Being Consumed by William T. Cavanaugh is a short book considering economics from a Christian perspective. In this interesting treatise the authors argues that “Christians…are called to create concrete alternative practices that open up a different kind of economic space-the space marked by the body of Christ.”
Chapter 1, “Freedom and Unfreedom”, Cavanaugh challenges free-market ideology, in particular Milton Friedman’s writing on the free market by asking “when is the market free?” Our wants are not truly free when they are created by marketing and that these desires may not be God’s desires. Advertising can create desires that have nothing to do with satisfying needs. In writing about advertising Cavanaugh says
“It is, of course, true that advertising does not work on each individual the way a lobotomy does.”
Cavanaugh also takes issue with Friedman’s notion of a free market for labor. The thinking is if you don’t like your job you are free to go elsewhere. But how free is that market when the means for production can easily move to the third world for slave labor wages? Cavanaugh also writes that Christians should make every effort to ensure that the producers of the products we buy are paid a living wage. Is the coffee in our church coffee shop “fair trade” meaning the growers are enough to live on. Cavanaugh closes Chapter 1 with this:
From a Christian point of view, the churches should take an active role in fostering economic practices that are consonant with the true ends of creation. This requires promoting economic practices that maintain close connections among capital, labor, and communities, so that real communal discernment of the good can take place. Those are the spaces in which true freedom can flourish.
In Chapter 2, “Detachment and Attachment”, the author looks at consumerism. He writes:
Although consumerism is often equated with greed, which is an inordinate attachment to material things…consumerism is, in fact, characterized by detachment from production, producers and products.
Consumerism in itself is not evil, we need to consume to survive. The problem is that our society loves to buy things, not to have things. As Cavanaugh says:
What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them to buy other things.
To drive home the author’s point: I was sitting at The Hairdresser’s shop the other day and ran across this magazine-“Lucky: The Magazine About Shopping and Style”. Doh!
In this chapter the notion is put forth that, as Christians, our things are really God’s things to be shared within God’s family. Kud’s maxim regarding Christians and garage sales: Don’t have garage sales.
1. Christians should not be buying that much stuff.
2. If they do, they should give it away if they don’t want it anymore.
In this chapter the author footnotes an excellent article, “Why the Devil Takes Visa: A Christian Response to the Triumph of Consumerism” by Rodney Clapp. It can be found on the internet. Read it. Clapp quotes the Didache:
Never turn away the needy; share all your possessions with your brother, and do not claim that anything is your own. If you and he are joint participators in things immortal, how much more so in things that are mortal?
A final thought from Chaper 2: “We are not to cling to our things, but to use them for the sake of the common good.”
Chapter 3, “The Global and the Local”, the authors argues that Globalization is not universally a good thing. It has not raised the living condition of workers worldwide…
“The willingness and ability of capital to abandon a particular location at any time has played a crucial role in subduing wages worlwide…”.
At the same time it has led to the absortion of local cultures into a worldwide market of consumption. The author quotes the president of Nabisco:
…one world of homogenous consumption…[I am] looking forward to the day when Arabs and Americans, Latins and Scandinavians will be munching Ritz crackers as enthusiastically as they already drink Coke or brush their teeth with Colgate.
Yikes. The author also references an excellent book on this idea, Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. Mcworld, when he writes:
It is no secret that the globalization of capitalism and Western culture has spawned a host of what are termed “fundamentalisms” that are sworn to mortal combat against what they usually see as the Americanization of the world.
In Chapter 4, “Scarcity and Abundance” Cavanaugh writes:
In a consumer culture we are conditioned to believe that human desires have no end and are therefore endless. The result is a tragic view of the world, a view in which there is simply never enough to go around, which in turn produces a kind of resignation to the plight of the world’s hungry people. The Eucharist, by way of contrast, enacts a different story, a story of abundance: by being drawn into God’s life, we radically call into question the boundaries between the haves and the have-nots….
The consumer’s pursuit of low, low prices at Wal-Mart means low, low wages for the people in Asia who make the products we buy.
In God there is abundance to meet our needs and to care for the widows and orphan’s, the needy, the downtrodden. Read this book, think about the stuff you buy. You can borrow the book from me. I have a chainsaw on a ten foot pole I will never use again, barely used. I was thinking of selling it on Craig’s list but now I am looking for a brother or sister to give it to. Or if you don’t want to own it I will be glad to loan it out.
I gotta go…and not buy something.