We live in two kinds of throw away societies. One began in earnest around 1950, but the other is thousands of years old. The more recent version began with the advent of single use convenience items advertised as “use it and toss it” combined with aggressive advertising for each year’s new car model, and social pressure for the newest of new fashions. It was quite the thing for a while. Television ads featured the time saving convenience of using and tossing in favor of the new and improved. That was sixty or seventy years ago. We didn’t give much thought to what it meant to dirty our own nests. Our hands and houses were clean and neat, our lives renewed with new cars and trendy clothes. The trash just disappeared. What seemed like a marvelous convenience became a tidal wave of environmental destruction threatening lands, waters, and air.
There is more awareness now of our foolishness, although awareness has not seemed to have been translated into different behavior by much.
When what is convenient to the individual becomes so important that it subsumes individual responsibility for the good of the community, what makes community possible itself becomes a case of use it and toss it. That’s what extreme libertarianism, exemplified by Trumpism, has come to. It isn’t simply a threat to American democracy, it’s a threat to community itself.
The older form of throw way mentality is more entrenched; it’s been with us for thousands of years. It’s our willingness to throw away other people with little moral compunction. Humans in every age and culture have used others and thrown them away. It’s barbaric. Surely, our modern minds protest, that was a long time ago; we’re not like that anymore. I wonder. Our nation was founded in part in the belief that exterminating and subjugating its indigenous people was morally acceptable. They were throw away people. Chattel slavery was ended not even two hundred years ago. Slavery is the ultimate use it and toss it scheme in which slaves are disposable commodities. In the absence of slaves, we’ve done much the same with immigrant and wage labor. Truth be told, we’ve done the same with newly minted professionals, perhaps most obviously in higher education. In our own time we face the problem of throw away children bounced from one foster home to another until they reach eighteen when they are thrown away.
Too much of what is acceptable in contemporary American society is an offense against our most cherished American ideals, but the throw away infection is not ours alone. There is no country, nation or culture that isn’t affected in the same way. The human capacity to inflict inhuman violence on one another knows no limits and respects no borders.
It’s hard to understand how something so obviously and morally wrong can endure with the complicity of those who know it’s wrong.
What I know is this: it’s inconsistent with everything Jesus proclaimed, and incompatible with what it means to follow Jesus in the company of the body of Christ, the Church.
If following Jesus is something Christians want to take seriously, their words and deeds must show some degree of discipline in respecting the dignity of every human being and the sacredness of creation. What could that mean for Christians in the United States in these times? I suggest it means moving toward more simple and sustainable life styles. It doesn’t mean giving up convenience or living like monks. It does mean making responsible use of possessions as stewards who try to balance the good provided to them with the good the same possessions might provide to others. As a simple example: less buying online and more shopping locally while remembering the wisdom of Lake Wobegone’s Pretty Good Grocery Store where “if they don’t have it you probably don’t need it.”
Frankly, that’s the easy part. The harder part is separating one’s self from thousands of years in which throwing away other human beings has been tolerated, even by self-proclaimed Christians. To proclaim the dignity of every human being is to reject all that demeans other persons. Today, that means not only children and the usual menu of racial prejudices, but also refugees, immigrants, and undocumented residents. It will invite the raging ire of caterwauling voices obsessed with secure borders as an excuse to fortify America against any further diversification of the population. So be it. Following Jesus always involves the way of the cross, which is none other than the way of life and peace.