Good Consumers are Bad Christians

Tom Petty in The Postman (image credit)

Dear Person I’m Close To Who “Loves Jesus and ‘Merica Too,”

First of all, wasn’t Tom Petty great? If you missed it, my salutation alludes to his song, “Free Fallin’.” Back in my more “fundagelical” days at Gordon College, an upperclassman once told me that he believed the music of Tom Petty would save the world, as it was blaring out his window toward the field outside our dorm. Maybe he was just trying to be provocative, but who can forget Tom’s memorable turn in The Postman (image above)? Anyway, there’s some growing tension between you and I as we share life together these days but have what seem to be wildly different values and mutually exclusive ideas about what it means to follow Jesus. So this is what I would say about all this to you, if I could.

I do believe that we have a common commitment to following Jesus, but what that life of discipleship looks like and where I think Jesus is heading is very different for me from what seems to be the case for you. For example, I don’t believe that the Christian life is primarily about escaping hell for a better life in heaven after we die. I believe following Jesus is about joining in the family business of reconciliation and renewal. Heaven isn’t someplace we fly away to when we die; heaven is the reality in which God’s rule is unquestioned, and at the end of time we don’t escape to heaven; heaven comes to earth. Jesus said the kingdom of God is upon you; it’s right here, even now. For those who would fully follow Jesus, heaven (the reality in which God’s rule is unquestioned) has already begun.

This has dramatic consequences for how we live right now. My family and I are not trying to hunker down in a Christian bubble and wait for everything to burn. We’re trying to live as if the God of the universe has already saved us, and nothing can separate us from his love. Therefore, we have nothing to fear. We will not be afraid of immigrants and refugees, for example. Everyone with white skin like ours are immigrants to this land, and there’s a sense in which all citizens of heaven are immigrants to that land too. As Jesus followers we are called to welcome strangers and to love neighbors and enemies alike. We will do so.

As Jesus followers and citizens of heaven, we know that we cannot serve two masters, and we know that we must look with clear, unflinching eyes at the truth of our history. An honest look at U.S. history, for example, cannot end with the conclusion that the U.S. has been mostly good for the world, with a few faults along the way. The U.S. is an empire very much like Rome in Jesus’ day, and an honest, unflinching look at the witness of Scripture reveals empire as a primary force that the people of God are called to resist.

Go here for a description of this image depicting U.S. empire. It’s “rich,” in more ways than one.

In the U.S., and- because of U.S. colonialism and domination- therefore throughout the world, capitalism and violence go hand-in-hand as the tools of empire, used for the purpose of ordering the world in opposition to the will and reign of God.

Capitalism forms people as consumers who endlessly envy what some neighbors have and fear what other neighbors lack and might take from us, thereby making the poor especially our enemies. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove says this best, and this is one of my favorite passages from his book God’s Economy:

 

Meanwhile, the worldwide U.S. driven economy is consumer based and has been for some time. It would collapse if we stopped buying stuff. Therefore desire is manufactured in us along with the stuff that we’re constantly being taught to desire. We window shop at the altar of our screens, and will click “buy” the moment there’s enough funds in the bank or in our credit line. This makes us good consumers, and bad Christians.

Capitalism would not be possible without violence. It is a system that was constructed violently on the backs of slaves and through land theft from and the genocide of indigenous peoples, and it is maintained violently as wars are fought over oil (and someday, no doubt, water) and through the everyday violence that keeps some people rich and many more people very, very poor.  This everyday violence can be seen in the militarization of local police forces and in a culture that fetishizes gun ownership and thereby makes every protest and horn honk a situation rife with deadly potential. Everyday violence is seen in the availability of good jobs and pay for some, but not others. Everyday violence is seen in the imposition of contrived scarcity. Capitalism assumes a world with scarce economic resources rather than the abundance of God’s economy and provision. When resources are scarce, self-(ish) interest is incentivized because if I don’t get what I need and want, somebody else will and it may no longer be there for me. So in such a world there is only so much good land and only so many good neighborhoods and jobs.  In a scarce world, if I share what I have, I have less and what I’m left with may not be enough. So I must take and keep what’s “mine,” by force if necessary. In a scarce world, it’s easy to value things over people. In a scarce world, the poor become an enemy because they might want what I have, and might take it.

Jesus lived, ministered, died, was resurrected, and lives on today to save us from all of this.

In God’s economy, there is abundance, not scarcity. The God who created the universe once rained bread down from heaven and made water flow from a rock. Jesus, the true bread from heaven, teaches us to pray only for today’s bread, not for tomorrow’s, not for next week’s, and not for the “bread” we’ll need when we “retire.” Notice, first of all, that it’s our daily bread. It is shared. It is never mine. Because it’s our daily bread, “the one who gathers much does not gather too much, and the one who gathers little does not gather too little.” Such a system is not based on self-interest, but on other-interest. Sharing and redistribution is implied. If my status as a male of European descent literally affords me privilege in the world’s economy so that I’m able to gather much, I must do so to be sure that the one who does not have such privilege in the world’s economy does not gather too little. My “much” plus their “little” in the violent, capitalist system of the world becomes our “enough” in God’s economy. So then, our primary orientation in the world is toward sharing, hospitality, and generosity. Everything belongs to God, and as a result every economic decision I make is as a steward of God’s resources, not the master of my own.

We must do everything within our power to live according to this truth and to teach it to our children. The house I live in, therefore, must be one of frequent shared meals with others, especially those with fewer resources. My house must be a house of hospitality, with a bed ready to share with the one who may not have one. God’s kingdom is upon us, after all, if only we’ll live like Jesus really is Lord here and now, not Trump, not Putin, not Hillary or Obama or anyone else. Jesus is our President. Jesus is the head of our International Monetary Fund. Ceasar’s face and inscription may be on the coin of the land, but Jesus made the metal the coin was printed on. As God has given out of God’s abundance more than enough for all of us, let’s give back to God what belongs to God, which is everything, but especially our lives and allegiance. With Jesus as Lord, the poor will indeed always be with us because we are the ones who share God’s bounty so that the poor do not remain poor long, and we rich do not remain rich long. Let’s resist capitalism and the violence that created and maintains it, and so let us live like God’s kingdom really is here. Amen.


2 thoughts on “Good Consumers are Bad Christians

  1. Capitalism intentionally creates pockets of scarcity, where there otherwise would be none. And then we are given the lie that capitalism is the solution to the problem it creates. In addition to violence, I would also add debt to the picture. Debt is another big component of what maintains capitalism. The overwhelming majority of adult lives in the US begin with massive amounts of debt- school, mortgage, cars, credit cards. And we literally spend the rest of our lives paying for a lifestyle we really couldn’t afford; paying to avoid the lifestyle of the unprivileged, marginalized folks whose conveniences are little. The reality is that the majority of us are much closer to the beggar than we are to the wealthy. Debt blocks us from having to confront this reality. How can we be good stewards of what God entrusts to us while we are still so indebted to Ceasar?

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  2. Michael, thank you so much for commenting. I absolutely agree with you. You would like the church we’re a part of now, Church of All Nations. We have an “Underground Seminary” we operate, and one of the textbooks is Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. The idea, I think, is that we can’t effectively minister if we don’t understand how the world really works. We can’t be leaders of the church if we don’t have a deep understanding of (the evils of) Wall Street. Wage slavery is, indeed, one of the primary tools of empire. It’s why we need Jesus…and each other. By living communally, reducing expenses, and working toward Jubilee for ourselves and others, we free ourselves to be an alternative community that does not have to play by the empire’s rules.

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