RELEVANT’s Burning Issues: Consumerism

Posted on April 25, 2008


The May_June 2008 edition of Relevant Magazine posted 7 burning issues: Injustice, Homosexuality, Faith, Politics, Culture, Consumerism, and War.

CONSUMERISM: How Do We Escape the Excesses of Culture?

VIA: I had several disagreements with the contributors. Here are my thoughts, and reflections that I think are important to keep in mind regarding the issue of consumerism.

It would be good for people to consider the ways capitalism can become a form of idolatry…One of the most powerful things the next generation of emerging Christians can do is be at the heart of a new global movement for ethical buying and fair trade. (Brian McLaren)

McLaren is missing it. The problem here is that McLaren is addressing global and social economics, not necessarily consumerism, which is more a heart condition rather than an economic one. Ethical buying and fair trade may level the economic playing field, but it does not deal with consumerism, in fact, it may continue to perpetuate it.

If Jesus tells you to sell everything and follow Him, do it. If, on the other hand, He tells you to start a business, provide hundreds of jobs and support His work in the world, do it. How should we then live? With simplicity, compassion and a realization that our hearts are where our treasure is. For some, I suppose, that means driving a Mercedes instead of a Maserati, owning one large house instead of three and giving the “overflow” to Jesus. For others, it might mean taking the bus instead of driving a Honda and giving the overflow to the poor. And for still others, it means being poor for Jesus’ sake. (Steve Brown)

Brown is better. I find Brown’s anecdote to be a bit disconnected with what he is trying to actually say, and again, misses the mark of consumerism. While I appreciate his “scaled” ethic, there is still a consumer mentality, and a subjectified judgment that leaves plenty of room for consumerism, for the Maserati or Honda owner.

What is enough is defined by our relationship to our neighbor — if our neighbor has four cars then we think we are living simply if we have two cars…We have this command to love our neighbor as ourselves, but I think the great tragedy of our culture is that we are pushed away from suffering, away from poverty to the point that it’s enough if we give a tax-exempt donation or volunteer for a week out of the year. And yet if we’re really in relationship with people who are suffering, that messes with us…I think the most important question is not what I should give away, because the Scriptures say you can sell everything you have and give it to the poor, but if you don’t have love it’s nothing. So the deepest question around simplicity is about love, and redistribution of resources is only meaningful inasmuch as it’s rooted in love. When we really figure out how to live in the personalism and love of Christ with our neighbor, then that defines what’s enough so that we’re not just driven by an ideology, but by a love relationship to our neighbor. (Shane Claiborne)

Claiborne is close. We are in proximity to “neighbors” and the increasing globalized community is making it harder and harder to stand by our justified behaviors. But again, missing the point (in my opinion), though closer. His emphasis on “love” is exactly right, but he misses the nuance that love cannot be bifurcated from the action of love. Just because the Bible says we can take action and have not love, does not mean that we can have love without taking action. There seems to be a one-way street regarding this relationship.

One of the first steps we have to take is to recognize that the vast majority of the Christian world for the last 2,000 years — and still today — lives in much more poverty and a much simpler lifestyle than we in the modern West can easily imagine. It’s up to individual churches and individual Christians to find ways to use the wealth we’ve got, with wisdom — and the best thing to do to avoid making money a god is to give it away. Money becomes a god very, very easily. So giving it away cheerfully and wisely is a step toward really saying money is not the ruling force in our lives. (N.T. Wright)

Wright is right [on]. This is where I completely concur, and why I think the other sentiments miss it. The answer to RELEVANT’s question is easy: give money/possessions away. Consumerism can only be battled in the very tangible way of consuming less, and giving more. That’s the bottom line. It’s fine to talk about love, and scalable proportionate means, and a level economic playing field. But when it comes to greedy consumption, there is no other relevant way of tackling the issue than by living your life wholly and completely as a gift meant to be opened by another.

I think every Christian should take very seriously what they do with their finances. A starting place is tithing, to give 10 percent joyfully every time you get paid, and give it back to the Church, to help the Church be the force that it should be in the world. (Nancy Ortberg)

Ortberg is orderly. While I appreciate Ortberg’s sentiments, I found them too, uh, “Christian” of an answer to the problem. I completely support her sentiments, and agree that tithing, personal budget balancing, giving some back, and establishing good standards of living are great values and disciplines for the life of the believer. But again, it doesn’t answer the question of consumerism.

God has worked in this generation a desire to make the world a better place for all. This means grappling with issues of eliminating systemic poverty, taking care of the environment and living with each other in a kinder, more relational way. For this reason, I believe the question is, How much is enough? We need to make wealth to steward it to create jobs, help single moms, the elderly and find ways to deal with the AIDS crisis. Our lifestyle should not be “me” centric, “but “Kingdom of God” centric. (Cindy Jacobs)

Jacobs is jousting. Again, like Ortberg, good sentiments, but perhaps a bit simplistic to the question. Then instead of answering the difficult question that RELEVANT posed, she poses one that is really quite different, based on different premises.

Overall, then, as I’m reviewing all of my highly critical responses, perhaps the other viable answer to the question of, “How do we escape the excesses of culture?” is, “we don’t.” Like my last post on culture, perhaps there is a give and take, and a relationship that we must concede that always captivates a part of who we are. We ought to surrender to that reality, and then begin moving redemptive steps away from that. So while I’m critical of everyone above, perhaps they’re a bit more on point than I realized in the first place.