Thursday, March 08, 2007

Affluenza is Not a Disease; It’s a Sin

Recently, a book on Affluenza has made waves in England. Oliver James, a psychologist, claims that the selfish capitalism of the Western world has created an epidemic of mental illness, boredom and depression. This argument, which is heavily political in nature, has brought the attention of many critics.

Today, I’m not interested in the politics of affluenza. (Although I find it hard to believe that material wealth does not on the whole, make people happier. Perhaps Dr. James should interview some people in sub-Saharan Africa before pronouncing on the psychological implications of capitalism.)

I am however interested in religion. What is the religious view of wealth and capitalism?

Of course, there’s the story of the Golden Calf. Many commentaries (starting with the Talmud) consider this sin to be based on rampant materialism. A slave population is freed, and bestowed with a great deal of wealth, and it’s pretty natural for them to go crazy, and even start to worship gold. One can read this narrative as saying that when material goods are worshipped, the Ten Commandments get thrown out the window. Wealth is the culprit, a destroyer of newly liberated society.

Yet, right before the Golden Calf narrative, there is commandment for each person to donate the “keseph hakippurim” the “silver of atonement”. Silver, that other metaphor for material goods, can actually lead to atonement and holiness! So which one is it? Is money good, or bad?

But that is precisely the point; material goods are not evil. Capitalism is not evil. Desire is not evil. In fact they are all good, contributing to human progress and personal pleasure. The problem isn’t the object; it’s what it is used for.

In the Golden Calf narrative, gold has replaced the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments at the center of the community. A society is literally worshipping gold. In the “silver of atonement”, society is recognizing that their own silver must serve a higher purpose, and so must they. Values make all of the difference.

Living in a society with enormous material wealth challenges us to intensify our values. Yes, our society offers far more opportunity for self indulgence than in the past. With greater temptation to be selfish, the only remedy is to work harder at inculcating selflessness.

Affluenza is a serious threat. But we have to focus on the proper solutions. The real problem within affluenza is not capitalism, but selfishness. That is not a mental defect or economic folly, but rather a spiritual failure.

Or, in the language of old time religion: affluenza is a sin.

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