There's nothing intrinsically enslaving in fruits and vegetables. But because of the coincidence of two stories that came to my attention recently, they've become symbols of the bondage of consumerism that puts the accumulating of material goods ahead of higher values.
The first story is centuries old. It records the journey of the children of Israel out of slavery and into freedom. During the hardships of the journey, there came times when they looked back longingly at some of the material things they had enjoyed while slaves. "We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick" (Num. 11:5). In retrospect, those things seem trivial in exchange for what the Israelites were seeking: the right to worship God, with its promise of freedom from social and political oppression.
The other story is more current. It documents the terrible working conditions experienced by some of the laborers in an area of Spain dubbed "the vegetable patch of Europe." The workers, living with cardboard walls and without water or electricity, are participating in a one-and-a-half billion dollar annual enterprise that produces - yes, you've guessed it - cucumbers and melons, in addition to tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchini.
The two stories have more than produce in common. They illustrate the potential for enslavement in materialism. Consumerism, as one aspect of materialism, often places the production of goods above the welfare of workers. This industrial enslavement is being exposed frequently, and many people are refusing to buy items so produced. More subtle, perhaps, is the enslavement of consumers who work extra hours, and maybe extra jobs, to buy things they don't need or to pay off credit card debt for having done so earlier.
"The human thought must free itself from self-imposed materiality and bondage," writes Mary Baker Eddy in "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" (pg. 191). By linking materiality and bondage, this terse sentence points the way - and perhaps the only way - out of bondage to consumerism. Trusting material things to make us happy, even to sustain life itself, is the big mistake.
The answer to a misplaced trust in materiality is spirituality. And we can take great encouragement in much that is happening today. There is a reaching out for spiritual solutions to problems and a growing recognition that the real and enduring essence of the human is spiritual. It follows naturally that spiritual qualities and values are what truly satisfy. Some people today are examining their lives and finding that Thoreau's advice to simplify has new meaning. Often it's getting rid of things, as well as giving up the goal of acquiring things, that reveals the true essence of satisfaction.
The only Christmas of my childhood that I remember was one that came during the Great Depression. My gifts consisted of an orange in my Christmas stocking and a smock that I could wear to school - to cover up dresses that could no longer be mended. Because I remember that Christmas with such joy, it's obvious that material things had nothing to do with the satisfaction. But at the same time, more affluent Christmases have still retained their spiritual priorities.
It is not the possession of things that is wrong. It is being in bondage to things. In something he wrote to the Galatians, St. Paul noted their newly-found spiritual freedom and warned that they "be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." He went on to tell them, "Use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another" (5:1, 13).
Simple questions can help us weigh an intended purchase or goal. Is it genuinely useful or needful? Is my neighbor blessed in its production? "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance" (Gal. 5:22, 23). These are freely available - and give freedom to everyone.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society