As we continue to make our way through the season of Advent, and as we approach the celebration of Christmas, we are sticking with the four themes of our Advent Conspiracy. In this season we are invited (or even commanded) to do the following:
Worship Fully Spend Less Give more Love all
This is week two of Advent, and so this morning we are looking at this invitation and command to spend less. In this season of hopeful waiting, as we approach and celebrate the birth of Christ, we are invited and commanded to not pull out our credit card as often as we might at this time of the year.
Of course the big question for us is why? Why spend less? Presumably this invitation and command is offered as an answer to some problem. The creators of the Advent Conspiracy looked at their own lives and at the culture around us and decided we needed to hear this message: Spend Less.
But what is the problem to which spending less is the answer? Our first thought might be that spending less is an answer to the problem of greed. We should spend less because we aren’t supposed to be greedy. This is the season of Scrooge, isn’t it, when we are reminded that greediness, and avarice, and acquisitiveness are contrary to the message of Christmas. And after all, ours is an age that has produced the ubiquitous self-storage facilities – where people keep all of the stuff they don’t have any more room for in their houses. Ours is an age that has some of the largest homes in all of history. Our is an age that sees such a contrast between the number of things possessed by the man and the huge number of things possessed by the 1%. (And remember that we in the west are part of the 1% globally speaking…)
A couple of weeks ago I came across the following photographs by the Chinese photographer Huang Qingjun. He managed to convince several Chinese families to gather all their belongings outside of their homes for a photograph. Relative to what many of us have accumulated, their possessions are few. (Click the first image to visit Huang’s website…)
This focus on greed wouldn’t be out of place in terms of what the scriptures say, would it? The biblical writers in various contexts do point to the problem of greed. In the Proverbs we read: “Those who are greedy for unjust gain, make trouble for their household.“ In the first letter of Timothy we read that the love of money is the root of all evil.
So perhaps greed is the question to which spending less is the answer.
But this morning, following the ideas of William Cavanaugh (from his book Being Consumed) we are going to suggest that the real challenge for our culture is not greed but consumerism. Yes, for some in our culture, greed may be a problem (they want more and more). But consumerism represents a much wider cultural reality and problem, and greed is only one small aspect of it.
We are going to look briefly at two aspects of consumerism this morning – again, based on Cavanaugh’s little book. And in each case I want to point out how spending less can be seen as a wise and faithful response to consumerism. As we conspire to spend less in this season, we are in effect working to undermine something fundamental to the culture in which we live – an aspect of our culture that is at odds with the faith and hope we express in this season.
So the first dimension of consumerism is the dimension of dissatisfaction. In reflecting on the relation of greed to consumerism, again, Cavanaugh points out: “What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; [rather,] they discard them and buy other things.”
In this never-ending cycle of buying and possessing, then discarding – and buying and possessing, then discarding – and buying and possessing, then discarding – and buying and possessing, then discarding – in this never-ending cycle, dissatisfaction is a key element. We might say, in fact, that dissatisfaction is the engine of consumerism – dissatisfaction drives consumerism – dissatisfaction drives advertising and sales and corporate profits, and our the cycle of buy and discarding.
Let me quote another longer pieces of text from Cavanaugh:
Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism. Buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness [and dissatisfaction] that typifies consumerism. This restlessness – the moving on to shopping for something else, no matter what one has just purchased – sets the spiritual tone for consumerism.
We are restless. We are perpetually dissatisfied, and so we shop and shop and shop again.
In terms of technology, we need the latest model of phone, or the latest model of computer, or the latest gaming system. When it comes to clothes, we need the latest colours or the latest seasonal fashions. In terms of appliances we need the latest kitchen gadget, which itself is not built to last, which simply perpetuates the spiral of dissatisfaction. In a culture of consumerism, perpetually dissatisfaction with what we have is encouraged and assumed. Shopping and buying brings relief, on the way to the next round dissatisfaction and renewed shopping.
With this perpetual dissatisfaction in mind, what does it mean to spend less? What does it mean to shop less? Perhaps the answer is obvious at this point. To spend less in this season is to refuse this culture of dissatisfaction. To spend less is to refuse this routinized, this assumed dissatisfaction
To spend less is to say: “I refuse to let dissatisfaction define me in this season.”
To spend less is to say: “I will be satisfied with what I have. And I will receive with gratitude what I have.
To spend less at this time of year is to refuse the lie that Christmas should be about my perpetual dissatisfaction – the lie that we will ever find satisfaction in another round of shopping.
On the positive side, to spend less is to say that in this season I will abide in the love of God, whose advent means renewal and hope and joy. To spend less – to shop less – is to accept that our deepest satisfaction in life has been given. Our deepest satisfaction has been given in the one who was given through Mary – Immanuel, God with us; God for our forgiveness; God for our new life of compassion and grace.
So enough with dissatisfaction – and on to a second aspect of consumerism. This second aspect of consumerism we want to mention is that of detachment. Not only are we driven to buy and spend by the feeling and experience of dissatisfaction – but when we actually do buy something we also notice that we are in a profound sense detached from the thing we have purchased.
What does this mean? What does it mean that we are detached from the things that we buy? Well in the first place we are detached from the things we buy because it is only a short time after the purchase is made that we are supposed to become dissatisfied with it. In a few days or months, or a few years, it will be replaced by something new and different – so we are detached from the object. As Cavanaugh points out, the razor with one blade has been displaced by the razor with two – which has been displaced by the razor with three blades, and then four. Finally there is an absurd 5 blades on a men’s razor.” Detachment from what we have is built into the system of consumerism. I’m not attached to it, because it will soon be gone.
But the problem of detachment runs deeper than that. We could talk about this aspect of consumerism from a variety of perspectives, but we’ll focus on one only this morning. Namely, that we are detached, we are removed from, we are distant from, those who produce the things we buy. Whether it is our Christmas turkey or our iPod or our shirt or our shoes or our dishwasher or our Christmas lights or our lettuce and radishes – we are removed from, we are distant from, we are detached from the people who produce or make them – removed from their lives and their experiences and their suffering. In fact this is a defining feature of consumerism, that we don’t know who makes our things – and we don’t particularly care. And we aren’t supposed to care.
From time to time, of course, we get a small window on the suffering of some of those who make our stuff. In past months we saw the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh, where labourers were killed in making cheap shirts for us – this past week we saw a fire in a Chinese-owned factory in Italy where workers put in long hours in unsafe conditions also making cheap clothing.
But then we quickly put these stories out of our mind and the media quickly pass over these stories. And of course the corporations want us to quickly forget about all of this so that we can go back to being ignorant about the people who make our things – so we can go back to buying more to fatten the corporate bottom line and feed or own perpetual dissatisfaction.
What does it mean to spend less in this context of consumerism? What does it mean to spend less in this context of detachment from those who make the things we buy? It means a refusal to be implicated in this ignorance of, and detachment from, those who produce our goods. It is a refusal to let the status quo be the status quo.
Of course in this case it can’t only be a question of spending less. Particularly in our globalized world, we will rely on governments to implement legislation and regulations that prevent abuse – and we must in some situations make choices about who we will elect and we will in many cases need to agitate for particular policies. And we can acknowledge that some very small steps have been taken on these questions.
But beyond those big political and global actions, we can also begin to make take significant actions ourselves – to pursue certain actions that resist the detachment of consumerism.
This past week Becky and I made our annual trip with our kids to Dix Mille Villages over on Monkland to buy three Christmas tree ornaments – one for each of the kids. Of course Dix Mille Villages is a store built on the principle of fair trade. And what was really striking this year was that for each of the ornaments we purchased, we received a sheet explaining who made it – a sheet with information about the organization that produced it. One of the ornaments was an angel made from recycled magazines.And it turns out that this ornament was made by a non-profit organization in Vietnam called Mai Handicrafts – it hires poor and marginalized persons – women and ethnic minority groups – to make the handicrafts. The organization works, today with almost 1,700 artisans. (Click the image for the information sheet!)
I don’t raise this story to suggest any superiority on our part – we are as implicated as anyone in consumerism. But it was astonishing to simply receive that information sheet with the product. And you’ve got to wonder what it would be like if we got a sheet like this with every product we purchased. How are the agricultural workers in Mexico treated who picked the cucumbers in our salad? And how are the garment workers in Bangladesh treated who made the shirt I’m wearing? And how are the factory workers in China treated who assemble our electronic devices?
Christmas means good news for all people. The angels declared to the shepherds: “Fear not, for I bring you good news, that will be for all the people.” The good news, rather astonishingly, is that God with us is himself born into a place of marginalization. And of course the one who is born in Bethlehem spends his life among those who are vulnerable and sick and isolated. The message of Christmas is that God comes to us and cares for the least – and calls us and invites us to see them as our sisters and brothers, beloved of God.
To spend less – to shop less in this season – is to refuse the consumerism of our culture – which is built on detachment. To spend less is to say: “I will not go along with a system that intentionally and willfully cuts me off from those who make my clothes and build my electronics.” To spend less – to shop less in this season – is to actively seek another way of being in relation to those created and beloved of God – those we are invited to love and serve and others who are loved, and who we are invited to love, in the name of Christ.
The engine of consumerism is dissatisfaction – dissatisfaction with what we have. But in this Advent we respond: No, we will find our satisfaction in the love of God – in the love of God expressed in Jesus – Immanuel – God with us. God coming to us.”
Beyond dissatisfaction, consumerism is built on and assumes our detachment from the people who make or produce what we have. And in this Advent season, in anticipation of Christmas we say: “No, this is not ok. God in Christ calls me to know and love and understand and respect those live alongside us in the wide world of his loving care.”
Join the conspiracy. Spend less.