Tag Archives: Consumerism

Is God the Ben Bernanke of the Universe?

220px-Ben_Bernanke_official_portraitThis is not really the question that the book God, The Economist by M. Douglas Meeks is asking or answering. Here is Meeks’ summary of his task,

“It is in no way necessary, according to modern economic theory, to consider God when thinking about economy… Thus, however unusual it might seem, I propose to bring the church’s teaching about God, the doctrine of the Trinity, to bear on the masked connections between God and economy.” (xi)

I’m going to follow the headings in the Table of Contents to organize this which means it will be a 9 post series. That seems like a lot, but I think it would be longer if I didn’t do it this way ahead of time. It is a very dense book. I could do another series just combing through the footnotes of the book. Here are the headings:

article-new_ehow_images_a07_m4_44_kind-job-economist-800x800Preface and Introduction
God’s Economy and the Church
Reconceptualizing God and the Economy
God and the Market Logic
God the Economist
God and Property
God and Work
God and Needs
Conclusion

Living With Less in the Land of More

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.

  1. Don’t do it alone- Find others to walk with you on the journey.
  2. Learn to talk again- Within relationships of trust, we have to learn how to talk about our finances with others.
  3. The Holy Excise Tax- Find creative ways to hold each other accountable and make your choices more transparent
  4. 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.

Wading Into the Pond

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.

Sacred Days and Desecrated Days

There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

– from “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry

black-friday-smyrna-vinings.jpgThis year during Thanksgiving there were a number of stores having sales on Thursday already. This prompted a friend of mine to ask, “Is nothing sacred?” This is an oft-heard complaint about the way that different aspects of our culture have continued to creep into what many consider to be sacred times. Whether its American football played on Sundays or other activities planned for Wednesday evenings (traditionally reserved for many churches to have mid-week services) or children’s and school’s sports games planned for all of the above, many people ask the same question as my friend, “Is nothing sacred?”

Holy Days or Holidays
During this time of the holidays, at the height of the religious calendar of the consumer religion, it seems appropriate to reflect on the meaning of sacred days and spaces. The word “holiday” is a shortening of “holy day”. This truncating of the word seems symbolic of the loss of this sacred time as the word’s meaning is obscured by its decreased stature. In Australia, Canada and the UK the word “holiday” is used to mean vacation, as in “I went on holiday to Hawaii.” Now holiday just means a day off from work.

We have holidays that are purely secular. While they may be important and worthwhile, they have no roots in religious observances and can thus not be considered “holy days”. These include many of the so-called “Hallmark Holidays” such as Grandparent’s Day, Sweetest Day, Boss’s Day, and Secretary’s Day. Mother’s Day, while not a religious holiday, has its roots in the anti-war movement. Labor Day was initiated by labor groups and unions to celebrate and remember workers, but Grover Cleveland chose the current date in order to distance the day from the more radical International Workers’ Day. Now it’s seen as a day for cook outs to celebrate the end of summer and the last day that it’s fashionable for women to wear white.

There is Veteran’s Day, which was originally Armistice Day. Initially this holiday celebrated the cessation of hostilities in World War I, a solemn occasion to remember the true cost of war. Now it has become a celebration to rally the country around ever expanding militarism. It originally commemorated the ending of war, but is now used to justify our ongoing and unending involvement in conflicts around the world.

thanksgiving-cartoon.gif

The Real Earth Day
Finally we have Thanksgiving. This holiday has its roots in traditional harvest celebrations of indigenous people and Europeans. The mythological beginnings of the United States’ tradition with pilgrims and native people sitting down to share a meal almost certainly never happened, though apparently the “Wampanoag Native Americans helped the Pilgrims by providing seeds and teaching them to fish” when they were starving (Wikipedia). The myth of Thanksgiving is that European settlers and Native peoples got along just fine.

The roots of the tradition of giving thanks at the end of harvest is not unique to any particular religion or people. On the contrary it seems to be universal across cultures and religions through history. What is divergent is not stores being open on Thanksgiving, but that the vestiges of the harvest celebration with seasonal foods is barely recognized or acknowledged. It is telling that Thanksgiving is known primarily for the overconsumption of food and consumer goods. Granted many people spend quality time with their family and take time to express what they are thankful for. Remarkably absent from the majority of thanks is any reference to the harvest, seasonal food or land that sustains our lives every day.

The point of all this is that 1) holidays no longer signify only days with traditionally religious significance and 2) holidays tend to shift from their original meanings toward something else.

Is “Nothing” Sacred?
Thanksgiving cartoon.jpgThe question is, “What is the something else towards which our holy days and holidays have shifted?” I would suggest that it is not that we have shifted away from religion toward secularism, but that we have moved from one religious system to another. There is not an absence of religious significance. Instead what we have are competing systems of religious significance and meaning.

William Cavanaugh argues in Being Consumed that consumerism is not actually an attachment to things. On the surface it appears that the consumer religion is about accumulation and materialism, but on a deeper level it is more about a detachment from things as we are constantly in pursuit of the new and the next thing. In this sense “nothing” is sacred as all objects are emptied of their meaning. In the consumer religion it is the absence of meaning in objects, places and times that is sacred. The meaning is supplied by the act of shopping, buying, desiring and repeating the ritual. Which begs the question, “Is this religious violence?”

So, it is a mistake to ask about the sanctity of holidays when stores open on Thanksgiving. The growth economy demands its offerings and sacrifices as well. Therefore to paraphrase Wendell Berry, “There are no unsacred days; Only sacred days and desecrated days.”

Images from smyrnavinings.com, joyoftech.com, and http://lindaraxa.blogspot.com

The Shallow Pond Dilemma

It seems appropriate in this time of gluttony and the consumer frenzy of consumerism known as Black Friday, to talk about the ethical dilemmas of the financial choices we make.

A long time ago, I listened to Episode #100 of the Diet Soap podcast and it sparked a lot of thoughts and conversations, mostly with myself, about the nature of charity and justice and how to get from one to the other. More recently at Hope Fellowship we’ve been reaffirming our membership and commitment to the values of our little ekklesia . The last couple weeks has been teaching and discussing the value of tithing and sharing. While we can always do better, I really appreciate that we attempt to tackle one of the most touchy subjects with a little more depth, transparency and thought…how we deal with our finances. So, I thought I’d tackle some thoughts from the podcast and current conversation on the difference between charity and justice and why we should all be Mother Theresa.

The Shallow Pond Gets Deeper
In the podcast the host, Doug Lain, shares an analogy from the ethicist Peter Singer. He imagines that you are standing at a shallow pond where you see a child that has fallen in and is going to drown. The pond is shallow. So, you have no risk of injury yourself, but you have on an expensive pair of fancy shoes that you don’t want to get all muddy. In this situation it seems ridiculous to choose to preserve the muddy pair of shoes instead of the child’s life. But Singer argues that this is what we do all the time through the consumer choices we make. So, his conclusion goes something like, “You should give the money you would spend on fancy shoes to Oxfam or Unicef to take care of a starving child.”

So, Singer has highlighted the ethical dilemma involved in how we deal with our finances in light of inequality in the world. However, there are some problems with Singer’s analogy. The limit of what Singer can imagine people doing is giving lots of money to charity. Charity is the ultimate act of an utilitarian ethic. So, within the confines of an unjust social structure the best we can do is charity. Justice requires something more radical. The guest, Ben Burgis, argues that Singer’s own analogy undermines his ethic of charity,

If you go with Singer’s argument then and embrace his conclusion, then, not only should we give to charity, but even living a comfortable First World lifestyle is morally unacceptable.

Singer’s analogy presents an individual ethical dilemma where you are face to face with a choice, but when you are shopping you’re part of a mass. We don’t really make consumer choices on a purely individual basis. Within our capitalist framework we insist on the individual ethic, but there are spaces where we don’t act as individual agents, but as a collective. The forces of the economy and consumerism that create and reinforce injustice and inequality are not face to face with us when we make purchases in the supermarket or a store. As Doug Lain points out,

If you want to have a more ethical system you can’t stay within the context of that system…To ask people to invest in Oxfam instead is to ask them to do something counter to the ethics of the culture they’re in.

The Counter-Cultural Ethics of God’s Economy
This is partially the purpose of how the church is supposed to function. It intends to be an alternative to the way the world organizes itself. The hope and purpose is to embody the ethic of the reign of God that we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the ways is by committing to share our resources with this particular community. This takes different forms. One is the tithe, where ten percent of goes to the common treasury of the church. Far from absolving us, this practice is meant to invite us further in to how this is used in the life of the church and its mission in the world. But in many ways the tithe is really the lowest common denominator form of economic participation in the life of the people of God.

In a section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus challenges us to engage systems of domination with creative nonviolence, he offers this final, perhaps most radical, word, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Mt 5:42). This verse challenges our most precious possession, control. When faced with how to best use our resources, this verse challenges our addiction to those resources and the power and privilege of deciding how they are used. Elsewhere, Jesus tells the rich young man that following him requires divesting himself of all his possessions and give to the poor, enacting Jubilee in his own life (Mt 19:16-22; Lk 18:18-30). There is a radical principle here summed up in the Psalms and the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 that God is the only absolute owner. Followers of Jesus are called to hold their possessions loosely as things to be used for God’s purposes and not their own accumulation or comfort.

The next post will attempt to think about ways that we can live out these ideas in our daily lives.