Laura Hartman identifies 4 Christian responses to the challenge of consumerism and then unpacks each in detail. She wants to draw on Christian tradition to develop a wise response to contemporary consumerism.
This approach is helpful – it captures how complex the challenge of consumerism is. There is no one obvious ‘Christian response’ but there is depth and riches in the Christian faith by which to think about and engage with consumerism.
Here’s the first one:
1) ‘To Avoid Sin’
This is renunciation of consumption: a call to counter-cultural living as a route to holiness and virtue. Over-consumption is both physically and spiritually damaging.
This is a form of resistance to consumerism that takes the form of frugality, asceticism, self-denial, simplicity, avoidance of complicity in the sin of unneccessary consumption.
Being spiritual is to avoid getting sucked up the desires of the world.
This response has a rather long pedigree since it begins with Jesus and his call to pursue the kingdom of God before material needs.
Hartman takes three representative voices from Church History:
Francis of Assisi (no intro needed): a radical life committed to prayer, preaching and poverty. He ate little, fasted regularly and wore simple clothing. This ‘avoidance of sin’ was controversial then and even more so after his death.
Francis’ asceticism was a path to holy non-attachment – an act of resistance against the pull of the material world. He is reputed to have said that if he took more than he needed, he would be robbing from the poor.
John Woolman (1720-72, Quaker Abolitionist, who urged avoidance in complicity in the slave trade. For example he refused to use silver, sugar and molasses due to their inextricable link to slavery. (All new to me, sounds like a fascinating character.)
If Francis pursued poverty as an ideal, Woolman sought simplicity. This is far more than a ‘simple lifestyle’ that yet still fits comfortably in the prevailing culture, for the Quakers it was plainness in dress and active detachment from possessions. Woolman resisted luxury since it contradicted God’s will. Luxury is a fruit of evil – it results from overuse of God’s resources (including slaves). Like Francis (and Sider), accumulation of luxury is at the expense of the poor and is sinful.
Ron Sider of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger among many other things. His clarion call has been for rich (Western) Christians to simplify their lives in order to better help the poor.
Sider’s prophetic style ministry has been designed to shock Christians complicit in a consumer culture into confronting global poverty. If they really believed the Bible they would divest themselves of affluence and develop a passion for justice. It is evangelicals, who claim to believe the Bible, who are ‘liberals’ when it comes to interpreting what it says on wealth. His call is one to repentance.
Beyond individual responsibility, Sider argues that those who have benefitted from affluence while knowing it is built on systemic injustices and yet do nothing are guilty of sin against God and neighbour.
Sider’s way to be free of sin (or complicity in sin) is for individuals to practice a graduated tithe based on the bare minimum to live on ($30,000 income = $6,300 tithe based on an early chart in 1997).
His point is what should Christians measure their lifestyle on? Rather than taking their base against the norm of a capitalist consumer culture they should begin in comparison to the world’s poor.
Hartman sums up this ascetic tradition well: saying NO to your own desires is saying YES to something better. At its best it is a vision of human flourishing (rather than a negative denial of life).
The ‘avoidance of sin’ or ascetic tradition is not without its critics – but Hartman (rightly) contends it is essential to any truly Christian understanding of consumption.
Here’s my brief observation / question – the ascetic tradition, despite its long and honourable legacy, now seems to be so marginal in Western Christianity as to be almost invisible. It appears to have been swamped by hyper-consumerism and technology as to appear not merely old-fashioned but almost incomprehensible in the modern church …
Or am I missing something?