The Religion of Consumerism
by Chris Seay
As a Pastor, I have to admit that over the last 20 years of ministry Christmas has rarely felt like a holy day, much less a holy and sacred season. The busyness and materialism are not merely a distraction from the things that matter, they have become the driving force in a fever pitched frenzy that is anything but worshipful. In a moment of honest reflection with several good friends who are Pastors we had a moment of clarity, either this must change or we need to opt out of the whole thing. That year we abandoned decades of tradition and chose to make the worship of Jesus central to our Christmas experience. From a heart of worship flowed a radical kind of grace and giving that has ended the water crisis in impoverished regions across the globe and brought families together to celebrate a birthday intended to change the world.It seems insane to think that the birthday of Jesus the Liberating King is also the highest holy day for the dominant religion in the U.S. – Consumerism.
THE RELIGION OF CONSUMERISM
Every day advertisements implore us to get more from life. Fulfillment is within our grasp — and we deserve it. Why wait when we can have everything now?
We can buy the house of our dreams with no money down. We can pull a fine bottle of French wine from our miniature wine cellar and savor the flavors while we sit on our suede sectional and watch our fifty-inch flat screen. Before going to sleep on our third new mattress in five years, we can go online to make our interest-only mortgage payment and order the kids some cheap Christmas gifts made in China — and something for ourselves, too, so we can get free shipping.
We have been told that this is the perfect life. We have a sense that when we get to this point, we will be satisfied. Yet if we spend our lives pursuing this dream, we discover that it cannot deliver on its grand promises of ease and satisfaction. There will always be a finer wine, a better television, a faster computer . . . and so the race goes on until the day we find ourselves surrounded by the latest and greatest of everything, yet feeling more alone and unhappy than ever before.
THE FASTEST-GROWING RELIGION IN THE WORLD
The fastest-growing religion in the world is not Islam or Christianity; the symbol of this rising faith is not the star and crescent or the cross, but a dollar sign. This expanding belief system is radical consumerism. It promises transcendence, power, pleasure, and fulfillment even as it demands complete devotion.
Many American Christians have decided they can, to put it bluntly, love both God and money. Our Scriptures tell how God’s people were often intrigued by the promises of other gods, whether offering a bountiful harvest, sexual pleasure, or political power. God’s people did not denounce him as they began to worship Baal or any other false god. Rather, they often continued to profess loyalty to God while they pursued their functional god. In the same way, American Christians have incorporated their devotion to consumerism with their Christian faith. Yet every step we make toward consumerism is one step farther off the path of Jesus the Liberating King.
It is now clear that the primary threat to true Christianity in America is consumerism — not liberalism, fundamentalism, Darwinism, secularism, or any other -ism that happens to achieve some level of influence and power.
Consumerism promises transcendence. Our consumer culture claims that the material thing we want most will elevate us above our current circumstances. A car, for example, is not simply a form of transportation; a car offers status, mystique, thrills, adventure, and confidence. If it were otherwise, we would all be driving the simplest, most cost-effective car available. Yet we buy cars for more than function, wondering which model will be the best for us. These promises are not completely empty — for weeks or months we may wake up happier knowing that we will be driving the car of our dreams. Inside, however, we know this sort of happiness is fleeting, whether it ends in a crash or the slow creep of longing for an even better car.
[An eighty-four-year-old grandmother apologized to her family for not being able to give lavish gifts on her limited income. This did not, however, keep her from giving $85 to the Advent Conspiracy Christmas offering.]
The same is true of small purchases. Clothes protect our bodies from the weather and fit social norms. Yet most of us buy clothes to help us feel more attractive and successful. How many of us have ever put on a new outfit for a date or a fashionable suit for an interview?
In the religion of consumerism, the thing we desire becomes the symbol of whatever meaning it insinuates. Because we buy into the meaning, we believe we will become more significant, able to rise above the circumstances, frustrations, and mundane moments of our everyday lives. In short, our consumerism tells us that we’ll be reborn.
Yet all too soon the luster starts to fade. We tell ourselves not to worry because there’s another package to open, another order to place, or another catalog to flip through. Another messiah has come into our consumer world to save us from our self-created agony.
YOUR DISSATISFACTION IS GUARANTEED
Consumerism demands that we be dissatisfied. You will never hear a salesman say, “Great news! This is the last one of these you’ll ever need to buy.” We are constantly searching for the one thing that will satisfy us. Yet each time we trust the promises of our possessions, more barriers are raised between our true selves and God’s plain command to love God above all things. It’s not that we necessarily want more — it’s that what we want is something we can’t buy.
Consumerism can also poison our relationship with Christ. Jesus becomes a commodity we consume rather than a King who reigns. We tried Jesus. We were satisfied for six months, but then something about it just didn’t meet our needs, and now we’re ready to trade him in like a leased car for something better. Because we’ve been so deeply formed by a culture of consumerism, we cannot fathom the lasting value of Jesus.
Besides making false promises, consumerism detaches us from the human cost of the products we buy. Most of the time we have no idea how our shirt was made, who made it, or where it came from. It’s practically magic: we can spend a few dollars and a new product travels across the world to our waiting arms.
Picture Fargo, North Dakota, in the dead of winter. Our detachment from what we consume allows us to buy and eat a delicious, ripe banana without thinking to ask where it came from or what its true cost might be. The religion of consumerism relies on our ignorance of its true workings.
Imagine picking out a shirt and hanging with the tag is a picture of the Guatemalan woman who earned thirty-three cents an hour sewing that shirt. There is no way any corporation is going to show us that picture because we might start calculating: “Wait . . . thirty- three cents an hour, twelve hours a day, six days a week. . . and they want forty bucks for the shirt?”
[Overhearing a conversation from one of his patients, a dentist asked about Advent Conspiracy. He was so moved by the story that he called AC asking if he could display its brochure at his office. Several of his patients told him they wanted to do Advent Conspiracy with their families.]
No, consumerism requires our consciences to stay detached from the moral consequences of our purchases. We buy without thinking beyond the price and the promise of a newer, better self. Yet we ought not to deceive ourselves: this is a religion, and this is worship.
Sometimes uncovering the truth seems so overwhelming that we wonder if it’s even worth beginning the search. It’s much easier to once again bow down before the god of consumerism, to assume there’s nothing we can do to make anything better. We keep playing the game and pretending everything is okay.
IS ANYONE OUT THERE?
Consumer greed and devotion is a snarling monster with razor-sharp teeth. It devours not only those from whom it takes, but also those who eagerly receive its plunder. James (the brother of Jesus) warns us of these dangers saying:
You have banked your lives on accumulating things, and now you will watch your riches rot before your eyes as the moths devour your fine clothes. Your stockpile of silver and gold is tarnished and corroded: and this rust will stand up in the final judgment and testify against you. It will eat your flesh like fire and become a permanent and painful reminder that you have hoarded your wealth, and it will not last through these last days. Listen; this is for you. You held back a just wage from the laborers who mowed your fields, and that money is crying out against you, demanding that justice be done.
Left unchecked, our constant striving for the next thing has fatal consequences. Our consumption all too easily becomes plundering and pillaging. “You’d better be on your guard,” Jesus warned, “against any type of greed, for a person’s life is not about having a lot of possessions.” Despite this caution, many of us still seem eager to give it a try.
LESS IS MORE
By definition, Christians believe that the most important gifts in the world are not the things we can see and touch. So what happens when we pursue material wealth? When we think of trouble, we tend to picture hardships and disease and accidents and domestic turmoil. Images of poverty and squalor and wretchedness may come to mind. Yet the real trouble we often face wears a very different mask.
In ancient times, God led the Israelites out of slavery, a brutal captivity during which their children had been euthanized, their work had been almost physically impossible, and they had lacked basic religious freedom. God intimidated their captors with terrifying plagues, parted the Red Sea to make possible their escape, and led them by pillars of cloud and fire to a good land he had promised them. On their journey to freedom, water burst from the rocks and manna rained daily from the sky.
How did the people respond to this remarkable provision? They complained: “We want meat!” “We’re sick of this funky bread!” God, in his infinite wisdom, gave these ungrateful, murmuring people exactly what they asked for. “I’ll give you meat,” he said, “and you will eat it. Not for one day, ten days, or twenty — you will eat it until you vomit it out your nostrils.” Trouble in the form of plenty? You bet.
[Three high school girls organized an initiative that raised awareness at their high school about the global water crisis. It all revolved around a single drop of water. From videos that played throughout lunch hour to a benefit concert to T-shirts that invited their fellow students to “be a drop out,” they raised enough money for a well to be dug in West Africa.]
In these days it seems God has done the same for America: “You want wealth? I will give you obscene wealth — and it will lead to your destruction.” Ralph Winter, the founder of Frontier Mission Fellowship, writes: “The underdeveloped societies suffer from one set of diseases: tuberculosis, malnutrition, pneumonia, parasites, typhoid, cholera, typhus, etc. Affluent America has virtually invented a whole new set of diseases: obesity, arteriosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, venereal disease, cirrhosis of the liver, drug addiction, alcoholism. . . . In saving ourselves we have nearly lost ourselves.”
Consumerism’s great risk is that we might get exactly what we want. What if, instead of pursuing the latest gadgets and most comfortable lifestyles, we became pilgrims like the Magi? What if we left behind our ease in order to witness — and worship — something infinitely better?
In our hearts we know that consumerism is not the Christian way to celebrate the birth of Christ. Could opting out of our cultural Christmas give us the chance to worship truly and love all? Might it be that the King of Kings is more powerful, and more worthy of our trust, than the god of consumerism? Are we willing to spend less and receive more? I pray that tens of thousands of churches and families will join us this year as we seek to worship the ONE TRUE GOD and abandon the religion of consumerism. The church is still capable of demonstrating the miraculous love of God to the world. May the thirsty be quenched, the hungry be fed, all hearts be full, and our presence offered as God’s greatest gift to those we love.