Americans desperately need to find a cure for “affluenza” in 2014. Although there are many other afflictions that also, of course, need remedies, affluenza is spreading at an alarming rate and threatens to destroy our society.
The psychological definition of affluenza is “a dysfunctional relationship with money/wealth, or the pursuit of it” that has serious social, even global, effects, “resulting in a polarization of classes and loss of economic and emotional balance.”
The problem is, this kind of definition is a symptom of the disease itself and will not lead to a cure. Affluenza is not about the interior psychological lives of the wealthy. It is an economic and social pattern of systematically creating extremes of wealth and lack of economic opportunity.
It is crucial to accurately define the cause of the affluenza syndrome, of course, otherwise you can’t find a cure.
Recently, affluenza was famously used as part of a successful defense in the case of a North Texas teen from a wealthy family. Despite killing four pedestrians when he lost control of his speeding pickup truck while driving drunk, the teen received probation rather than jail time. A psychologist for the defense said the boy suffered from affluenza due to his uncaring father and permissive mother. Hence he did not know the possible consequences of his actions.
Psychologists have critiqued this perspective as having little or no clinical basis.
I am not a psychologist. I am a pastor and theologian, and although I agree that the lack of a clinical basis is a crucial critique, I think the idea of affluenza names a growing moral problem that needs examination.
Biblical and theological themes can help us find a more accurate diagnosis. Jesus, for example, did not travel around ancient Israel asking people how they felt about the economic inequality created by the Roman occupation. He said: “Feed people, house people, heal people and change the social conditions that are keeping them poor ... oppressing them.” (Luke 4: 14-21)
In other words, an accurate diagnosis is the pattern of social and economic oppression, not a “dysfunctional relationship with wealth.”
What’s the treatment?
“The best cure for affluenza is to take the money away,” was a top comment in an article critiquing the Texas teenager’s defense.
Now that’s getting to a cure. Jason Sattler, in the National Memo, suggests “Five Easy and Effective Ways to Rebuild the Middle Class.” All five involve putting our money into our rhetoric of equality and opportunity, such as “a living wage,” “universal pre-K,” “expand Medicaid,” “student loan forgiveness,” and find “new ways to tax millionaires.”
Ironically enough, this kind of economic cure for affluenza will actually improve the health of both the poor and the wealthy, research at the University of London has shown. “Inequality between the rich and the poor causes stress and harms the health of both,” the study found. The “poor are angry about what they don’t have, while the rich are frightened of losing their wealth,” whereas, “a more egalitarian society leads to longer life for everyone.”
Good heavens. We really are our “brother’s (and sister’s) keeper.” (Gen. 4:9)
The Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a professor of theology and a former president of Chicago Theological Seminary.us books.