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Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: Faith in a Consumerist Society

The song Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems by Notorious B.I.G. has always held a special place in my heart and on my iPod, mostly because I find humor in such a terrible song proclaiming such raw truth. The hit is elementary, but speaks volumes to the human condition. With great wealth comes great responsibility, and with this responsibility comes a greater materialistic temptation. The rapper is right: The more money we come across, the more problems we see. This is precisely why lottery winners and celebrities have gone bankrupt within a few years (MC Hammer, anyone?). I bet Notorious B.I.G. did not realize how theological and biblically sound his lyrics were when we wrote them. Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (quoted in not one, not two, but three of the four gospels), which seems to align very nicely with the hip hop single. I don’t know if Notorious B.I.G was a Christian or not, but it seems that he had his theology on money down pat. But what would an Orthodox Archbishop say about money and consumerism in American society today? I was excited to attend the Values and Capitalism event at AEI entitled “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: Faith in a Consumerist Society” on Tuesday, December 6, 2011, to hear Metropolitan Jonah, Orthodox Church Archbishop of Washington and Metropolitan of All America and Canada, give a keynote address on materialistic issues facing Christians in America. He opened by quoting Mathew 6:24:
“No one can serve two masters. For he will either hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Fr. Jonah continued by discussing the battle between consumerism and materialism and defined consumerism as “the ultimate fruit of secularism” and “perhaps the most powerful of all tools of secularism to relativize faith and religion and subject them to evermore trendy relevant of consumerist gratification.” Following, Fr. Jonah stressed the dehumanizing nature of a consumerist society and the moral dangers associated with reducing human life to a monetary value. He used several anecdotes to illustrate the way in which consumerism is an addictive cycle that ultimately objectifies human beings and depersonalizes individual relationships. Consumerism poses a great threat because it is a vicious cycle, as Fr. Jonah explained, of “the failure to love others as God loves them.” This is because our human love for objects suffocates self-giving, self-sacrificial love. However, he emphasized the real battle is against secularism rather than consumerism because it compartmentalizes our lives. Compassion and concern filled Father Jonah’s voice as he suggested the biggest problem with consumerism is that we don’t leave room for Christ. We effectively ignore the only one who gives us true meaning. Ultimately, no one can serve two masters, and our focus needs to be our personal relationship with Christ to effectively confront the challenges brought by the consumerist age. I was hoping Fr. Jonah would have expanded on the misconceived notion that wealth somehow breeds greed and consumerism. Rather, I believe wealth only increases the temptation for consumerism. The world has seen wealthy people live lavishly and hoard selfishly as it has seen wealthy people live simply and give generously. However, though he did not make this point or give many specific examples of what a “healthy relationship with materialism” looks like, he gave the key to solve consumerism in America today:
“I don’t think materialism is in and of itself problematic […] If it’s kept in perspective, can be a very positive thing […] There has to be a healthy tension between our spiritual life and our material life […] The dominant thing needs to be our spiritual vision.”
Our spiritual vision, namely: Christ.