Within the bubble of my seminary classroom and my neighborhood small group I can develop the sense that Christians are resisting the strong current of consumerism. Recently I left the bubble.
I visited a Christian family who are active church members and give generously, yet they live large. Their house, garage, and lives are filled with big new expensive things.
I felt frustration thinking about how what they spent on luxuries could have aided those who do not have necessities. Although many, entering the home, would have thought “what a great life they have” I felt sadness for them. Their home and purchases reflect good desires, and admittedly meet some of those desires. Yet I fear that things they buy often function as a detour from experiencing those desires in a full and deep way—or at times even a road block.
Having desperately poor Hondurans in mind, whenever I lead a Bible study on Luke 12 I state that a certain amount of possessions does make life better, but Jesus challenges the myth that more is better. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Having an abundance of possessions produces clutter in our homes and our lives. We buy things, but they easily become our masters. They consume our attention and our time. They serve to insulate us from reality—at times from beautiful reality, and at times from painful reality we would rather avoid, but do so at our peril.
We often use bigger and better things to seek to fill our longings, but they are like cotton candy—moments of pleasure that do not provide what we truly need. I am convinced that the way of gratitude and contentment, rather than the path of consumeristic grasping for more, will yield much greater shalom. And not only for this family, but also for creation itself. This step out of my bubble left me with a sense of conviction that we need to do more to address the issue of consumerism in the Christian world.
That conviction grew when I attended a conference of the International Jacques Ellul Society. A number of speakers urged us to reflect on root issues like consumerism. Robb Davis, the mayor of Davis California, had joined with others to protest against Bakken oil being shipped through their city by rail. He told us that he participated in the protest, but in his speech he reminded the protesters that the oil companies were not extracting and shipping this oil motivated by a desire to create lethal train accidents or damage the environment. “They extract oil from Bakken shale because we are asking them to. Our societies, our lives are drenched in oil.” They do what they do because we buy their product.
At another moment in the conference, someone commented on how the nearby San Francisco Bay is much cleaner now than it was 50 years ago. Another conference attendee said, “Yes, California has done great at getting bad stuff out of California, but it has not stopped buying huge amounts of things whose production creates the same sort of toxins in other places that used to pollute the Bay.”
I encourage you to join me in considering how we can live differently and call other Christians to do more to resist the pull of consumerism.
Care for creation and the ability to share more with others in need are reasons enough to do this. (For instance, today our mission agency is sending $180 of scholarship money to a Bible institute in Peru. Six of the thirty students could only pay half of the $60 cost [books and tuition] for the course. The needs and opportunities are great.)
Yet the benefits are not just for creation and the needy. A lifestyle focused on enough, on gratitude and sharing, rather than on getting more, is a richer more shalom-filled life. We confront consumerism out of concern for sustainable life on earth, love for the poor, and out of love for those who have been seduced by the lies of consumerism.
How do we respond to the rampant consumerism in our society?
Here are some ideas for responding at the personal level.
1. First, rather than simply comparing myself to the family mentioned above and thinking I am doing well on this topic because we only have one car, and it is ten years old, or we have not yet bought a flat screen TV, I am challenged to reflect on how I too am swept along in the current. What can I do to lessen my consumption?
2. Recognize that manufacturers are constantly designing products that are better in some way—more efficient, more comfortable, or simply a new style—to compel us to discard the old and buy the new. I try to ask, “Is what I have working. If so, why replace it?” I can do better at this.
3. In relation to our purchases, ask the Amish question: “Will this bring us together, or increase isolation and alienation?”
4. I could renew a practice from my past. Figuratively speaking, I brought one of my impoverished Honduran friends with me as I shopped. Similarly, we can seek to keep in mind how our purchases might affect creation.
5. I have been too private about this. I am committing myself to bring this topic up in our small group and discuss how we can help each other take more significant steps of freedom.How do we respond to the rampant consumerism in our society?
Here are some ideas for us as we work with others.
7. In general, churches give little attention to this topic. We must do better. Let us, in our conversations, preaching, counseling, and teaching expose the lie, proclaim that for many people less possessions, not more, would lead to more shalom in their life. And, when thinking of homes and cars, bigger is not always better.
8. Watch The Story of Stuff and discuss it with others, or use other resources on our website.
We must do much more, however, than provide information. There is tremendous societal pressure to buy bigger and better because status is measured and gained through possessions. But as Allison Pugh illustrates in her book, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture, often we are not buying things to demonstrate we are better than others; rather we consume just to fit in and join the circle. And, one’s insider place is not secure. Fads and fashion change. Dignity through consumption achieved one day can be gone the next (7, 224). Advertising amplifies this shame and pressure. It seeks to make us feel dissatisfied with who we are (and promises us a lie that if we buy x product then. . .).
What can we do in response to these realities?
1. Name people. I am convinced that the best antidote to consumerism is confidence that flows from the security of identity rooted in Jesus.
2. Work with intentionality to make churches communities of inclusion that are not possession based, and thus undercut the spirit of consumerism that promises belonging through buying. (Think of re-writing Galatians 3:28 in terms of possessions rather than ethnicity and gender.)
3. Proclaim that through the cross Christ has liberated us from the powers described in the paragraph above. (Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat do a great job of this in Colossians Remixed, 137-38.)
3. James K. A. Smith writes: “I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry—which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination—is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church. . . [The marketing industry] has rightly discerned that we are embodied, desiring creatures whose being-in-the-world is governed by the imagination... [We] are oriented primarily by love and passion and desire” (Desiring the Kingdom, 76).
5. Consumeristic society honors conspicuous consumption; look for opportunities to do the opposite. Honor generosity, moderation, reusing and repairing, sustainability, etc.; and cultivate a spirit of gratitude.
6. How might we do what Smith points to through our worship services?
7. For an embodied activity invite others from your church to join you in spending an hour at a mall looking at it critically, thinking of it as a place of worship and formation. (Many of you have done this as a class assignment in Discipleship and Ethics. If you have not and would like a fuller description of the assignment send me an e-mail.)
8. Just as important as exposing and critiquing is providing positive alternatives. Ask the question: in what ways is life more than possessions? Then work to increase in your community those things possessions cannot provide.
9. What other ideas do you have?
I write this blog with depth of conviction. We must act.
I also write with some hesitancy. In relation to this topic it is so easy to get bogged down in guilt, or filled with self-righteousness and a sense of superiority. Seeking to live with less can be liberating; it can also enslave. There was a period in my life in which I was consumed with not consuming. I wrestled over most every purchase, and invested enormous energy seeking to discern something that does not exist—the right Christian lifestyle. I pressured myself and others through a bounded approach of line-drawing. It was not a place of shalom.
As we act and seek to follow Jesus in relation to this topic, let us be gracious to ourselves and others.
A few readers of an earlier draft of this blog affirmed the imperative of resisting consumerism, but urged me to include a greater sense of the positives of a lifestyle of enough, of contentment, and generosity. In response I did add some lines, yet there is much more that could be said. This morning as I read the final chapter, on beauty, in John D. Roth’s book Practices: Mennonite Worship and Witness. I was reminded of his response to the earlier draft of this blog. He asked, “Mark, where is the beauty?”
I invite you to respond to the question in the comment section. How have you experienced beauty and shalom through resisting consumerism and following the way of Jesus?