A Relief from Consumerism at Christmas

On Thanksgiving Day this year, I opened my newsfeed to find more than a few dire warnings about the evils of Black Friday consumerism.

I’ll admit it. My family and I ignored the warnings and went to the mall on Friday. We criticized the crowds of shoppers wandering around, arms stuffed with bags; but we were implicated too. I can’t help wondering if “consumerists” and “materialists” are handy terms we use to separate ourselves from “everyone else,” to assuage our own guilt.

On the Imaginative Conservative, Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg paints a lurid picture of Black Friday shoppers swarming the malls the way the damned in Dante’s Inferno swarm Hell. I found Rummelsburg’s essay troubling for several reasons. Like many people who toss the word around, he never fully defines consumerism. And his language of condemnation is extreme. Anyone found among the “teeming masses” in the malls on Black Friday is one of the “nearly soulless” on the brink of damnation.

It seems to me that Rummelsburg’s essay strays near a kind of cynicism that lurks on the fringes of all this consumerism talk. You might catch its scent on the breath of both conservatives and liberals. It’s a dark and extreme way of talking, tending toward a simplistic view of good and evil, and of the human individual. This kind of cynicism is itself an ailment, addressing the issue of overconsumption with a vision as skewed as the problem.

Because “consumerism” has become a catchword, collecting all kinds of vague and contradictory meanings, I have tried to sum up three common reasons for fearing the excessive buying and selling of goods. You may hear them echoed in different combinations among thoughtful people of all political persuasions.

  1. Exhaustion of world resources. Antibiotics, industry, and technology have permitted the human population to increase rapidly. Global industrialization has also allowed companies to produce goods on a massive scale that large numbers of people can afford. However, human consumption, on the scale in which it is done today, especially by wealthy westerners, has wider costs that are rarely shouldered by industry, including depletion of global resources and pollution of the natural world. As people increase their standards of living, they also increasingly burden the planet and the future generations who will have to live in a polluted and depleted world.
  2. Inequality and injustice. The wealthy have no business spending big when the world’s poor can barely eat. The poor have no business spending big when they are benefiting from government handouts or shouldering debt.
  3. Idolatry and addiction. Buying things can become a dependency that masks spiritual and emotional emptiness, and accompanies the loss of social and religious values. Propelling people to buy more is the cheapness, disposability, and easy availability of goods. Paradoxically, this availability leads people to value everything less. Why repair broken gadgets when it’s easier to buy new ones? Like any addiction, therefore, a compulsion to buy things is self-perpetuating and self-defeating.

These reasons are all morally compelling, and it is tempting to answer them with moral imperatives. Stop having babies (since people are destroying the planet). Don’t eat any meat (since its production uses up so many resources). Don’t buy anything beyond basic sustenance, and don’t travel (be an ascetic). But responses like these suffer from a simplistic vision of the world, and they can be just as morally problematic as the behavior they try to stop.

Blanket moral imperatives are likely to sidestep other values. In their fervor, the responses above rule out values that many see as essential for human flourishing. They allow little room for art, feasting, gift-giving, or community celebration, with all the extravagance that often accompanies those activities. Unless you believe that basic sustenance and shelter sum up all human needs, the quick moral imperatives present an impoverished vision of human life, even implying that the multitude of humanity are just so many problematic bodies taking up space.

The artist Makoto Fujimura, who creates using expensive materials such as gold, silver, platinum, and one-hundred-year-old ink, makes a case for extravagance in art, arguing that “What many consider extra and even wasteful may come to define our humanity.” Fujimura cites the story of Mary, who is honored by Christ for pouring an expensive bottle of perfume on his feet to express her love. Fujimura says, “Art, like Jesus’ tears and Mary’s nard, spreads in our lives, providing useless beauty for those willing to ponder. . . . Maybe what He saw in Mary was a little artist, emulating and mirroring His great sacrifice.” There may be a time for opulence in art, and in the opera house, and even at our Thanksgiving feasts.

It seems that the humane life is impossible in the modern world without compromise. Navigating our way through hierarchies of values that conflict requires thought and will inevitably involve mistakes. Since the way our values work themselves out in our decisions will be complicated, we need humility in the face of others’ choices. That could mean biting your lip before you condemn all the shoppers in the mall.

Reason number 3 above suggests that consumerism is a disease of apathy. Materialistic people, paradoxically, are those who undervalue material goods and, eventually, undervalue everything in the material world. But anti-consumerism can lead to the disease of cynicism, which undervalues the human individual, by denying him any material goods beyond his basic needs. How are we to avoid both pitfalls and find our way to the middle road of virtuous purchasing?

In a beautiful little essay, “Jacknife Theology and the Worship of Objects,” Jason Peters suggests that the solution to consumerism and cynicism is not a negative set of rules, but a life-giving re-enchantment with the world. According to Peters, we need to re-invest sacramental meaning into both the human person and the objects in the world.

Peters argues that, for the whole and healthy person, the world is filled not with mere objects, but with images. An image is an object plus the meaning we see behind it—the worth we ascribe to it that allows it to “participate in the reality it represents.” An image is not an ethereal or a virtual thing; it carries worth just because it is a physical object we can touch, see, or smell, channeling rich historical or metaphorical meaning. As examples, he describes a photograph of a dead loved one, a jackknife valued as a family heirloom, a fire that also represents human life.

Modern science has objectified the world, which means that it has snuffed out this gleam, turning a world of images into mere things that can now be abused. To objectify something, especially a person, says Peters, “is a failure of imagination.”

According to Peters, however, pure asceticism is against our human nature. He writes,

We are creatures of flesh and blood; flesh and blood are what we crave. Not to crave them is to diminish our humanity. The boy holding out his ball cap for an autograph is behaving in accordance with his incarnate condition—that is, in accordance with his full humanity. . . . And, by virtue of its mere existence in this mysterious world, the autographed ball cap is more than a cap with scrawl on it. It is itself plus something else, for it has been brought to life by the imagination.

This Advent season, the pressing need is for us to re-invigorate our own imaginations with a vision of how mundane things intersect with the eternal. Learn to value things, including nature and people, as sacred images. The church does this through liturgy and sacrament. Literature and art do it through myth. For J.R.R. Tolkien, myth and fairy story were the ways that he first “divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” This solution is not a guarantee against error, but it is a way of seeing which may help us to better honor our fellow humans, to celebrate the gifts of the world while treading lightly on its beauties, and to appreciate the mystery of the One who made and redeemed it.

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