This year is the 20th anniversary of the broadcast of a documentary that has lodged itself in my heart and my mind. May I recommend it to you as a powerful reminder of the wisdom that comes to us from St. Francis, as well as Holy Scripture even more directly, and from Pope Francis more recently?
The inspirational one-hour report, called “Affluenza,” was shown on PBS and narrated by an NPR host, so you know this was not a “faith-based initiative” or a TV tract propounding Franciscanism. This was a classic, secular piece of insight from the intersection of faith and reason that passes the test of time. Although there are portions of content to which I might append a modest disagreement or cautionary note, it captures well the insights emerging in some circles in 1997 and which can help inform and reform our sense of mission and charism today.
You can watch the entire program here, thanks to You Tube and this legacy from Bullfrog Films and NPR’s Scott Simon. Please remember the definition of Affluenza it provides: “An unhappy condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the pursuit of more.” Also note the wise words of Richard Harwood, a sagacious social observer, who points out the growing realization that Americans have become too greedy, too materialistic and too self-absorbed.
Was this program a piece of prophecy explaining a lot of what has developed since its debut and especially in our everyday experiences?
There is indeed an unhappy news story that affirmed the relevance of this phenomenon—and its dangers—not too long ago. I will not go into that subject matter, but you can watch a story about it here.
The most important lessons to draw from this program for our Secular Franciscan Order fraternity, I would suggest, are the echoes we hear from those with timeless cures for Affluenza. One film responded quickly, in 1998, with some thoughts worth considering. You can watch “Escape from Affluenza” here.
But we have better resources.
We’ve got St. Francis, in Chapter Two of his Rule for Secular Franciscans, saying this:
“Trusting the Father, Christ chose for Himself and His mother a poor and humble life, even though He valued created things attentively and lovingly. Let the Secular Franciscans seek a proper spirit of detachment from temporal goods by simplifying their own material needs. Let them be mindful that according to the gospel they are stewards of the goods received for the benefit of God’s children.
Thus, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, and as pilgrims and strangers on their way to the home of the Father, they should strive to purify their hearts from every tendency and yearning for possession and power.”
Straight from the Bible, the Affluenza program quotes the Book of Proverbs: “Seek neither poverty nor riches.”
The program could also have chosen to quote the Epistles, where Timothy warns us that the love of money is the root of all evils.
And of course it would have been right on target, but impossibly foresighted, to paraphrase Pope Francis instructing us to be good stewards of creation, to be selfless Good Samaritans subordinating our wealth to the needs of our marginalized brothers and sisters. The 1997 program was a preview of the notion of human ecology, calling us to live lightly on the earth, to trust in God’s providence, and to shun materialism and narcissism as we accompany others.
More than ever, we in the American mainstream are joined with those on the margins—here and around the world—as victims of Affluenza. This documentary did not capture the whole truth; many more considerations should influence our fraternal prayers, activities, and ponderings. But the 20th anniversary of this program reaffirms our commitment to bring the Gospel to Life and Life to the Gospel; our spirit of penitence extends to human flaws overloading our past, present and future. We must remind people of the truths PBS watchers recognized. In the “field hospitals” of our parishes and our personal vocations, we Franciscans can help inoculate others against Affluenza now.