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Against Conspicuous Consumption

Against Conspicuous Consumption

In many ways it feels like we’ve never before been more conscious of the needs of the world. And in those ways it appears that we can really make a difference.

There are rock concerts for poverty, books and weekly emails with calls to action; there are thousands of charity organizations, political watchdogs, human rights groups and the social justice of celebrity icons. Men and women across the board are joining voices–and it’s great. It really is. But often our new found awareness leads us to radical judgments based on one-dimensional (often highly-emotional) analysis; judgments that may, although honest and well intentioned, mistakenly direct us down narrowly defined paths of inaction; paths that leave little room for practical, tangible creative action.

For example, when we look at our clothing, we quickly discover that much of what we’re wearing is being sewn together by little hands in places too far and economically remote to be named and remembered. And the inclination within that moment is to opt out, to stop sweat shopping for new clothes and place a personal embargo on all things third world. We do this all the time, all of us; a quick cause/effect analysis followed by a stamp of judgment. Like being in the car with someone who’s just robbed the bank, you don’t think—you just reach for the door.

So many times our attempts to follow Christ put us in these tenuous positions where we perceive that we have only one of two choices: to be in or opt out. To be complicit with the flawed political/social, economic/religious system or opt out and make a run for it, move to Saskatchewan and spend the rest of our lives in the hills. We see few other options on the table. And so for many of us then, living under the pressure of this ultimatum, we come to believe that in fact it is true—that there are no alternatives.

So opting out, we find comfort and the certainty we search for in bold lines that conveniently delineate the black from the white. Rather than wrestling with the issues through prayer, deep study, scrutiny, patience and the analysis they demand, we choose instead to make a metaphorical run for it. We want very badly to be on the “good” side—an absolutely healthy longing—but do our conclusions lead us there?

For instance, what would change if you learned that that same sweaty job—awful and atrocious as it may be—was that woman or child’s only opportunity for survival outside of a life of prostitution? What if you learned that that penny-paying job was a step up from every other available option in that particular place? What if you found out that that woman or child who’d sewn your clothes was—strange as it may seem—grateful for the sweatshop? Would you still rally to boycott the employer or eradicate their operations in that far off place? Would you see things the same way? Or would you be forced with your new information to rethink the situation and begin to wonder if there might be another—possibly better way—of engaging the inequality problem?

If we want to effect change and reshape our respective corners of the world, it will not be merely through a set of radical refusals. We cannot stand off, throw rocks at the glass house, and demand the walls be torn down. Rather, we must have a hand in the building effort. We must invest deeper in the imagining of new ways to articulate our faith (lifestyle) through difficult, thorough investigation—not merely corroborating with our emotional responses.

Rather than opting out, why don’t we—the Christian community—adhere to consumption habits that might put pressure on businesses to exercise responsibility to the earth as well as their workforce? What if we were to use the supply/demand curve to the advantage of the poor and marginalized and support companies who do good business, provide healthy wages, benefits and work conditions? If producers know that consumers care about and want to buy from honorable, principled companies they will begin to act as such, market themselves as such, and drive up industry standards on issues and conditions that may otherwise remain stagnant.

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