5 – Understand the ultimate unsoundness of the industrial doctrine of ‘labour saving’ if that implies poor work, unemployment, or any kind of pollution or contamination.
Shopping. I remember when the homesoil of the United States was attacked by terrorists flying airplanes into the Twin Towers, our country’s leadership told us to go shopping. Not interfaith prayer. Not enlisting in the armed services. Not educating ourselves about others. Not even hunkering down in a bunker. No, we were told to go by more stuff.
Shopping is one of the backbones of our country. We know ourselves and each other by where we shop, which brands we buy, how much we paid (or didn’t pay), and consequently, how much of the right stuff we own.
Shopping, or consumerism, is the air we breathe. We don’t really notice it or how much of our lives are spent doing it because it’s all around us. We use phrases like “purchasing power” and “market driven” and we are slaves to the credit system, which has become a litmus test of our worth. And while this may be starting to sound like a critique on our national pastime, I don’t mean it to be.
What I mean to do is examine the criteria we use in making our buying decisions. Instead of the culture informing our Christianity, let’s allow our Christian beliefs to inform how we interact with culture. In other words, let’s shop! But let’s make those buying decisions based on what we believe and on the vows we’ve taken as members of the baptized community.
To illustrate, I’d like to point to this website: A Swedish television show sent three young fashion enthusiasts to Cambodia for a month last year. Seriously, take a look at this article.
I doubt this show would ever play in the United States because we are a culture tied to the market economy. We believe in profits as the sole determining factor of the health of a company. This means that business people in American are always weighing the cost of labor and trying to control that cost. It’s what drives our beliefs about so many parts of the market – minimum wage, worker’s rights, corporate personhood, stock market, bloated salary of CEO’s, employee benefits, consumer cost, profit margin, etc.
And, instead of our Christian beliefs informing our buying decisions, we’ve allowed our cultural tendencies to influence our lives as the Body of Christ. It’s not new. Hell, it’s been a part of the US religious experience from the beginning. Because we never had a state church as a country, we’ve always had an open market when it comes to religion. It’s why we have so many independent churches and splinters in the larger denominations. And, it’s why the feel-good preachers always have a lot of success (yeah, I know that was snarky). But the truth is, anyone can start a church in this country. Just ask L. Ron Hubbard (yeah, also snarky).
But more than this, is the insistence that church function like a business. This causes us to believe that if churches just knew how to advertise better, we would fill up the pews. Or to measure a congregation’s success by the number of BIP (butts in pews, otherwise known as ASA). Or reducing our experience of church to Sunday worship. Or worse, when we treat Sunday worship as a show – something that we perform for an audience – the audience who are consumers of our product.
The gospel is inherently counter cultural if you read it seriously – which is to say, not literally but through the lens of what it meant to hear it when it was written, in context – at least as much as that’s possible. So, our task, as church, just might be to offer the cultural critique to consumerism. Our baptismal vows, as Episcopalians, just might lead us to think about our shopping as a way to live out baptismal vow #5 – Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
As the Body of Christ in the world, I think we’re called to be less consumer-driven in our consumer activities. Less consumer-ism, more consumer-educated. I think we’re called to ask questions like these:
The food we eat: Where was it grown? Does the production of this food create inequality in that place because the land is used to grow food for US tables instead of local tables?
The building materials: Where was the timber harvested? Is that harvest creating surface erosion or the destruction of ecosystems that end up harming the people who live there? Are the materials bio-friendly so we leave behind fewer chemicals for the generations who come after us?
The decorations we use for feast days: Is it made of plastic? Do we only use it once and then throw it away?
Bags, cups, logo-carrying items: Is this a useful method of evangelism? Could the purchase of these items have a positive impact somewhere? As an example – Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Industries is a place where young men and women are saved from gang life in Los Angeles. They learn skills, confidence, and self-acceptance from one another and from Fr. Greg Boyle (or Fr. G., as he’s called).
This only scratches the surface. Because then we get to apply this same scrutiny to our personal buying decisions.
Cosmetics: Does your body wash have plastic microbeads that will eventually find their way into streams and lakes where small animals confuse them for food and eat them? Has your shampoo been tested on rabbits? Like Homeboy Industries, consider purchasing something from Thistle Farms, a business that helps women prostitutes in Nashville learn skills, confidence, and self-acceptance. They were recently featured on a PBS Frontline series called A Path Appears.
Electronics: Do you buy the newest electronic device simply so that you can have the latest gadget, succumbing to the planned obsolescence of the industry?
Clothes: Where were they made? Does the company you’re buying from engage in unfair labor practices?
Congregations are, with good reason, very mindful of spending. As a result, we look for bargains and sales and ways to save a few bucks here and there. This makes sense. I’m not suggesting we stop being mindful of how much money we spend.
I’m suggesting that we stop trying to create a false sense of abundance by buying cheaply made products. And instead, we make wiser, better informed buying decisions that revolve less around bargain hunting and more around just and sustainable labor practices. Because it is here, in the wiser decisions that support the whole of God’s creation, that we find true abundance. It’s the web of connection again. We can only live into abundance if the whole web is supported. It’s a false sense of abundance if I believe that my abundance is about having more at the expense of another part of the web breaking apart.
Because we are called to be disciples. We are called to learn this counter-cultural way of being in the world. We are called to bear witness to the Reign of God and actively participate in its becoming.
To end this blog post, I’d like to offer you the video that converted me several years ago. Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff. It does a much better job of making the point than I can. And while you’re on the website, check out all the other amazing resources. They have lots of short educational movies that can help to reorient our thinking and help us to become more sustainable in our thinking and in our shopping.