The Consumer Quandry: or What Would Jesus buy?
I’ve been thinking about Christian ethics quite a bit lately. Whether this is because I recently acted as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for an ethics class, or whether its because of the various ethical situations and morally ambiguous choices that seem to be put upon me, I don’t know. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the products we buy. Living in the “industrialized West” as we might call the countries that are made up of most of Western Europe, the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, and, of course, the United States (as well as other similar cultures) I’ve noticed that we are increasingly bombarded with people trying to sell us things.
This is nothing new, of course, but as information is more readily available, and advertisers begin to realize they need to be more creative (and more persistent) in their campaigns (sorry Madmen fans, advertisers can’t run a business the Don Draper way anymore), there seems to be an increased sense of need instilled in us. It’s no longer that it would be nice to have certain gadgets or clothing items, etc. It’s also no longer that we would want to have them. Currently, there is a culture being constructed for us that tells us we need to have the latest item.
When I was in High School, the campaign known as “What Would Jesus Do?” really began to gain traction. People everywhere were wearing cloth bracelets with the letters WWJD written on them. Of course, this wasn’t a perfect illustration; as more than one person pointed out, we should be asking “What would Jesus have me do?” Fair enough, but the sentiment was, nevertheless, a good one I believe, one that goes back certainly as far as Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and conceivably to some early Christian interpretations of the Levitical Command to “be holy as I am holy” or as Jesus put it “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” While we acknowledge it wasn’t entirely possible, it gave us a goal for which to strive. The problem is, though, that we liked the idea, so long as at it meant we could still live in our culture. We thought we should only ask the question when presented with an ethical dilemma, we didn’t want to actually change the overall picture of our lives. If Jesus really did live in our culture, I’ve thought, what would he do?
I seem to recall someone asking once “What car would Jesus drive?” They wanted to know if they should get a more environmentally friendly car, or an older inefficient one, or something else entirely. I wondered if he would actually even drive a car. If Jesus needed to go farther than walking would take him (or more quickly) in our culture would he take the bus? or cycle? hitchhike? I just couldn’t see Jesus owning a car. As I thought back to that campaign, I wonder what it would look like in our consumerist mindset. What would Jesus buy? we might ask. Except, would he buy anything? Jesus seemed to live a beggar type lifestyle; not that he actually begged on the street, but that he relied upon other people to provide him with food an shelter as he acted the part of itinerant preacher. Was that a cultural thing? Clearly he was financially supported, so he wouldn’t be completely against having some assets. But still, how much is too much? I might flip the question and ask: would Jesus want me to make this purchase or use it elsewhere.
Where these thoughts are coming from is because I have had an ethical dilemma shoved into my face. As you are probably aware, the iPhone 5 just came out (like the previous iPhone but longer and lighter apparently). You may have also have heard about the (poorly timed from Apple’s perspective) riots that erupted at a Foxconn factory in China. Although that particular factory doesn’t manufacture parts for the iPhone 5, Apple does use the company to manufacture many of its parts and they had previously made news for their poor working conditions and instillation of “suicide prevention nets” to stop workers from killing themselves by jumping off the roofs of factories.
While it might be easy to condemn Apple in this situation. The fact is, they are far from the only company to use Foxconn. Other companies include Intel, Microsoft, Sony, Cisco, Dell. It seems that virtually all electronic companies either use Foxconn directly, or use parts that are made by other companies using Foxconn. So the computer I’m typing this on, the computer or phone or tablet that you’re reading this on, or the printer that this was printed out on (if that applies to anyone), probably features parts from Foxconn. This is an example of products that have a cost that exceeds their price, or so it seems. Would Jesus condone these purchases?
Here’s another kicker: Foxconn is primarily famous because its the biggest, not because its the worst of these companies. In fact, Foxconn plants have better employee treatment records and lower suicide rates than most manufacturing plants in China. The fact is that most of our consumer goods (not even just electronics) feature some part that is built in China, and likely in appalling working conditions. This is what happens when we accept a consumer culture that is built around imagined needs for things we want at lower costs, or when we want the next best status symbol to show others we are better than them (or at least on par with them). I’m as guilty of buying into this on occasion as anyone else. If someone handed me the keys and signed over the title to a Bugatti Veyron, I’m not so sure I’d be able to sell it for a more reasonable car and donate the remainder to charity (and even if I was, it probably wouldn’t be right away, I’d want to drive a little while first). But what do we do with the very real fact that virtually everything we buy is in someway connected to these poor working conditions. If we buy only fully American (or British, or French or whatever) made products, would that make things better or worse for the individual employees of these corporations? Would there be layoffs if we demanded they have better working conditions?
In Luke’s Gospel, the beatitudes look a little different than they do in Matthew’s Gospel. There, in what is known as the “sermon on the plain” (since it parallels many things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount recorded by Matthew), Jesus blesses those who are poor (the physical poor and physically hungry) and curses, or suggests trouble to come, for those who are wealthy. You can read it here. The problem is, someone at the poverty line in the US is rich relative to some of the factory workers in China. Those factory workers, too, are rich compared to those with no money or housing or medical help. It is very unlikely that you will find someone to whom you would appear rich (in some physical sense) in this life. Are we all under a curse or should prepare for “woe”?
It seems that it really comes down to an attitude. Elsewhere Jesus said you cannot serve God and mammon (usually translated money). Mammon is a little bit more ubiquitous than money. It refers to anything used for non-essential living. Anything that can be construed as a luxury item. So anything beyond the most basic of foods (say rice and lentils), the most basic clothing (nothing designer that’s for sure), the most basic housing (four walls, and a roof), and the most basic tools (if it’s electronic or gas powered its beyond basic) can be considered “mammon.” Yet these things are not forbidden outright. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of the heart. Do you give a thought for other people when you buy or consume “mammon”? Do you try to follow God’s commandment towards these your neighbors, particularly those who are “the least of these”? Or are you centered on yourself? Martin Luther described sin as being bent in toward one’s self. He, of course, had in mind these rams whose horns could, if not cut, grow into their skull, killing them. Is your obsession with self, the products you want, the status symbol you get, leading you to consume more and care less? It’s killing you slowly if it is (and you don’t even realize it). The solution would be to let Christ cut this obsession off of you. Yes it is painful, yes it hurts. Yes you lose something of yourself and can no longer display your grand horns to others, but it saves your life. In losing your life for the sake of others, in Christ and by dying with him, He will save it.