I am not a Marxist. (How is that for an opening line?) But I do believe that Marx was right about one thing – the economy matters. Neither our individual lives nor the life of society occur within a vacuum. There are many factors which influence and even shape us and the economy is one of the major influencers. Economy carries both positive and negative influence in our lives and it is both critical and helpful to acknowledge this.
Today’s feast – the Feast of the Holy Family – naturally leads us into a reflection on what it means to be family. As Church we proclaim the importance of family and how family is the foundation of society. As Church we strive to build up, support and strengthen families in their particular vocation and witness to our world. This is all true and good, but in order to truly fulfill these goals we also have to be willing to acknowledge and be aware of the context of our times in which families find themselves. Part of this context is economy and its influence.
A number of years ago I came across the book, “Following Christ in a Consumer Society” by John Kavanaugh S.J. Writing the first edition of the book in 1981, Kavanaugh was quite prescient in his awareness and understanding of how the economy was having and would have ongoing impact on our lives, including the life of the family. Here is a quote from the book:
When people, at least on a per capita basis, have most of their needs fulfilled, how are you going to get them to continually want and buy more? Is it possible that it would be more financially rewarding if people were conditioned to be dissatisfied cravers rather than appreciators of the earth? Does one buy more if one appreciates and relishes things, or if one is continually dissatisfied and distressed and craving? Is it profitable that dissatisfaction be induced into the life-consciousness of a people? Will the stimulation of anxiety and tension (closely associated with the experience of need) be economically desirable? Will persons buy and consume more if they have been taught to be unhappy, to be distressed, to be unsure about personal identity, sexuality, and relationships?
Another way of putting this problem of the commodity formation of self-consciousness is to suggest what kinds of behavior are not “good new for business.” Let us suppose that you are a married person with children. If you are relatively happy with your life, if you enjoy spending time with your children, playing with them and talking with them; if you like nature, if you enjoy sitting in your yard or on your front steps, if your sexual life is relatively happy, if you have a peaceful sense of who you are and are stabilized in your relationships, if you like to pray in solitude, if you just like talking to people, visiting them, spending time in conversation with them, if you enjoy living simply, if you sense no need to compete with your friends or neighbors – what good are you economically in terms of our system? You haven’t spent a nickel yet.
This is the context in which families find themselves – the very air they breathe – as they strive to be all that family entails.
Both of my parents were life-long smokers (a factor that was a contributing cause in both of their deaths). It was only when I got to college seminary that I realized it was possible to live in an environment that did not have the continual haze of cigarette smoke. I also soon realized the health benefits of living in an environment free of second-hand smoke. Our society has also learned these benefits and promotes these benefits through a variety of laws and ordinances prohibiting second-hand smoke.
To promote family while not acknowledging the influences which weigh upon family is like trying to encourage people in maintaining a healthy lifestyle in a smoke-filled room. Life does not occur within a vacuum. Context matters and economy (positive and negative) is part of this context. Economy influences.
Ours is not the first generation to be influenced by economy. Economy (in all of its different forms and developments) has been an influence since day one. The Holy Family lived with the influence of economy, the families of medieval serfs lived with the influence of economy, modern day men and women live with this influence. What is unique, I think, about our time though is the depth of influence and continual presence and impact the economy has in our lives through our cell phones, social media in all of its forms and the internet. It is unrelenting and is now moving into the virtual and trying to take us with it.
What can Church and family do within this smoke-filled room? Here are some initial thoughts. First acknowledge that there is smoke. Economy is an influencer and not all of the influence is good. We need to be honest about this. Second, always proclaim and uphold the dignity of the human person and demand that this dignity be respected in all contexts, especially in those of economy. Third, individually, begin to open some doors and windows in your life to both clear the smoke and let fresh air in. How? Do the things Kavanaugh lists in the second paragraph quoted above: go for a hike (one of my favorites), enjoy time with your kids and talking with other people, pray, live simply, put the cell phone away every now and then. Strive to be an appreciator of the goods of the earth. Do the things where you don’t have to spend a nickel and enjoy it.
The fact that God chose to be born and then grow up within the context of human family has much to teach us. St. Paul VI encouraged us to always be willing to go to the “school of Nazareth” and learn from the Holy Family in their love for and interaction with one another. It is interesting to note that the origin of the word “economy” is rooted in Greek meaning, “the management of a household or home”. The Holy Family can help us learn how to truly navigate all of the contexts and influences in which we find ourselves while remaining family – rooted in and formed by that greater economy of salvation found and known through Christ our Lord.