Consumerism

What Would Jesus Buy?

Before there was Reverend Billy, there was Bill Talen, born and raised in Minnesota, in the midst of conservative Dutch Calvinism, a faith he rejected as a teenager. He became a playwright, performer, and producer, working for years in San Francisco before he moved to New York City in the mid-1990s. “Rev. Billy,” Talen’s alter ego, was created in 1997, when Talen/Billy began street-corner preaching near the new Disney Store in Times Square, using the cadences and mannerisms of a TV evangelist to decry the chain-store commercial excesses of gentrification.

Rev. Billy began to take his preaching into the Disney Store, and later into Starbucks, often joined by supporters who would help him stage “shopping interventions,” during which he might, for example, perform an “exorcism” of the cash register. In the process, the Church of Stop Shopping was born, a performance activism nonprofit staffed almost entirely by volunteers, including many professional musicians, singers, and actors who turn up as they’re able at actions and rallies promoting free speech, local communities, and anti-consumerism; tour with Rev. Billy as the Stop Shopping Choir; and help lead periodic “revival” productions.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2007
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New and Noteworthy

Instruments of Peace
Catherine Whitmire gathers a cloud of Quaker witnesses in Practicing Peace: A Devotional Walk through the Quaker Tradition to help us live peacefully. Comprised of quotes and short reflections from Quakers across 350 years, the book's six chapters address ways to practice peace in our daily lives, in the world, in the face of evil, and in times of suffering. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion. Sorin Books

Don't Buy It
We're all shopping sinners woefully in need of deliverance, says Rev. Billy (a.k.a. actor and activist Bill Talen). His What Would Jesus Buy: Fabulous Prayers in the Face of the Shopocalypse contains sermons and exhortations to stop shopping and start believing, as well as prayers and ideas for action—all delivered with creative gusto and multiple exclamation points. Public Affairs

A Powerful Force
In Traveling with the Turtle: A Small Group Process in Women's Spirituality and Peacemaking, Cindy Preston-Pile and Irene Woodward invite women's circles to explore empowering images of the Divine and creative ways of making peace and building inclusive communities. This wise, practical book is comprised of 13 two-hour sessions; each contains an outline, with suggestions for rituals and sharing exercises, and notes for facilitators. www.turtle.paceebene.org

Over-Stuffed
What is necessary? Sustaining Simplicity is Anne Basye's record of answering that question. Journal-like in its design and content, the book is composed of short reflections, photos, and bits of artwork that record her questions and challenges as she learns to live with less stuff—but more life and love. A funny and honest look at what a "good life" is really about. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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Fashion Conscious

When stern-looking models wearing the colors of Africa sashayed down a New York runway in February, it was hard to imagine the well-heeled event had anything to do with alleviating human suffering. But 30 of the ensembles, created by upscale designers such as Donna Karan, were later auctioned on eBay to raise an expected $150,000 for the Save Darfur Coalition, an organization trying to aid victims of the crisis in western Sudan.

It's not surprising that an image-obsessed industry in a profit-driven culture would turn out such an event—nor is it that buyers purchased outfits worth thousands of dollars to "help" orphans in Sudan. As a society, we like to buy things, and we like to buy them with a clean conscience.

Companies have seized on our desire to do good while looking good. Today we can fight any number of social ills by buying products whose sales are directed toward helping others. For example, through the celebrity-infused (Product) Red campaign—a collection of companies including Gap and Armani—you can buy a T-shirt to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB and in the process help direct money toward buying and distributing anti-retroviral drugs in Africa. "As First World consumers, we have tremendous power," says the campaign's Web site. "What we collectively choose to buy, or not to buy, can change the course of life and history on this planet." Dramatic, but true—and consumers are increasingly realizing it.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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Consumption's Effects

Our church has formed a discussion group around your periodical, and our discussion on "Cry Freedom" (by David Batstone, March 2007) met with some disappointment—not in the article itself, but in what we deemed the more-pointed issue. The enslavement of many of God's children is because of us, First World nations with insatiable appetites for cheap products. Now we are wrestling with how we can work as Christians to break the cycle. The moral issue—and, I would argue, the sin (even if done in ignorance)—is that our self-centered lifestyles keep millions from proper schooling and nutrition and unable to escape the squalor of townships and shanty towns.

Let's wrestle with the products and companies we support and find out how their business practices and our consumption affects the lives of our neighbors around the world. How can the church mobilize to break the cycle at its roots, rather than fighting its symptoms?

Scott Oberle
Portage, Michigan

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Sojourners Magazine June 2007
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We Buy, Therefore We Are

Whenever I have occasion to tour the architectural and cultural landmarks of the Old South—the mansions of Natchez, the River Road plantations outside New Orleans, Washington's Mount Vernon, or the U.S. Capitol, for that matter—I have the same thought. "It's amazing what you can afford when you don't have to pay for the labor."

That was, of course, the problem with slavery. It oppressed its victims and simultaneously corrupted the people who benefited from it. Southern slaveholders grew accustomed to reaping the harvest of other people's labor—so accustomed that they began to think it was their right. Then they began to believe their economy would cease to function if they had to pay the true price of the things they used.

When we take a vehicle for repair, we get a bill that says something like, "Parts $55. Labor $300." What if the price tag of every item we bought broke down the cost that way? One of Karl Marx's more reasonable ideas held that the value of a commodity was comprised of the labor that went into it. Today we might add to that calculation the environmental damage. If we think of prices that way, when I confront a $300 personal computer or a $20 pair of blue jeans, I am witnessing a robbery. And when I buy it, I am an accomplice. But we rarely think about that because we have come to expect those everyday low prices as our American birthright and to believe that our consumer economy would grind to a halt if we ever had to pay the true price of our commodities.

Someday, if the earth survives our petroleum binge, people may look back at archived editions of early 21st-century consumer catalogs and think that same thought. "It's amazing what you can afford when you don't have to pay for the labor." Of course, our slaves are mostly in China, but the distance only makes us more vulnerable to the corruption of our unearned loot.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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Attack of the Monster Houses

They sit on treeless hillsides, big as the barns they may have replaced. Or they squeeze onto modest lots in older suburbs, as average-size bungalows cower in their shadows. What they often lack in style they compensate for in sheer mass. Some call them monsters; others fondly call them home. Coming soon to a neighborhood near you, they are The Big Houses.

How big is big? According to the National Association of Homebuilders, the size of the average new single-family home in the United States hit an all-time high of 2,434 square feet in 2005. That's more than double the 1950 average of around 1,100 square feet, and almost a third more than the 1,645 square feet of 1975. Twenty-three percent of new houses built in 2005 were 3,000 square feet or more.

The effect of all that bulk can be dramatic. A January 2006 report from the Department of Neighborhood Planning and Zoning of Austin, Texas, describes an area of that city where houses of 1,300 square feet have been replaced by ones from 5,000 to 10,000 square feet. It's not just floor plan numbers that get skewed. In December The Tennessean newspaper reported on new tax assessments in a long-affluent part of Nashville that, for example, values one 2,074-square-foot house at $8,000 while the lot where it sits is valued at $936,000. In several parts of the city, the real value of small houses has been determined to be in having them "scraped" (demolished) and replaced with much larger ones that may be assessed at $1 million or more.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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Thwack! for Jesus

There's no better way to prevent boredom than playing paddleball, and there's no better paddleball to remind you of your status with the Lord than the Inspirational Paddleball Game. The paddles, decorated with bright colors and crosses, are available at the Christian Dollar Store—where every item can be used as a tool for fun and evangelism! But the globally conscious Christian should beware: The 9-inch wooden paddleball game is made in China, where labor standards are less than godly. On the bright side, you can get 12 for only $6.99! Now that's good news!

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Sojourners Magazine March 2007
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Knit Local, Act Global

Knitting is hip. Subversive, even.

Take knitting and crocheting, crafts previously assigned to grannies and church ladies, combine them with the punk-inspired Do-It-Yourself movement and the connecting possibilities of the Internet, and you get a large-scale revival. And like any revival worth its salt, it has transformative effects—personally, socially, and spiritually.

The last few years have seen record-breaking yarn sales, a burst of knitting-inspired blogs and Web sites, a TV show called Knitty Gritty, and several new fiction books (“knit lit”) that have as their premise the friendships formed in knitting circles. One, titled The Friday Night Knitting Club, by Kate Jacobs, will hit the big screen next year starring Julia Roberts, rumored to be a knitter herself. Nonfiction fans can find more socially minded fare, such as Knitting for Peace: Make the World a Better Place One Stitch at a Time or Knitting Heaven and Earth: Healing the Heart with Craft.

The revival carries a new attitude, even a political edge, brought by a wave of women in their 20s and 30s who approach stitching with a hipster sass and sensibility. Although people of all ages are gravitating toward knitting, these “chicks with sticks” have accounted for a 150 percent increase in knitting and crocheting since 2002, according to a study by the Craft Yarn Council of America.

Debbie Stoller, co-founder of a magazine for young feminists called Bust, has helped refashion the knitter-as-dowdy image into one that’s plucky and cool. She grew up knitting and crocheting in a household that considered them respectable forms of art, but as she got older, she realized they carried a huge stigma. “As far as I could tell, the only reason they had this bad image was because it was something that had traditionally been done by women,” Stoller told a National Public Radio reporter. “As a feminist I wanted to change that.”

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Sojourners Magazine February 2007
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The Art of Savoring

I’ve had the joy of visiting a small Christian community in California where—amidst the hustle and flow of daily life—everything stops 10 minutes short of sunset. Gathering in the small yard between houses, with celebratory drinks in hand, all faces turn west toward the coastal foothills to savor the setting sun.

Depending on the season, the sky may ignite in Pentecost reds and oranges above the resurrection gold of the chaparral or it may swirl in Advent blues, royal purples, and joyous pinks over hills wrapped in verdant winter green. The ceremony may last only a few minutes or may inaugurate supper, conversation, and a bonfire. Either way, it exemplifies the art of savoring.

“Savor” comes from the Latin word to taste or the ability to detect differences. It is a quality that appeals to the senses; something that is savory is flavorful. Etymologically, savor is related to sapientia or wisdom—sensible, judicious, the ability to discern fine distinction. It harkens to the poetry of Sappho. (“Here roses leave shadows on the ground/ and cold springs bubble through the apple branches.”)

Savoring is antithetical to the consumerist myth, which claims that individuals will be satisfied and successful through buying, owning, and consuming, in quick succession. The art of savoring is strategically discouraged in a capitalist market economy in which labor and land, humans and nature (and the enjoyment thereof) are subordinate to the hungers of the prevailing economic system.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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Shopping for Justice

“Lord, to those who hunger, give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice.”
—Latin American prayer

I love grocery shopping. The tidy rows of boxes and cans, the perfect mounds of fruit, the wheeling of carts, the checking of lists, the whoosh of the automatic mister that leaves the leafy greens sparkling. I even like the Muzak.

So last summer, to celebrate the grand opening of a Super Giant grocery store in Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, I walked five blocks to buy flour for my fiancé’s birthday cake. Behind the renovated Tivoli Square complex, which now houses the Sojourners office, I found a gala underway: red, white, and blue bunting, a live salsa band, and shoppers scrambling for the opening-day sales.

I was impressed by the row of gleaming registers (no more long lines at the dingy Safeway on Columbia Road), the piles of fresh produce (no more wilted lettuce from the tiny SuperSave on Mount Pleasant Street, though it did have homemade tamales and a cashier who knew my name), and an entire aisle of organic options (no more car trips to Glut food co-op in Mount Rainier, Maryland). Also, I’d heard talk in the neighborhood about all the new jobs, and sure enough, there was an army of green-aproned cashiers and stockers.

When we got married, Micah and I moved a mile northeast to the Petworth neighborhood, but we still bike over to the new Giant at least twice a week. So I was surprised last fall by a rambling road-trip conversation on the way home from my parents’ farm in Pennsylvania. The topic was guilt: Does it help or hurt? Should you ignore it or admit it? And what makes you guilty, anyway?

“Shopping at Giant,” I said suddenly. “I feel guilty about shopping at Giant.”

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Sojourners Magazine May 2006
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