Rev. Dr. Frank A. Thomas was the guest speaker at the 8th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration on Monday, January 15 at Governors State University. Dr. Thomas, an ordained minister, currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He spoke to a packed auditorium.
The following are excerpts from his talk.
“The Martin Luther King that we get is the corporate, the acceptable. We don’t get the challenging King. We don’t get the King that raised questions about capitalism; about the connection between racism, militarism, and materialism. We don’t get much about that King. We get the, ‘I have a dream,’ King.
“But when he died, he wasn’t a very popular King. They called him “Martin Loser King.” And they were saying he wasn’t relevant.
Dr. Thomas shared a verse from the Gospel of Mark in the Bible, , “Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God,”and used that as the basis for his critical remarks of what he called America’s “consumerist culture.”
"I want to ask you this question this morning, can rich people be saved?
"Who then can be saved? Can rich folks be saved? I know that you’re probably thinking about whether Oprah, or whether Donald Trump, or whether Bill Gates can be saved. The average American does not characterize themselves as rich. But under close inspection, we find another reality. We discover that we live in consumerist culture.
"What I mean by consumerist culture is that consumerism is the term that is used to describe the effect of equating personal happiness with the purchasing of material possessions and consumption. Consumerist culture is an environment or atmosphere where happiness is equated with the purchase of material goods.
"In Economics, consumerism can also refer to economic policies that place an emphasis on consumption, and in an abstract sense, that the free choice of consumers should dictate the economic structure of society.
"So, after 9-11-01, our president stands up to us and tells us to go shopping. Because in a free market economy, it is the interest of consumers that move. And we equate personal happiness with the purchase and consumption of things.
"Consumerism is the glorification of individual choice. In consumerist culture you define your identity according to which choices you make, and what you ally your self with in the culture.
"For most people, this takes the ritual of purchasing. By buying things, you ritually surround yourself with tangible objects which symbolize the cultural corporate ideology that you adhere to.
"In other words, we buy stuff with labels like Fubu, and Tommy Hilfinger, and Versace. And we buy purses with Coach and labels and labels and labels. And I keep wondering why do we label ourselves, because what has Tommy Hilfinger done for us lately?
"I stood up in front of the congregation after [Hurricane] Katrina and asked, where was Versace? Where was American Express? I kept wondering, why do we buy these things?
"So what consumerist culture gets you to do is focus on Bill Gates and Oprah and Donald Trump and others. Through obsessive glorification consumerist culture forces you to look at the top monetary owners and compare yourselves to them.
"As long as you compare yourself to the ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’ you will always see yourselves see yourselves as poor.
"Americans love rags to riches stories. It is one of the stories that gives our culture meaning. We love to propagate the myth that in America, anyone can go from nothing to something. We call it, ‘The American Dream.’
"The American Dream can also be used to cover racism and economic injustice. From this perspective, consumerist culture says, ‘If Oprah can take her self from the back woods of Mississippi with poverty and abuse, and raise herself up to be one of the most powerful women in the world, stop whining about racism, and make yourself into another Oprah. Stop whining about economic injustice and raise yourself up by your own boot straps.’
"And you can go from rags to riches in this country, but it is over-glorified, over exalted, and it is the salvation narrative of our culture. Christians get saved by following Jesus. You get saved in this consumerist culture by spending money, or by owning things that make it appear like you got money.
"What we have is debt.
"We like to compare ourselves ‘up.’ If we compare ourselves ‘down’, we find out that we’re rich. Can rich folks be saved?
"Listen, Americans constitute 5% of the world’s population, but consume 24% of the world’s energy. And we’re amazed that we have to be fighting over the sands in Iraq. We’re amazed that we intervene in Kuwait. Somebody once said, if, in 1991 the chief export of Kuwait would’ve been pigs, we wouldn’t even have bothered with them.
"Which means that Americans are addicted to oil. It’s our addiction that gets us into the sands in Iraq. It’s addiction to oil that’s getting our soldiers killed.
"One American consumes as much energy as two Japanese, six Mexicans, 13 Chinese, 31 Indians, 128 Bangladeshis, 307 Tanzanians, and 370 Ethiopians.
"Americans eat 815 billion calories of food each day. That’s roughly 200 billion more than needed. Americans throw out 200,000 tons of edible food each day. People are starving and we throw out.
“I got in the shower and took an American shower. The kind where the mirror fogs up. The host knocked on the door and said, ‘We don’t use water like that in Africa! Water is more precious!’
"The average American generates 52 tons of garbage by the age 75."
After quoting some figures regarding how much the United States government spends in various areas, he continued, "We got Lance Armstrong on TV begging for more money for cancer, while all the money’s going to bombs and bullets.
"This is what Martin Luther King meant when he said that the great axis of evil was racism, militarism, and excessive materialism. He said that capitalism as a system was fundamentally and structurally flawed and it would never take care of the poor. He said, and they don’t play this on television, he said that because we have an interest around the world, we have to send our military to protect our economic interests. And then we justify that with the kind of racism where the rest of the world is second class. We even call it the second world, the third world.
"Like it or not, when we compare ourselves with the rest of the world, most Americans are rich. And how are we going to be saved?
"I want to call you to sacrifice. We don’t hear that word around America much. Our president can’t even call us to sacrifice for the war. This is the first war in the history of our nation where we’re fighting, and we’re not asked to sacrifice. We’re told to go shopping, while troops and their families bear the brunt. While I’m not asked to do anything, to give up anything.
"Can you live on 80% of what you make? I'm talking to you about breaking out of the cycle of consumerist culture. I'm telling you this: You cannot get more until you're better stewards of what you have now. You will not be free until you manage your debt and your lifestyle in a very different way.
"Keep 10 [percent] for yourself, invest, pay cash, build your net worth. Give 10% to God, and live off 80% of what you make."