You all may recall that after 9/11 Osama bin Laden explained his orchestration of the terrorist deed that murdered some 3000 innocent human beings as payback for America’s materialism. (His anti-materialist rant is routine – a good discussion of his views may be found here.)
Yet as the writer of the above piece notes, anti-materialism is a common theme among most religions. Sure, the idea that human life is about preparation for an after-life — a spiritual life superior to the mundane one we can lead here on Earth — is central to religions.
In the West, however, many religions have made peace with the mundane elements of human existence so there tends to be a less avid denunciation of materialism, which is how the idea of being seriously concerned with living prosperously here on Earth is usually designated. After all, the Christian God is both human and divine (in the person of Jesus).
Destruction of life is generally deemed to be a sin for Christians, whereas, as bin Laden has noted, the love of death is central in his version of Islam. As one account has it, “This originated at the Battle of Qadisiyya in the year 636, when the commander of the Muslim forces, Khalid ibn Al-Walid, sent an emissary with a message from Caliph Abu Bakr to the Persian commander, Khosru. The message stated: ‘You [Khosru and his people] should convert to Islam, and then you will be safe, for if you don’t, you should know that I have come to you with an army of men that love death, as you love life’.” This account is widely recited in contemporary Muslim literature.
Yet despite the Western theological tradition’s more friendly attitude toward the mundane, nearly every Christmas leaders of Christian denominations tend to revert to the original, anti-life doctrines by condemning commercialism. The latest Pope followed the previous one by lamenting the “materialist” approach to celebrating Christmas. They referred to “the dead-end streets of consumerism,” according to newspaper reports, chiding people everywhere for what the report calls “being caught up with consumerist pursuits.”
Ironically, the Pope issued his proclamations from St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. If you have ever visited the Vatican, as I and millions of others have, you would know it to be one of the West’s, if not the world’s, most opulent places. And as to consumerism, the gift shop dominates the entrance to the Vatican, where one is invited to spend great sums of money on various small or sizable trinkets. Commerce flourishes there, believe me, as the Vatican cashes in on the desire of many of the visitors to take away some reminder of their having been to that historically and theologically significant place.
Of course, even apart from the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church, as well as others within Christianity, often excel in ostentatious display of riches – one need but go to high mass on Christmas Eve to witness this.
And why not? That is how human beings tend to celebrate what they value highly, by honoring the occasion with gift-giving. And gift-giving necessarily involves commerce – most of us aren’t skilled at the crafts that it takes to create the various gifts we wish to bestow upon those we love and cherish. I personally bought airline tickets for some of my family members and a computer for another, in part because I have no airplane in which to fly them where they would like to go and no factory and expertise to make a modern, up-to-date computer. To obtain these gifts, I rely, as do billions of others, on commerce.
So why then would Popes besmirch consumerism and commerce? Beats me. (And remember, also, that “materialism” is ultimately a nonsense term – nothing we purchase is simply material but embodies the creative intelligence – indeed the creative spirit – of many human beings!)
So, I urge all Popes to change their message and to have a more generous understanding of all who make use of commerce in our celebration of Christmas!