Consumerism among those who claim to be Christians can actually be more insidious than atheistic materialism as practiced by the Communists who believe in the Marxist ideology which is intrinsically atheistic. A Marxist who believes that only matter exists and that there is no such thing as spirit is at least consistent with his belief when he has no regard for human dignity and for the sacredness of life. A consumerist who is a Christian or at least believes in the existence of the supernatural world betrays his belief because he acts as if the only thing that matters in this world is to keep on accumulating material goods. To him fulfilment or happiness on earth is equivalent to “having” rather than “being.” One can hear these consumerists mouthing pious incantations but they behave as if there were no life hereafter. They have literally made mammon their God.
“Mammon” is the Aramaic term used by Jesus Christ to signify the riches of this world. As J.M. Lustiger wrote in Secularity and Theology of the Cross, the word “refers to an idol. Why did Christ allude to an idol? For two reasons: first, because an idol is a substitute for God, and second, because of the nature of wealth. Besides serving as a means of exchange ‘mammon’ also serves as an instrument of power, a means of controlling people and events, a source of contention between persons. The idol offers man a dominion over Creation which is in direct contradiction to man’s role as revealed by the Creator.” To be sure, there is nothing inherently evil in material goods which have all come from the hands of the Creator. What can corrupt a man as an “economic animal”, whether a capitalist or a consumer, is a disordered love for material goods.
Referring to the passage in the Gospel about the rich, young man who could have been one of the disciples of Christ but went away sad because he had great riches, Francis Fernandez in the book “In Conversation with Christ,” wrote: “This is the lesson we learn from the incident involving the rich young man…Christians have to examine frequently their sense of detachment from things, as will be shown in details of the way they live sobriety and temperance. Am I really detached from the things of this world? Do I value the needs my should more than the needs of my body? Do I use material goods in a way that brings me closer to God? Do I avoid unnecessary expenditures? Do I refuse to satisfy my whims? Do I fight against the tendency to create false needs? Do I take good care of the things I own and of the things I am responsible for? “ It is easy to condemn the behaviour of the fictional capitalist Gordon Gekko in the film “Wall Street” whose motto is “Greed is good!” This motto is also lived in practice by the individual who falls prey to consumerism.
The pause in consumption brought about by the pandemic may actually be spiritually healthy for a good number of those belonging to upper middle class families who are the ones most prone to conspicuous consumption and extravagant lifestyles. There is clear evidence of a very large drop in the sales of luxury items like fashion goods, leather products, high-end restaurants, five-star hotels, and leisure trips abroad. Unfortunately, because of the many lockdowns, there were also precipitous declines in such necessary expenditure items like local transport, educational services and construction by households and nonprofit institutions serving households. Because of the need for social distancing, there was a very noticeable absence of lavish parties held for weddings, anniversary and birthday celebrations, graduation and social events on which arguably there is excessive spending that could be channeled to investing in enterprises that can generate employment for the millions of unemployed or could be contributed to charity to help the millions of marginalized households to attain more decent living conditions.
It is hoped that the trauma caused to many consumers by the very large drop in incomes and employment during the pandemic may help cure many of us of the disease of consumerism. In the first place, there will be a reassessment of pre-pandemic consumer behavior among families from the upper middle and high income households. They may have to think twice before resuming their penchant for expensive clothes, lavish parties and celebrations, frequent world tours, and luxurious homes when they realize that they should have saved more to provide for the stormy days of the pandemic when a good number of their households had to spend enormous sums on medical and hospital bills for their family members who fell sick with COVID-19. There were also middle-income households hard hit by the massive lay offs that occurred in the travel and tourism sectors, in the hospitality industry and entertainment business. These families would now be wishing they had been more frugal during their more prosperous days.
Since the Corona virus is expected to linger for a long time, even if and when an effective vaccine is discovered and widely distributed, our expected upper-middle income society in the next decade or so may be characterised by more prudent consumer behavior that would avoid the excesses of conspicuous consumption. They may replace their frequent partying and gallivanting around the world with more expenditures related to their health and wellness, to the constant upgrading of knowledge and skills in the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution and equipping themselves with better hardware and software to adopt to the new normal which will be a highly digitalized society. Realizing that it will take a long time before the Philippines can enjoy a sufficiently reliable medicare system, they will have to channel more of their incomes to better health insurance and pension systems. Even if the Philippine economy returns to its original path of growing at above 6 percent per annum in GDP, the memory of the disastrous declines in income and employment may providentially cure middle-income and high-income families of what Pope Francis called the “disease of consumerism.” To be continued.