It seems like so much longer than four months ago that we gathered outside on the sidewalk in the grey dusk that preceded the Easter Vigil to watch fire dancers light the new fire, then processed indoors to hear once again the sequence of stories from the salvation history that culminated in the first alleluias of the Easter resurrection story. Who knew that on that same holy day, salvation of an entirely different sort had finally come for one and all?
The iPad. Available to the public as of April 3rd and starting at just $499, the iPad does things you’ve never dreamed of. It gives you access to email, maps, books, movies and hundreds of thousands of applications that do everything from helping you plan your next grocery trip to pairing the perfect wine with the gourmet meal you’ll prepare with those groceries you just bought. It even has a clock that doubles as a stopwatch and a timer.
Many are asking, “how did we live before the iPad?” The wise among us already know the answer – we didn’t” Apple’s website modestly describes the iPad as a “magical and revolutionary product,” but we know better. The iPad is taking life to the next level, which means if you’re still running life1.0, you’re behind the times. We’re on life2.0 now, maybe even 2.4.
Karl Marx knew nothing of the “magical and revolutionary” iPad while he was writing his future classic, Das Kapital (Capital), almost one hundred and fifty years ago – but he knew quite a bit about the spirituality that drives our hunger for toys like this, an orientation toward goods in which we begin to attach human-like qualities to inanimate objects.
This process, whereby products of human labor are transformed into something more than what they are, in which a thing becomes more than just a thing, Marx called “the fetishization of the commodity.” This kind of fetishization isn’t quite exactly the same thing as a strong attraction to women in high heels, or men in uniforms, though it isn’t completely divorced from that use of the word either. In both cases, the fetish is something that has come to represent more than what it actually is.
But the word fetish means still more than that. Acknowledging that objects have both practical value and symbolic value isn’t the point here. Fetishization takes it a step further. Before the word fetish was forever linked to unusual attractions, it was a religious word. A fetish was an object used in religious rites or ceremonies to gain power over another person – a doll, a statuette. The very word comes from the Latin facticious, meaning “artificial,” and facere, meaning “to make.” Fetishism, therefore, is the process of assigning living qualities to inanimate objects. Marx writes,
Value does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labor into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product.
And so we know that the iPad isn’t just the iPad is it? It is a social hieroglyphic whose value is not branded on its packaging. The website calls it “magical and revolutionary,” but we suspect it is much more than that, much more than access to books and maps and recipe cards – it is intelligence itself, it is superiority, (really, if you’ve ever been afflicted with an Apple lover in your life, you know – it’s superiority).
An object, transformed into so much more. A fetish, a social hieroglyphic, or – in the language of the church – a what? An idol, that’s right. Like Moses come down from the heights of Mount Sinai to find the golden calf made of the Israelites’ melted down jewelry. An object invested with human, or in this case even divine, qualities. The power to save.
That’s what the man in Jesus’ parable thought of his houses full of grain. The one who says to his soul, “soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” His goods, the product of other people’s labor, have become for him more than grain stored in a barn. They have become safety, security, leisure, prosperity, superiority. He is not like those people who have to work the fields. He is a rich man, with barns so full that he needs bigger barns. Larger houses for his idols.
Roman Catholic and Canadian writer Mary Jo Leddy tells a poignant story about building bigger houses for our idols in her book Radical Gratitude. Leddy lives in Toronto and is the director of Romero House, a community working with refugee resettlement. She describes a conversation with a young Eritrean girl who had recently arrived in Canada and was trying to find a home for herself with little luck,
We sat at the kitchen table having a cup of tea. Suddenly, she looked out the window that faced onto the back yard and asked, “who lives there?”
I looked out at the old familiar space. It was just a garden in need of a little attention. “No one lives there,” I replied.
“No person live there!” She was adamant now. “Person there. House there.”
House? I looked out and for the first time I saw the garage for what it was. There was only one reply that I could make and my words fell like stones, one by one, “it’s a house for a car.”
“A house for a car?” She looked at me in disbelief.
“What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.”
When I drive home from Chicago to visit my family in Iowa, my eye catches on a curious new set of structures that dot the wheat fields of western Illinois, buildings I never saw on farm land when I was growing up. Self-storage units have come to rural America. This didn’t make tons of sense to me at first. The whole point of living in rural America is access to land. My cousins who grew up on a farm in Minnesota had a sprawling house and acres of land, and two barns, and would never have required an additional storage unit.
I’ve since learned that family farmers, struggling to stay profitable, are now selling or renting their land to self-storage companies who are building barns of a different variety for city folk who’ve run out of space for all their things, and who are willing to drive back and forth to the country and pay for storage that is too expensive in the city.
“I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.”
A house for a car.
In Jesus’ parable God observes the rich landowner, illusions of security intact, and says,
“‘you fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Despite the inherent, if only implied, injustice against those whose labor the rich man has exploited, God’s focus here actually seems to be on the rich man himself. God is reaching out, speaking harsh words, but still concerned for the ultimate disposition of the wealthy, the person with the power, the oppressor. I think we should all take some measure of comfort in this. Idolatry is among the most entrenched of human sins, but God never wearies of calling us home from its grips.
No, this idolatrous wandering away with fetishes and idols doesn’t begin with us, and God is not giving us up. If anything, God is pursuing us with all the compassion of a mother who can still remember what we smelled like as infants when she would hold us up close to her face. She has known us since before we were born, and she is in love with us. If I came out of that more pietistic Lutheran strand, instead of the German Lutheran upbringing I received in Des Moines, I might even sing one of God’s lullabies for you here,
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me;
see, on the portals he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home; ye who are weary come home;
earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling, O sinner, come home!
God loves us like that, like we are God’s wayward children. And because God loves us, even we rich, foolish landowners, with our self-storage units and our houses for our cars, God wants us to get real, and get clear… get real clear about these objects we keep making and then investing with human qualities like power or beauty, popularity or intelligence. They are none of those things. They are just things.
What good will all that be when this very night your life is demanded of you? All these things you have invested yourself in, what will they mean when you no longer alive? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.
We’ve been hearing for three weeks now about what it means to be rich toward God. The story of the good Samaritan, the story of Mary at Jesus’ feet while Martha slaves away in the kitchen, Jesus’ teaching us to pray for just our daily bread – not tomorrow’s bread, not barns full of wheat – and then the parable of the friend who knocks at midnight, asking for three loaves of bread, but is turned away.
These stories keep building in their urgency. Richness toward God is expressed in a lived out understanding of God’s richness toward us. This is a world of plenty, not a zero-sum game. There is always more than enough to go around. That’s why we gather each week at this table, to be fed from the same loaf, to receive God’s riches. Because we don’t need to self-segregate into groups of people who are just like us. We are all already just like each other – all alike in our human failings, and all alike in our irreplaceability. We are not like the iPad, which after some time will become obsolete and go to the land fill or the self-storage unit. Another social hieroglyphic to be unearthed by future archaeologists trying to make sense of our lives.
We are children of God, all of us, unique, irreplaceable instances of God’s love wrapped in flesh, beloved. That is true about me, and it is true about you, so we don’t need those barns, or those garages, or those self-storage units. We simply need our daily bread, and each other to share it with. There will be enough to go around, trust me. Trust God, who is calling us home to each other.