BY JOEL KIM
The current age of mass consumption stirs up interesting questions for followers of Christ. One only needs to take a brief look on campus to see the culture of consumption that is so pervasive. Students sport iPods, designer bags, and stylish clothes all around. Even the less trendy among us understand the value of these things—although we may not appreciate or desire them. We are living in a culture where our patterns of consumption are, by and large, no longer based on necessity but on desire. We don’t buy because we need to, but just because we can. Followers of Christ must understand how to engage with this culture, and perhaps how to interface with it in a way that brings positive change into the world.
There is no denying the fact that our culture of consumption has a dramatic worldwide effect. Americans consume an amount of the Earth’s natural resources disproportionate to our population base. Our collective greed for water, food, industrial raw materials, and consumer goods vastly outstrips that of other nations. Furthermore, this mass consumption can be linked with human rights violations around the world. A desire for lower prices leads to a drive for decreased production costs. A demand for lowered production costs may lead to personal costs for the workers who produce the good. Children being forced to work to produce sweatpants, hazardous working conditions for farm laborers, and unfair compensation for crop growers are all products, at least in part, of this gargantuan desire for more stuff.
One response to this situation is to separate ourselves from the consumerist society. Proponents of this view see a clear mandate from the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18. They are inspired to give up all their possessions to the poor and live a life of poverty. Such an approach may well be considered daring and noble. By purging oneself of material things, one would potentially be more attuned to spiritual things. Yet the validity of this approach is not totally beyond question. Jesus did not indicate that money in itself is evil. If such were the case, then he would not have had any means to support his ministry. Furthermore, in the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16, Jesus exhorts his disciples to use their worldly wealth prudently and to be good stewards of it.
Another approach is to adopt the model of mass consumption for the sake of God’s glory. There is now a formidable market for Christian consumer goods. Some of them do provide a valid service—such as Christian books, which provide commentaries on the Bible or specialized discussions of certain topics. Others seem to be focused more on promoting Christian values—such as photo frames with engravings of Bible verses. The connection between some of these goods and Christ seems a little spurious: Christian mints or cellophane goody bags? A major concern is that, by participating in this alternate market, Christian producers, merchants, and consumers are simply attaching themselves to the culture of consumption. Furthermore, producers of Christian goods do not always make efforts to ensure that their products are not harmful to the environment or even to other people. A sweatshirt boldly proclaiming Jesus’ love that was made by child hands in Thailand or was responsible for the degradation of a river in China seems rather self-contradictory.
James puts this point very clearly (5:4–6): “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.” James was writing to the rich oppressors of his day, who were mistreating their workers and field hands. Most of us own no fields and have no workers of our own. Yet this verse applies to us too. How many of us, if we knew that the landowners from whom we were purchasing our goods were mistreating their workers, would continue to support them by buying from them? Would we not also be culpable in the mistreatment of these workers? In the contemporary situation we may not know the landowners’ workers personally, yet there is still a mandate to treat them well. If we know for a fact that a company’s business practices are harmful to its workers, we have a responsibility as consumers to make the right decision. We have the power, as consumers, to make choices and vote, as it were, with our purchases.
Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers about these questions. I don’t buy organic food all the time; I don’t purchase only fair-trade clothing or coffee. There’s still a balance between what is right and what is “practical.” As Christians, though, we should take some time to consider the effects of our actions as consumers.