Taking out the garbage: Christians and simplicity
(Exodus 16:1-3, 11-21; John 6:30-35, 48-51)
(Exodus 16:1-3, 11-21; John 6:30-35, 48-51)
According to the dictionary, garbage is something that is useless, dirty and thrown away. However, there are people who actually analyze garbage and they are called ‘garbologists’. Our garbage can reveal a lot about ourselves – our lifestyles, consumption patterns, and attitudes towards material goods. What we consume and what we throw away are integrally related. They are both parts of the same product.
The natural world produces no garbage. One species’ waste is another species’ food and nutrients. It all goes in a cycle, but our garbage breaks that cycle. Humans are supposed to be wiser and should manage this world. We should do no worse than nature.
If we studied the garbage situation in Hong Kong, we can see there is reason to be concerned. We have too much garbage and are even running out of space to put it! In spite of recycling efforts, waste has increased by 50% in the past 15 years. Current landfills will be full in 8-12 years, packed with food, furniture, plastic, construction waste, etc. Dumping of old mobile phone batteries and computer parts create a special health hazard due to high metal content. Even if incineration were to be adopted for municipal waste, air pollution would become even worse than now.
More people are becoming aware of depleting the earth’s resources. Yes, many biological resources like forests, fish stock, etc. will be severely depleted or severely damaged if we continue at the current rate. But with other non-biological resources e.g. oil which is the basis of plastic, we have the potential to suffocate ourselves in the wastes before we deplete the resources!
The modern problem of waste has two major linked causes – (1) obtaining more than what one can meaningfully consume and (2) improperly disposing of what can continue to be of use to oneself or others. The large amounts of garbage produced in Hong Kong indicate that we do indeed buy and use up more than we need. Excessive garbage also points to our inability to recycle or reuse items in an effective way.
The question then is WHY? Why do we continue to shop, shop, shop beyond what we really need? Why do we keep buying new things when the old ones are still good? Why do we throw away so much?
Compulsive buying and spending are actually just the symptoms of something deeper that is out of balance. We were designed to have God and our neighbor as the centre of our lives. Our happiness and contentment should come from being in the right relationship with God and our neighbor. When we try to replace these relationships with material goods and the false security they bring, we will never find lasting satisfaction or peace. We are working against the way we were created to be.
In Exodus 16, the Israelites are taught this lesson in the desert. They have miraculously escaped from Egypt, yet they are grumbling against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. They longed to go back to the ‘fleshpots’ of Egypt (fleshpots meaning luxurious living). They were insecure and afraid. In this situation they idealized their previous lives. As slaves they certainly had not lived luxuriously, but they were used to a steady supply of basic food and other necessities. Now when they were free, they faced the insecurity of a harsh natural environment. So they complained.
The way God came to their assistance is related to actual occurrences of the Sinai Peninsula. Quails migrate through this area. ‘Manna’ consists of droplets of juice from a certain tree or bush found in the desert. Certain insects bite into the leaves and feed on the juice. Droplets fall to the ground where they dry in the cool night air and can be collected. They melt in the heat of the following day. Nomads in the Sinai desert eat it to this day.
God provides enough for every single day, not more, not less. The Israelites who tried to keep more than they needed were frustrated in their intent, as the Manna became spoiled overnight. The Israelites learned to depend daily on God.
In John 6, Jesus expands on this theme. By feeding the 5000 in the desert, Jesus in a way repeated the miracle of the Manna. But in Jesus there was more than Manna. Moses brought Manna for 40 years, but Jesus gives us bread for eternity. Moses’ Manna came down from the sky, but Jesus came down from heaven. Moses’ Manna was given to him by God, but Jesus Himself came down from God. While those who ate Manna in the desert passed away, Jesus Himself is the bread of life. When we have faith in Him, we become content with what He offers. We rest in the secure knowledge that God will provide.
Where does our sense of well-being come from in Hong Kong? Is it from our ‘fleshpots’? We are so used to an abundance of goods and services, yet we rarely count the cost of this wasteful lifestyle. In Haggai 1:6, the Lord challenges us: “You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.” Why are we wasting all our resources (and lives) pursuing things that eventually do us harm? Consider how many hours most people work in Hong Kong. For what? They earn a little bit more money, just to buy more, but then throw things away as garbage even though they still have significant economic value.
Thus there is a heavy price to pay not only in terms of our environment but also in terms of our spiritual health. Our lives, like the earth, have limited capacity. We can only take in so much because we have limited time, energy and attention. So our lives are literally wasted on these wastes that we eventually produce, and they distract us from God and actions that would result in a better world. An illustration would be our landfills. In disposing of our garbage, we use up good recreational space, something that is precious in space-tight Hong Kong and indeed all over the world. Do we have good recreational space left for our mind and spirit? Is that a reason why we are not effective in our lives and we often complain about not being able to do what we want?
The problem of garbage not only impacts our ability to love God, but also our ability to love our neighbor. Sharing is one of the most important hallmarks of Christian living. In the act of sharing, we create generous, thankful and compassionate communities. We learn to depend on each other and to care for others as much as we care about ourselves. That means we must take seriously the impacts of our lifestyles and actions on other people, especially the poor. Consider the injustice of those who are rich ‘buying’ space in poor areas (between countries and within a country) to dump the products of their excessive consumption, which is often toxic. Truly we need to live simply so others may simply live.
The Israelites in the desert lived as nomads, taking along only what they themselves or their animals could carry. Jesus Himself lived a life of extreme simplicity and kept His focus on following the will of His Father. As His disciples, we draw inspiration from Him. What we buy and consume, what we throw away and how it is disposed of are significant to our faith. There are no ‘sinless’ solutions to the problem of garbage, but as Christians we should aim for a simpler lifestyle that shows respect and love for God, neighbor, and nature. There is a saying that we are truly rich when we know we have enough. What will it take for us to finally realize that?
Judy Chan is a missionary serving with the Hong Kong Christian Council. She is responsible for communications for the Council. She is also in charge of ecumenical radio broadcasting ministry, English publications and ecumenical partnerships in Hong Kong and overseas.