The pictures were everywhere. Bono and Oprah—arguably two of the world’s most recognizable figures—walked arm in arm through the “Magnificent Mile” of Chicago with bright red bags that said “Do the RED Thing,” overflowing with iPods, Gap hoodies and Motorola phones. The high-profile shopping spree was supposed to be the start of a global movement that combined shopping with social activism.
Bono, in an interview with the Australian newspaper The Age, explained the idea of the RED campaign: “Some people won’t put on marching boots, so we’ve got to get to people where they are at, and they’re in the shopping malls. Now you’re buying jeans and T-shirts, and you’re paying for 10 women in Africa to get medication for their children with HIV.”
The idea was to brand products from companies such as Armani, Converse, Gap, Apple and Motorola as part of the RED campaign and give a portion of their sales to The Global Fund, an organization that fights diseases in developing nations. But after the campaign’s launch, a backlash formed among the very audience they were trying to reach.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in issue 26 of RELEVANT. To purchase this issue, you can go here.
In March, numbers began to surface about exactly how much money RED actually brought in to fight AIDS and other diseases, and most sources had it at less than $20 million. Though a significant amount, it paled in comparison to the estimated hundreds of millions spent marketing the line, according to Advertising Age. RED even became the subject of parody among some groups that question the line between consumption and activism being blurred, including Buyless.org, an online campaign that provides direct ways to give to the organizations the RED products benefit.
The RED campaign and the controversy surrounding it illustrate a larger debate that has many wondering how to reconcile consumerism and social responsibility. And beyond just the duty as a global citizen, the Christian, whose life is built on biblical guidelines that warn of material excess, must engage in an even more complicated discussion in light of the prevalence of mass consumerism and how it affects his or her faith.
Staggering numbers show that consumption isn’t just a trend or new way of adapting social projects (as in the case of RED); it is a lifestyle that has invaded every corner of culture. A report published by the Center for Environment and Population (CEP) in 2006 found that though the United States accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population, it uses 23 percent of the world’s energy, 28 percent of its paper and consumes 15 percent of its meat. The study also found that 37 percent of all of the cars in the world are on American roads. The average American is responsible for five pounds of waste per day—that’s compared to three pounds in Europe and .9 to 1.3 pounds in parts of the developing world. The study also found overwhelming comparisons concerning obesity, carbon emissions and water usage in contrast to other parts of the globe. The numbers draw big questions about how faith—based on the teachings of Christ—is practiced in light of a materialistic society.
“It’s really tricky living in the culture that we live where our money says ‘In God We Trust,’” says Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution (Zondervan) and founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, Pa.
American swagger has also met the Good News, and ministry has become big business. “Prosperity gospel” preachers have been seen on cable television for years, flaunting the abundance of their high-profile ministries in the form of gold watches, designer suits, shimmering jewelry and even jets—and promising their followers the same blessings if they give to God’s work. “The problem is with a lot of the prosperity gospel—it’s not malicious people, but it is really bad theology,” Claiborne says.
The prosperity movement gave way to the age of megachurches. Each week multimillion-dollar buildings (or arenas) began to draw thousands of worshippers who stand in front of elaborate stages housing top-of-the-line sound systems and production equipment. An effort to build church communities and congregations became a race to fill seats. Bigger became synonymous with success—a concept borrowed from the corporate world, whose bread and butter is supply and demand.
David Goetz, author of Death by Suburb (HarperSanFrancisco), says church leaders began to consult executives when it came to church models. “You’ll often see the leadership on the senior levels of the church—they typically bring in people who are successful in business, who have a certain modicum of success,” Goetz says.
“You see the leadership of the team being shaped by a certain personality profile. And so I think the consumerism has shaped how we see what a leader is.”
At the same time, the American economy continued to flourish. Churches weren’t the only thing getting bigger—so were the parishioners’ paychecks, homes, cars and portfolios. The American economy and ensuing lifestyle fueled and financed church growth.
“Consider this,” author and speaker Tony Campolo says. “The typical size of an American house has increased 40 percent in the last 25 years. It’s not because we’re having more children; we’re having fewer children! We need bigger and bigger houses simply to hold all the stuff we don’t need. What’s even worse is that we’re renting out space in storage bins because we can’t contain all the stuff we have in the huge houses we have at our disposal. It has become an insane society as far as surplus is concerned.”
While the United States saw some of the greatest advances in financial prosperity in history, the cultural divide grew between the West and developing nations. Suddenly it became increasingly difficult to understand portraits the media portrayed of our neighbors: Why were people dying of a preventable disease, starving in some countries when food was wasted in others and being subjected to atrocities when authorities turned a blind eye? Questions were inevitable. A move and awakening toward social justice emerged.
“When you think, ‘How do I love my neighbor as myself?’ it becomes just impossible to do that within the worldview of the American dream,” Claiborne says. “But I think what’s exciting is that Jesus has another dream, and Jesus is offering us [that] dream. Where it’s not even just this ascetic simplicity—give up everything and be poor—but it’s this idea that God created an economy of enough. God didn’t create a world of scarcity. But we’ve created poverty and need by not living out this command to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
While awareness has risen toward social justice, the vehicle touting the message has fed the materialistic culture further. Celebrities have championed social justice causes for decades, but a new generation has become fueled by celebrity involvement. But the Bonos and Brangelinas have done more than bring awareness about world issues, they’ve made activism sexy. Motivation for change has become blurred. Grassroots movements align with bands, artists, celebrities and products. Social justice has become intricately tied into consumption—the very thing that keeps developing countries oppressed.
Author Don Miller doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as long as the motivation eventually changes. “A lot of people get involved in social justice concerns for fashion reasons,” Miller says.
“I think that’s fine. I think that’s a great introduction to social justice. Fashion reasons won’t motivate you in the long haul; something has to change. But who cares how we’re introduced to the issue? Hopefully our hearts will begin to change as we begin to get into it, but I’m convinced we find God in those places.”
There are some glimpses of hope: Some organizations seem to be getting it right, and a groundswell of people are rallying around them. At the helm of raising awareness, generating funds and living out what Jesus was talking about when He commanded us to care for those in need are grassroots efforts like Invisible Children, a group of former film school friends dedicated to helping the child soldiers of Uganda; Blood:Water Mission, an organization started by Jars of Clay frontman Dan Haseltine to bring clean water and blood to the people of Africa; and the International Justice Mission Institute, an interactive community that educates volunteers on ways to end international injustice. All rely on the generosity of young people, most of whom give without purchasing any product and volunteer without compensation.
But there’s still no escaping the consumer culture we live in. So how do those who have been raised in this type of society cultivate a passion for giving, justice and faith if and when the initial motivation runs out? The experts point to the words of Jesus.
The Rich Young Ruler
Like many of Jesus’ teachings, the story is represented more than once (from different perspectives) in the Gospels, but both accounts are very similar. A few logical deductions can be made immediately from the introduction to the story: The Bible (in Mark 10) says that a man runs to Jesus and falls on his knees when he reaches Christ, begging Him for the secret to eternal life, so obviously, he is seeking Jesus. In Luke’s version of the story, we find out early on that this man is very wealthy. Christ tells the rich, eager listener that no one is good and reminds him of all of the commands of God (don’t murder, steal, commit adultery, etc.). You can imagine his excitement when he tells Jesus that he has followed these rules since he was a boy.
Then Jesus drops the bomb: “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:25, TNIV). The Bible says that the man becomes very sorrowful. Afterward, Jesus continues: “It is easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25).
Based on this story, does Christ really want us to sell everything and give it to the poor, or was He speaking in metaphor about personal sacrifice? How does Jesus want us to live?
Miller explains: “This guy had said, ‘I do everything right,’ and Jesus said, ‘Well, do this.’ And he couldn’t do it. Jesus was trying to say, ‘See, you’re not OK; you’re sick just like everybody else is sick.’ Then He says, ‘I’ll heal you.’ And the guy says, ‘No, I want to stay sick.’”
The sickness, Miller says, really has more to do with where one’s heart is and, like the rich ruler, how much control money has in an individual’s life. “The real issue is about addiction,” Miller says. “And it’s about addiction to money. We live in a culture that’s addicted to money, and we’re addicted to what money can buy us. And we’re fooled into thinking that, ‘I can buy this product, and this product will make me happy.’ And we’re fooled because the average American sees 3,000 commercial images a day. It’s like somebody constantly asking you if you want crack—3,000 times a day. And you only take it once a day … that’s not good.”
Campolo believes the story of the rich young ruler should be literally interpreted. “There is first of all, no question that it’s about money,” he says. “He goes on in the rest of the chapter when the apostles are asking Him to explain the meaning of what He has just done. He says specifically about riches: ‘It’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.’ Now, there is no way to avoid the monetary nature of what is being dealt with here. It’s money; it’s material things. And Jesus is saying that you’ve got a choice to make. Are you going to live for the material aspects of this life, or are you going to live for spiritual gratifications? And are you going to be My disciple?”
Claiborne adds a wrinkle—the story of the rich young ruler illustrates how we, as followers of Christ, must always be reminded of our role to help the poor. “He says, ‘Sell everything and give it to the poor.’ He doesn’t just say, ‘Sell everything’; He says, ‘Give it to the poor.’ I believe that—from over and over in Jesus’ teaching—Jesus is showing that our faith has to be connected to the poor.”
Claiborne says a certain posture is needed to make the connection. “I think it’s so important to not get stuck in, ‘Oh, I’ve got to give up everything out of duty.’ Just as the Scriptures say sell everything you have and give it to the poor, they also say we can sell everything we have and give it to the poor, but if we don’t have love, it’s meaningless.”
Miller says a good place to start is through the biblical principle of tithing. Laid out by God to the Israelites in the Old Testament, God required His people to give back 10 percent of their increase—the best crops and livestock. It’s a principle that many Christians follow today. Again, he relates America’s addiction to consumerism to a drug addict, now going through withdrawal. “For a follower of Christ, in our culture, the best way for me to understand it, in my own heart, is [to say], ‘If I’m not in withdrawal pretty often, then there is something wrong.’ And so how do I go through withdrawal concerning material issues? Being able to tithe is the way I enter into withdrawal.
“Even if you think seasons and crops, every seven years, God would say, ‘Let the field die.’ And He would do that because it was actually good for the field; it would enrich the soil. But He would also do it because you could not get addicted to the system. I just go, ‘Yeah, I’m going to live with less,’ and every seven years I’m going to let the fields die. It’s this sort of re-starting over.”
Campolo cautions against having an incomplete view of tithing, which can stem from a lack of understanding of the underlying principles that it represents in nature and in our own lives. “The Christian Church has played games with people, and I think it’s deceived people,” he says. “For instance, the whole concept of tithing. You know ‘one-tenth, you’ve already given one-tenth to the Lord.’ I mean I’ve heard that over and over again. Everybody knows that it’s an Old Testament doctrine. In the New Testament, Jesus never asked for one-tenth. ‘If any man would be My disciple, he must forsake all.’” According to Campolo, tithing must not supplant giving to the poor and living a lifestyle of simplicity.
“Jesus calls us to a radical surrendering of our material possessions to serve the needs of the poor and oppressed of the world,” he says. “And there’s no way of escaping that; 1 John 3:17-18 says that if you have this world’s goods, and you know of brothers and sisters who are in need, and you can meet those needs, and you don’t do it, you can’t say that you have the love of God in your heart.”
A Radical Balance
Though tithing is a valuable way of practicing discipline with money, Claiborne believes entering community is the next step in breaking the binds that a consumerist culture has on American Christians. “I think we can have this dream that we’ve been taught—of independence,” Claiborne says. “But we really find out that it only leads to loneliness, and Jesus is not teaching independence. He’s teaching inter-dependence; He’s teaching community, and that we need each other.”
He says that by depending on the influences of our relationships with others, we can learn what effect living with less can truly have. “There’s a whole generation of people that are really longing for community and are actually pretty suspicious of mega-anything,” he says. “I think that we can begin by surrounding ourselves with other people who are asking the same questions, who are suspicious of the emptiness of consumption and who dare us to risk just a little bit more and to love just a little bit deeper.”
The nature of being in relationship revolves around giving. It’s a complete circle that Claiborne says is the true key to unlocking joy and authentic faith. “I believe that as we begin to try these ideas of giving away our possessions, we see that the Scriptures are right, that it is more exciting to give than to receive. It’s almost like a hidden secret that some folks find out. I love the saying of Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement. She said, ‘The best thing to do with the best things of life is to give them away.’ I think a lot of people are beginning to discover that secret. That actually it is such a beautiful thing to see people experience the blessings of God, and these gifts that we have and we experience are too good to hold for ourselves.”
In a culture that is inundated with commercial images that try to convince people only products can fill the void, giving, living in community and embracing simplicity are truly radical ideas.
“It’s gotta be radical,” Campolo says. “You just have to make a decision. It’s about saying, ‘Don’t spend your money on that which satisfieth not.’ You’ve got to come to the awareness that Jesus is standing before you and saying, ‘Do you want to be My disciple? Then take up the cross and follow Me.’”
Miller explains the dramatic realization of what wealth and consumerism can do to a person’s heart after a study of the book of James. “James starts out with, ‘Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials,’ and then the next thing he talks about is finances; so we know that the struggle these people are dealing with is financial. Then he says, ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, ask and God will give it to you.’ Now we know how God helps with people who are dealing with financial troubles: He gives them wisdom; He doesn’t give them a check. Then James actually says, ‘Here’s some wisdom: Money doesn’t matter. See the rich people? All their stuff’s gonna burn anyway.’ He gives them wisdom that helps them with their struggle. Then he accuses them of having socio-economic prejudice. These people used to be rich; now they’re marginalized in their community. The realization that I came to was: This letter’s not written to me because I’m not poor. If I make more than $3 a day, I’m wealthy by global standards. So this letter isn’t written to me. This is what was really convicting: I realized this letter is written to the people that I oppress.”
Miller explains how this revelation greatly challenged his thinking about consumerism and further confirmed the need for Christians to love those in need. “There is something very beautiful about what’s happening in the Church in terms of being able to identify and practice solidarity with the poor and the marginalized. And we truly find Christ in those places.”
Wrestling with the idea of living simply and determining how that concept applies to an individual’s life is an important step. But Goetz offers several practical tips that people can apply to their actions and lifestyle to put them on a path to a biblical financial outlook.
“The first thing we can do is to get out of debt,” he says. “On a minimalist level that means not living in credit card debt. On another level that is [not being overly stretched] on your housing so that you can’t give. We believe the lies of the real estate agent who says, ‘Land is a good investment, so stretch yourself right now and make bigger house payments because you’ll grow into it.’ It’s that kind of destructive stuff that creates bondage, and then, all of a sudden, we’re in the game, and we can’t get out.”
And like Claiborne, Goetz stresses the importance of community. “I don’t like the word accountability because it implies coldness or somebody being sort of judgmental, but I do think you need community—whether it’s with a church or with a small group or just with good friends who have the same vision for life, and you can begin that journey together,” he says. “It’s not a one-time path that’s going to lead to getting out of debt; it’s a fight that’s going to take building that discipline into your life.”
The Church also has a role in reshaping the way people think about consumerism, Claiborne believes. “The Church should also be a detox for the rich—a place where folks addicted to buying can find freedom.” Claiborne is involved in a group called Relational Tithe (www.relationaltithe.com), a network where believers can connect with others in need and offer support. The group started as an experimental project looking to connect people seeking to meet the financial and spiritual needs of others in the body of Christ.
But whether it’s a conscious choice to eliminate personal debt, embrace authentic community or rethink the way we give, Campolo says that understanding one key concept is essential to breaking the cycle—we’re called to disengage from a dependence on consumerism and begin to understand what it means to be reliant on God. “To live in a Christlike manner is to reject the lifestyle being prescribed by the media, to reject the affluent lifestyle that has become normative in America and embrace simplicity. There’s the word: simplicity.”
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in issue 26 of RELEVANT. To purchase this issue, you can go here.