Decommodify just a little

I got to do a lot of really cool stuff this summer. I went to a couple of conferences, got to spend some time at the Monastery I used to work at, I took a vacation to Cape Breton in Canada, and I got to see an art exhibit about Burning Man. In case you’re not familiar with Burning Man, it is a… Well they… UM… Help me out Wikipedia:

Burning Man is an event held annually in the western United States at Black Rock City, a temporary city erected in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada … The late summer event is an experiment in community and art, influenced by ten main principles: radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy, and leave no trace. The event takes its name from its culmination, the symbolic ritual burning of a large wooden effigy (“The Man”) that traditionally occurs on the Saturday evening of the event.

It’s different from our everyday life. While I was at this exhibit, which just closed in Cincinnati, I was really floored by the ten principles partially because those are many of the foundational principles of (he whispers so as not to offend too many people) Christianity. I would go to a church that had “Bring everyone in the circle, take care of yourself, be yourself, work together, be a good member of the community, give things away, don’t charge money for services, be present, do the thing right now, and leave it better than you found it” on a sign out front.

I like all of these principles, but I think decommodification may be the most important. Once you start to see how many of our interpersonal relationships are commodified, i.e. must be transacted with money, it’s hard to unsee it. We’re so used to it. We pay to park. We pay for public restrooms, if they even exist in the town we live in. I saw a park bench that has spikes on it to keep homeless folks off of it. You can pay to have the spike retract though. Yikes. Maybe more distressing these days how our information is commodified through Facebook, Twitter, Google, and just about everything else online. Remember the saying, if it’s free, you’re the product. So much of our world is commodified, bought and sold, and it just passes us by.

To be sure, there is a time and a place for some commodification. We have to remunerate people properly for their work, share around limited resources, and protect some resources through commodifying them, however, we cannot make every interaction and every relationship a commodity. The prophet Isaiah says, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55.1-2a) Jesus in Luke and Matthew talks about God caring for all creation which neither “toils nor spins.” (Luke 12.22-32, Matthew 6.25-34) All life is a gift from God already given, and when we commodify the totality human experience for the gain of some and the loss of others, when we try to control, force, and coerce humanity into our image instead of God’s image. I do believe not putting other things in the place of God is on another list of ten principles I like.

We can’t buy the reign of God. We can’t work our way to heaven. We certainly can’t trade for one more hour or second of our life on the stock exchange. God has already gifted us as steward of creation. God has gifted us with the whole world. God has gifted to us today. Let’s decommodify this world to make it look a bit more like God’s world.

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