In our society, we’re surrounded by the push to consume. We’re constantly bombarded with the newest gadget or trinket we supposedly cannot live without. How do we combat the pull toward materialism, and what does simplicity look like in the 21st Century? In the second part of our "7 Burning Issues" series, we asked leaders to grapple with these problems.
Brian McLaren: This is a major theme I’ve been exploring in recent years, because I believe these days it’s the economy, not the nation-state, that is driving the world. It would be good for people to consider the ways capitalism can become a form of idolatry, where markets are given godlike powers and people have an unwritten creed of salvation by consumption alone.
One of the most powerful things the next generation of emerging Christians can do is be at the heart of a new global movement for ethical buying and fair trade. We can use the power of markets for good, just as they have been used for evil in so many ways—environmentally, socially and politically. It’s a question of the Kingdom of God—how would we expect economics to work in the Kingdom of God, as opposed to the systems of this world?
Steve Brown: If Jesus tells you to sell everything and follow Him, do it. If, on the other hand, He tells you to start a business, provide hundreds of jobs and support His work in the world, do it.
How should we then live? With simplicity, compassion and a realization that our hearts are where our treasure is. For some, I suppose, that means driving a Mercedes instead of a Maserati, owning one large house instead of three and giving the “overflow” to Jesus. For others, it might mean taking the bus instead of driving a Honda and giving the overflow to the poor. And for still others, it means being poor for Jesus’ sake.
Shane Claiborne: What is enough is defined by our relationship to our neighbor—if our neighbor has four cars, then we think we are living simply if we have two cars. If our neighbor doesn’t have water, then two cars is probably too many. We have this command to love our neighbor as ourselves, but I think the great tragedy of our culture is that we are pushed away from suffering, away from poverty to the point that it’s enough if we give a tax-exempt donation or volunteer for a week out of the year. And yet if we’re really in relationship with people who are suffering, that messes with us. It keeps us up at night when we are faced with the reality that we have people in our neighborhood living in a cardboard box in the winter, and we have shelter.
I think the most important question is not what I should give away, because the Scriptures say you can sell everything you have and give it to the poor, but if you don’t have love it’s nothing. So the deepest question around simplicity is about love, and redistribution of resources is only meaningful inasmuch as it’s rooted in love. When we really figure out how to live in the personalism and love of Christ with our neighbor, then that defines what’s enough so that we’re not just driven by an ideology, but by a love relationship to our neighbor.
N.T. Wright: Most of us in the Western world need to have our noses rubbed in that [question] more than we regularly do, and not use the kind of convenient get-out clause—“Well, that’s something Jesus says to some people but not everybody.” When people say that, it tends to mean “but please, not me.” That’s dangerous. One of the first steps we have to take is to recognize that the vast majority of the Christian world for the last 2,000 years—and still today—lives in much more poverty and a much simpler lifestyle than we in the modern West can easily imagine.
It’s up to individual churches and individual Christians to find ways to use the wealth we’ve got, with wisdom—and the best thing to do to avoid making money a god is to give it away.
Money becomes a god very, very easily. So giving it away cheerfully and wisely is a step toward really saying money is not the ruling force in our lives. Money is not the thing that makes you a genuine human being. Saying that is so counterintuitive in Western culture.
Nancy Ortberg: I think every Christian should take very seriously what they do with their finances. A starting place is tithing, to give 10 percent joyfully every time you get paid, and give it back to the Church, to help the Church be the force that it should be in the world. After you’ve got the habit of tithing down, start figuring out how much is enough. I used to tell my kids, “The lower the ceiling is on enough, the happier you’re going to be.”
When you can wake up in the morning or spend your day free from needing to run to the mall or look online and buy all this stuff, you’re going to have a freedom in your spirit that’s going to be a great way to live.
Beyond yourself, figure out how much is enough, and then start thinking of serious ways in which to give away boatloads of money. Find organizations you care about that are making a difference. How do you release your money back into the world to do good when you have enough clothes in your closet and enough cars in your garage? The freedom that comes from that really teaches us a lot about God. It also teaches us there’s no end to His resources. And I’m not advocating just giving away all of your money, but when you have enough, it really becomes incumbent on us as Christians to use our money for a strong force in the world.
Cindy Jacobs: God has worked in this generation a desire to make the world a better place for all. This means grappling with issues of eliminating systemic poverty, taking care of the environment and living with each other in a kinder, more relational way.
For this reason, I believe the question is, How much is enough? We need to make wealth to steward it to create jobs, help single moms, the elderly and find ways to deal with the AIDS crisis. Our lifestyle should not be “me” centric, but “Kingdom of God” centric.
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