Increasingly, we hear the mantra ‘Let the market decide’ – a convenient way of sidestepping considerations of policy, principle and morality, and leaving us without maps in a desert ruled by choice, image and instant acquisition. And of course it is not just material goods that we consume. Holidays and entertainments, new information and spiritual experiences, qualifications and courses, smart friends and designer families – all of these disappear into the gaping maw. We may not see ourselves simply as consumers, but that is what we are in danger of becoming. Advertising constantly tells us that we need more and better – beguiling us and our children with status symbols. And governments seem to have forgotten the old words patients, schoolchildren and passengers, fobbing off impersonal customers with impersonal targets. And so we become consumers of health care and its products, of league tables rather than real education, of prepackaged holidays, pension plans and salads.
In his searching book, Freedom of Simplicity, Richard Foster speaks of ‘…the insanity that chants “More, more, more”’. Somehow, people are never satisfied. Why? Perhaps because our sense of security depends on our image in the eyes of other people, and that image needs to be constantly augmented and brought up to date. But perhaps also because desire for finite things is essentially insatiable. One of the richest men of the 20th century, when asked ‘How much would you need in order to be truly satisfied?’ replied, ‘Just a little more than I have’. In fact, the things that we consume, all the sum of human acquisition and attainment, will never bring lasting happiness.
Bernard Levin, in one of his matchless columns in The Times, captured this futility when he wrote of the countless people who understand nothing but ‘the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well-balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it…it aches’.
Yet even though it aches, we lack the will to seek a remedy. We are much like the Israelites in Isaiah’s day, who turned their back on God and went ‘to Molech with olive oil and increased (their) perfumes’. ‘You were wearied’, God said to them, ‘by all your ways, but you would not say “It is hopeless”. You found renewal of your strength, and so you did not faint’ (Isa 57:9-10). The Israelites recognised the futility of their idolatry, but they were not prepared to admit that they were wrong. And so they returned to it with renewed vigour, and thus, for the time being, deadened their despair.
This speaks with great force to us today. For want of anything better, we continue to return to something that will never deliver. Whether we ourselves are immersed in consumerism, whether we look on the profligacy of others with a tinge of self-righteous envy or whether we are genuinely free from the tyranny of the material, we need to recognise that consumption can never deliver what it promises, can never salve the aching hole. And as Christians we need to live alongside those who are trapped in it, ready to point to a better way.
‘Be on your guard’, said Jesus, ‘against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions’ (Luke 12:15). We have to start with our own hearts, acknowledging our propensity to covetousness, and the discontent that goes with it. ‘I have learned’, said Paul, ‘to be content whatever the circumstances’ – whether in comfort or in poverty (Phil.4:11). But it is something that we have to learn.
Richard Foster, in the passage quoted above, says: ‘To live in contentment means we can opt out of the status race and the maddening pace that is its necessary partner. We can shout “No!” to the insanity which chants “More, more, more!” We can rest contented in the gracious provision of God’.
Writing to Timothy, the apostle Paul also describes people who, in pursuing material goals, ‘have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs’. By contrast, he says, ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’ (1 Tim 6:6-10). To those whose minds are set on what is ‘true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable’ (Phil 4:8-9), the God of peace promises his abiding presence.
Loving our neighboursL~
But our motive for repudiating consumerism must not be merely for the sake of our own inner peace and contentment.
The prophet Amos draws a brilliant satirical picture of the self-indulgence of the rich in Israel in the 8th century BC. Alec Motyer, in his commentary on Amos, The Day of the Lion, writes: ‘We see here extravagant laziness, improvident gluttony, specious frivolity, artificial stimulation and excessive personal vanity’. And God condemns it: not the possession of beautiful furniture, but the lounging on it; not the eating of meat, but the self-indulgence in a society where only the rich could afford meat; not the making of music, but the attitude (strumming, giving themselves airs as if they were like David); not the drinking of alcohol, but excess; not the care of the body, but the pampering of it (Amos 6:4-6).
But the climax of the passage is reached in God’s final condemnation: ‘they did not care about the ruin of Joseph’. The self-indulgence is pathetic in itself, but God condemned it because it blinded them to the needs of others. They just didn’t care.
Looking at the effects of ‘our restless gnawing greed’, Richard Foster points out ‘the most destructive of all: our flashy cars and sports spectaculars and backyard pools have a way of crowding out much interest in civil rights or inner city poverty or the starved masses of India. Greed has a way of severing the cords of compassion’.
God meant it when he said that we should love our neighbours as ourselves. And Jesus tightened the screw by demonstrating that our neighbours include those who are utterly different from ourselves, people we would never normally mix with, people we may hate or despise.
Putting our money where other people’s mouths areL~
Can we – children of God, redeemed by Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit – can we sleep easy in our beds at night when 340 million people in Africa survive on less than 60p a day? When the richest fifth of the world’s population enjoys 85 % of global income? When 23 % of Britain’s children live in ‘low income’ households? When, apparently, the amount spent in the US in a year on ice cream could pay off ‘third world’ debt?
It seems that our society’s obsession with our own supposed needs leaves no room for concern for the needs of others. But the issue in our generation is deeper than that. The selfishness of the rich has a direct bearing on the lives of the poor. Our fuel consumption causes the global warming that contributes to drought and famine; our protective tariffs and subsidies make ‘free trade’ a mockery for poor countries; our yearning for new drugs that will enhance our longevity or our potency diverts drug companies from research to find a drug that could cure sleeping sickness. We are all, in the West, complicit in a system that must break the heart of God.
Do we have the strength of will to do something practical about these things? Here are some possible action points to consider:
~**Make an audit of our own expenditure and giving, and our attitude to material things.*~~*Take a clothing audit: think about giving away anything that you haven't worn in the past eighteen months.*~~*Take a water-use audit: do you leave the tap running while you clean your teeth? What do you do with the water that runs away while you wait for it to turn hot for the washing up?*~~*Could you write one letter a month for Amnesty International and join in the fight against abuses of human rights?*~~*How many foodstuffs could you afford to buy from Fair Trade sources?*~~*How much of your household waste is recycled? Have you got room for a compost heap?*~~*Could you choose one development charity and give a certain amount by Gift Aid every year?*~~*By social and political action try to join in the fight for justice for the poor.*~~*Practise saying 'No'.**~
‘Dear children’, wrote the apostle John, who had plumbed the depths of the mystery of God’s love, ‘keep yourselves from idols’.
For further reading:L~
Craig Bartholomew & Thorsten Moritz (ed.), Christ and Consumerism (Paternoster 2000)
Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity (Triangle/SPCK, 1981: new edition expected)
Ronald Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Hodder & Stoughton, 1997 edn.)
Prosperity with a Purpose: Exploring the Ethics of Affluence (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, 2005)