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Christian Consumerism in a Contemporary American Society

Romans 8:35 “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”

Christian values and beliefs are constantly being tested and tried in the society we live, on a daily basis. The rapacious greed to amass wealth beyond ones’ need has delivered a blow to the Christian faith and value system.

Jesus asked his disciples to leave all possessions and follow Him. Later He sends them to the corners of the world to spread his message of love for one another and asked others to take up His cross, a cross of pain and suffering. The message to love one’s own neighbor has changed now days ‘to keep up with the present media idol, to emulate his style, own his brand possessions and if possible to outsmart him in the list of things you own’. The value of material possessions are deemed as ‘net worth’ and are prized more than the spiritual worthiness. Material possessions offer more prestige in the eyes of the world as well. The materialistic world beckons and by no fault the multitude is drawn toward it, namely, the need to expand beyond the means and the necessities. Thus, large homes with outlandish decorations, expensive cars, designer dresses and accessories have become the fashion of the day and increasingly becoming the model to emulate. It, in consequence, forces people to consume more. To live the dreams out the system provides the means also to buy them. Thus self worth and point systems are introduced to assess a person’s credit worthiness and allow them to borrow more and follow the massive debt trap that swallowed this nation and brought us to the brink of destruction. The real spiritual worthiness of a Christian and his values are constantly forgotten in this loudly proclaimed ‘One Nation under God’ country that is richly bestowed with the potential to enrich the world both spiritually and materialistically.

We find ourselves in a culture that defines our relationships and actions primarily through a ‘prism of consumption’. Consumption has assembled a value judgment for everyone based on the goods we purchase. One’s identity is now constructed by the clothes you wear, the vehicle you drive, and the rich friends- of Wall Street fame you associate with. Consumerism has become the alternative symbol of identification to the Christian gospel. It is no longer merely an economic system; consumerism has become the American worldview – the framework through which we interpret everything else, including God, the gospel and Church. Jesus Christ is relegated to a lower status- from Lord to a label – where money has become the Lord supreme. To live as a Christian no longer carries an expectation of obedience and good works, but rather the perpetual consumption of Christian merchandise and experiences – music, books, t-shirts, conferences, Christian symbols richly adorned in jewelry. Thus the pastor has become the embodiment of a salesperson and evangelism the key market strategy. Thus mega churches and cities are being built that can trump constructions of other denominations and religions which are being heralded on a daily basis. The recent attempt to build a mosque near the old world trade center has created much furor. The proposed Hindu version of mega temple with multiplex cinema in Disney style has raised many eyebrows. The ordinary Christian is indoctrinated so much that this prevailing world view has mostly been accepted without questioning its authority or historical validity.

Consumerism in itself is not to be shunned as it helps to nurture the body where the spirit itself resides; the Jewish tradition always welcomed riches foods and occasions of grandeur but never supported amassing wealth through nefarious ways and means and cared for the forlorn, the sick and the needy. The Christian monastic life of penance and fasting has largely curtailed the growth of consumerism to an extent. The hold of consumerism in society shows its ugly head in every Christmas season when the value of love and relationship is measured by the dollar worth of the gift that is presented.

Consumerism exists as an alternate world view to the Christian life and it plays into the inherent weaknesses of fallen human nature. The same nature – the greed to satisfy the body by denying God and his word – and accepting worldly gift, the gift of eternal damnation; an apple from Satan. That same greed creates and nourishes human desire for temporal goods and for the false sense of satiety that the acquisition and possession of those goods provide. Thus we are conditioned never to be satisfied with mere sufficiency, but to attain and achieve more through the endless development of talent and productivity. Our selfishness and love for comfort make it all too easy for us to accept the dictum that ‘more is better’. Our disordered and discordant world view has made us the willing participant of this endless game of rapacious greed that foists in us the principle of ‘planned life’ by which we learn to be dissatisfied with what we already possess and to yearn for more. Thus we cannot rest peacefully until the object of our desire is met. Thus we sacrifice all other interactions to get to the finishing point first and proclaim us the winner.

Many families have fallen prey to this vicious cycle of earn-spend-satisfy and buy more and more that this habit has become an addiction that must be fed on a daily basis. We declare time equivalent to money and find endless ways to amass wealth and then to cling to it with all deception and desperation. Consumerism trains a person to settle for nothing less but to yearn for more and seek the blessing of the scripture through the consumptive power of their fortune often flouted or flaunted lavishly on pastors and priests or as patronage for petty projects to boost their ego.

Therefore, if we would wean people from consumerism, we must first help them discipline their appetites so they can be satisfied with a sufficiency in spirit, soul and body. In terms of an Orthodox anthropology, this means inculcating the virtues of abstinence, righteousness and temperance. In Christ we encounter abstinence such a source of grace and mercy, righteousness of that love, and temperance that of hope. Christ reveals the truth that love is a total commitment of oneself to God and others realized in a radical self-emptying process. Rather than preach fulfillment through “self-actualization” or the “good life,” Jesus pours Himself out for us on the Cross. Only through communion with Christ’s loving death and resurrection does man receive the Holy Spirit and the grace to live a just and temperate life envisioned by the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. Thus Christians seek to respond to God’s love by enacting the self-emptying love of Christ in daily life proclaiming self-denial and the desires of flesh, being content with God’s will for one’ s life. Through prayer he seeks an ever deeper communion with God and the grace to persevere in the narrow path of love. Through works of mercy the Christian not only shares material goods with others, he pours himself out on their behalf. If a Christian values Christ’s love and selfless sacrifice above anything, he is equipped to transcend any tribulation, any distress, any persecution, any famine, any humility, any peril, and any danger. One thus conquers the world by selflessness and sacrificial love and finally unifies with the body and blood of Christ – the real meaning of observing the Lord’s day and Holy Eucharist- the true meaning of Christian life.