If you are looking for a morally, philosophically, and theologically fascinating place, I can think of few locations in contemporary life that can compare to the supermarket. Indeed, it seems to me that a proper understanding of the supermarket is one the primary intellectual tasks of the modern world and of our generation of Mormonism.
There are essentially two competing stories that we can tell about supermarkets. On one side is what I call the “Myth of Freedom.” On this view, the supermarket is a wild tribute to the power of human freedom. The supermarket offers you a wonderful variety of different choices — eight different kinds of shampoo, milk of every conceivable fat level, seven kinds of squash, dozens of varieties of fruit, beef, pork, fish, and poultry in every possible permutation — and gives them to you cheap. Delicacies previously available only to the super rich — fine cheeses and fruit out of season — are now with the easy grasp of the middle class. More importantly, the staples available in a supermarket are cheaper relative to total income. In other words, because of the supermarket, the poor spend a smaller portion of their income on food than at any time in the past. All this choice and prosperity is the creation of freedom. There is no master-mind genius who makes the supermarket happen, no authority who makes the trains run on time. Rather, the supermarket is possible precisely because free political institutions and the free markets that follow in their wake have push such would-be Platonic guardians into the dust bin of history.
The alternative story about the supermarket is what I call “The Myth of the Satanic Supermarket.” On this view, the supermarket is the instantiation of all that is wrong and evil in modern society. First, there is the soulessness of shopping in the supermarket. Gone are the shops and stalls of a more lively and authentic market of “real people” and community. In its place is a mass-and anonymous assembly line of shelves and automated tellers. The variety of the supermarket shelves is an illusion. Rather than offering a choice for every conceivable taste, the supermarket offers only the mass-produced “choices” of big corporations and the moral pygmies who rise to their top. The economic egalitarianism of the supermarket is also an illusion. The cheap food is soaked in poisonous chemicals and the only reason it is so cheap is because the industrialized forces of agribusiness have raped the environment to produce it. Nor is the environment the only victim of the supermarket. The poor of developing countries must suffer from the ruthless exploitation of multi-nationals so the fattened masses of the rich can enjoy marginally cheaper vegetables. Nature, community, and the poor all lie prostrated so that a mindless suburban consumer can make his soul-deadening “choice” between Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms.
Both of these stories are overdrawn, and to a large extent their truth rests on matters of fact, complex questions about the production of commodities and the effect of that production on the world. Don’t get me wrong. I have definite opinions about this subject, and by and large I prefer the “Myth of Freedom” to the “Myth of the Satanic Supermarket.” I do, however, think that the massive prosperity represented by the supermarket — complete with its distributional complexities; there are no supermarkets in the East Congo — represents one of the central moral phenomena of our time, perhaps the central phenomena. We cannot make sense of the moral universe in the modern world without making sense of the supermarket.
The scriptures have a great deal to say about wealth. The Book of Mormon, it seems to me, is deeply ambivalent about prosperity. On one hand, it seems to teach that righteousness leads to peace and freedom which in turn lead to prosperity. Wealth, however, tends to undermine righteousness and so on. Nibley and others have read this as being a simple condemnation of the wealthy. This, I think, is too easy. First, the Book of Mormon does not seem to teach that those who are wealthy are wealthy at the expense of the poor. Rather, prosperity is both a blessing and a danger, and there is a certain fatalism to the whole cycle.
The New Testament is, I think, much less ambiguous about wealth and the wealthy. Generally speaking, the Gospels present the rich as wicked because they are rich. It is important to realize, however, that by and large markets are a relatively late arrival in human history. It is not that people haven’t been swapping and trading since the dawn of time. (No doubt Cain and Abel made deals before Cain turned to violence.) Rather, the idea that material production should be ordered by private contracts and property rights conceived of as aspects of personal autonomy rather than hierarchical rights and duties is a recent creation. Wealth in the ancient world was largely a product of social status and the control such status gave over the means of violent expropriation. Read in economic context, the New Testament’s denunciations of wealth become more ambiguous.
The Old Testament presents perhaps the most interesting case. By and large, the Old Testament does not deal in the concept of an afterlife. Salvation does not consist of eternal life but rather in the continuation of one’s posterity and in one’s material prosperity. God blesses Abraham and Job by giving them lots of cattle and lots of children. Israel’s promise is a land of milk and honey, a land of abundance. At the same time, the prophets in the Old Testament offer many of the same blanket denunciations of wealth that one finds in the New Testament.
All of which leaves us with the great, unanswered question, “What think ye of the supermarket?”