I grew up in the Salvation Army and once a year we had a period of a month or so, just before Easter, where we practiced self-denial. The idea was that you went without something you liked, for example, chocolate milkshakes, and gave the money you saved to the church so that they could support their international missions. It was a bit like Dry July, except you couldn’t abstain from alcohol because that was already on the banned list. The self-denial program was a thinly veiled, Protestant version of Lent, and everyone took it very seriously.
People are sometimes unaware that the Salvation Army is church as well as a charity. They have a hierarchy of ministers (called officers) and all the trappings of a religious institution, plus lots of flags and other quasi-military paraphernalia. There are three services every Sunday and a well-defined set of theological constructs underpin their work.
William Booth and his wife Catherine founded the Salvation Army in 1865. Booth was originally a Methodist minister who preached in the slums of London. In this environment, the Booths saw first-hand the effects the consumption of alcohol had on families and the community, hence the rule that all members of the church abstain from drinking alcohol and from dancing, which is thought to lead to lewd behaviour.
Methodism emphasises charity work and support for the sick and the poor, ideals which are known collectively as the Social Gospel, a social movement within Protestantism that applies Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, crime, racial inequality, environmental degradation, child labour and the dangers of war. These are all social issues that I care about, not necessarily from a Christian perspective, but because I think they are important, but I still think some negative messages have seeped into my psyche, especially in relation to self-care.
As with most Protestant religions, the need to deny oneself pleasure is reinforced strongly in sermons and hymns. You are told that denying yourself pleasure on earth will result in ‘riches in heaven’. This could be something as simple as not eating that second baked potato or foregoing a coffee when you are at the shops. If you go without something, you’ll be rewarded. Rather than accumulating wealth on earth, you pay into your heavenly bank account by doing good deeds and being charitable, but also by denying yourself pleasure.
I was talking to a friend about this recently. We both have issues with buying ourselves treats. Chocolates, flowers, exotic fruit and other desirable products, like beautifully scented hand cream. We happily spend our money on things that are deemed necessities, but there’s some unwritten rule about buying things that aren’t strictly necessary, but add to our quality of life.
A few years ago, I realised I had an issue with spending money on myself. Perhaps this came from my childhood, from too much time sitting on those cold, hard pews listening to sermons. I’m not sure. When my kids were little, I hardly ever spent any money on myself, but my ideas about what items are luxuries have changed over time.
In years gone by, I would only buy avocadoes occasionally because I thought they were too extravagant. Now I buy one every week along with milk, cheese, eggs, and other essentials. I’m still up in the air about blueberries. Are they a luxury? Are they a superfood? I accidentally bought two punnets last week when I was doing the grocery shopping online and was relieved to find that they were on special and only cost two dollars a punnet. Bargain!
Lately I’ve been practicing being more generous with myself and others. It’s nice to buy things for other people, especially things I know they won’t buy themselves. Being in lockdown has made this so much easier; there are so many opportunities for online shopping. I try to restrain myself from getting carried away, but then I think, why not spoil yourself? Why not spoil others? Life is short.
I haven’t forgotten to have a social conscience, but it’s tempered with more self-love. And lest you think I’m being critical of the Salvos, let me say that I think they do great work and I’m deeply indebted to them for my deep and abiding love of brass band music.