My nephews Tom and Matt probably wish their parents had made a different choice. Now they are both in their late thirties, married, successful in their careers, and raising eight kids between the two of them. I am their godfather and take my responsibilities very seriously. No, they don’t get special gifts from me. They are lucky if I remember to call them on their birthdays.
Matt and Tom know that I never stop having high expectation for their moral character, offering unsolicited convictions about right and wrong, or getting them to feel some healthy spiritual dissonance about what life is all about. Each is a terrific human being, husband, dad and nephew so I regularly find reason to express support, congratulations and affection as well.
Maybe they are the sons I never had and I want them to think of me as something other than that kindly old man who shows up a couple of times a year. If I am trying to leave a legacy through them so be it. At least they know I care – about them, about anyone on the margins, about the earth and about God!
Just yesterday I sent them a link to a brilliant piece by Michael Sean Winters that frames my life of 63 years and delivers an incisive challenge for how we live today. My email to themn stated: If you read anything from me this month, read this!
Essentially, Winter’s article reminded me of the decade in which I came to consciousness. We rehearsed air raid drills as if crouching and putting our arms over our heads would protect us from thermonuclear war. J. Edgar Hoover regularly reminded us of the imminent threat of atheistic communism. Senator Joseph McCarthy terrorized colleges, labor unions, arts organizations with his demonic witch-hunt. The Cuban Missile Crisis gave an eerie reality Nikita Khrushchev’s threat to “bury” us.
The part of Winter’s argument that really got me going and I hope will similarly provoke serious reflection by Matt and Tom is his reference to Reinhold Niebuhr. In a 1952 book the esteemed Protestant theologian had the courage to suggest that we Americans had more in common with our Soviet nemesis than we cared to admit.
Although much more developed, the essence of Niebuhr’s indictment is captured in a secondary reference: It was particularly ironic that while Americans saw their prosperity as evidence of God’s favor and hence of their own virtue, their enemies saw Americans’ riches as evidence of their vice. Americans were fond of condemning the Soviet Union’s “materialism,” Niebuhr observed, “but we are rather more successful practitioners of materialism as a working creed than the communists, who have failed so dismally in raising the general standards of well-being.”
Niebuhr was only one of many intellectuals in the 1950s who were concerned about the corrosive effects of materialism on American culture. I concur with Winter’s lament that we don’t really have that debate about materialism anymore. Today both the left and the right argue about the best way to improve GDP, but no one really questions the moral significance of our GDP.
Winter correctly states that this is what is meant by structural sin – conditions of life in which even those who wish to improve the lot of their fellow citizens — not to mention following the teachings and example of Jesus — are trapped in a system that requires them to hope for something that is spiritually bankrupt and dehumanizing.
Winter acknowledges that no one can really want GDP to decline. An anemic economy brings real human hardship and suffering with it, especially for the poor and the vulnerable. But he wisely reminds us that an economy based on consumption is not sustainable, not environmentally, not economically, and not morally.
I want my godsons to wrestle with these moral issues! Most importantly, we all need to rekindle that 1950s debate that understood a fact so obvious we tend to miss it today: Materialism is the chief evangelizer of the Gospel of Secularization. So much for atheistic communism!
More than Khrushchev’s United Nation’s bluster about “burying” America, our own materialism is what’s killing us!
You are invited and encouraged to read Michael Sean Winter’s article in its entirety [here].