Most Christians instinctively know that consumerism is wrong. Most of us are confused by what is wrong with it.
1) It is not the fact that we consume that is wrong. Eating food, buying clothes or living in houses are not sinful or wrong. These are all basic services where we consume a product or a service that is legitimate. You could take the moral high ground and point to those who own fancy-high end sedans or 4×4′s.
Two problems with this; firstly we make the assumption that this is not a legitimate consuming of a product. Owning a 4×4 could be considered a legitimate expense for a game ranger, worker for a human aid organisation or a farmer. Secondly, we raise the question of where do we draw the line in determining what is legitimate to consume. You may for instance own a very old vehicle, in decent condition and with low insurance. That still makes you exceedingly wealthy by the standards of most of the world’s population.
It is right that we consider how we consume and in particular in light of our poorer neighbours, both locally and globally. Over-consumption is a massive problem in our world but it is not the heart of consumerism. Given it is often a natural result of consumerism but it is not consumerism itself.
2) Consumerism is not primarily about selling, advertising or marketing. If you have a good product that will meet the need of people who need it then by all means let people know about it. It is not wrong to sell high-quality sports shoes to athletes who will benefit from such shoes. Nor is it wrong to design advertising for makers of fine silver, beautiful furniture or home appliances. God gave us a mandate to take up the raw materials of creation and create function, beauty, music and technology. To make people aware of new products, beautiful designs or functional devices is surely not sinful.
3) Nor can we legitimize consuming functional products or services over creative or beautiful products or services. Creation displays for us something of a God who delights in both functionality and in beauty. The cultural mandate affirms not only function but music, art and beauty. Besides who decides what is functional and what is not. In certain contexts one product may be functional whilst in another it may be considered a luxury. A basic car or computer would not be frowned upon as a luxury in my context but in many other contexts it would signify extreme wealth. And honestly speaking who has ever died from lack of internet access?
4) Nor can we limit the “evil of consumerism” to a matter of what is expensive. I suspect that many relatively inexpensive trivial products constantly bought or desired may more deeply ensnare us to the spirit of consumerism than one or two carefully considered, expensive purchases.
What then is consumerism?
It is not the buying, selling, marketing, advertising or expense of a product that ensnares us to consumerism. It is the stories we tell about these products.
Consumerism tells a story about the product that is simply not true. Most marketing will make claims that overstate or distort the product (“buy this tractor and you will be desirable to women”) or raises questions about your identity (“a good mother feeds chocolate spread to her kids every morning”). It is not the product itself which is necessarily wrong but the stories we tell about it or about ourselves that go beyond what the product can deliver.
We cannot find joy in the car we drive, peace in the bank we use, life in the soft drink we drink, satisfaction in what running shoes we wear, contentment in what we eat or rest in the food we eat. Yet these are the stories we tell ourselves and the lies advertisements feed us constantly. As good as the product may be it simply cannot fulfil the hopes that we place in it or the claims that the producers make for it. To believe these false-claims and orientate your desires and lifestyle around these false-stories is the heart of consumerism.
The antidote to consumerism:
1) Gospel Identity: The gospel is not merely a bunch of propositions to which we give mental assent. But it is a radically different alternative story around which we alter our entire lives. In Christ we are caught up in a new and better story which defines not only who we are but also drastically reshapes our values, rhythms and lifestyle.
We no longer need to prove ourselves through achievement because Christ has achieved it all on our behalf. We no longer need to justify ourselves before others because in Christ we are already justified. We no longer need to seek satisfaction in a new product because in Christ we have been given every spiritual blessing. We no longer need to prove our worth in what we have because we have already been declared worthy in Christ. We no longer need to seek our security in things because in Christ our future is secure. We no longer need to seek peace of mind because in Christ we have peace with God. We no longer need to seek status in what we have because in Christ our status is both secure and glorious.
An identity based on any other story is an identity that must be earned and maintained, while a gospel identity, however, is one that is given to us, does not depend on us and cannot be taken from us. We are set free to walk in what Christ has already done for us.
2) Contentment: Contentment is first of all a trust in God’s sovereignty. I trust that God is in control and that all I have is all that he has given me and therefore all that I need. Because I know that God is sovereign I can rest in his provision for me.
Contentment is secondly a trust in God’s goodness. As early in the Bible story as Genesis 3, Satan was out to convince man that God was a tyrant, holding back the best for himself. The story of the Bible is the story of God over and again demonstrating that it is, contrary to the lie, good to live under his reign. Satan’s all persuasive lie was revealed as such once and for all at the cross. God does not hold back his best from us, on the contrary he gives up his very best and dearest in order to win us back from the slavery of Satan’s lie. The cross stands as definitive proof that God is not a tyrant but rather a good and loving King, who gives his very best for his people.
On the radio station I used to listen to growing up – Friday was “old skool” day. So I thought I might continue that trend for a while (maybe even sporadically) and on an “old skool” Friday I will re-post an old post of mine that I think might still have some value. So if you have read this before maybe ask yourself – has anything changed? If this is new to you, I would love to hear your thoughts and reactions.
Good News to our City: Economic Inequality
Let us begin with a statement of fact – whites (including Christians) are (present tense intended) the benefactors of the apartheid system. Yes, we all know that “all that discrimination” is in the past and that now we are all even (?!) But to imagine that 40 years of institutionalized (that is even to ignore the fact that racial discrimination was crippling black people long before apartheid was on the statute books) can simply disappear overnight and that previous privileged and disadvantages are no longer valid is simply naive or ungodly.
Let us try an analogy: It is as if we whites and blacks have been playing a game of football and for the first half all the black players have one arm and one leg tied behind their back. Predictably the score at half time is 28-0. At half time the whites realize the error of their ways (best case motives allowed) and untie the blacks for the second half but do nothing about the score. And when the black players, understandably, protest – the white response is anger, whilst pointing out the only now even (?) playing field.
That is Cape Town/South Africa today, we may be 14 years into our new democracy but whites have conveniently forgotten that blacks started this era of democracy 28-0 behind. In order for South Africa to work towards significant economic equality white people have to be prepared to give something up. The question for Christians in Cape Town today is – where does the Kingdom of God fit into all of this?
Martin Luther once said: “If you preach the gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time you are not preaching the Gospel at all.” (quoted in Ron Sider p52).
If you have any doubt as to whether this is one of the issues of our time here are some statistics:
- Unemployment in Cape Town is at 16,9% (2007)
- 58.4% of people aged 20+ have an education level less than grade 12. (2007) whilst a further 23,6% have Grade 12 as their highest education level. Leaving only 16,8% of people aged 20+ with a tertiary qualification.
- 8.4% of people 20+ have less than Grade 5 (2007)
- 38.8% of households are living below the poverty line (2005)
- 6.7% of households have no access to safe drinking water (2007), and 5.8% no access to adequate sanitation (2007) and 2.8% no access to electricity for lighting (2007)
- 108 889 – informal dwellings were serviced by the city in 2007 (this obviously does not include those that were not serviced)
- Amongst those living in informal settlements only 16% have Grade 12 and this drops to as low as 2% among the unemployed.
- 25% of those living in informal settlements are regarded as functionally illiterate.
- 98% of these were Xhosa speaking with 92% having been born in the Eastern Cape.
- 39,5% of adult residents were unemployed (34% men and 66% women)
- 52% of the unemployed had never worked in paid jobs before
- Average household income was R1315 per month (inclusive of state grants received by 41% of households). At the time of the survey the Household Subsistence Level was R1900. More than 80% of households fell below this level.
- 54% of households spoke of times when they had no food for the day. Whilst 61% did not always have enough to eat.
- On average 30 people were sharing one toilet cubicle
- 83% of residents experienced serious problems with flooding around or in their shacks.
- The city had a backlog of housing of 260 000.
- The 50 informal settlements in 1993 had grown to over 200 by 2005. Khayalitsha for instance has a total of 13 informal settlements containing 42 170 shacks. And Philippi with a total of 23 informal settlements containing 15114 shacks.
- Since 1993 informal dwellings have grown from 28 300 to 98 031 in 2005.
- Impacting the lives of approximately 400 000 people, almost 13% of the Cape Town population.
- The total unemployment levels in Cape Town are 19,4%
- Of those Black Africans have a 34,8% (225473 people) unemployment rate, comprising 31% of the population
- Coloureds have a 15,8% (147250 people) unemployment rate, comprising 48,13% of the population
- Asians and Indians a 7,1 % (2072 people) unemployment rate comprising 1,43% of the population
- And Whites a 3,1 % (11987 people) unemployment rate comprising 18,75% of the population
1. In SA this is largely a black-white issue and this is how it is at best perceived and at worst intended. We cannot get away from the reality that white people including Christians are the major beneficiaries of apartheid. If we are serious about racial reconciliation (see part 1 of this series) then we must ask questions about an economic system that entrenches the divide not only between rich and poor, but often also between white and black. If the gospel is to be good news that works to our city then it must be seen to overcoming these divides, uplifting the poor, changing the priorities of the wealthy etc.
2. White Christians (this is a generalization) need to give up their love affair with Western capitalism. Out of the West and particularly the United States comes a form of Christianity which is often too closely wed to capitalism. Capitalism as an economic system is about the maximum profit for the minimum expenses. As Christians in business, running businesses, endorsing and using businesses, this “raw capitalism” is most often at odds with the people-centred, looking after the vulnerable, type economics of the Bible.
We have to practice and endorse and look to encourage whatever form of economic system (in one sense that is irrelevant) best looks after “the poor and the widows”, the vulnerable, those who are without means and resources. Whatever system best allows the greatest number of people to rise above poverty, unemployment, unsanitary living conditions, lack of access to proper healthcare and education is the system/policy/party which we ought to be endorsing.
The sad reality is that most of our decision-making and values are played out not by reading the for instance the Old Testament prophets but by the values which we inherit and endorse as those who are the (continuing) beneficiaries of an unjust economic system. White Christians fail to critique or even see anything wrong with our capitalist economy mainly because we are the beneficiaries and propagators of an unjust system which continues to make the (white) rich richer and the (black) poor poorer
3. White Christians need to consider their living standards and priorities in the light not of first world countries but in light of Africa. In a city where hundreds of our brothers (if we limit it to Christians alone for the point of illustration) regularly go to bed hungry how is it that rich Christians so easily justify the luxury motors, holiday homes, bigger and better homes, gadgets, television screens etc? How is it that rich Christians have wardrobes full of clothes they never wear whilst their brothers and sisters have no shoes or warm top?
How can it be that those who claim to disciples of Jesus and citizens of the Kingdom of God, have the same lifestyle as unbelievers just without the smoking, sex and foul language? How is it that whilst are values are supposedly radically different yet our lifestyles are exactly the same?
4. Reformed theology has traditionally had a defective theology of the Kingdom: we are obsessed with saving souls for heaven,whilst God is busy calling us to join with him in reconciling all things to himself. While we are busy preaching a message which inadvertently has lowered expectations of life now (what is called under-realized eschatology), God is calling us to live now as citizens of his Kingdom of justice, peace, mercy, compassion, and self-denial. We are exclusively concerned with personal holiness while God is calling us to lay down our rights, give away our excess, feed the poor and join with God in demonstrating the in-breaking effects of the new life of the resurrection now.
“For the first Christians, the ultimate ‘salvation’ was all about God’s new world; and the point of what Jesus and the apostles were doing when they were healing people, or being rescued from shipwreck, or whatever, was that this was a proper anticipation of that ultimate ‘salvation’, that healing transformation of space, time and matter. The future rescue which God had planned and promised was starting to come true in the present. We are saved, not as souls, but as wholes.” Tom Wright: Surprised by Hope p211
5. As I alluded to earlier reformed theology has traditionally had a deficient theology of the church. We are all about me and my personal salvation. At best church is a collection of individuals who share common interests and values and who help each other out occasionally. The biblical picture has at the centre of God’s working, not the individual but the people of God, the church. We need a far more communal identity than we often practice. The biblical picture is that of a family, a body, a building, a people belonging to one another, one new humanity.
A more biblical picture of church cannot accept a situation where we buy a new car, or a bigger house, or more shoes whilst our brothers and sisters go to bed hungry or homeless – and we don’t even care enough to pause and consider what we are doing! “Our understanding of the poor, it seems reveals a lot about our understanding of God’s grace.” Tim Chester p29
6. This is not a call to give money to poor people. That may come in time but what white and black, rich and poor need more than anything else in South Africa and Cape Town today is to meet and connect with one another. As Christians we have to stop giving money to appeals or projects (to ease our guilty conscience) and we need to start giving ourselves. Ask yourself this question, where would you find Jesus if he was living in Cape Town today? Among the poor, in the townships, on the gang-ravaged Cape Flats, among the HIV positive crisis? Where do you think he is calling you to be today?
Stop fearing the consequences. Stop worrying about the future. Stop thinking about all the logical reasons why you should maintain your comfortable middle-class white bubble. If you know where Jesus is calling you then why aren’t you following? That is the only question worth answering!
“It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we are all invited to devote our lives to the subversive cause of the mustard seed that is destined to redeem a people and transform a world.” Tom Sine: Mustard Seed vs McWorld p27