As consumers, we are part of system that isolates people and limits our understanding of what it is to be human. Tom explores how we can See clearly what we consume, Judge the aims and accepted norms of the free market philosophy against God’s plan for human dignity for all, and Act by living simply and freely, being prophetic voices by virtue of God-centred lives based upon the revealed truths of Scripture, Liturgy and belief in Christ.
Trade creates artificial needs and people
are made to be mere consumers.
Sarath Iddamolgoda, Sri Lanka
Who are we and how do we define ourselves? Advertising, the financial world and even campaigns define us as consumers. I shop therefore I am. My power as a person is reduced to my power as a consumer. Yet this definition falls far short of what it means to be a human being today. The current emphasis on free trade and the globalisation of the market has led to the exclusion of millions of people. People who do not have the cash or credit to participate in the economy are seen and judged as worthless. But for Christians the concept of human dignity is fundamental to our belief; each person has an inherent value regardless of their cash “worth”. Everyone is equal in the eyes of God. As Archbishop Romero said: “Aspire not to have more but to be more.” Can we counter the consumer culture with a culture of meaning and life lived in dignity? What would that mean for each one of us?
The eye of the consumer
Tea, coffee, various tins and, at the last minute, a bunch of cut flowers. Just some of the items Martha bundled into her trolley and then her bags to carry home.
It was only later that her third eye began to reflect on what her consumer eyes had missed. People earning a pound a day had harvested those cut flowers from Kenya, people who spent 10 per cent of their income on buying water. Her third eye saw that in Kenya water is a scarce commodity, partly because the growing of flowers uses up so much of the water supply. And what about the tin coating the tins she had bought? It was mined in Bolivia by people on subsistence wages. And the tea…the coffee… Her third eye was seeing the connections and dependencies supporting the whole of her life.
Simon spent three quarters of an hour stuck in traffic on the way home. He got in frazzled, muttering, “The traffic was as bad as ever. They’ll have to do something or we’ll be in gridlock.”
Later, his third eye reflected on what his driver’s eyes had missed. Why was “the traffic” always them, the cars and trucks in front? Why am I not part of “the traffic”? the vehicles behind, which I do not include in “the traffic”, certainly include me. Why do I like to be the innocent victim, secure in the pristine space of my own car? It all depends on how I see things. My standpoint is my viewpoint.
In the evening, Martha phoned a friend who knew a thing or two about investments. Although Simon and Martha’s left hand carried a sizable debt, their right hand had some money to invest. Their friend advised a clever scheme in a hedge fund, where their money would hop from firm to firm depending on how the “market” was doing. Always seeking out good returns.
After she put the phone down her third eye started peering into this world of money. She knew little about it. But she did know that money, like all other blessings from God, was somehow a sacred trust. Yet she was being invited into a scheme that treated money as a self-contained world. She would be investing in companies without having a clue how they cared for people, nor indeed what they produced. She remembered the ancient wisdom about the good of those who work and the good of the work done (the bonum operantis and the bonum opus) and realised that the case of their own modest investments was a drop in the ocean of what is happening in money markets and world trade. Two thirds of global exchange is now in financial markets rather than in goods.
They would have to find ways of using money, what Jesus called “that tainted thing”, in a people-centred way. And that would depend on how they saw money and markets in the first place.
After supper, Simon chucked bottles, cans, paper and food leftovers into the bin. It would all be put out among the bin bags in their street. Out of sight, out of mind. Except that his third eye knew that the flip side of consumer intake is ex-consumer throwaway. He had heard that his country produces enough domestic waste to fill Wembley stadium every three weeks. But his part in that was so minuscule! Perhaps a bit of recycling – bottles and paper? Again his third eye was probing beyond that. It all depends on how we see, and that depends from whose standpoint we seek to see and interpret. Our two eyes are so conditioned by our vested interests that it would take that third eye to see our consumer culture for what it is.
To be a living being of any sort on this wonderful planet is to be a consumer. From amoeba to you and me, it is to take in, from our environment, what comes from outside. To make our own what we need, and to discard what we do not. That is what life is. That enables us also to make creative contributions. It is our joy and privilege to be consumer-producers.
This is obviously true of the food, drink and air we consume but it is also true, in a way, of the highest gifts we enjoy. Our knowledge of ultimate truths about God and about human beings has been revealed to us by God in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. This faith, in the mystery held secret by God but now made known to us, is “revealed”, in the sense that it comes to us as gift by God’s initiative. Mediated through the liturgy, scriptures and teaching of the Church, it comes to us from outside ourselves. And then our own metabolism, in which the Spirit speaks to our spirit, makes it our own. (This is beautifully portrayed in Jesus’ conversation with the woman by the well. The conversation leads her to the point where she can know that I AM is speaking to her. Later on her townsfolk say: “At first we heard because we were told, now we know for ourselves.”)
At so many levels the joy of life is to be participants in the greater story, receivers of gift and contributors of what we have made our own. When, therefore, we talk of consumerism we are talking about the perversion of something essentially good. This is perhaps true of all our deepest moral issues. It is naïve to suppose that life can be divided into right and wrong, as if everything that can’t be called sin is uncritically OK. Our real issues are to do with good things becoming obsessive or addictive, or when we become narcissistic or indifferent to how they involve others. How do Martha and Simon respond to discovering that their whole economic base depends on structures of injustice while their daily life is experienced as normal and innocent?
A simplified way into this question might be to say that all economies are necessarily producer-consumer economies. Until about 20 years ago our own economy was a producer-led economy. We were still focusing on the need to produce enough food and manufactured goods to supply people’s needs, or what they felt they needed. In that sort of economy and ethos, work was a culturally bonding activity. For most people it provided a sense of identity, purpose and solidarity.
But we have now swing to a consumer-led economy in which everything depends on people buying enough. One obvious reason for this is that global trade is now so widespread that goods are imported from wherever they can be produced most cheaply. The “market” seeks out where primary products can be bought and workers paid at the lowest rates. (We may blame transnational companies for that but we are all complicit as consumers.)
Another reason is that technology has enabled most products to be produced at lower financial costs – although the real costs in the lives of people and long-term effects on the environment are probably far higher.
The pressure to persuade people to be active consumers means that they must be made to feel discontent, or just below the level where happiness would be theirs. Advertising and the “hidden persuaders” play a vital role in our consumer-led economy. This cult of discontent lures people to live beyond their means.
The average level of debt in this country is now £5,000 per household, excluding mortgages. Many poorer families, at Christmas time, incur debts that will take three years to pay off. The felt need to provide the clothes and computers and bicycles “which everyone has” is enormous. But it is not only among the poorest families that the slavery of debt has taken hold as a way of life. The need to present oneself driving the right sort of car, wearing the right sort of clothes and so on leads many wealthier people to live well beyond their means.
There is, of course, a positive role for borrowing money. For example, when a loan is taken out to expand or start some productive enterprise. But the sort of endemic debt we have in our consumer culture is not that sort at all. It is a form of slavery and, as far as I know, all the world’s religions have seen it as such. Certainly in our Christian tradition, drawn from its Jewish background and voiced in the teachings of Jesus, it is better to live simply and freely than to conform to felt expectations and live in debt.
There is another, more pervasive, effect of our consumer culture. It is not easy to understand clearly but might be seen thus: it is part of the fragility of our human condition to live with questions about whether we are OK or not. Do I matter? Am I needed? Is my life of any real consequence?
These questions take different forms at different times – in our teens, as young adults, in old age. And their answers are largely supplied not by introspection so much as by the way we are treated by others, our family, our workmates, by society at large. How we are valued is a large part of how we know ourselves.
In a culture that needs our creativity we may be very poor, and life may be full of suffering, but at least we know that we are needed. In a culture where all the language is about buying and selling, about finding happiness in terms of what we acquire as consumers, we may be wealthy but we do not know we are needed, except as a consumer.
People often wonder why, in a society that has everything going for it economically, there is so much self-boredom, fear and potential violence in relationships. May it not be that the human heart is for love and meaning? Lesser blessings may absorb and fascinate us, but if we are treated as passive fodder for consumer markets, where is the human heart going to be challenged or expanded? We only have to think of the rubrics and liturgy of football matches, or the temple-like layout of shopping malls, to realise how religious the consumer culture can become. But where does it leave the human heart? And where does it lead our culture in the long term?
In the unfolding evolutionary and social story of our planet, human beings – you and me – are the critical breakthrough into sharing God’s life in a unique way. We are able to share in God’s knowledge and wisdom, his creative imagination, appreciation of beauty, wonder, compassion and love. In all those ways we are in God’s image. And being in his image we only become truly “ourselves” in becoming the One whose image we are.
The entry of Christ into our human story was not only a self-revelation of God, but also of ourselves, of every human being. We know that every person has the capacity to become as God is. This is not merely a promise of a future that replaces our present condition of alienation, but is already in us. To be human is to be open to the infinite. It is also to be open to our profound communion and participation with others. Others, that is, not confined to those with whom we share vested interests – others like ourselves – but others who are not like us except in what matters most, our common humanity.
Jesus warned against limiting our sense of belonging and communion to an in-group of mutual greetings, hospitality and support. He knew that the human heart is too great for that. If it is to expand to God it has to expand to people. Jesus’ critique of riches was neither that wealth is a bad thing, nor that material things are anti-spiritual. When he said “woe to you who are rich now”, he was pointing to the way in which riches lead to social exclusion. They lure us into a kingdom that is too small for the human heart. Perhaps this is why when he tells his story of the marriage feast, those who don’t recognise the invitation are preoccupied with very wholesome activities. Starting a family, trying out a new car, moving house.
What does this say to us in a society where everything is closed to the infinite, everything is made a commodity, and private ownership is a virtue?
Certainly a faith that meets God in bread and wine is called to remarkable wonder and gratitude of heart for all material blessings. But it is also a radical challenge to simplicity and communion. For Jesus it was only through the poor that God could offer salvation to those trapped by prosperity. As Paul later wrote: “Can you not see that God has chosen the weak to shame the strong, those who are despised and are not, to bring to nothing what is?” (1 Corinthians 1:27)
When we become aware of the realities we live in today, and the structures of injustice they involve, it is easy to feel totally powerless. But the question we are asked to live with is not: how, and with whom, can I save the world? But, what is God asking me to do in the particular vocation of my life? In other words, a process of discernment and prayer is needed so that “seeing” and “judging” will bear fruit in right “action”.
Discerned action is not simply the result of seeing and judging. The way we come to see is the fruit of the options and priorities of action as much as the other way round. It is a deeply incarnational wisdom to know by engaging, to see in the process of action.
Within the life of the Body as a whole there are three modes of action and engagement: 1. Lived alternatives; 2. The prophetic voice; 3. Hands-on involved. In each case certain members of the Body are called to that one in particular. But most of us are called to each in different parts of our lives.
Lived alternatives. This refers in the first place to those communities that make decisions to live simple, free, God-centred and human lives as modest places of hope. But all of us in our own lifestyles “live alternatively” whenever we start to respond to some of the issues that Martha and Simon were aware of (when, for example, we accept the cost premium of buying fairly traded goods, or chicken-friendly eggs). It is all part of seeking to live by truth rather than illusion, of being displaced people for the sake of our communion with the displaced people of our world.
Prophetic voice. In Scripture, prophecy was not disengaged criticism and certainly not fortune-telling. It was rather a demand from God, usually an unwelcome and painful demand, to lay bare the truth of the present, to energise creative alternatives, to insist that God will fulfil his story and warn that he will not do as we expect. The prophetic voice today will have a great love of truth when language is perverted. It will question fatalistic talk of “the market”, as if it were some inhuman force before which we are powerless. (We should talk of “people in the market do this or that”, and so take hold of human responsibility.) It will also challenge any ideas that where our “developed” economies have got to is somehow a stable norm that everyone else should aspire to. It will help us all accept that this “norm” is intrinsically unstable and short-sighted.
Jesus bore witness to the truth. He confronted the powers because he knew that God’s presence demanded, and made possible, a social order which existed for people and not for the powers. When Paul and John, in their different ways, reviewed Christ’s subsequent death and risen life they knew that the powers must not be allowed to make their claims ever again. They had been put in their place behind the crucified and risen one. In our day the prophetic voice in the Churches will call people to be free, responsible and imaginative, refusing to let any power claim dominion over human lives.
Hands-on involved. There are parts of all our lives that involve us in economic structures that are both just and unjust. Whenever we bank money or use credits cards or buy things. The temptation is to leave all that in the mental realm of secular necessity and reserve our discipleship for an over-spiritual, over-privatised and perhaps churchy reading of the Good News. But for those who, by profession, are involved in business, management and finance, there can be an agony – sometimes a quiet despair – when they try to make an option for the poor in a world whose dominant language is that of free markets. There is an urgent need for creative dialogue between this third mode of engagement and the other two.
There is an important issue here for all of us. John the Baptist may have thought that God’s justice would sort the wheat from the chaff. But Jesus was clear that religious fervour was not to sort out the wheat from the weeds. Our incarnational faith does not call us to be pure, does not call us to sort people out into the just and the unjust. It does not call us into a pristine space where we can feel comfortable. It calls us to be engaged: to recognise that we all live in sin, to be amazed by God’s mercy, and to get our hands dirty. All three modes of action need each other if they are to be saved from their own virtue.
I wish to appeal with simplicity and humility to everyone, to all men and women without exception. I wish to ask them to be convinced of the seriousness of this present moment and of each one’s individual responsibility and to implement – by the way they live as individuals and families, by the use of their resources, by their civic activity, by contributing to economic and political decisions and by personal commitment to national and international undertaking – the measures inspired by solidarity and love of preference for the poor.
Pope John Paul II