Some of us have been preaching against consumerism for ages – some vehemently and constantly, some merely occasionally. Looking at the current US economy it appears that maybe someone was listening.
What’s wrong with consumerism?
- When we’re captivated by consumerism, we think having stuff – and constantly having more stuff will make us happy and give us a good life. As followers of Jesus, we reject the idea that things – whatever they be – can bring us salvation. That’s Jesus’ role in our lives. Consumerism, therefore, is a form of idolatry.
- Our consumerist lifestyle has been driven by debt. Millions of Americans are drowning in credit card, mortgage and other forms of debt. They have to work longer hours, extra jobs, just to stay even. But staying even isn’t enough. We need more! Sure doesn’t look like the happy life to me.
What’s happening now?
- People have stopped buying as much. Some have stopped buying because they’ve maxed out their debt – they can’t get any more credit. Some have stopped because they have no cash. Others have stopped because they see a greater need to save for the future given the economic crisis.
- As the population ages, large numbers of people are deciding to downsize. In terms of housing, they want less house to maintain. In terms of stuff, they’ve have seen that possessions aren’t worth as much as they may have seemed at first.
These conditions combine to lead to a drop in demand. If less stuff is wanted, there is less demand for people to produce that stuff, leading to a decrease in jobs. An end to consumerism doesn’t just mean that people throw away their idols. People involved in the economy of idols lose their jobs. That’s a factor we preachers against consumerism haven’t always taken into account. While consumerism has been idolatrous for many, it has also been a source of livelihood for others.
I think of the problems the early Christians created in Ephesus. As more people became followers of Jesus, they not only rejected the idols they had previously honored, they also stopped buying new ones. Demetrius and his fellow idol-makers felt the pinch. They framed it, however, not as a loss for themselves, but as a lack of respect for the great goddess Diana. If Demetrius had become a Christian, how might he have handled things differently? If he listened carefully to Paul, he probably wouldn’t have continued making statues of Diana, excusing his participation in idolatry with something like, “Personally, I’m against idol worship, but hey! I need to make a living. I need to put food on the table, pay my mortgage, and take care of my kids, don’t I? To me it’s just a hunk of silver. To them, it’s a tool for their religion. Who am I to judge?”
I don’t know what the best answer for Demetrius – or for producers today – if the turn away from consumerism lasts for a substantial amount of time. Here are a few thoughts as I start thinking about it.
- The economy will re-tool to reflect a changed perception of what people truly need.
- Perhaps we’ll learn how to shift from a consumption economy based on “gimme, gimme, gimme” to a gift/grace based economy based on, “What do you need? How can I/we bless you?”
- I’m concerned that the powerful of our society will “hog the lifeboats” and the weak will be left to drown. The powerful are in a place to profit from government bailouts, either in terms of direct funding, indirect siphoning through corruption, or through maintenance of personal freedom while those at the bottom are reduced to serfdom, either of the government or of government-favored corporations.
What do the rest of you see as options?