Found in the Book of Matthew, Jesus Christ’s discourse to his followers, commonly referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount”, is viewed as one of the most crucial texts in terms of Christian teachings, in so far as Christ addresses a wide-range of ethical issues in this speech, ranging from the beatitudes to a rejection of false prophets. One of the most crucial teachings from a contemporary point of view is the section in which Christ critiques materialism, stating that “Do not hoard material possessions; the moth will consume your finery, rust will tarnish your gold, thieves may break into your strong-rooms and carry all away.” In other words, what makes this particular idea compelling from an American capitalist context, is that Christ’s words go against this very ideology: the materialist life style of America is rejected as a false way, in the obsession with possessions and dollars.
Certainly, Christ’s argument here is compelling: he argues that all material possessions are ultimately transient. By investing ourselves and our importance into material possessions, the acquisition of wealth, and the fetishism of goods we are essentially devaluing the quality and meaning of our own life, by equating it with precisely such transient phenomena. Christ forces us with this argument to question some of our presuppositions regarding what constitutes the “good life”: the false interpretation of the “good life” is precisely such a materialism. Is our life merely reducible to what we own? Is the point of life merely to buy the newest version of the Ipad or Iphone or whatever technological gadget is constantly forced down the throats of the public? Christ challenges us to think about what we truly value, and it would seem that this rejection of materialism is accurate: it reduces human beings to mere goods, to links in the consumerist and production chain. And it is also worth mentioning in support of Christ’s arguments that most religious traditions have also emphasized the negativity of materialism. If religion aims to uphold a certain dignity of the human being, then materialism is the antithesis of this dignity, reducing the human being to a materialist essence.
As mentioned, this idea from Christ becomes particularly significant for American culture, which is clearly founded upon the most vulgar form of materialism possible. All American culture is steered towards selling and buying, thus creating a culture where consumerism becomes the ultimate value. No one questions the ideology of “consumption” itself: individuals are constantly encouraged to purchase and consume, without questioning why.
This is especially significant when we consider much of the rhetoric from American politics – precisely from the side of the political fence that constantly emphasizes the Christian heritage of the United States – that they do not question the most vulgar forms of consumerism. Namely, capitalism by its very essence seems to be an ideology that is not Christian. How can these ideologies be reconciled with the teachings of Christ, in so far as we accept the latter as accurate? And these teachings do seem to be accurate, since they address questions about where we place value in our life: these are questions of what are termed “axiological” importance: is value merely the value of a good or is there a value of a human being? There seems to be a basic incompatibility between the capitalist and market based ideology of senseless consumerism and the worship of material goods with Christian teaching as presented by Christ Himself in the Sermon on the Mount, who presents the profoundly humanist idea that human beings are more than their possessions.