At its root, consumerism arises from a distorted view of human nature. This ethos teaches that our wants are insatiable (and the provocations of advertising help to make this so), that buying a new article of clothing or fancy gadget will answer our deepest longings, that we are what we own. Humans, then, are seen as greedy and lacking and shallow. To the degree that we believe this, we are under the thrall of consumerism, rather than following the teachings of Christianity.
These four considerations are helpful to understand the Christian ethics of consumption:
- We are prone to sin but called to renounce it;
- We are creatures who can and should delight in creation;
- We are neighbors who can love ourselves and one another;
- We are denizens of the new creation, who can and should align our actions with those of a fulfilled world.
We are not—or need not be—greedy, lacking, and shallow. We do not have to believe what consumerism tells us, because Christianity has an alternate view of human nature.
Theologian Vincent Miller has written about the interaction between religion and consumerism, articulating the concern that Christians who see themselves as consumers "encounter the elements of tradition in an abstract, fragmented form and are trained to engage them as passive consumers." Consumption may seem to be a topic best treated by other sources or other fields of study, but the Christian tradition offers robust insights into contemporary problems faced by consumers.
Miller argues that, for religion, "the only way forward is through consumer culture, by embracing grassroots agency." He wishes to "encourage and deepen religious agency, to give people the formation and responsibility necessary to engage their traditions creatively as mature practitioners."
I hope to contribute to Miller's goal of deepening personal agency. I believe that although consumption can be tricky and fraught, it is possible to consume in ways that honor God and generate delight and flourishing in ourselves and the rest of the world. Achieving this in a time and place substantially influenced by consumerism is a challenge, but we do not face it empty-handed. Equipped with resources from the Christian tradition, aids to discernment, and visions of virtue, with help from others and with grace from God, we can consume both Christianly and well.
What should ethical consumption look like in my life?
While sometimes Christian, ethical consumption simply requires choosing the "right" product off a shelf, and often speaks to longer-term habits and structures of daily life. Here is an example: should I make a habit of eating animals as food?
The fourth consideration above would argue against it. As Andrew Linzey indicates in his book Animal Gospel, a fulfilled world emulates "the peaceable kingdom," in which interspecies violence has ceased: "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11:6).
"The truth is," writes Linzey, "human beings can now approximate the peaceable kingdom by living without killing sentients for food."
Since we can do so, Linzey argues, we should eschew animal protein in our diets. Linzey believes that humans, uniquely among creatures, can transcend the "natural" impulse to predation and live as God intends us to live, without harming other creatures.
But the third consideration adds a different dimension to this question. If I do consider nonhuman animals to be my neighbors, and accept the charge to love them, then it is almost inconceivable that killing them for food equates to loving them. And yet, as the bumper sticker says, "I love animals—they taste great!" Is it possible to love what we consume, and still consume it?
Sergei Bulgakov would say that consuming something nonhuman is a way to answer its yearning to become more human, to become closer to God. Additionally, eating animals may play a role in loving other humans: it saves no animal lives if I reject the chicken potpie offered to me by my elderly aunt. In fact, it risks offending her. (If I'd told her in advance I didn't want chicken, of course, she might not have bought it, and this would save animal lives, but in this moment the deed has been done and the chicken is already on the table.)
It certainly would offend my host in a visit to Haiti if I refused to eat the goat that he and his family had graciously, and at great cost to themselves, prepared for me. Human offense may be a more minor grievance than an animal's loss of life, but when it comes to establishing and maintaining loving relationships, it is significant.
Embracing creation entails a concern for proper stewardship, and most (but not all) meat production has egregious environmental ills associated with it. Still, this consideration also entails sensuous enjoyment of nature's bounty—which for many people includes enjoying delicious meat dishes. The second consideration also includes an understanding of humans as "royal persons," blessed children of God, which may be interpreted to mean that our enjoyment of meat matters more than animals' lives.
But the first consideration, avoiding sin, overwhelmingly comes down on the side of avoiding meat. Vegetarian eating was one form of fasting in Francis's time, and he almost never ate
meat himself. Even Sider recommends "substituting vegetable protein for animal protein" as a way of diminishing the family food budget (to free up extra money, which can then be given to
the poor). For those concerned about complicity in environmental harm, avoiding meat is a good way to guarantee relatively clean hands.
Difficult, but not impossible
The discernment of ethical consumption choices may seem overwhelming, and even impossible, and it is hard to be satisfied with the often uncertain or provisional nature of the conclusions.
Augustine holds that, in the realm of morality, God does not ask Christians to perform impossible tasks. This is not to say that everything that Christian ethics exhorts is humanly attainable. Rather, Augustine holds that God actively helps believers to attain the levels of perfection demanded. It is in this spirit of making a humble attempt, knowing that my efforts will be incomplete but trusting in God's help, that discernment of consumption decisions should occur. And such discernment cannot happen well without adequate time for reflection and exploration of different options.
This discernment also should not happen alone. I have primarily discussed individual consumption decisions in this article, but I hope that this ethics of consumption can guide group decision making too. A congregation, for example, making decisions about electricity or paper consumption, can also be guided by the four considerations of avoiding sin, enjoying the earth's bounty and stewarding resources, heeding relationships, and aligning with God's ultimate plan. Many of the habits that ethical consumption require can be better cultivated in communities than alone; we do well to consider these questions in groups and offer support to one another in the shifts of attitude and practice that are often required as we move toward virtuous consumption.
There are ways to make choices that "set up" the consumer for virtuous consumption. For example, Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a subscription program allowing households to receive weekly food delivered directly from local farms. Consumers pay an up-front investment and receive their food in installments—thereby setting up a long-term consumption pattern (a continually stocked fridge full of produce) with an incentive to
continue (the up-front investment). When my refrigerator is full of fresh fruit, and I know I will get more delivered shortly, I am less likely to reach for the candy bar: I may even feel some (salutary) pressure to eat the fruit before it spoils. The CSA model has many advantages consonant with the four considerations of consumption: the local, often organic food is good for the environment and healthful; it offers a rich opportunity for consumers to enjoy and
celebrate the earth's bounty; it establishes a relationship with the farmers who grow the food; and the community and ecological harmony it entails may represent a foretaste of a fulfilled creation.
An ethics of consumption, then, urges Christians to consume well, in part, by actively setting up our lives in such a way as to allow for consumption that loves neighbors, consumption that participates in God's reign, consumption that avoids sin and embraces creation.
Subscribe to TCW's free e-newsletter at this link for weekly updates and opportunities to win free books and music.
Dr. Laura M. Hartman is assistant professor of religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.
Adapted from The Christian Consumer: Living Faithfully in a Fragile World. Copyright © 2011 by Oxford University Press. Used by permission from Oxford University Press, Inc.