by Susie Lee
At Revive 2013 Susy Lee from Seaforth Baptist ran a workshop for all ages on Consumerism and Discipleship. It resulted in many interesting conversations. We reprint some of the content here for those who missed it.
We live in one of the very richest countries on the planet. Yet when Australians were asked whether they could afford to buy everything they really need, nearly two-thirds said ‘NO’!1 How much then, is enough? It’s worse than that: most people are happier making $50,000 when those around them make $40,000, than they are making $60,000 when those around them make $70,000. We judge our wealth relatively, so imagine the effect of American sitcoms on TVs in little villages all around the world.2 Material deprivation is not the dominant feature of life in Australia, affluence is, but if we don’t acknowledge that, then not only will we not care for those who are truly poor, we will never find contentment.
Consumerism perpetuates a world of scarcity and want, where there is never enough, so that we will keep buying. The trouble with this for Christians is that we believe in a God of abundance, and a world shaped by scarcity cannot trust that God has given all that we need. Thus this particular greed induced by consumerism prohibits faith.3 Jesus spoke directly about this temptation: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 4 Consumerism is therefore a spiritual problem, and all of us in Australia are heavily influenced by it. Proverbs 30:8 warns “…give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you, and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’” Looking around at our increasingly secular culture, shouldn’t we perhaps be worried about this today?
Marketing brands are created to serve the function of creating communities, providing a way to say who we are to others, and to provide meaning, which then makes us less reliant on the church to do so. Research into the effect of brands on faith coming out of Duke University shows that “if you rely heavily on brands it’s going to potentially shake your belief in God.” 5 Consumerism is a wildly active force, and two-thirds of major retailers worldwide actively target kids. Bonne Bell has a range of lip-gloss aimed at 4-6 year olds that gradually, and very specifically, progresses with them through to adulthood. The risk here is that advertising targeted to children “leads them to view consumption as a primary form of self-expression and a means through which they can construct their identity”.6 As this happens children begin to define themselves by what they consume, rather than by who they are.
Don’t believe me yet? An advertiser said of his work: “We were trained to create a sense of inadequacy in the consumer, and that inadequacy fuels the impulse to buy.”Another in the fashion industry made this statement: “It is calculated to locate the gap in our self esteem and crowbar it wide open.” This is what drives ‘retail therapy’. We have a bad day with our boss and rather than deal with that relationship, we seek to bolster our self-esteem with new stuff, which is the main message of advertising. It can become an addiction – when we do something that is pleasurable, the brain’s reward centre is flooded with dopamine and memories are laid for the future.7 If we want to be people who find their self-worth in the love of our Creator, following Jesus’ example of godliness, then we’re in trouble under the influence of consumerism and had better find ways to protect ourselves!
Its not only consumerism that presents a problem, its the culture of wealth that goes along with it. Children of affluence have generally been presumed to be at low risk, but recent studies have suggested they may have increased problems with substance use, anxiety, and depression. The two causes: pressure to achieve and isolation from parents, both of which are intertwined with the pressures of consumerism.8 Studies on the impact of wealth have found that the richer people are, the less empathetic, less altruistic and generally more selfish they become. There are also negative implications for emotional engagement, generosity, empathy, compassion and ethical behaviour!9 These are all qualities of godliness that are crucial to Christians, so consumerism is working against the effects of the Holy Spirit!
Studies consistently report that people who are materialistic tend to be less satisfied with life and less happy. Rather, they are more likely to be depressed, anxious, paranoid and narcissistic. This, like Jesus’ ‘woe to the rich’ passages,10 can evoke righteous judgment in us toward those nasty rich people, until we face the fact that we are ‘the rich’.11 It’s confronting, but recognising this can also lead to contentment, because it challenges the idea that we still need more. Christians are called to contentment – which is attainable – rather than to the obsession with chasing happiness that our consumer culture promotes.
I think we’re caught in a vicious cycle. The pressure to consume leads to greater busyness, as we race after the money to get more stuff. This hard work increases our wealth, which then decreases our empathy, mental health, and ethics. This becomes spiritual poverty, which leaves us more vulnerable to the pressures of… consumerism! Patience gives way to stress, generosity becomes selfishness, busy-ness prohibits service, faithfulness becomes inconsistent attendance, loyalty is replaced by church-shopping, and joy dwindles in the wake of skyrocketing anti-depressant prescriptions. Every minister may well worry about these effects on their congregation.
How much is enough? How can we work against the powerful effect our culture of ‘more’ has on us? Fear not! Dutiful practise of the disciplines of gratitude and generosity have been shown to be effective counterbalances. Actively fostering contentment and compassion are antidotes to consumerism. First though, we need to acknowledge and understand this is our enemy in order to prioritise putting these cures in place. I can say from experience that it’s very hard to fight the influence of consumerism alone. I found a nice dress I liked recently whilst shopping with my family on holiday. My teenage son said, “do you really need another dress Mum?” I’ve somehow managed without it.
If everyone in the world today lived like a middle class Australian, we’d need about 5 planets to sustain us. If everyone lived like we did in the 1970s though: 1 planet would be enough. The real danger of consumerism is that it has outgrown sustainability. We can’t just generously lift the poor up to become ‘developed’ like us, we’ll have to reduce our consumerism too. And that’s a much harder message. My strongest motivation: I want to raise kids who care, rather than just kids who spend.1. Clive Hamilton, Affluenza: When too much is never enough; or excerpts at http://clivehamilton.com/books/affluenza/ 2. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level 3. Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University 4. Luke 12:15 5. http://www.faithandleadership.com/qa/gavan-fitzsimons-are-consumer-brands-replacing-religion 6. Australia Institute Research Paper No. 41 2007 7. Kerry Mawson, Australian Catholic University 8. The Culture of Affluence: Psychological Costs of Material Wealth: Suniya S. Luthar 9. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qna_uEsZiU8 9 min video showing resource studies on the effect of wealth on us. Research at “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.” By Paul K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 109 No. 9, Feb. 28, 2012. 10. Luke 6:24-26. 11. Test yourself on the website http://www.globalrichlist.com/ – put in your actual income to see exactly where you sit in the world.