massey Energy and others). These folks are followers of Jesus, and heroes in my book (maybe even “latter-day saints”? haha!)

As for the pictures, the first is of Robert, the second shows the enormity of the “dragline” that is employed in MTR, the third shows a “valley fill” (where the company dumps the mountain as they grade it, thus clogging up watersheds, altering streams, shredding the ecosystem, and creating a place where when it rains, flash floods rip through the area), the fourth, fifth, and sixth show Kayford Mountain, WV, and the desecration of the land over a three year time-span (this is being done over hundreds of thousands of acreage in WV, KT, NV, and VA), and the seventh and eighth show an area of WV on Google Earth with satellite photos taken before and after MTR operations. I’d encourage you to download the Kayford pictures and flip through them on your computer back and forth quickly. It’s a shocking difference.

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Subverting Capitalism: Pentecost Project

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I’ve been thinking a whole lot more in the past year about how to move from discontent with how things are around Christmas and Easter (the mountaintop peaks of the Christian calendar), how commodified the events are, and how we feed them by participating in them even as talk about the “real meaning.” In many ways, the “church” is more complicit in commodifying the holidays than different and non-conformist in our message. Even if we do get a little angry that the greeters at Target don’t say “Merry Christmas” and therefore don’t shop there for Christmas, how many Christians have the guts to do that year-round?

I tend toward cynicism, but as I contemplated how to be the change that I want to see in the world, I happened upon the fine folks at the Advent Conspiracy before Christmastime who have done some great thinking about how we can put into practice ways to act faithfully and give faithfully in preparation for our remembrance of the birth of Christ.

Today I found some folks doing some more of that great subversive thought and action.  They go by the name Pentecost Project, and I’ll let them speak for themselves.

The Pentecost Project is an experiment towards a more true and loving economy. Recently, the U.S. Congress passed an economic stimulus package that the President then signed. Beginning in May, most Americans will receive a rebate check that they are being encouraged to go out and spend in order to stimulate America’s sagging economy.

What if, instead of becoming greater consumers, we encouraged people to move towards an even better economy, an economy of abundance? What if, instead of accumulating more stuff, we encouraged people to give things away? What if, instead of the possibility of making a down payment and opening new credit, we encouraged people to pay down their debt?…In this Spirit, we undertake the Pentecost Project: invest in others, share possessions, reduce debt.

Last I checked, that sounds like a good three-week foundation for a series of talks in a church, small group, or some other gathering to guide our thinking beyond the tax break FOR ME (private), to thinking about the tax break FOR US (personal, but within a series of relationships).

In addition, whether your church gives a rip or not, let this drive you to consider, along with me (I’ve already been surprised and convicted by this kind of hopeful thinking), how we can use this unexpected gift to celebrate our abundance by giving it to those truly in need…that and hop on to the chance to thumb our nose at the god of consumerism who expects us to lay down a gift at His altar. It may hurt a little not to be selfish, but it’ll sure feel better over the long term! Seems that Jesus guy had something to say about the life he expects from his disciples that may not feel too good in the short-term, but sure pan out over the long run.

Dennis Kucinich responds to the State of the Union (vid link)

Dennis Kucinich is a voice of reason in politics today.  He says what he believes, refuses to spin his positions to ensnare potential voters, and speaks wisely about how a just economic system and country would seek to act.

Here’s his video response to Bush’s State of the Union address

In other news, here’s a link to a story of a 23 year-old Afghani journalist who’s getting the death sentence for “insulting Islam.” You might be surprised what they defined as an insult. I don’t rant and rave about Muslims, but this is a clear case where, if this decision is true to the heart of Islam, there’s a vision for the world there that I don’t want any part of. There’s a place for conversation and listening well, but we’re extremely naive if we think all religions carry a similar vision for the world…or of a Divine Being, for that matter. Killing a journalist for questioning authority. I draw the line there. Not that the church hasn’t done this in the past, but I think I could make a serious case that that sort of action is not true to the vision Jesus called his followers to.

A Black Friday reflection…

cobalt Just a couple thoughts to offer today.  I’ve had a chance to think in the last year or so about this “freedom” Americans often claim our army is fighting for.  I hear it everywhere in our society as a phrase to clobber both naive pacifists and traitorous liberals with different ideas about how Iraq should have been handled.  As I’ve wrestled with what this is all about, I’ve done my best to keep my ears peeled eyes open for others working through this same issue.  I happened to come upon an interview online of one of my mentors-through-proxy (Internet and books substituting for face to face interaction) Stanley Hauerwas that shocked me. I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but as time has passed, it’s making more sense to me.  Check it out;

“In his reflections on Sept. 11, Hauerwas uses the term ‘American imperialism’ matter-of-factly. He’s not afraid to humanize those who flew jets into buildings on Sept. 11, and to point out what he calls ‘the loneliness of the American people,’ a loneliness he says is tied to their pursuit of happiness.’On Sept. 11, Americans were confronted by people ready to die as an expression of their profound moral commitments,  Hauerwas said in his Silk Hope talk earlier this year. ‘Their willingness to die stands in stark contrast to a politics that asks of its members in response to Sept. 11 to shop.’  

‘Americans are, for the most part, good, decent and hardworking people, but so were the people that supported the Nazis.’  Hauerwas said he worries about ‘how goodness can become deeply corrupted by its innocence….most of the time innocence is deeply immoral because it is such a lie not to acknowledge that we live in a very complex world that we benefit from, and we don’t have to acknowledge the havoc our benefits depend upon.’  

While those who loathe the United States are willing to die as an expression of their hatred, Hauerwas said U.S. citizens have no comparable moral conviction on which to base their lives.  “A people who have been bred to shop then can quickly become some of the most violent people in the world,” Hauerwas said, “exactly because they’re dying to have something worth dying for. 


Before you get too upset (like I initially did), read the quote five or six times, then take a couple hours (or months) the chew on it from time to time.  I’ve come to see it as deeply insightful over time.  The question he raises is relevant; what does “freedom” represent in America, and at what cost is that American freedom perpetuated?  

Example after example in the last few months has proven to me Stanley’s suggestion that “freedom” in our society directly translates to “shopping.”  If it does not, what is the comparable conviction Americans have to bring that they’re willing to fight for?  The right to vote?  Maybe so, but check out the percentages of folks that exercise that right when the time rolls around.  Right to freedom of religious expression?  How many American folks are really, I mean really, deeply invested with the whole of their lives in the religion (often Christian) they claim? Precious few.

So what IS the mark of American (and by extension, Western) society that takes up most of our attention, time, energy, thoughts and dreams?

I’d suggest it’s cash money, the jobs it takes to get more, the marketing that competes for us to exercise our right to buy their stuff, and the sheer amount of stuff we can buy with that cash.    

Our “holidays” of Christmas and Easter are perfect examples of this.  If those who claimed to be Christian truly deeply valued and respected the two most holy celebrations of their year, they would be up in arms about the mockery our secular society has turned them into. Heck, witches and black-magic practicioners should be pissed at how secularism has changed the height of their year (Halloween) into an avalanche of candy and cute little costumes.  In short, consumerism has taken every day holy and sacred to competing traditions, subverted them, and marketed them under completely different pretenses and seeking different ends.  So now we have Santa Claus (the original Saint Nicholas has to be rolling over in his grave), The Easter Bunny, Thanksgiving football and excess amounts of turkey and stuffing, and Valentine’s Day (a boon for the diamond and Hallmark card industries) as examples.  More examples exist, and they all reveal the central value our society upholds; money, what it takes to get it, and (for marketers) more and more innovative ways to convince consumers they need to spend it on YOUR product. 

Which brings us to Black Friday, the official holiday of the hallowed First Day of Christmas Shopping, the most profitable day of the year for businesses and the height of capitalism.  The day where we consumers camp out at our Best Buys and Kohls and JCPenneys and shopping malls so that at midnight or 4 am or 6 am (whoever opens first) we may spend our money on things we don’t need.  But we have the right to!  

Nobody tells me where I can or can’t spend my money, not no A-rabs or dem Chi-nese or nobody!  

And THIS, my friends, is why Stanley Hauerwas is so spot-on in his diagnosis of our society.  We have nothing to fight for in our society but a vague notion of freedom in need of definition.  And the definition has come to mean the right to shop.  We claim freedom of choice, yet our naivete about our individual capability to make good choices as if we weren’t slaves to marketers reveals not only that we aren’t free, but that we’re overconsumed and cynical and bored.  The system keeps us entertained but unfulfilled, and we are shocked by the possibility that someone would give up that right and fight to recover another vision of what life is to be about.  It’s a clashing of civilizations, the dominant one secular (NOT Christian) and competing visions daring to suggest their commitment is more life-giving and worthy of sacrifice. 

This is a series of unfinished and slightly incoherent thoughts, I’m sure, but Black Friday in all its glory shoved me back to the place inside me Hauerwas twisted into a mess with his comment.  I’d encourage you to wrestle with it.

 In closing, I’ll leave you with one of the most prophetic bands I know of around these days, “The Cobalt Season”, and some of the lyrics from their deeply honest lament/hopeful song “Like Jesus“;   


And friends, Romans, countrymen

Won’t you lend me your ears?

This Holy American Empire

Gotta tell you it’s crumblin’ down

To the ground


’Cause everything’s for granted

And nothing is for sure

So let’s grab a Starbucks baby

And let’s spend a little more


Forget about the dreams we had

Just work and sleep until we’re dead

Are we blind to what’s ahead?


Oh Lord, how long?


When memory’s for granted

Nothing is for sure

And history goes round and round

As we long for something more


We lie and wait for better days

With hope and fear and joy and dread

Or just ambivalence to what’s ahead?



Fun, Intellectually Stimulating Ways to put off work…

1. Read Ariah Fine’s blog.

2. Find some parallel thoughts to some disquieting thoughts you’ve had recently (that make friends shake their heads and tell you to shut it).

3. Share your own disquieting thoughts on your blog…

It is my contention that the American system of capitalism, while it is the most radically profitable system of economics this world carries at this present moment, it also is the most radically inequitable system of economics this world has ever seen, short of straight despotic tyranny. I’ll simplify it down to one thought, because any attempt to make a sweeping comment about this would drain too much brain energy from my sermon-writing right now and would probably ramble like…someone who rambles a lot.

Capitalism is driven primarily by the profit motive. Thus, companies are judged to be successful or unsuccessful ultimately by their ability to make lots of bucks. In the process of the pursuit of this profit, corporations act like greedy individuals in this profit maximization pursuit, not caring about the impact of their actions on the third-parties that aren’t directly involved in the company/client business.

As a result, we have situations like East St. Louis (drawn out most powerfully by Jonathan Kozol in his book Savage Inequalities…which I highly recommend despite some big-time biased investigation on Kozol’s part), and the mercury-infested waters of the South River in Waynesboro 15 minutes away from me thanks to DuPont, etc etc.

Basically, in a vacuum, companies don’t give a rip about the ripple-effect of their actions (called externalities) if their main pursuit is the profit motive. Even principled companies find themselves pushed into this rat race of pursuit of profit if they proceed uncritically. As a result, the people in the economic system apply the same thinking to their lifestyles (most food, staple items for the least money to maximize their money, etc etc). Hence, Wal-Mart.

And in all this process, we could assume that capitalism is the best we’ve got. I say the church is a model society that tells capitalism to take its pursuit of profit (and the earth it chews up and spits out when its done with it) and shove it where the sun don’t shine. I say the church is meant to be a socialist system where the lives of individuals are NOT forgotten for the sake of the affluence of the whole. But maybe I’m stupid. You read the first five chapters of Acts and tell me what YOU see. You know, I just don’t think it’s possible as a human in our limited vision to suggest we love the whole and act for the health of the whole by ignoring or sweeping under the rug those who the system leaves behind.

I’m tired of this thinking in my life, and I will fight it. And this is longer than a short statement, but oh well.

4. a link to Ariah’s disquieting thoughts.

p.s. I just saw Ariah’s widget that suggests Savage Inequalities on his sidebar. Cool coincidence…he didn’t have that book up last I looked.