By Neal Windham
The United States has one of the lowest savings rates of any wealthy country, and we are the most indebted society in history. What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it.
So warns William Cavanaugh in his book, Being Consumed (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). Cavanaugh published these words at the beginning of the Great Recession, just as millions of baby boomers were readying to settle into their 401(k) lives. Having cultivated behaviors of shopping and spending based solely upon preference, not need, upon discarding perfectly useful goods for more technologically and materially satisfying improvements—“updates,” we often call them—many of these same boomers are now still hard at work, recouping their losses and planning their all-too-distant retirement parties. What went wrong?
The Best Question
Cavanaugh writes about “basic matters of economic life: the free market, consumerism, globalization, and scarcity” (p. vii). He believes the most important question in every transaction is whether and how it contributes to human flourishing, or “participation in the life of God” (viii). A “free market” is not free only insofar as it is in no way coerced by the state. It is not merely free from, but free for, as Augustine might have put it: free, in other words, to “achieve certain worthwhile goals” (8). Thus, real market freedom is not about following whatever desires we have, but cultivating the right desires. So, when a recession comes and we’re told to spend money just to get the economy moving again—“It doesn’t matter what you buy; just buy something!”—godly, goal-oriented consumption is lost to market expediency, and human, even animal, flourishing yields to the dollar.
Leather jackets that sell for $178 in the United States, for example, are produced by El Salvadoran workers who get 56 cents an hour. A calf might begin its life eating grass on the range, but spend the rest of its days in a feedlot, “ankle deep in manure” and pumped full of antibiotics to avoid bloating or an abscessed liver (29). Sure, consumers are free to purchase these products, but to what end? asks Cavanaugh. What’s good about these transactions?
Moreover, “The people who make our things are . . . ‘labor costs,’ which naturally need to be ‘minimized’” (39). Casualties include Lydda Gonzalez, a young woman who, at significant personal risk, spoke out about the deplorable conditions in her Honduran sweatshop (miserable wages, 12-hour, six-day shifts, mandatory unpaid overtime). And 19-year-old Li Chunmei collapsed and died after working 16-hour shifts for 60 days straight in a toy factory making stuffed animals for children in the “developed” countries (40, 41).
Obviously, we do not consciously choose to work people to death for such goods and services, but we do participate in the systems that create these atrocities. And we do so precisely because we are detached, not only from our own throwaway purchases, but especially from the people who produce them.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that “consumers are characterized by a constant dissatisfaction with material goods” (35). As a result, they become detached from these products in the lusty pursuit of something better, and in this way they actually participate in the “organized creation of dissatisfaction” (46). Razors with one blade yield to those with two, and those with two to those with three; today we’re up to five. Just how many blades does it take for a “close shave”?
A Better Way
There is a better way. It begins with the simple recognition that God alone is eternal; things are temporal. And so it is we must set our desires not upon things, but upon God (49). And how do we do so? By paying attention to what we Christians really consume: the body and blood of Christ. Here, “the consumer . . .
does not remain detached from what he or she consumes, but becomes part of the body,” the church (95). Here, “The very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down” (56). Here, there is a “radical decentering” of the individual, the very thing most missing in modern consumption (95).
Moreover, our homes should become sites of production, as, for example, we bake bread and make music (57). And our businesses should resource victims of scarcity and depletion as, for example, Italian-based Focolare, which sponsors for-profit businesses that divide their profits equally among the poor, educational projects, and business development (99), and Spain-based Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, where the highest-paid employees make no more than six times what the lowest-paid make (27). (In North American, it’s sometimes 400 times what the lowest-paid employee makes!)
In the 21st century, ours is all too often a market-driven narrative, what Cavanaugh calls “the death of eschatology,” or the death of hope. “The Eucharist,” he concludes, “tells a different story of who we are—the hungry and the filled—and where we’re going” (100).
Neal Windham serves as professor of spiritual formation and ministry at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.