The thing that is all too easily forgotten about our Christian heritage is what a new ethic it introduced into the ancient world. Nietzsche grasped this better than most and although he turned against the Christian ethic of compassion for the poor as a weakening of what he considered the heroic ideals of the ancient world, he was spot on in identifying Christianity’s signature contribution to Western culture. The Christ teaches that all people are to feed the poor and comfort the needy:
Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
This has been the inspiration for those involved in the production of the orphanages, hospitals and poor houses that have played such a vital role in the historical development of our society.
It was as if with the Christ story we as a society agreed about what was good. In the pagan pantheon while there was room for compassion, the society held no particular obligation of conscience to the poor, sick and old. The Christ story turned the hero worship of the great and powerful warriors and emperors on its head by holding up an outcast, itinerant teacher as one truly blessed by the gods.
Virtue has always been praised but what is considered virtuous changes with time. Virtue has not always included the aspect of innocence or childhood virginity we see in the Christian ethos. A society in which groups are worshiping say, Mars the god of war or Aphrodite the goddess of temple prostitutes or the dangerous drunken revelries of Dionysus, is a society fundamentally different than our own. It is hard for us to truly appreciate just how thoroughly the leaven of Christianity has remade the modern world. It is not that we no longer have violence, prostitution, and drunken brawls; it is just that no one is really holding them up as paragons of virtue.
The archetypal nature of our minds is well reflected in the pantheons of polytheism but the summum bonum has changed. The wisdom and folly of the world was shuffled a bit, spawning numerous stories where the outcasts are kings, underdogs win, and the weak bring down the strong. In our stories and folk wisdom we believe the best of human lives are often lived among the common people, those without fame or fortune.
All this is of a type with the story of the outcast who hung on a cross and overthrew the most powerful empire in history by the power of virtue. This new Moses rejects the temple religion of his day and the philosophies and cults of the pagans of his society. In his elevation of the child and the poor and the sick to states of beatitude, his teaching disrupts the common understanding that the rich and the powerful must be God’s favorites.
When Scrooge says, “let them die and decrease the surplus population” he is expressing a common wisdom of an age unleavened by Christian charity. That it sounds monstrous to our ears is an indication of just how thoroughly we have assimilated the Christian ethos into the modern world view. Though we tend to consider our religious heritage a stodgy killjoy full of archaic superstitions, I wonder how willing we would really be to trade it for something else. As a western culture we have toyed with blood and soil as a possible replacement during World War II, toyed with unbridled greed during the gilded age of robber barons and our own generation of criminal banking, and even toyed with the neoliberal, Ayn Rand like justifications of selfishness as the proper basis and ideal for human societies instead of altruism and mutual cooperation.
Nietzsche, again, was more perceptive than most. He saw how the Christian ethos no longer provided Western cultures enamored with science and the new humanism with a living tradition. He famously declared to the West the death of our God – and that we had killed him. Fools felt giddy with hubris but Nietzsche himself was more circumspect. What, he wondered, would replace Christianity?
A bit more than a century hence and we have our answer. Unbridled greed has locked the human race into a lifestyle dedicated to consumerism. Choking the air, poisoning the water, despoiling the land – we are paving over paradise, and we cannot stop. We built the infrastructure of the modern world using oil and the oil is running out, still we cannot stop. Unfair inequalities within countries and throughout the world are breeding ever more violent extremists, and still there is no stopping our manic production of goods. Politics has become another corporate policy; bought and sold while manipulating the public with sound bites and polls, the danger inherent in the right to vote all but emasculated. And still the happy box continues to spew its advertising allures incessantly insisting contentment is just around the corner once you own MORE. Cable may have replaced antenna and wi-fi replaced cable but that’s just froth. The largest psychological experiment in the manipulation of individuals and societies continues apace. (Ask yourself; if a major war broke out right now, something along the lines of World War II, would you feel the weight of its reality? Would our leaders? Or would the TV-Land permeated psyche be caught up in movie or cartoon like apprehensions?)
Christianity has a way of forcing us to confront our consumerism. During our holiday shopping we cannot help but notice that the local store has a hundred of this doo-dad and a thousand of this plastic whatever. In my mind I know this inventory needs to be multiplied by every store in my city and every city in my land and every land on my planet. Look at all this with the critical eye of a poor carpenter: of all this stuff, what do humans really need? The astonishing gulf between our need and our greed has become our fate. We are unable to stop.
We could choose to return to pride in workmanship. The goods purchased could be a craftsman’s delight, easily able to serve multiple generations. This is especially true if people return to that other pre-consumerism tradition of running productive households. A dwelling able to produce some of life’s necessities, well stocked with quality tools, was the type of capital that made the middle class. Consumerism plays the population for fools, having each generation start out from nothing since their parental generation’s purchases were all defined as consumer goods which go in and out of style and are not made to last decades anyway. Those benefiting from consumerism play by a totally different set of rules. Their children inherit estates, companies, portfolios and all the other accruements of the upper class. The third generation butter churn might look humble in comparison, but of such were the traditions of America once made.
If as a society we are unable to stop our headlong plunge then perhaps we need to acknowledge a higher power like any addict, but where do we turn if God is dead? The saint of ecology, Saint Francis of Assisi, perhaps left us a clue. He initiated the Christmas manger because he wanted to see for himself the sacred human child – that which is born of a woman and surrounded by animals.
Consumerism and the neoliberal economics that justify its exaltation of “free markets” is the resurrection of Moloch. We are feeding our children’s lives into the hellish maw of consumerism’s apocalyptic fires. All that plastic crap at Wallmart is not being purchased with more plastic from Chase bank as it might seem. It is being bought with blood, the blood of our children’s future.
Jesus taught that all human beings are members of one family. Long before the discovery of DNA and genetics taught us there are no strangers among us hiding off in some foreign land of devils, Jesus constellated “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king. In the consumer society the one avenue left to express the sacredness of our precious human life is to approach the purchase of goods for the express purpose of giving them away. The light of the holiday is that all the shoppers were participating in our society’s one big empathy practice / ritual / rite as we hunted for gifts to give to friends and loved ones. It has not been easy to turn a naturally caring and generous people into the caricature of our former American values we see around us today. The good news is our bonds of solidarity run deeper than the mind shackles of the selfishness and greed preachers.
In one way of looking at it, nothing could be easier than what we need to do to shut down the fires of Moloch.
Come out of Egypt, come out of the city, out of the desert, come to the country and look in the manger. There is dung and soil and hay under the simple roof. Respected, the animals are at peace, their hot breath warming the child. Above, a vast and cold night sky gently holds an illumination, like a reflection of the living earth as a jewel in the lotus of deep space. That which is holy is there on the hay – a human child.