Originally published in the Charleston, SC, POST and COURIER on July 22, 2007, as "Humanity can get lost in consumerism"
I recently saw a catalog advertising beautiful sterling-silver necklaces with interchangeable and engravable pendants. Their themes were among those we wouldn’t see on older women, but they might certainly be worn by young girls or boys. “Colorful necklaces feature Swarovski crystals.” But these were different.
In an online catalog, I read of a lavish, $4400 bed, described like this: a “formal Louis XVI four-poster [bed] … inspired by the classic designed by the King himself. Shown here in this traditional French plaid taffeta with coordinating trim and linings, the curtains and skirt are removable for dry-cleaning. All [beds] are custom designed with the…owner’s needs in mind. Clients may select from a range of fabrics, trims and finishes.”
I saw regal beds like this one on a recent vacation to Williamsburg. I imagined what it must have been like to be the Governor of colonial Virginia. But the bed as described was different.
During that same trip to Williamsburg, we befriended the period-dressed chef of the Governor’s Palace, who worked in his colonial kitchen, preparing meals as if for the 17th century Governor. I was particularly intrigued to watch him with sew bacon fat into a rabbit, apparently a savory favorite of the ruler. Later, I saw a similarly lavish meal described in a magazine ad. “Restaurant-inspired…Angus beef…for the real meat lover in the family.” But this, too, was different.
On another occasion, I was reading of some beautiful condos. They featured both one and two bedroom suites, complete with television, a security system, indoor and outdoor play areas, and a nature trail. The description of these condos sounded just like the ones where we stayed in Williamsburg, but they also were different.
What was the common difference between all of these luxuries: the sterling jewelry, the regal bed, the high-end steak meal, and the condo? All of these items are for pets. For dogs and cats. There is now a market for $72 sterling jewelry for cats. $4000, four-poster beds for dogs. Steak dinners in a can for Fido. Kitty condos for a feline’s much-deserved vacation. And all this hardly to mention “pet insurance” which surely has developed to “save” people money when they opt for everything from ACL replacement surgery for their pet to animal organ transplants.
I feel somewhat strange writing about luxury pet boutiques and related animal consumerism. Why such a column—in the Faith and Values section? Because this is truly animal consumerism. Consumerism gone wild.
I am almost struck dumb with all of the above when I compare it all to a recent deeply-personal experience. A few weeks back, I met a fellow—let’s call him Xenon (Greek for ‘stranger’). Xenon was standing in a parking lot asking for assistance. He had no jewelry at all—not even a watch. And his reading glasses were held together by scotch tape. He was approachable, though something was clearly wrong—a combination sick and homeless. He’s spent over thirty years too disabled to hold a job. As he told me (which I verified by visiting him there), he sleeps on the floor of an abandoned house where he has no running water or electricity. He hadn’t had a hot meal in days. Occasionally, he said, he found help from kind people, but for the most part, “no one has the time”. Xenon lives (barely) day to day, and for him, to sit at a table and share a meal is like the kingdom of Heaven.
Now we can surely debate the merits of social medicine, and we can list the various social agencies which exist to help needy folks like Xenon. Or whether or not (Lord, have mercy!) Xenon “deserves” or “really needs” help. And if we’d like to debate this, let the debate begin!
But two questions arise in my own heart, and I hope in yours, as we compare the sad story of Xenon to the luxuries of pet condos, $4000 animal beds, and Angus-flavored Alpo—or any time or way we spend more on our pets than on needy human beings. When was the last time I even looked at someone like Xenon in the eyes and smiled (much less actually said hello and offered to help)? And when was the last time I took even one bag of groceries to a place like ECCO, the East Cooper Community Outreach, one local clearinghouse of help for the extremely needy among us? These are simple human behaviors to which Christians are called in the most profound ways.
For the love of God—literally—let’s treat animals like animals and human beings like human beings. Pets are important, but not more important than our human neighbors, known or unknown. We ought to treat animals humanely, but not humans like animals.
Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 881-5010.