Rarely a day goes by when we buy nothing – and even more rare is the day when we intentionally refrain from making a purchase. We even go shopping as a pastime; entering the mall with no intent to buy, but leaving with bags of unplanned purchases. Lacking any telos; an unending quest for new ways to consume without having any ultimate consummation. On one hand, this practice invests things with redemptive fulfillment. On the other, they can never measure up to that and so must be discarded for new things that hold out the same unfulfillable promise. We no longer consume to live; we live to consume. It compensates for a central emptiness in which serial acquisition makes itself its own goal. We have become comfortable with the circular equation that defines our never-satisfied acquisitiveness; an addiction common among Americans. In fact, the chronic disease of overconsumption has a name – affluenza.
Where do we go from here? Like 12-steppers, we face a hard choice: whether we are Christians or consumers. We evangelicals would do well to take a moral inventory of ourselves, ask whether our life revolves around our things, and admit we are powerless before impulse and excess without Christ restoring us to sanity. A reasoned approach, as any credit counselor will advise, is to live like credit cards don’t exist, and impose a budget with planned expenses that curbs indiscriminate buying and the temptation to “buy now and pay later”. Even saving and waiting does not transform our connectedness to things. We want them all the same; having to wait until we can afford them only increases the craving. The biggest hurdle is shifting our self-stimulation by cheap, shiny trinkets that quickly lose our esteem. The psychological dependence upon things is something that we as consumers will never understand unless we confess their mediating role in our lives, and quit being managed by things which moths and vermin destroy, and thieves break in and steal.
Perhaps the best antidote to consumer choice is anti-choice – to “unshop and unspend”. Christmas is every day in America, and very few of us really need anything. At the forefront of a growing anti-consumerism movement are faux ministers like the “Reverend” Billy Talen and his Stop Shopping Choir, and secular advocacy groups which sponsor an annual protest against Black Friday.[i] On Buy Nothing Day for example, community leaders in Rhode Island hold a Winter Coat Exchange.[ii] “How, in the richest country in the world, do people not have winter coats?”, one organizer asked.
“He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none,” John the Baptizer preached.[iii] Evangelical Christians are among the most generous givers, both in terms of money and time. Food pantries, soup kitchens, farmers’ markets, food trucks, clothes drives, and rummage sales are just few of the concrete ways they share Christ’s love. Giving from one’s surplus is what God expects of those who have more. But Jesus takes it further. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” was not just a suggestion but a command. He has something to say about owning things not for their value in terms of utility, but in what they express. And about amassing a disproportionate surplus of what is needed. Americans buy because we can, and have for having’s sake. Jesus intimates that what we consider our assets are actually liabilities. We protect our toys with alarm systems and insurance premiums. And we worry over all of it. We are hoarders, with basements and garages chock full of no longer wanted bicycles and ski equipment. Not to mention the burgeoning self-storage industry, which is like long term parking for our overflow stuff. It rarely occurs to us that maybe the stockpiled treasure we are continually amassing owns us instead.
“Godliness with contentment is great gain,” wrote St. Paul to Timothy.[iv] Former President Jimmy Carter was asked if there is anything he wanted but didn’t have. “I can’t think of anything,” he replied.[v] Carter eschewed many of the financial perks associated with former Presidents, and in comparison, has chosen a modest lifestyle formed by his faith. Spiritual stewardship of possessions is not simply making a statement against consumerism, or even being judicious in personal spending habits. These are still decisions made by the self, and for oneself. Like dieting, exercise, or other forms of self-discipline, minimization in the form of ascetic restraint can be made into a god as well. Spiritual stewardship requires us to ask the question, how can my decisions on acquiring and retaining goods benefit not myself, but honor God and further his Kingdom?
For Christians like Ann Patchett, it is not simply an anti-lifestyle. She described the epiphany of “living with the startling abundance that had become glaringly obvious when I stopped trying to get more.”[vi] As a Lenten practice, instead of asking herself what she could buy, she began asking what could be given away to benefit others. Patchett is dead-on in her assessment. It’s not so much a matter of downsizing the house, as it is decluttering your heart; making room for the work that God can do when you focus on others’ needs instead of your own wants.
Like the woman at the well I was seeking
For things that could not satisfy;
And then I heard my Savior speaking:
“Draw from my well that never shall run dry”. [vii]
[i] Cif Green, “The Ultimate Christmas Gift? Buy Nothing”, The Guardian, November 26, 2009. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/cif-green/2009/nov/26/buy-nothing-day (accessed June 2, 2017).
[ii] Michelle R. Smith, 50,000 Free Coats: Holiday Ritual Bucks Consumerism”, Washington Times, November 24, 2016. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/nov/24/50000-free-coats-holiday-ritual-bucks-consumerism/ (accessed May 12, 2017).
[iii] Luke 3:11 (NET Bible).
[iv] 1 Timothy 6:6 (KJV).
[v] Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan, “The Un-Celebrity President”, Washington Post, August 17, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/national/wp/2018/08/17/feature/the-un-celebrity-president-jimmy-carter-shuns-riches-lives-modestly-in-his-georgia-hometown/?utm_term=.cca4150be141 (accessed August 29, 2018).
[vi] Ann Patchett, “My Year of No Shopping”, New York Times, December 15, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/15/opinion/sunday/shopping-consumerism.html (accessed June 5, 2018).
[vii] Richard Blanchard, Fill My Cup, © Copyright 1959 Word Music, LLC.