Whenever something is so universally accepted that people don't think about it, that idea deserves another look.
At Thursday Bible Study we were discussing treasure on earth and treasure in heaven in the context of the Beatitude. That our culture is a highly materialistic one, obsessed with gain and money was taken as a given. In both Christian and secular circles, the image of Americans as always looking for a buck and focused on acquisition is universal.
My usual response has been to caution folks to expand their idea of what constitutes "treasure." It is easy to fall into the trap of spiritual pride by looking down on those who make money, while being just as obsessed by other types of wealth ourselves. Travel, education, security, leisure time, entertainment, reputation - these are equally Treasure and potential other gods.
This time I would like to go even farther than that. In my travels to other places and reading about them, I don't get the impression that people in other places and times are any less obsessed with material goods than Americans are. The possibility that we are just about like everyone else who has ever lived, but happen to live under a system which is more efficient in providing goods seems quite plausible to me.
We appear obsessed with wealth because to have this much stuff in other cultures one would have to be obsessed by it, and likely corrupt or amoral to boot. People in other cultures therefore we must be devoted to money. We tend to think so ourselves. Also, we all do know some people in our culture who are devoted to money, and when we are honest, find covetousness and greed in our own hearts. We thus fall naturally into the idea that Americans must be peculiarly driven by gain. But this does not necessarily follow. If you mentally cross out the part of the picture which displays what we have and look only to how much attention people focus on getting stuff, or envying stuff, or judging others by how much stuff they have, I don't think we come out worse. If you include all those other treasures I listed above, we may even come out slightly better. We are working fewer hours as a group, taking more vacation, and retiring earlier. If anything, we are becoming obsessed with leisure.
This amounts to no difference spiritually, which is why I think it has remained invisible to the church. We are all tied to the things of this world too much, and the lifelong struggle to unhook those treasures from our heart is the same whether we are a little better or a little worse than others. It is still way too much love of this world.
But the social picture changes quite a bit. If we have more things not because we are grasping and greedy but because we happen to live in a good system, then how we look at others changes. Even within our society, if many of the people who have more than we do have it because they prefer to do a certain type of job that pays better than what we do, our envy and resentment of them will be less. Though it is true that many of our countrymen choose their livelihood largely because of how much money it can make them, it is also true that many of us make different choices, working at things we know in advance won't make as much. Americans seem likely to forgo wealth in order to do something more fun, useful, convenient, or interesting.
This leads quite naturally from the social to the political implications. If those other folks who have more than we do haven't acquired them because of their selfish, awful characters, where does our class envy come from? Where does the class envy toward us of other nations come from?
Simple. It comes from people who benefit from our being envious. They stir it up to improve their own status, power, or income. It comes from refusal to change their own systems because they are the ones who benefit from the inequalities there.