Quitting consumerism

You see, friends, because we are not subservient to the empire but subjects of the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, we have the audacity to say to the darkness, “We beg to differ!” We will not be a pawn to the Prince of Darkness any longer, because we owe him no allegiance, and by God’s grace, through our redemption and forgiveness, our imaginations have been set free.

- Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed

Every January for the past several years, my husband Rob and I have faced a classroom full of first-year college students and tried to convince them that pretty much everything they’ve come to think of as normal in the United States is strange: sprawl, processed food, screen obsession, advertising, sweat shops, the mall, car culture, disposable diapers, the Pledge of Allegiance, throwing things “away.” Yep, pretty much everything. And not “wrong,” entirely, but strange. And we strive mightily to present them with an attractive version of a new normal: a connected, joyful, gracious, spacious, upside-down, shalom-shaped normal of walkable neighborhoods, fair wages, house-sharing and home cooking.

We do so from a (very) short podium of authority, gleaning what we can authentically glean from our own lives and bringing in plenty of other people to testify to the way of life that God has called them into, and is calling them into every day. But we let these students know, right off the bat, that it’s going to make their eyes hurt. Just a few hands went up when we asked how many of them had read Flannery O’Connor (shame), so we invite her to speak from beyond the grave:

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock - to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.

“Large and startling figures,” indeed. Wouldn’t it be shocking if we could summon her ghost to spin us a bawdy, redemptive yarn? But have you seen The CorporationThe Persuaders? They speak to us from the near past, with oddly prophetic voices about our present and our future, and we let them shout into our classroom because we want our students to make a choice: will you worship the idol of consumerism or will you worship the Prince of Peace, who defeated death itself so that we might live - not just in “eternity” some day, but here and now, for God and others, dust and breath, ordinary and extraordinary, for richer or for poorer?

Because we do make a choice, whether we own it or not. Talking about trade justice in Colossians Remixed (but really talking about everything), Walsh and Keesmaat write, “Our point is that when there are options available - whether various consumer choices or lobbying - to decide not to do anything at all is itself a choice. The Gospels call it the wide and easy path.” It is wide and easy, like a super highway through strip mall central, but it’s not beautiful. The signs will tell you exactly what speed to go and where to exit for the nearest McDonald’s, but they will not surprise you with wonder, or confound you with difficult generosity, or wound you with shared brokenness. They’ll just sell you what you want, while making sure you want what they have to sell.

And so I try to convince myself again, even as we attempt to convince our students, to quit consumerism and give up whatever other idols take their places in our home on the shelf alongside the poetry and the cookbooks and the musical instruments. Because God made all things - even the idols, even the empire - and keeps calling me, calling me by name, not because it’s engraved on my iPod, but because it’s engraved on His aching heart.

In that darkness, we perceive the hint of movement and wait for another miracle: imagination, set free.

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This is beautiful.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it has been Subversive Christianity by Walsh that has led me to similar conclusions and places.  And over the past several years, as my family has inched towards a life of less consumerism, one thing has been increasingly difficult: loneliness.  Nothing has revealed the weakness of so many of my relationships and the thinness of my faith like ridding my life of stuff and trying to rethink what it means to be a citizen of God’s Kingdom in a ‘Babylonian’ culture.  Trying to speak with boldness on this is hard, and I pray my life speaks it louder and more convincingly than my words.  And try as we may, we have not found others willing to take this journey with us, at least not in a tangible, lifestyle-change way.  This article brings some hope and refreshment, though. Thank you.

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