Bound by Consumerism

New Wine, New Wineskins, a ministry through Multnomah Biblical Seminary, which Metzger founded and directs, is holding a conference this April entitled “Bound: A Conference on the Global Slave Trade” (visit www.new-wineskins.org for more information). This conference is relevant to the many issues explored in Consuming Jesus. Consumerism, along with race and class divisions, not only permeates and infects the church; these issues also greatly propel and foster the booming international slave trade. The “bound” are our brothers and sisters down the street and overseas, who reap the disheartening and flat-out evil effects of those wanting things quickly, cheaply, and for great profit. These “things” include anything from vegetables to shoes to diamonds to sex. The global slave trade is so intricately bound up with consumerism and race and class divisions, since those who have the most and consume the most are often considered the most valuable from consumerism’s standpoint. Those from the developing world and from underdeveloped places in our region who have less and consume less are often considered less valuable. Thus, their plight does not affect as much those of us who have more–especially when they look different from us. However, as Christ followers, we are called to bear witness to the all-consuming, compassionate Christ whose love knows no bounds and who cares for the poor, the orphan, and the widow in their distress. If we would follow Jesus, we must follow him wherever he goes–caring for the least of these–wherever they might be–around the world.

 

But the slave trade is not just out there somewhere–across town or across the globe. The slave trade encompasses every facet of our lives. As consumers, we drive the economy. If a sweatshop over in Bangladesh is making valuable profit off the backs of forced labor, then what will motivate this business to change and implement humane practices? In a profit-driven world, the profit-driven mentality maintains: “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it–and it’s not broke.” But if the backs of those forced into slave labor are broken, how can the economy not be broken?

I receive a lot of criticism when I discuss my conviction not to buy clothes made in third-world countries. I realize that not supporting the economy in an already impoverished country may sound like an unstable solution. The main question that people pose to me is, “These are poor countries. What will happen to those economies if we just quit buying from over there?”


My response is this: Within the power and control that I have, I don’t want to perpetuate an oppressive market. If I support a broken system, what will drive it to change? I don’t want to exacerbate the dire situation in poverty-stricken countries. If there are enough consumers refusing to support sweat shops and communicating clearly (using buying power, joining advocacy groups and companies i.e., Tradeasone.com) what is and is not acceptable, then businesses will be forced to re-adjust (think: Nike & The Gap were driven to improve their work ethic overseas). When forced labor is the only option for the poor, then this is where they will remain. But imagine if better job conditions were available to the common people; it would allow individuals freedom in other areas of their lives: if they are thriving in better working environments, they won’t be as susceptible to sex trafficking, and they won’t be as vulnerable to the deception of other traffickers promising a better life. Eventually this better living situation will significantly reduce poverty and slavery.

 

With every purchase we make we are casting a vote. As Dr. Metzger says in Consuming Jesus, the cancerous consumer culture encourages us to get what we want when we want it at the least cost to ourselves. In view of his challenge to the consumer culture, we need to ask ourselves: What about the cost to others?

 

If we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. An unwillingness to confront an evil structural problem coupled with a defeatist attitude leads us to do just what the enemy would have us do–nothing. And such failure to act assists those in power in the slave trade in keeping slaves just where they want them–earning barely enough to survive, making just enough to keep coming back.

 

As consumers in the US, we have the freedom to make choices. This necessitates humble, sober responsibility and intentionality. We must do what we can with what we have. We are part of a larger whole that has the incredible power to shape and change our economy and structures. That is a blessing, which, if not treated wisely, can also be a curse. Let us make it a blessing for Christ’s kingdom work here on earth. Please pray. Please act responsibly. Please join us for “Bound”–New Wineskins’ conference on the global slave trade on April 12.

 

I realize that refusing to support the forced labor economy in third world countries will not in and of itself solve the massive problem at hand. This problem is so deeply rooted in our fallen humanity that there is no quick fix. I do wonder though, as Christ followers and as the church, what other things can we do. Honestly, if Jesus were on this earth today, with all the social and structural evil permeating even the smallest decisions, how would he live? What would his purchasing decisions look like? What sort of businesses would he support? Which temples/markets would he storm, and what tables would he overturn? And beyond that, what sort of neighborhood would he live in? What would his church look like? All these questions get at our worldviews, and more importantly, our hearts’ desires. So, it’s not simply “What would Jesus do?” It’s also “What would Jesus value?”

 

I am curious what you think. In light of the slave trade and consumerism, how responsible do you feel with where your money goes? Do you think it’s even worth it to try to fight such a massive beast with your own wallet? And I wonder, if in the end you understood that all of your efforts were futile, would you still live in light of that hope with intentionality anyway in the name of Christ and with a moral conscience? I think of the prophet Jeremiah who is known as the weeping prophet. He never saw a convert in his lifetime, despite his blood, sweat, and tears. But he was a victor in Christ’s eyes. In light of eternity he was a success because he lived out his calling in faithfulness to God. As Christ followers, our calling is to live redemptively, to live on earth in light of heaven. Whether or not my purchasing decisions greatly affect the horrific slave trade in the end should not be my primary concern. Just like the prophets, my primary concern should not be results driven, but rather driven by God’s love, which far exceeds “success stories” and sustains us when failures abound. This is one of the things I’m wrestling with: How much do you think our decisions are driven by external, worldly results? And in what ways do you think these factors affect and exacerbate the horrors of the slave trade?

3 Responses to “Bound by Consumerism”

  1. Rachel O'Brien Says:

    How much do you think our decisions are driven by external, worldly results?

    Part of what we talk about is “living in light of”. I would change that to read merely “living in light”. The Church is notorious for living on the run. Fighting darknes by leaving it to fester. We live in light “of” instead of living “in”. A strong theme throughout Johns gospel is that of living in light, that the dark could not overwhelm it. This idea of immediacy (Christs kingdom now and not yet) is difficult to reconcile when we want results. Our determination to see justice prevail “when we want it” to can often cloud our understanding of living “in”. There must be a sense that we do not act based on success, or based on hopes of change but based on the light that is already in the world. Our deeds reflect our understanding of both the sinful world we are in and the light that illuminates it. We know Him and can no longer act, whether it makes a “difference” or not, as though we are still in darkness. The Church, instead of running from darkness must be bold to live in light. It is the contrast between success and faith. The question is “if we are faithful” to what Christ is already enacting not if we are successful. We tend to quantify our success based on change, though that is important. We need to base our success on our faith, faith which is continually renewed and perpetuated by the Spirit. We need to change our idea of change, striving to be faithful as apposed to striving to change. Is change saving one person, two people, bettering one company, or is change allowing our eyes and minds and hearts to be curbed toward the heart of Christ? What is alluring now about the justice of many younger emergent churches is the slightly false proposition that alludes to a heaven on earth, to a righting of the wrong. We are walking a fine line between desiring results and being faithful to what Christ, the begining and the end, has already accomplished. Its a pretty nice line to walk and I see churches navigating it well. This navigation must always be in response to His love, not to our desire, though righteous desire, to see issues tangibly resolved. His love is inexhaustable and we deceive ourselves with our personal Jesus ideas that say He has given only enough love to slide my individual soul through the pearly gates. His is an everlasting well spring which will, when allowed to, propel us into action on our brothers’ behalf. We live in the light, where darkness does not prevail. Understanding the overflow of Christs love enables us to live “in” light”; seeing things and changing things we were previously blind to, entering now the world what He has already conquered, understanding that He began our justice missions before we even acknowledged Him.

  2. zeph shepard Says:

    yes and yes. i am always encouraged when people think about the responsibility we have as the rich and elite west in terms of our consumerism and the inherent responsibility that comes with those decisions.

    i think that we have a huge responsibility to know where our money goes and how it is being used. I approach my consumption and spending with the underlying theme that it is a responsibility but beyond that we ought to look at it as an opportunity to shape and mold both the immediate and larger society in which we participate. We need to consider that God has put, us, humans, in charge and to have dominion over everything and that is a both a responsibility and an opportunity that needs to be more fully realized and practiced within our daily routines.

    Though our individual actions might be perceived as futile and not yielding any tangibel difference there needs to be a place where we make a conscious decision to commit to something regardless of the external outcome that will ensue. We must pursue the Good for its own sake not for the outcome that might or might not come from our efforts. Kierkegaard talks about pursuing a purity of heart by willing one thing regardless of the fear of punishment, the rewards, outcome or for being egocentric. If we pursue “good and noble” causes for the wrong reasons then we will consequently nullify our original intentions with our sinful, greedy anture that always sneaks in and wreaks havoc on our souls. We have to try to be persistent in our efforts to be pure. We must purchase things for the sake of doing good and to pursue the constant purifying of our hearts. IN this way we will come to know God in a more intimate sense. We will also realize a fuller understanding of how the world ought to function, which is supporting responsible business practices and the like.

    Another huge aspect to take into consideration is how we come to a conclusion as to what is Good and what is not, or perhaps more appropriately which is the ethically upright thing to pursue. i have found that it is not so cut and dry as one might presume. there are so many extraneous factors that we, as a consumer, can never fully understand and take into consideration. how do we come to a fully informed decision that will be in tune to Gods will? it seems that given our personal frames of reference we are, to a certain degree, predisposed to one choice over the other. What tools do we use to come to this ethically right choice?

    For argument sake and to further illustrate the predicament above lets take into consideration THE GAP. They provide a good to people that serves many people quite well. On the other hand it is made at the expense of other people in less fortunate countries. How do we discern what action ought to be taken? Mainly, should we buy a GAP shirt or not? The pros are that it’s a good shirt that will last and its serves a purpose and a function for an individual. To take it further and complicate the issue even more perhaps the clothes at THE GAP help me get a job at a company that fights child slavery. The other side to this tension is where we shouldnt buy the shirt since its made by children that are involved in terrible labor practices. So what tools do we have available to us to discern which is the right choice? Should we buy the shirt to get the job that will fight against the very thing Iam promulgating in my consumerism or should we abstain from buying the shirt and perhaps not get the job that will help child slavery?

    We want to do Good we want to pursue doing what God wants. Like kelsi said we don’t want to exacerbate the dire situation in poverty stricken countries. I whole heartedly agree. Though I feel that is an easy thing to say but it is not so easy to practice since there are so many external factors at hand that needs to be considered and not pushed aside.

    Fortunately God has realized our dilemna and provided the Holy Spirit, the bible and sincere community to help us discern these seemingly impossible plights we come across. If we didn’t have that I think I would probably jump off a bridge!

  3. Ross Halbach Says:

    Yes and no. Yes, I think it is important that we are thoughtful about where we spend our money. However, at the same time, I would have to say, no; we must do much more than that. Here is the problem with only looking at our spending. This equates our ability to create change with our individual spending power. For one, my wallet is not that big. Therefore, my voice is not that loud among the market tycoons of Wal-Mart and The Gap.

    Maybe you say: but at least I’m contributing to a better cause. God sees my two pennies. Possibly I am wrong and selfish in making this point; nevertheless, I feel that just looking at personal spending fails to see the larger picture and address the systemic issues of slavery. Sure, we get our feel good that we have done our part but nothing stinkin’ changes! I almost feel, maybe it is my rebellious heart, that it is just playing into the corporation’s hands. I have heard workers from Wal-Mart say, ‘if you don’t like the product, don’t buy it.’ Their not threatened because they know I have two pennies, while they have all the capital (e.g., if it were the game Monopoly they have all the properties with hotels on them, and they know the money is inevitably going to flow their direction).

    I am glad God gave us a voice and legs and hands and eyes, so we can take our lazy bodies to go do something actively about the injustice we see in the world (beyond just passively not buying things). Kelsi, you do way more than just not shop at questionable locations (passive). For example, you write on this blog encouraging other to reform how they live in light of injustice in the eyes of God (active). You share with friends and family members about your passion against slave labor that creates our cheap clothes, not a particularly comfortable discussion topic (active). If we are going to be passive, let us at least be actively passive. The question should not be about fighting “the beast” with your or my wallet, but with our wallets. The Church as a whole, across all socio-economic and ethnic boundaries, must stand united as one voice if they want to have a voice in the broader context.

    I have heard much talk about the Church as a theo-political reality, but how about its theo-capital market reality. The Triune God is no contractual market tycoon. He threatens the market by giving himself as a self-gift to His bride breaking the need for contractual exchange. Because Christ gives himself freely, we are free to give ourselves. As Crystal Santos said to me during our half marathon, “Jesus is the best sustainable resource!” The body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper sustains not only me, but us! “Give us this day our daily bread.” And as we consume the self-gift of God in communion, we are consumed by the all “Consuming Jesus”. Amen.

    P.S. Sorry this got so long. I meant to keep it short, next time . . . maybe.

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