In her new book on consumption, Laura Hartman opens with a panicky scene: Hartman standing frozen in front of fresh vegetables—overwhelmed with the choices and moral dilemmas (e.g., "Where, how, and by whom was this made?" "Is it right to spend so much more for organic?" "Do I really need this at all?") presented in each of them.
It's a scene that she suggests is common for those of us who care about "consumption ethics." In fact, Hartman says she wrote The Christian Consumer: Living Faithfully in a Fragile World because of scenes like that one—because we live in a time and place where the consumption choices are "mind-boggling" yet "morally important."
Hartman, who is a religion professor at Augustana College (Illinois), found that most existing literature on consumerism focuses on what is wrong with consumption rather than illuminating what good consumption can look like. Author Caryn Rivadeneira spoke with Hartman on why she offers a vision of consumption ethics.
You suggest that a good view of Christian consumption needs four distinctives: avoid sin, embrace creation, love the neighbor, and envision the future. How do you suggest we keep these considerations from being more noises in our heads?
Ultimately these four categories are habits of thought, which can lead to habits of action. I want to encourage people to spend time discerning their consumption habits more broadly and measure those habits against these four categories.
These are sort of long-term decisions and I think that they are best made in times of reflection rather than in times of decision-making or quick choices. Once we are accustomed to thinking in those ways, then it'll come naturally. We won't have to dance back and forth inside the grocery aisle.
As I began my research, I was very confused too. There were a lot of different voices out there saying many different things. So I started grouping them. The first two habits were a pretty obvious complement to each other. But then there were all these other people saying other things that didn't fit in with those two. It became clear that it wasn't just a negative "retract-retreat," "don't consume" versus a positive "yes, do," "go for it." There were these other concerns about "on what basis can we judge?" That's where I realized there was this big theme of neighbor love and of visions of the future.
You quote theologian Matthew Fox saying, "If we savored more, we'd consume less," and L. Shannon Jung saying, "If we truly enjoyed eating more, we would want to share more." How does enjoying what we own more make us better consumers?
The truth is, we aren't insatiable consumers. There is such a thing as satiation, as having enough. In fact, what we really want are not the things themselves but the experience that comes with them. We want the food, sort of. But what we really want is the nutrition, the flavor, and the enjoyment. Or, I don't want a television sitting in my living room but I do want to be entertained by it.
One insight from the Christian tradition is that God nourishes us, God blesses us, and God wants us to be blessed. But the same God doesn't require a whole lot of stuff with which to do it. If we can find ways to savor what we have and to fulfill our true needs, we'll find ourselves less greedy.
In some ways, this is the tragedy of consumerism: the consumerist culture recognizes that we're all needy but tries to fill it with the wrong stuff. It's a bottomless pit unless it's filled with the right stuff. We can just keep consuming and consuming and never be satisfied because we're not getting what we truly want.
How does the role of love—loving the neighbor and yourself—fit with consumption?
Martin Luther inspired me the most in this area. He's the one who looks at the marketplace and says, "Where is the neighbor love here?" It struck me that that is an essential question that we should ask ourselves.
Out of all the great commands, Jesus says, "Love God and love your neighbor." Those are those most important commandments. Jesus doesn't say avoid sin; he doesn't say embrace creation. He doesn't even say be just to your neighbor; he says love your neighbor. So if this is the most important Christian thing then it's got to be important for this topic too.
How does practicing Sabbath rest lead to better consumption?
I think a lot of our consumption happens in a rush. When we consume, we consume quickly. We don't have time to think because there are so many other things going on in our lives. The practice of keeping Sabbath asks us to slow down, and not just on that one day—because in order to get there we have to completely reorder the rest of our week. It can make us more mindful about what we're doing and what we're consuming.
Ultimately the Sabbath can help us get closer to the way God is thinking. We want to know what God wants of us. That's something we can discern more clearly on a day like the Sabbath. It's important to have that in our minds the rest of the week in some way as a counter-balance to our own wants. It's not only about what I want but about what God wants. Having a space to examine what God wants can get us a disposition toward seeing things differently that we can carry the rest of the week.
You also suggest that the Eucharist affirms that consumption is not only necessary for us physically, but necessary for "spiritual formation and the bringing about of God's kingdom." What do you think we miss when we look at only the negative sides of consumption and fail to see the holiness of good consumption, such as through the Eucharist?
The Eucharist demonstrates so beautifully that when consumption is done right, it is transformative. It is liberating. It is one of the most beautiful things that humans do. When consumption is done poorly, it's terrible, but it doesn't have to be that way.
We have to go beyond fair trade. We have to go beyond organic. We don't only have to consume as if we are concerned citizens—which we should be. We should also consume as if we are believing, practicing Christians, which means that we consume in faith. God's power is even bigger than the big concerns that come with our consumption.
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The Christian Consumer: Living Faithfully in a Fragile World is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Caryn Rivadeneira, author of Grumble Hallelujah, regularly contributes to Her.meneutics, the Christianity Today blog for women.
Previous articles on consumerism and consumption include:
Culture in an Age of Consumption | Why evangelical hipsters may be the best example of James Davison Hunter's 'faithful presence.' (September 14, 2010)
It Takes More Than a Recession to End Consumption | Though it's no longer conspicuous, 'feel-good' buying lives on in the U.S. (February 12, 2009)
Buy to Be, Be to Buy | Sure, consumerism is bad. But we need to think about why. (September 26, 2008)