Thursday, December 18, 2008
Consumerism, Credit (credo) Crisis, and the Church
I ran across this picture a couple of days ago. A collage of prosperity and poverty created in the 1940’s and upon which someone has superimposed “2008”. It says much about race and class and economic theory and a host of other issues that are foundational, cyclical, yet seldom in the forefront of our consciousness. But an economic downturn and a credit crisis can bring some of those issues to the forefront of our thought and make them cry out for examination.
One of those issues is that of “consumerism.” Consumerism is the theory that a progressively greater consumption of goods is economically beneficial. On a personal level, consumerism is the equation of personal happiness with consumption and the purchase of material possessions.
Many critics reduce consumerism to the individual pursuit of material comfort that inevitably leads to spiritual bankruptcy. In this time of economic recession, especially as it coincides with the Christmas shopping season, the Christian media and many sermons are full of moralistic pronouncements that denounce a society for its wickedness, and prophesy its downfall. A few, however, go beyond condemnation to help us understand how the church might respond to a society whose faith in consumerism has been shaken.
The reality is that consumerism is not simply about individual greed, but has played a foundational role in a culture that values liberty and democracy and has made it a part of “The American Way of Life”. Gary Cross, in his book, An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercial-
ism Won in Modern America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, points out that consumerism gave concrete shape to liberty by providing various means for personal expression. It fostered democracy by enabling diverse groups to share in the ownership and use of goods. What is consumed is not only material goods, but personal identity independent of the old world social and class constraints on what persons could enter the cultural mainstream. But Cross also notes that it has done this at the cost of other values. The satisfaction of immediate needs may replace the desire to search for higher goals. Immediate satisfaction takes the place of constraint. The need to fulfill my need makes the need of community secondary and undermines long-lasting commitments. We risk losing key virtues that stabilize and promote social life: care for others, compromise, friendship, responsibility to the past, and a felt obligation for the future.
America’s faith in consumerism has been shaken by the twofold developments of environmentalism and recession. The god of Mammon has not only failed many, but it has corrupted our environment and shown its evil head in new ways never envisioned by even the strongest proponents of consumerism and unfettered capitalism. Adam Hamilton, in an article, “Faith, Hope, and the Credit Crisis,” (click here for full article) points out that “credit” is a word that is a part of the language of faith. It comes from the Latin credere—to believe or to trust. The present active form of this word—credo, “I believe”—opens the Apostle’s Creed. In the case of credit, belief or trust is placed in the borrower and his or her willingness and ability to repay. Our current economic crisis is in part about misplaced trust or faith between debtors and lenders.
Hamilton observes that neither the $700 billion bailout package, nor a Federal Reserve interest rate cut, nor presidential calls for calm seem to adequately speak to the underlying issues that precipitated this crisis of faith. This is a moment when the Bible and people of faith have both the timely word that can calm fears, the most accurate assessment of what fundamentally led to the current economic debacle, and the demonstration of hope and concern from a reconciling community.
The opportunity is there for the church to speak once again to society about those values which bring true meaning, purpose, and identity to life. But our message must not simply be one of condemnation, but of demonstration. A group called “The Advent Conspiracy” puts forth a message directed primarily at Christians, but which also communicates to non-Christians. (See video)
A key message of the video is that Jesus gave himself relationally, incarnationally, with time, space, and presence. During this difficult economic time, the church has opportunity to reach out as Jesus did: relationally, incarnationally, with time, space, and presence to those who feel abandoned by the god of Mammon – the homeless, the unemployed, the hungry, and those who feel worthless because they are worth less. (Click on the post “The Year of the Grasshopper” on my “Consecrated Stewards “ blog for more thoughts.) Certainly this is done through the contributions we make to charitable groups, but even more effectively when the local church and the individual Christian reaches out not just financially, but relationally, incarnationally, with time, space, and presence to those who feel abandoned.
And the witness to be given in these times is not simply one of condemnation and repentance. There is a witness of God’s redeeming grace that gives true joy and meaning to life. Fellow Lutheran, Art Simon, in his book, How Much is Enough? Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003) shows that when the church is faithful to the mission of Christ it produces personal and social well-being that far surpasses the gains of consumerism. The call away from consumerism is not a call to dour asceticism, but rather an invitation to joy, an invitation to celebrate, as Simon says, God’s extravagant grace.
Simon also points repeatedly to the social and community dimensions of Christian living, dimensions of life ignored by consumerism. Christian life is lived outward, which means that it is directed to others in acts of sharing, encouragement, and mutual upbuilding. “Power used selfishly is power corrupted. Ability wasted is power corrupted. But opportunity to do good, received as a trust from God and exercised to help others, is power ennobled” (p. 100).
The church, in these difficult times, has opportunity to do good, received as a trust from God and exercised to help others. And in that exercise, it becomes power ennobled, for it becomes an instrument of the gospel to bring the good news to the poor – who finally realize how poor they are, regardless of their bank accounts.
+++ For additional resources on stewardship and consumerism, including art, worship resources, articles, study guides, see Baylor University Center for Christian Ethics. (Click Here)