Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Reconsidering Consumerism, Getting Greedy for God

22 Jun 2016

As part of a visiting choir, I once sang Evensong in Ely Cathedral. As we robed in the Lady Chapel, we were bathed in ethereal summer light, filtering dramatically in shafts through the plain stained-glass windows. When I looked closer, I noticed that at the heart of each window there was a small decorative lozenge. Each was the corporate logo of a sponsoring business. It had the effect of turning the chapel into a shrine for consumerism.

Consumerism is the sea in which we swim. It has a bad press, and many spiritual leaders ask us to turn our backs on it, because it is a realm in which Mammon reigns. But I think we should not walk away. Instead, we should harness its might for God, by becoming greedy for God rather than the material trappings of a fashionable life.

At Greenbelt last year I talked about Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions, and how we could redeem the market. Since then I have been busy making my thinking about money and consuming more explicit so that we have the tools we need to do so. My first Temple Tract was on God and Money, and last week I launched my second, on Ethical Consumerism. It sets out my argument about how we can colonise consumerism for Christ. Consumerism is usually about shopping and other purchasing activities. It is also about your wider stewardship of resources. I argue that we need to audit our consumption across all of these realms: money, time, relationships, environment, and you.

Why am I a fan of consuming? Because there is a good theological case for the yearning we recognise as consumerism as being both our heritage and our joy. The 17th Century theologian Thomas Traherne explains it is this way: ‘it is of the nobility of man’s soul that he is insatiable… the noble inclination whereby man thirsteth after riches and dominion, is his highest virtue, when rightly guided.’

Of course consumerism is a desire that is susceptible to sin, because it can be misdirected. It has become for us a search for identity and completeness, so it has the potential to be a competing desire, an idol that promises us the fulfilment that can only truly come from God. So it needs a theological narrative to release it from the infinite loop of insatiable selfishness. But it is a crucial part of our DNA that we should embrace not deny, if we can school it properly and direct it towards God.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams sees our unquenchable desire as an opportunity for grace. In his book Lost Icons, he argues that it is childish to imagine that we are on the verge of completion, and that the latest gadget, accessory or experience will make us – finally – happy. Consumerism plays into a narrative that imagines we just have a few neat gaps left that the market will fill. For Williams, growing up requires us to stop desiring the end of desire and to rejoice in the incurable character of our desire. Nothing on earth should satisfy us. We are designed to be restless until we find our rest in God, so we should embrace this yearning in our character. It is in desiring grace that we are most likely to find peace.

But grabbing the steering wheel from material consumerism is not straightforward. It weans us off God because it pretends to satisfy. And if we fall for the idea that we can be satisfied by anything other than God, we are lost. But how can we drag ourselves back into God’s gravitational pull? We need scaffolding for a more theologically sound consumerism, a consumerism that is centred on our greed for God.

There are a range of ways we can start refocusing on God. One of them is a familiar refrain of mine. It is about making your bank statements your report card. If they were the test of your ethical consuming, do they routinely cover you with glory? Money is like voting – if you spend in one place and not another, it strengthens support for that activity and not another. Can you show that every line of your bank statement expresses a positive vote for human flourishing?

You may feel that your widow’s mite is a drop in the ocean. But it would not take much for us to achieve a tipping point. We’ve done it already with Fair Trade. We just individually need to adjust our financial transactions one at a time, one-by-one, and the wheel will start to turn. Here is one small way you can make a start, just by buying locally.

The New Economics Foundation has devised a clever tool to track what happens when you ‘spend’ your money. It is called the Local Multiplier 3 methodology. Their study in Northumberland found that every £1 spent with a local supplier was worth £1.76 to the local economy, and only 36p if it was spent in a national chain-store. This is because of what they call ‘blue hands.’ If you imagine that everyone in your town has accidentally got blue paint on their hands, how much blue paint would be on your pound by the time it finished its journey? If you spend it in a national chain, the pound will probably head straight to London, or offshore, without getting any blue paint on it at all. If you spend it locally, the shopkeeper might take it out of the till to pop next door for a coffee; the waiter might take it next door to buy some milk; the checkout person might take it next door to the post-office; the teller might give it to an OAP; the OAP might pop it in the church collection; the vicar might use it to pay the local plumber, who might use it to buy his lunch, and so on. That’s a lot of blue paint. When they modelled it, they found that £1 spent locally was worth almost 400% more. For the Council in Northumberland, this meant that if they were to spend just 10% more of their annual procurement budget locally, it would mean £34 million extra circulating in the local economy each year.

So think hard when you ‘spend’ your money. Your money doesn’t leave the system, it stays within it. Your transactions create messages about supply, demand and price, that either reinforce a market that favours the rich, or one that is more Kingdom-shaped. So whenever you spend money, be sure to send it on its way rejoicing. Like David, we can defeat Goliath with slingshots, if we aim deliberately and in the right direction. Even in the last Census there were 37.5 million Christians in the UK. That is a lot of financial muscle, if we mobilise. Will you join me?

Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

Want to read more? Download ‘Ethical Consumerism’ by Eve Poole today!

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