Theology & Spirituality

Christ and Consumer Culture: The Market’s Moral Morass

As I type on my computer screen, I look to my left and see a bag of fast food I grabbed from the University food court. I know not where the various ingredients came from nor what’s actually in my food. I don’t know how well the employees are paid or are treated at the fast food establishment, but I know the cost was cheap and the food seemed fresh enough. The food appeared as if by magic, three minutes and a swipe of a card.

When I look to my clothes I see that my shirt was made in Honduras. I can readily tell you the share price of Ralph Lauren, but I have no clue the working conditions of the employees. The only step of the supply chain I understand is the retail store at which I eyed my purchase and spent my money.

I give these examples of the magic of a consumer society to show that faithful consumption, whatever that might mean, is an incredible project. It seems that at every turn, indeed, at any look at any product around me, I see various different questions that I simply cannot resolve. Where was this product made? How were the animals treated? Should I give my money to a company that sells cheap food yet mistreats their workers? Did I buy this updated product just to feel “new”? What does this Ralph Lauren symbol on my shirt or the brand on my glasses “say” to others who look at me? Was that purchase within my budget, do I even have a budget? What are the implications of my purchases on the broader local and global economy? How much power do my consumption decisions really have? And on and on.

Unless we are willing to move out to distant farmland and learn to live only off of what we produce, there is no getting away from this puzzling consumer culture. There are important questions, yes, of individual freedom from constraints (Part 1), gratefulness for the things we own and purchase (Part 2), and of faith vs. practice (Part 3). But maybe we need to stop and ask, “Why is this world so difficult to navigate? And how can I be assured that I’m faithfully moving within it?”

The bad news is that this world is broken, through and through. Laura Hartman, in her book The Christian Consumer, explains at length how Christian theologians have sought through their consumption decisions to 1) resist sin, 2) embrace creation, 3) love their neighbor, and 4) envision the future. Despite the wisdom of the Christian tradition for consumption, Hartman gives a sobering reminder,

“Virtually every act of consumption leads me into some kind of sin, and I am more likely to take creation for granted than to consciously embrace it as a gift from God. In a complex society, I can hardly know all the neighbors impacted by my consumption, much less love them. And the glimpses of God’s reign that may shine through as I consume may go unnoticed or unidentified, and may not flourish as they ought. With complex problems like the multiple ethical impacts of an act of consumption, the solutions will be, at best, partial”1

The difficult answer to the prior questions is that we continually live within this puzzling world. We live in a world that is fraught with chaos, confusion, and strife. It is truly broken, and it manifests itself in relationships and institutions, minds and bodies, words and deeds. Unfortunately this brokenness exists both out there and within me. The good news of the gospel reminds us that we do live in a broken world, but that we have a Savior who is reconciling both us and the entire world to himself. As those reconciled to God, Christians are then called to be “ministers of reconciliation” for the flourishing of the world (1 Cor. 5:11-21). Though we were once dead in our sins, in the gospel we are given new life in Christ, now by the Spirit “created for every good work.”(Ephesians 2:10)

For the rest of this article, I want to list a myriad of best practices that can serve as guides through the moral morass of consumer culture. Though we are broken people living within a broken world, Paul exhorts we are still called to bear fruit within it. These guidelines are certainly not foolproof for, as Hartman laments, the consumer culture within which we live is difficult to navigate. Moreover, with any list of “best practices” we must be careful not to fall into a legalistic attempt to be righteous before God.

  1. We must check ourselves to make sure that with every purchase, our identity is found in Christ and not in our possessions. As Luke Timothy Johnson emphasizes, “because our identity and worth come not from what we can claim to possess but in what is given to us at every moment, and because we acknowledge this reality, we are freed from the need to create or support our being by the control of other things” 2
  2. As articulated in Part 2, gratitude has to be a learned posture, an orientation toward our food, the environment, and the employees that make our consumption decisions possible. Within the impersonal and individualistic process of purchasing food at a grocery store or restaurant, I think the Catholic virtue of reciprocity is essential, for “contractual relations must be founded on a basic awareness of the gift of one person to another.”3
  3. We must research the background of products we are thinking of purchasing. Too often, the products we purchase are built off of the exploitation of others abroad. We easily fall into the trap of thinking that just because something is “cheap,” then it is worthy to be bought. No. Wage exploitation is real, and it results in the artificial increase of American’s standard of living (cheap clothes) over and against the standard of living of our brothers and sisters abroad. Buying fair trade when possible is one way to mitigate against these unfair labor practices.
  4. Simple budgeting and financial literacy is essential. Though it is such a simple proposition, Christians have to put their money where their mouth is if they want to live a simpler lifestyle, give to the poor, or fight against the evils of materialism. These practices do not come naturally, but come through conscious month-to-month budgeting and prioritizing.
  5. Learn to critique the system. This may come in the response of political engagement at the local, state, and national level, or it could simply mean rejecting the absurd stories that are propagated on television commercials. Ronald Sider advises families to “laugh regularly at TV commercials,” while “developing family slogans like “Who Are You Kidding?” and “You Can’t Take it With You!” These may be virtuous habits for your family to adopt.4

To conclude, the Christian life is a paradoxical one. We live within an “already” of the Incarnation, our salvation, and the reign of Christ. However, we also live within a “not yet” of sin within our world and our hearts and a coming Kingdom in which Christ will set all injustices to rights. Between these two, may we learn, by God’s spirit, to live as those “created for every good work” within this broken economy.

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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