26 February 2016
Once upon a time, our society was primarily defined by what we believed. Then we defined ourselves by what we produced. Today, it seems that we are mostly defined by what we consume.
Whether we are shopping, eating, watching football, receiving healthcare, or dealing with the government, we increasingly see ourselves as consumers. The term is everywhere. We seem comfortable with it. But have we ever stopped to think what it actually means?
In a literal sense, to consume something actually means to destroy it, to use it up or expend it. Nowadays consumerism is taken to be the idea that the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts should be encouraged. It's basically a celebration of getting and experiencing, and the instinct is for the instant. In words of the pop group Queen: "I want it all and I want it now."
Clearly, this has implications for our relationships – how we regard each other; our environment and the material world. Yet, consumerism seems part and parcel of human life. People have always had 'wants' as well as 'needs'. Our freedom of choice as individuals is important, and we all benefit from the variety of choice that consumerism brings. After all, there's nothing wrong with owning things.
That is unless things begin to own us. Then, with the logic that 'I shop therefore I am', we end up buying things we don't really need with money we don't really have. The outcome of this kind of self-indulgence is a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Things like the 'credit crunch' in 2008 show what happens when a preoccupation with possessing becomes a form of worship, giving people identity and meaning – taking the place of God.
So, how can we avoid or resist this idolatry? Well, the Bible tells us that we are all made in the image of God, and therefore entitled to equal dignity. This means that it's not ok for our consuming to involve exploiting people. The Bible also tells us that this world is God's world, and that we have a responsibility to care for it. So it's not ok for our consuming to degrade our natural resources.
It's these biblical principles that first drew evangelicals to campaign for fair trade and better working conditions, and to fight against slavery. Alongside humility and compassion, the principles give followers of Christ a framework for 'ethical consumerism': respect – for people; responsibility – for stewarding; and restraint – from conspicuous consumption. These three R's are certainly helpful in guiding our own thoughts and actions. In a fallen world, Christians should always witness to the counter-cultural kingdom of Jesus. But what can be done about the effect that consumerism is having on the thinking and values in broader society? How do we deal with the way in which it's fast colonising many aspects of life that hitherto were considered to be off limits?
There's marriage. Once seen as the building block of society, but now effectively privatised, consigned to be redefined evermore by the free-market of relationships. There's sexuality. Despite biological identity being fixed in nature, it's now being subjected to consumer choice by 'gender fluidity'. And then there's life itself. With abortion, the consumer fixation with 'pro-choice' has created an entire industry, and alongside sex-selective abortions, another bio-engineering industry is developing to supply 'designer babies' to suit our lifestyle choices.
As we survey this ecology of sin and self, it's worth considering the fact that what we call 'consumer choice' overwhelmingly benefits those with the power, the money and the education to make such choices. In a society in which salvation comes by shopping, then it's rather obvious that those with the most to spend are in poll position. The poor on the other hand, being unable to even contribute to a 'consumer-led recovery', are increasingly seen as social and economic burdens. This is a justice issue, and it demands a strong Christian critique.
We should also ask ourselves whether we might be applying consumerism to our faith. Do we approach Christianity for what we can get out of it? Are we seeking and following the will of God or pursuing our own lifestyle choices? Do we shop around the Bible for words that fit what we want hear? Is our church life packaged like a therapeutic formula – entertaining us and massaging our egos? To what degree have we 'bought into' this consumer thinking?
In Matthew 6, Jesus calls us to store up treasures in heaven, and not to worry or strive after earthly things. "Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire." (Hebrews 12: 28-29)