I’m super tired. Life has been an exhausting emotional roller coaster or ship tossed in a tempest. I’m short on words, but I want to pass this piece on to you. I would ask you to pray for the USA, all of the USA, Christians, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, Jewish. All. People. It’s a sandcastle waiting for the tide to knock it down. I really believe it’s true.
It can happen to any of us since it begins innocently enough. We need to get a new camera, or a new outfit, and we begin an online search. We begin comparing prices and online reviews hoping to find the best value. Before we know it, we’ve spent an entire afternoon shopping for whatever is the latest and greatest product.
Perhaps we feel great about scoring the best deal, but I know that for me, I am overcome with a sense of disgust that an entire afternoon was lost to shopping. I feel sheepish about how I’ve used what little precious time I have to satisfy my latest consumer craving. Furthermore, the more I indulge my desire to satisfy my purchasing power the more my identity becomes that of a purchaser. As Annie Leonard notes in The Story of Stuff, “Our primary identity has become that of being consumers—not mothers, teachers, or farmers, but of consumers. We shop and shop and shop.”(1)
For the United States in particular, what began as a period of unparalleled optimism and prosperity in following World War II has become a national obsession. Retailing analyst, Victor Lebow, expressed the solution for converting a war-time prosperity into a peace-time economy of growth and abundance: “Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption….[W]e need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”(2) In addition, the chairman of President Eisenhower’s council of economic advisors stated: “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.”(3)
This seems a very reductive purpose statement when looking at something as complex as economic systems. But this was the basic thinking of the time. I wonder about the success of this strategy. On the one hand, I did just spend hours of my day shopping. On the other hand, there are the perennial issues of health care, education, citizens, communities, housing, transportation, recreation, or less poverty and hunger to consider as well. Should the ultimate goal for any economy be to simply create a mass culture of consumption? Or is it to create a better society?
It doesn’t take an expert to see the impact of this ‘solution’ in our lives today. We live in a throw-away society, where what we currently have today is passé tomorrow. More insidious, of course, is the way in which a consumptive-economy works to make us feel inadequate if we do not have the latest and greatest shoes, clothes, cars, tools, technology, or gadgets.
Of course, no one is immune from this entrenched influence. A consumer-driven mentality impacts the way in which Christians view and participate in church community. Casual language about “church shopping” belies one of the more subtle impacts. It becomes more and more difficult to see the church as the present day representation of Jesus Christ; we are members of this organic body entrusted with mission and witness in the larger society. Instead, consumerism tempts Christians to see ourselves as “shoppers” examining who offers the best product for our needs. Following Jesus looks more like a marketing strategy for a better life, marriage, kids…and on and on the shopping goes.
If belonging to a church is judged as a product to be consumed, the church must appeal to the consumer to “buy into” the product. As a result, the message sounds more and more like self-help messages of Jesus as the answer to our every need, our every discomfort, and our every trial. Indeed, Jesus becomes the ultimate product to provide us with the life we’ve always wanted—comfort, convenience, and efficiency. As the church reduces Jesus to a commodity, there is more and more pressure to “sell” the benefits of following Jesus. As a result, the counter-consumer messages of the gospel are ignored or altered. But what did Jesus say?
Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth.
No one can serve two masters.
If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does life consist of possessions.
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves….for my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.(4)
Indeed, in response to this last teaching of Jesus, John’s gospel reports that many of the disciples said, “‘This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?’….[And] as a result of this many of his disciples withdrew, and were not walking with him anymore” (John 6:60, 66).
Who can hear the message of the gospel in a world that makes consumer confidence the measure of strength or weakness, success or failure? Who can listen to it when our chief desire is for a packaged Jesus, not too challenging and certainly comforting, ready and able to meet every need? Indeed, who can listen to the challenging words of Christ when we are about the business of converting “the buying and use of goods into rituals,” and seeking “our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption?”(5) Are we rightly consuming Christ or simply shopping for another product?
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Anne Leonard, http://www.storyofstuff.com.
(2) As cited in “Consumer Culture is no Accident” by David Suzuki, http://www.eartheasy.com/article_consumer_culture.htm, accessed Sept 13, 2013.
(4) See Matthew 5:44, 6:19, 24, 7:1; Mark 2:17, 8:34; Luke 12:15; John 6:53-68.
(5) Victor Lebow as cited in “Consumer Culture is no Accident” by David Suzuki.