The Christian Consumer: love of neighbour

A third Christian perspective on consumerism unpacked by Laura Hartman is to love thy neighbour. She focuses on the Catholic Worker Movement of Dorothy Day in NY city in the 1930s as an example. [What a character and story!)

If God commands us to love one another as he loves us, then this will show in our consumption choices. Hartman uses a sixfold framework of proximity:

This could get a long post, so here’s a snapshot. If love is a ‘committment of the will to the good of another’, Christian love is framed by God’s sacrificial love  of even his enemies.

How then can you and I love those who touch our lives, and who are impacted by ours?

Hartman’s categories are useful for making us think about ‘consumption’ – we need to define what sort of consumption we are talking about.

1. SELF LOVE:-  – means caring for the self. What that means is slippery. A Dorothy Day who lived frugally cared for herself through eating and living modestly. Yet for most Westerners, such a simple life of voluntary poverty would be close to self-abuse. We Christians live lives of remarkable luxury. We over-consume food in a self-destructive way. I doubt that there is much difference in obesity stats for Christians and the wider (expanding Western population. When does self-love become selfishness?

2. LOVE OF CLOSE-OTHERS: – we consume things all the time in order to bless others. What is buying a present but other-centred consumption? (Yes, motives can be mixed but you get the point). Most parents consume for the benefit of their children, often putting their own needs last. Inviting friends round to dinner to consume lovingly prepared food is other-centred consumption. This is a life of generosity and giving.

3. LOVE OF SOMEWHAT DISTANT OTHERS: – the people you and I meet occasionally and can have some sort of relationship with. Perhaps the Good Samaritan and the guy on the road – their paths literally cross (well as literally as you get in a parable. In the context of consumption, Hartman connects this to love in the marketplace.

She quotes Luther here railing against unjust sellers. He links injustice and greed with lack of love of neighbour. The seller’s main concern should be “directed more toward doing him [customer] no injury than toward gaining profit for yourself”

Imagine such neighbour love being practiced by Irish banks ? Imagine the implications for capitalism if practiced with some sense of relational responsibility to each other? Imagine buyers not taking advantage of desperate sellers to sell as unsustainable prices?

Hartman has a discussion of neighbour-love in economics via feminist theologian Kathryn Tanner and Japanese evangelist Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960). To be loved and blessed by God is to share that blessing outwardly and generously with others. Such other-focused love leads to formation of community: co-operatives; businesses owned by the workers and consumers for mutual benefit, not for the powerful few.

Tanner counters capitalism’s innate privatization and individualism. A ‘common possession right’, while each person has a right to a share of God’s gifts, means that private property is relativised. A communal identity transcends the hermetically sealed ‘self’ that has little need of others or of neighbours. This is an attempt to re-envision the marketplace in terms of mutually beneficial relationships. A call to fair wages and fair pricing.

4. LOVE OF PLACE. For Hartman this is love of the ecosystem, primarily local. Love of the local, buying local, looking after the local ecosystem, walking the area etc. This section didn’t hang together for me.

5 LOVE OF FARAWAY OTHERS: This is where global capitalism promotes anonymous goods in our supermarkets and shops. They ‘just are’; sitting there without context or any sense of where they came from or who made them or how they got here.

This is where it gets tough to make informed decisions. How do you love people you have never met and know nothing about? How can me deciding to consume less chocolate (for example) actually help the poor? It might help my waistline and wallet more immediately!

John Schneider’s response is not to worry about it. We can’t change the world, we are only responsible for what we can impact. Even trying to consume locally is impossible given globalisation. Otherwise we are overwhelmed by things we can do nothing about. This is pragmatic boundary drawing.

Schneider does have a point. It is very hard to figure out practical steps that don’t seem like mere tokenism when it comes to love of far away others. Yes, we buy only Fairtrade. Yes, we can say that there needs to be a massive readjustment of living standards in the West if the global majority are to share equitably in God’s creation consistent with their human dignity and environmental sustainability. But such abstract goals remain nice ideas.

But Schneider’s myopia is also all too conveniently self-serving. It asks no questions of Christians as to who is their neighbour. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan asks each of us what sort of neighbour are we? How does our consumption impact others?  Hartman talks of the will to love, regardless of how ‘successful’ such love may be.

She advocates virtue ethics of moderate consumption, temperance, prudence, and generosity. Love being the highest virtue of all.

6. LOVE OF GOD.  Loving God means loving what God loves – justice, the poor, the world he made. The loves described above are, Hartman argues, ways of loving God.

How does our consumption reflect love of God? Love of his creation? Love of those made in his image? Love of justice?

Loving others means a desire to transform the world and its economic systems.Visions of justice and love are framed by an ultimate eschatological vision of a re-made world when all will be made right. And it is eschatology that forms the focus of Hartman’s fourth and final Christian perspective on consumption.

Comments. as ever, welcome.

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