BY WHITNEY MORET
Imagine your favorite dessert. Cookies, ice cream, a big, gooey brownie. Stop salivating, this is serious. All right, what’s your next thought? Chances are you’re thinking more about your grumbling stomach than your waistline. Junk food is tricky like that—something we all know is bad, but can never seem to separate from the pleasure of indulgence.
Consumerism is a more pervasive, equally contradictory, and undoubtedly more covert vice. It’s not something most of us would advertise in our Facebook profiles (“Activities: consumerism”?). Nonetheless, it represents a value so deeply embedded within our culture and daily life that many of us don’t recognize its ubiquity or its consequences at all. Even when our jeans get too tight, it’s hard to connect ice cream with anything short of cold, creamy goodness. We’ve reached a point, however, where we are not only no longer able to fit into our jeans, but we can’t even see the scale beneath our bellies.
We often define consumerism as cultivating an excessive desire to own and purchase what we in the biz call “stuff.” Consumerism implies much more than that, though. Serving as a motivation to work, a means for enjoying life, or even a technique for finding meaning in life, consumerism is an organizing principle for daily activity. Its focus is self, and its results are antithetical to Christianity.
You see, ice cream is great, but after a few scoops, most of us get full and call it quits. That’s normal satisfaction. Consumerism, however, is a bit more like gluttony. It is endless dissatisfaction, an eternal cycle of new wants that become new needs. Political scientist Benjamin Barber defines the very basis of consumer capitalism according to the creation of “false needs.”
Who’s to say our needs are “false,” though? It is not my intention to create a paradigm for appropriate and inappropriate spending. I would like instead to look at the focus of and intent behind consumerist habits.
First, ours is an economy based on consumer capitalism. The acquisition of stuff implies several things: it can be a source of immediate pleasure, like that ice cream we stuffed ourselves with; it can be a source of status or self-expression; and it can even be a source of meaning in life.
Hold on, now. We all know that stuff isn’t a very good source of meaning, and Christians know that the one and only true meaning of life is Christ Himself. The trick with consumer culture, though, is that the internal and external pressures to buy are so strong and so omnipresent that we let “stuff” become the meaning of life without even knowing it.
The great social scientist Max Weber traced the origins of modern capitalism back to the Reformation.Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (Chicago: Routledge, 2001). Protestantism changed the way people looked at the world both spiritually and economically. Weber concludes that Calvinists, influenced by the doctrine of predestination, held that their actions had no sway over God, who had already assigned everyone an afterlife. Life was scary for Calvinists, who were unsure of their salvation, says Weber. So, in order to reassure themselves, Calvinists started acting as if they were saved. One way to do this was to obey God’s command to work hard in a vocational calling. And Calvinists became an austere, money-hoarding, and hard-working folk whose devotion was so serious that it became the only attitude powerful enough to dissolve traditional capitalism into the endlessly expanding and tirelessly revolutionizing power of modern capitalism. Weber’s idea of the Protestant Ethic, then, was not built on faith: it was built on fear.
Well, what’s so fearsome about a little extra ice cream? The ice cream itself isn’t so scary, but it takes an awful lot of work to earn enough to purchase an endless supply, and scarier still is the stomach ache that follows. A BBC documentary called Shopology associates higher levels of stress with more extravagant spending habits.Global Issues. “Trade Related Issues.” http://www.globalissues.org/TradeRelated/Consumption.asp. (Accessed Dec 14, 2007). Pressure to show off personal status in an individualist society and the instinct to “keep up with the Joneses” make consumerism itself a “need” that results in higher levels of debt and increased pressures on individuals to work more. Capitalism’s demand for innovation and efficiency has given us the opportunity today to purchase higher quality goods at cheaper prices than ever before. After meeting our needs, we should have money lying around all over the place, right? Why, then, does the average American work an entire month longer per year than in the 1970s? Isn’t our stuff supposed to make our lives easier?
Another documentary on the same subject, called Spend Spend Spend claims that America’s rampant workaholism is partly to blame for decreasing levels of happiness, which are said to have peaked in the late 1950s.Ibid. Professor Schor, a psychologist interviewed for the documentary, links increased concern with material gain, even among the wealthy, with depression and low self-esteem. It seems that no matter how much we acquire, it’s never enough. After a time, when we grow bored with our possessions, we must purchase more “stuff” to replace them. The more we buy, the more we have to work. Adding a little more momentum to this vicious cycle, Schor points out that such hard work encourages us to do “compensatory shopping” used to make up for recreation time lost to extra hours in the workplace.
So we have a system where we feel as though we “need” to work extra in order to pay for the stuff we “need.” Those pesky Joneses keep getting new cars and better quality sound systems for their plasma TVs. Like Weber’s Calvinists, we’re afraid of that. We’re afraid that the Joneses will be better than us. Acquisition becomes a symbol of status, a way to express our personal worth. After all, it’s embarrassing to be “out of style.” There are lots of negative associations with that hated state: poverty, and by extension, laziness and lack of personal or professional merit. Our stuff says a lot about us, whether we intend it to or not.
One scholar, Professor Paula Cooey, calls this phenomenon a process of “identifying up” in an individualist society, where financial standing is attributed to personal merit and expressed in acquisition.Paula M. Cooey, “Christian Perspectives on Overcoming Greed in a Consumeristic Society: Buying Fear as Collusion with Greed versus an Economy of Grace.” Macalester College Buddhist-Christian Studies 24.1 (2004) 39-46. The need to defend our sense of self-worth feeds greed, and “identifying up” prevents us from “identifying out, across, and down.” We’re embarrassed to be lumped with those who seem less worthy. It’s hard to associate with prostitutes and tax-collectors or kids who wear fannypacks. It’s hard to be the hands of Christ.
In 1 Timothy 6:17, Paul says:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
And don’t deny it; in this global economy, you and I rank among the very wealthiest. Citing the 1998 UN Human Development Report, Globalissues.org makes the startling observation that, “globally, the 20 percent of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86 percent of total private consumption expenditures—the poorest 20 percent a minuscule 1.3 percent.” Global Issues. “Trade Related Issues.” This introduces another important dimension of consumption: its effects on others.
There are differing views among both Christians and non-Christians regarding the validity and efficacy of capitalism in general. I am not using this article to advocate for either stance. Instead, I hope to encourage Christians to look at their own spending habits and re-evaluate their priorities. Nothing we buy has not passed through the hands of another, and the material consequences of each purchase have global significance. Each purchase is a choice and an investment in something: a system, a company, a worker responsible for whatever it is you buy. I think it’s our responsibility to investigate what it is we stand behind, because every dollar spent is a stand made.
Where are we putting our hope? Those of us still in school understand the pressures of devising a plan for the future and how muddled we can feel navigating through possible trajectories for our lives. There is clarity in at least one respect, however: we hope to find success in school to find success in a secure and well-paying job. We hope to be financially independent and comfortable, and this is a guiding principle as we make choices about how we want to invest ourselves. And how we invest ourselves is based on a central concern for money and hope for a financial return.
This is simply the wrong focus, born again out of fear for our own financial security. A change in focus, shifting from monetary to spiritual investment based on full reliance on and constant obedience to Christ, will result in a spiritual return, but will cost us all sense of control. Allowing Christ to be at the center of all expenditure, and all actions, is expensive. Giving up money is hard, but giving up control is harder. In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis reminds us, however, that:
He claims all, because He is love and must bless. He cannot bless us unless He has us. When we try to keep within us an area that is our own, we try to keep an area of death. Therefore, in love, He claims all. There’s no bargaining with Him.C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 190.
Unless we allow God to claim our spending, our value system belongs to Consumerism instead of Christ. The economic jargon of consumer capitalism presents a value-free, autonomous, technocratic domain divorced from moral or religious language. In other words, we relegate religion and morality to a separate realm from economics, even the kind of economics of day-to-day expenditures and long-term financial goals. Because of this distinction and our distance from the global consequences of our consumption, it’s easy for us to forget that economic activity is as deeply embedded in the moral universe as any other activity. And its effects are momentous. It’s time to give our consumption back to God.
One theologian, John Cobb, considers the centrality of economic values in our daily lives a more destructive phenomenon than consumerism per se. He calls this centrality “economism,” the “first truly successful world religion.”John Cobb, “Consumerism, Economism, and Christian Faith.” Religion Online. http://www.religion-online.org. (Accessed December 16, 2007). This is a religion based on fear and a substitute for true meaning in life, putting pressure on debt-ridden families and encouraging self-serving frivolity. According to UNICEF, 1.3 billion people in the world are living on less than a dollar a day. Meanwhile, 800 million suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Is it really the Joneses we should be worrying about?
Heroic non-profits around the world are addressing these problems and making real differences, but most can hardly boast an abundance of funds. Ronald Sider, author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, insists that it is a Christian’s duty to be nothing short of generous.Ronald Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1997). He proposes a “graduated tithe,” suggesting that the Old Testament stipulation to offer 10 percent of one’s income should be the minimum a Christian gives. The tithe is “graduated” when a person offers a larger percentage as her income grows past a predetermined level of needed income, constantly offering more and constantly yielding more to Christ. It’s not just about money. It’s about offering what our money represents to us: comfort, time and energy at work, status by the standards of our friends and colleagues. It’s about recognizing the needs of billions of people whom God loves just as much as He loves us and giving back to God what He let us borrow.
When we’re in the middle of the 7–11, it’s easy to forget we have the option to eat, and share, gourmet cuisine. Luckily, we have a Master Chef showing us exactly how to combine the right ingredients, and His very fine book of recipes. Just look at this one:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. … No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matt. 6:19–24)
Maybe you want to give up that double-scoop cone to put an extra couple bucks in the church offering, or you take the time to research the business practices of your favorite brands, or you pray hard and really consider how much God is calling you to commit. Giving consumption back to Christ means making spending another means of service. It means observing every activity to God through constant prayer and dedicated listening. It means consulting the recipe book and dedicating every meal, even dessert, back to the Master Chef, trusting Him to give us the right recipes. It takes time, money, and energy to cook gourmet, and sometimes the food doesn’t smell that good when it’s cooking. The recipes call for us to share, often making our portions smaller. But have some confidence in the Chef. He knows what He’s doing, and His recipes are more satisfying than we can imagine.