What if you want to root out petroleum investments in your own life? Could you? Granted, your contribution may be small as ever, but divestment is picking up steam. It got name checked by the president during his now-legendary Sweaty Forehead Speech, and it’s getting attention from the mainstream media. Here’s The New York Times on Sept. 6:In the 1980s, it was South Africa. In the 1990s, it was tobacco. Now fossil fuels have become the focus of those who would change the world through the power of investing.
Excellent and challenging article that questions our assumptions about economics in the church while also offering some alternatives that we can begin to live out in our churches and communities. I’m proud to say that our community (though imperfectly) is already practicing these alternatives. I would add the sharing economy to the list of alternatives.
With the most recent downturn in the US economy, a veneer has been ripped away from the illusion that capitalism has a moral center. Ardent activists who had previously looked toward reforming capitalism’s abuses have awakened from a stupor and are now peeking into the system’s unequal profit mechanisms. It will take significant denial to continue to affirm the morality of our current system.
Many are reflecting on the stuff we own and how it owns us in this season of shopping and gift-giving. I read an excellent article recently about one family’s journey with their relationship to their stuff (Stuffed to the gills: How crap took over my life—and how I intend to take it back). So, I thought I would reflect on my family’s journey with our relationship to our stuff. Many of your stories are probably similar in many respects.
The Birth of the Monster
It all began… well, when I was born, but that would take to long. Accumulating stuff really hit an exponential growth curve when we got married. Neither of us had too much stuff after college, but we had both lived on our own long enough to accumulate more than enough. Not only does a wedding combine two people’s stuff, it piles on a whole host of new stuff on top of what you already have. We tried to keep it simple by encouraging people to donate in our name to a charity, but in our culture it doesn’t really count unless you buy something for somebody. So, we filled our registry at various places and people piled up the presents. Even with all the gifts we still had room to spare in our little two bedroom apartment.
Then we made two more decisions that many people make which set us on a trajectory to having more stuff, 1) we bought a house (bigger than our apartment) and 2) we decided to have kids. We bought the house first and people tend to fill the space that they live in. We tried to keep things minimal, but living in an empty house also seems kind of silly. Then we had kids. Between baby showers and grandparents these little 7 to 8 pound bundles of joy come with an incredible amount of stuff for being unable to eat solid foods, walk, sit up or burp without help. They continually acquire new stuff every year for birthdays and new clothes as they grow faster than sea monkeys.
Taming the Monster
While we considered ourselves to be people that tried to live simply and consume less, we found ourselves trying to figure out what to do with a 1600 square foot house full of stuff when we decided to move to the World Hunger Relief, Inc. farm where we had a small two bedroom apartment. There were a lot of craigslist ads and a big yard sale. We tried to think hard about what we needed and what was worth keeping. Still, when moving day came we had to put a lot of boxes into storage (at my mom’s) and managed to fill up the apartment nicely.
Then we accepted a position with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Bolivia. We thought it was silly to put our stuff in storage for three years. So, we got rid of everything. This time we really did. We got rid of all our furniture, chairs, table, futon, beds, dressers…our car…everything. We still had some things stored at my mom’s but even that was picked over and cleaned out. We pared down our material possessions to an absolute minimum. It was a crazy, radical move that tested our faith and resolve to trust God and the Body of Christ.
Yet, when we got to Bolivia our eight suitcases seemed a little excessive in light of the people around us who had so much less. While living there and working with MCC, I wrote about what it means to live simply (What is Simple Living?). Once again our ideas about what was enough, what was simple and what we needed were challenged. Each time we moved and tried to simplify we learned more about what was important and what was not.
Now that we are back in the United States, we are looking to replace some of those items we so happily gave away. We hope to add these things back into our life slowly and be discerning about what we really need. We’ve asked our community to share their excess with us as we shared with them. What we have found is that we continue to have more than we need, because our friends both have more than they need and are willing to share it with us.
Lessons From the Monster
The obvious lesson here is that you should pursue downward mobility by moving every few years to poorer and poorer places in the world, right? As the aforementioned article also points out, moving does provide an opportunity to evaluate what’s worth piling in a moving van. Yet I’ve often talked about the importance of place and putting down roots. So, perhaps the solution is a discipline of seasonal cleaning. We already have this cultural concept of “spring cleaning“, but how many of us practice it? Choose a time of year to give your stuff a good cleaning and share with others out of your abundance.
There’s also trying to cut the monster’s head off from the beginning. We tried an alternative wedding registry for such a purpose, but with little success. I know others have held their ground and been more effective. I found The Scavenger’s Manifesto to be a great resource with more than just tips and tricks for finding free stuff, but a different way of thinking about our stuff.
Patience is the most important and most difficult virtue when considering our shopping. Consumerism is based on impulse buys and tickling our acquisition bone. The longer you can avoid the instant gratification temptation to buy stuff the moment you think of it, the more things will simply filter out over time. Then you’re left with things that were worth the wait to buy. You’ll probably find a good deal, find a cheaper alternative or at least thought more carefully through your purchase.
Finally, I mentioned in Wading Into the Pond last week some ideas about how to move from charity to justice in our lives.
- Don’t do it alone- Find others to walk with you on the journey.
- Learn to talk again- Within relationships of trust, we have to learn how to talk about our finances with others.
- The Holy Excise Tax- Find creative ways to hold each other accountable and make your choices more transparent
- Saints and Sinners- Show yourself and others grace. The goal is not being more righteous or holy than others, but attempting to follow Jesus into a new way of living.
The previous post discussed an ethical dilemma presented by Peter Singer concerning the choice between saving some fancy shoes or a drowning child in a shallow pond. The conclusion was that charity is the best we can do within the given social structures, but that justice requires counter-cultural living. The way of following Jesus is not charity, but justice. It requires a radical reorientation of our lives away from token charity to a new kind of Jubilee economics.
So, the question is how to incorporate these ideas into our daily lives. This is really the question with which I wrestle. Singer’s shallow pond dilemma is really more like the dilemma of two oceans and our ever more insular lifestyle. How do we make ourselves aware of how we spend our resources and the choices we make about what to buy? How do we recognize in our daily lives the impact of the choices we make? Finally, how do we attempt to live out something more than charity, embodying something “counter to the ethics of the culture” we’re in?
The Definition of Insanity
The oft quoted saying that, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results” has been attributed to Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Confucius, but more likely came from Narcotics Anonymous literature. If anyone, the addicts would know the truth of this saying. Likewise continuing to try and live counter-culturally as isolated individuals will not work.
The first thing we need to realize is that we cannot do it alone. To try and do it alone as an individual consumer is to continue within the same framework. Our awareness of the reality of the situation is muted by our own isolation from all the other individual consumers with whom we share the world. So, we must find particular people who are willing to walk this road with us. It is the particulars of our shared lives that shed light on our own inconsistencies and inadequacies. These are vulnerable relationships based on trust and shared values. These are the relationships many of us are lacking in North American culture.
We need to break out of our isolation, but we need more than just a book club. Waco just started a time exchange where people can exchange time and skills with each other rather than currency. Tool sharing is another way to build up community as the solution rather than individual consumption. Anything that you can do with other people that promotes community and shares resources moves us beyond the parameters of consumerism.
The Second Rule of Consumerism is… Do NOT Talk About Consumerism
The second thing we need to do is learn how to talk about our finances openly and honestly with others. We have all sorts of justifications built into our lives for the way we live. We have to make ourselves vulnerable to critiques of the choices we make. The prophetic strain of the biblical narrative calls into question anything, any structure, choice or lifestyle, that is complicit or participates in the oppression, exclusion and marginalization of those who bear the image of God as well as the exploitation and domination of God’s creation. Shedding light on those realities in our lives requires the aforementioned relationships of trust, honesty and vulnerability.
One attempt to shed light on our own participation in these systems of domination that I read recently involved agreeing to a corporate tax based on the grades of the corporations from whom we purchase goods and services (A practical, creative tax for a better world).
This “holy excise tax” is designed to 1) disincentivize our demand for unneeded cheap consumer goods and services (mostly bought from companies that grow profit for investors by hiding real costs); and 2) raise revenue to give to organizations that care for our most vulnerable neighbors.
We are using the Better World Shopping Guide, which gives companies from a large variety of categories a grade from A to F, depending on the social consciousness of their business practices, considering human rights, the environment, animal protection, community involvement and social justice. Companies rated B have a 10-cent tax on each receipt, while companies rated C, D and F get a 25-cent tax. In addition, the guide has a list of the top 20 corporate villains, including Exxon Mobil, Walmart, Verizon, Kraft, Nestle and Bank of America. We pay 50 cents each time we support these socio-economic goliaths.
This is just one example of a creative attempt to help reveal the realities hidden in our credit card statements. There are others as well. No matter how you try to learn to talk about our hidden financial realities this last point is essential to making it successful and healthy.
Misery Loves Company
The last thing that I think the church has uniquely to offer in this area is a theology of grace and love alongside the prophetic. Some Christians that have tried to radically live out biblical economics through a common purse or other methods have found themselves right back in the waters of domination and oppression as they create new forms of legalism and oppression. So, recognizing that none of us is completely able to live somehow outside the system is essential.
The goal is not in fact to live outside the system. In order to live counter-culturally you have to continue struggling from within the dominant culture. I have lived and worked closely with Christians that have a long history of attempting to live outside the system in isolated colonies. The unspoken reality is that they are much more a part of the world than they would ever admit, because they interact daily with people outside the colony and are the primary economic drivers in the region.
The question then is not “How do extricate myself from the systems of domination?” but instead “How do I begin to organize my life with others such that our existence challenges the status quo both within ourselves and the broader culture?” It is only as members of the culture and web of domination that we pose a threat or challenge to the system. (Why are the relatively small numbers of people involved in Occupy protests across the country such a threat to the Powers that they are willing to spend inordinate amounts of money to have the police and authorities attempt to forcibly remove them?)
This means that there is no one righteous, no not one. No one is able to say that they are embodying the reality we hope for. What we need is a confessing movement. Then we can take steps together to live out this new way of living that we have glimpsed in Jesus, not out of self-righteousness or guilt, but in the grace and love of the Prince of Shalom.
So, the idea for this blog came out of my quest for what to do with my life after seminary. The title is just a clever and catchy way to get at the main theme of this blog, food and theology. As I have unpacked this silly little question it seems to have sometimes taken me far afield. Lately I write a lot about economics, anti-civilization, collapse and consumerism. In my mind, of course, they are all interrelated and connected, but maybe these connections are not always obvious. I try to tie it back in to this question “What Would Jesus Eat?” that’s really about making ethical choices in a very complicated world and helping us navigate these murky waters.
Well, my primary purpose for this blog is to be a place where I can process out loud my own thoughts about these issues from my own reading, experience and thinking and hopefully get some feedback from the few friends and readers that occasionally read and comment. The secondary hope is that some of this will be helpful to other people. Sometimes I think that this secondary purpose would help give more clarity to my thoughts and writing. If I delve into ideas about civilization collapsing, how does that help you understand and live in the world more faithfully? If I go on about economic theories or obscure aspects of finance that I don’t even understand, how does that answer the ethical questions we face about what to eat and what to buy?
In some ways my recent excursions have subverted (or at least criticized) the big question always on the top of this website. The question assumes a certain stance towards the world concerning what we eat and buy. It presupposes that we are consumers and the question of utmost importance is how to choose the ethically correct (or least ambiguous) products on the shelves of our local big box store. I use to have a relatively simple formula for answering this question.
- Buy local.
- Buy sustainable/organic.
- What you can’t buy local try to get fair trade.
It is perhaps still a helpful start in some ways, but it misses the deeper issues that we face. It does not question the assumption that consumption is the answer to the question of making ethical decisions about how we participate in the world through economics and in particular through what we eat. Nevertheless the goofy question that started this ball rolling still haunts me. What do average people living in the world today do to make the most ethical decisions given the world as it is? How does faith, Jesus and the Bible speak to the kinds of ethical dilemmas that plague us? What are practical things that people can do?
I don’t expect everyone to become some kind of radical anarchist, join an intentional community, protest, grow all their own food, forage, dumpster dive, make everything they need, somehow drop out of the economic system and in the end move to a developing country just like me. I’m certainly not as radical as I like to think I am. I depend on the food system and other conveniences of civilization that all of us do. So, in some ways the questions for me are not that different than the questions for the guy working in a cubicle.
So, as I’m coming down off of a reading, writing and thinking binge, I would like to return to this basic question about Jesus and what he might have to say about food and our choices, including issues around consumerism, agriculture, environment, economics. However, I would like to keep in front of us where some of these things really hit the ground, like building and maintaining a composting toilet system which is something I experience every day. I’ve often said I want to get back to the Food in the Bible series for numerous reasons, but I think it fits in with returning to some of the reasons why I write and what I hope for. I’m not making any promises, commitments, resolutions or covenants. As usual, I’m just thinking out loud.
If anyone is out there, I would love to hear some ideas, thoughts or suggestions about what would be helpful to you for me to explore. Here are some questions I’d love to hear answers:
- What are your questions when walking down the aisles of your supermarket?
- Where do you face ethical dilemmas or questions about food or consumption that don’t have easy answers?
- Where do you find your economic life in conflict with your life of faith?
- What practical skills or knowledge would help with growing your own food, living more simply or living off the grid?
I really look forward to hearing your responses and hope they can spark some new conversations.