Via Alan Hirsch’s blog, I just watched a video about the story of stuff. Seeing the big picture can be a harrowing experience.
Ever wonder how we got to be such a consumeristic society? Looks like it was planned. This quote is from an economist who helped shape the philosophy for North American business after WWII:
Not only is consumerism a problem, it’s a false religion! Lord, have mercy, and teach us how to live faithfully.
Wow. Thanks for sharing this. Consumption/consumerism is a spiritual issue — by design apparently. My only beef with the video is the way she appeals to government as the one who will “take care of us” and set it all right. If only …
Benjamin Sternke says
I agree, Maria. She does come at it with a very “secular” mindset, in that she trusts in democracy to save us, but the problems illuminated by the video are very real, and point to the most ubiquitous idolatry in our culture, I think.
I got mixed thoughts here. Of course, consumerism is a huge problem. One that I detest. But its a spiritual problem. To move it into an economic/political problem gets dangerous…because now we are really skating around in people's ideologies. What system is preferrable to a free market? What is more biblical? (not saying its the most just saying what other options exist in 2008?) Tie this to how we help developing nations…what do we do? We "teach them how to fish" (ie..capitalism) I see a tension between fighting consumerism and at the same time fighting poverty. I guess this whole thing just raises a bunch of questions in my mind…Is a strong economy an enemy of the soul? Can poverty be fought without wealth? Extreme example: "consumerism" gave us Warren Buffet and Bill Gates…HUGE humanitarians. I guess it shouldn't surprise us that God uses consumerism for good…but what should our crosshares be pointing at? help me out here ben.
Benjamin Sternke says
Yeah, I know what you mean, Dan. I guess I have many of the same questions. I see it not only as an economic problem, but a ‘whole-life’ problem – especially thinking about how consumerism, industrialism, etc, have contributed to poverty. Yes we’ve got Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who are huge humanitarians, but it sure looks like the system that made them rich was the same one that created all the need for humanitarianism. That is, a rising tide apparently does NOT lift all boats. We’re just shielded from the real-life costs (not just in terms of $$) of the ‘stuff’ we have.
Sometimes I wonder if the only logically coherent answer is to become an anarchist (!), but I lean towards the line of Hauwerwas when he says the main job of the church is to be the church. Not necessarily to foist the ‘blessings’ of democracy or capitalism on other cultures, not necessarily only to relieve the suffering of the poor (though that would be part of it), but to simply be the covenant community of God centered on Christ, and decisions be made on that basis. I’m not explaining it all that well, but he talks about avoiding both ‘activism’ of the classic liberal church and the ‘isolationism’ of the conservative church by focusing on doing all for the glory of God.
On the tension between fighting consumerism and fighting poverty, I think that consumerism actually CREATES a lot of the poverty we see around us. An example is when Wal-Mart comes into a small town, which everybody thinks is great because of “low prices”, but pretty soon the hardware store that’s been the staple of downtown goes out of business, and the owners now work at Wal-Mart as greeters, with inadequate health insurance and LESS money than they had when they owned the hardware store. Their lower standard of living is the “cost” of the low prices. But we often don’t draw a straight line between the two, especially if the line goes all the way around the world to communities in Africa and Asia that we don’t see.
Ultimately I don’t know where the crosshairs should be pointing, honestly. I do think that consumerism is THE idolatry of our day and the church needs to find some way to resist it and prophetically speak and live against it. The proclamation of the gospel has always been a politically subversive thing (“Jesus is Lord” means “Caesar is not”). I think one part of the key is learning to live IN but not OF capitalism. We all have to buy stuff, but it doesn’t mean we have to get on the treadmill of work-watch-buy (work, watch TV to relax, TV says I’m not fulfilled unless I buy stuff, so I go buy stuff, which I need money for, so I work more, then come home to relax by watching TV… etc). The faithful preaching of the gospel (not self-help) will greatly assist in creating a faithful community that resists the idolatries of our day. Then we can just see what kinds of conflicts come up!
sorry if i’m taking this further than the initial thrust of your post but..
When you say the “system” that was responsible for poverty, do you mean the free market? If so, I don’t get that. Take Japan for instance, after WW2, it was heavily industrialized, and increased the standard of living a huge amount in a very short time. Not to say there won’t be poverty in the midst of it, but when you compare poverty rates in our country or Japan to some others where the free market hasn’t had a chance to flourish as much, you see widespread poverty. So, it does seem that a rising tide lifts more boats…not all of them…but comparatively speaking.
Maybe we can talk more about international politics and poverty over bball in the morning…lol. In all seriousness, I see a lot of the same problems you do, I’ve just never identified the causes this short film was pointing to. And in that sense, I’m not sure if a “christian” response can be the same as this “secular” view..ie limit the free market, support government mandates to limit production, etc.
But who knows, maybe I need a presuppositional shrink to help me sort up all my hangups.
Benjamin Sternke says
I think part of the problem IS the international nature of it, Dan. Sure, poverty rates in Japan went down, but what was the global effect of their prosperity? I’m not saying I know, just that nations aren’t isolated in bubbles – the cheap shoes we buy here in North America are cheap, oftentimes because they are made in sweatshops in Indonesia, for example. It’s a complicated business, figuring out where all this stuff comes from – and it’s part of the problem of the dissolution of local economies. I don’t know the person who makes my shoes, grows my food, etc… so there’s less accountability. If my neighbor was the town cobbler and I knew he was using slaves to make shoes, I’d talk to him about it..
I’m not advocating that we all should go back to “the good old days”, just that we recognize evil for what it is and call it like it is, and look for solutions that make sense.