Consumerism Is an Empty Promise | Sojourners

Consumerism Is an Empty Promise

My wife and I are beginning to start the process of buying a house for the first time. For better or for worse, we have become regular viewers of HGTV’s line of television shows that target would-be home consumers just like us. There’s Fixer UpperFlip or FlopProperty BrothersLove It or List It, and…boy, could I go on. On the one hand these shows give us an interesting entree into what’s possible when it comes to buying and renovating a house. They may expand our vision so we don’t get stuck on things like existing wallpaper, old carpet, or hideous paint color. But, as I’ve come to understand the (very predictable) arc of these shows, I’m also struck by their danger. They’re basically “Keeping Up with the Joneses” on steroids.

I don’t mean to pick on HGTV, however. The network is simply a reflection of our broader cultural values. The average American house size in the 1940s was around 1,200 square feet. In 1983, the US Census Bureau reports that the average new build was about 1,725 square feet. By 2013, that number rose to 2,600 square feet. So, since 1940, our average American house sizes have more than doubled even as our average family size has decreased!

Moving from the house itself to the stuff inside, Marie Kondo has made a very lucrative career out of telling people how to declutter and organize. Her #1New York Times bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, promises transformation by preaching her KonMari method of decluttering, folding, and asking if one’s possessions “spark joy.” Good friends of mine swear by her method, and the millions of book sales suggest they’re not alone.

At the heart of the story Americans tell themselves is a close link between progress and material goods. Work is to be valued, and work leads to money. With money we can buy things — "goods," we call them. And in these things we seek to find comfort. But it’s a lie, of course.

Evangelical leader Brian McLaren writes, “the tragedy of consumerism” is, in part, that “the consumer wrongly thinks that one finds this pleasure by having more and more possessions instead of possessing them more truly through grateful contemplation. And here we are, living in an economy that perpetuates this tragedy.”

Or, as Pope Francis reflected in his 2015 encyclical on the environment: “A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment.”

When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, he was not contemplating many earthly possessions. He was writing from prison! But even facing an uncertain future, Paul’s letter brims with joy. By the third chapter, Paul is contrasting the lives of those in the young church in Philippi with those who, “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18).

Paul describes these enemies with language that seems a bit odd to us today — “their god is the belly” (3:19) — but Paul’s point is clear. The minds of this other crowd are focused on “earthly things,” on unsavory bodily pleasures, on destructive habits. Because of Jesus, Paul confidently calls the Philippians to another way of being.

Though the Philippians were citizens of the mighty Roman Empire, Paul instructs them instead to claim their citizenship in heaven. In Christ comes a power beyond. Jesus will soon return, Paul reminds them, and “he will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (3:21).

What does it mean to be “citizens of heaven?” In short, citizens of heaven here on earth must be critical of societal values, though not totally detached from culture. Rather than becoming disinterested in earthly life, because of the freedom of the cross of Christ, we must remain engaged in the struggles and opportunities of earthly life. For many of us caught up in the American mindset of materialism, citizenship in heaven leads to questioning conspicuous consumption.

As citizens of heaven, there are many ways to critique. Jen Hatmaker, author of 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess spent a month focused on each of seven areas of overindulgence in her life: food, clothes, spending, media, possessions, waste, and stress. Perhaps consider focusing on one area for each week this Lent. Others live in intentional communities like The Simple Way and embrace these marks of what some have called “new monasticism.” Such living critiques culture even as it engages it.

In response to America’s bigger and bigger houses, a countermovement of smaller “Tiny Houses” has erupted. “Tiny” depends on your point of view, but these houses tend to be 1,000 square feet or smaller, and some even come in at well under 400 square feet. Some people join the movement because of their faith convictions, while others seek freedom from material things — and mortgages — for alternative reasons. And, of course, even the tiny house movement has its own television show: Tiny House Nation.

As Paul considered the citizenship of the Philippians, he was aware that the reality of citizenship is that it follows you wherever you go. Christians cannot renounce their faith at the mortgage broker, car dealer, or luxury-clothing store. We follow God in all we do on earth as citizens of heaven. While Paul certainly longed Jesus’ future return, the results of Jesus’ death and resurrection had clear consequences in the present.

This article originally appeared at ON Scripture.

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