Tom Rowley, Executive Director, A Rocha USA
Somewhere between hearing Tony Campolo chastise Christians for driving fancy cars, piling clutter in our driveway to peddle to yard-sale shoppers, and eyeing with ever-increasing angst my ever-increasing middle, I began to think about consumption… as sin.
On the off chance that you’re still reading, let me admit my own uneasiness with the topic. Here be dragons. And there is, of course, that darn log in my eye. Nonetheless, with mounting damage to ourselves, our neighbours and the planet, the notion that consumption — at some level - becomes an offense to God is worth pondering. Not least as we begin to to turn out thoughts towards Christmas and the birth of the Lord of All Creation. The recently released Lausanne Cape Town Commitment sets the stage for such pondering when it asserts that ‘…love for God’s creation demands that we repent of our part in the destruction, waste and pollution of the earth’s resources and our collusion in the toxic idolatry of consumerism.’ The word ‘sin’ may be absent, but the message is not.
The big problem, of course, comes in determining that level. When does consumption, necessary as it is for sustaining and even enjoying life, move from good to bad? Does the threshold vary from person to person? Culture to culture? Is it different for the billionaire than for the pauper? For the American versus the Ugandan?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. Or maybe, to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to know. Imperfect knowledge, however, is no excuse for inaction. Not on this front. Nor, for that matter, is imperfect motivation. I am heartened here by the words of The Merton Prayer:
‘MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going… and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.’
Notwithstanding uncertainty about the level of consumption (or wealth being a blessing from the Lord, or the connection between consumption and jobs, or the claim that free markets and technology will solve the problems if only we let them), I believe my desire to consume less is pleasing to the Lord. After all, the Earth is the Lord’s and all the fullness thereof, and he did assign it to our loving care.
And that belief is only strengthened by the frightening accuracy of this 1955 quote from retail analyst Victor Lebow:
‘Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives is today expressed in consumptive terms… we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate’
Dubbed ‘conspicuous consumption’ by economist Thorstein Veblen and later referred to as ‘consumerism’; the behaviour might best be described as ‘licentious—lacking moral restraint’.
So what is one to do? Of the many possible responses, the worst choice is the one most often chosen: to punt. To claim that it’s too complicated to sort out, too inconvenient to act upon, or too big for my meagre efforts to matter. And then go on consuming as licentiously as before.
Instead, a good place to start with any sin is, of course, confession. Even if I only admit that I don’t know how much is too much, but want to honour God and care for his creation by consuming rightly. And then to start trying. In our house, we’ve begun to ask of any potential acquisition: ‘Is it useful or is it beautiful?’ If not, then consume not. Deliberate instead of licentious.
All of which may sound like a turn toward asceticism. I don’t think it is. Rather, as with all acts of faithful obedience, deliberate consumption brings a blessing. A savouring of the fewer things I do consume. A savouring that gets lost when I consume with little thought, like a child deep in Christmas toys grabbing for the next one then the next. There comes also a deeper savouring of God, free from the clutter that so easily distracts, numbs and insulates us. A savouring that surpasses all else. One that leads us to join the psalmist in proclaiming, ‘Taste and see that Lord is good…’