“All day long he craves and craves, but the righteous gives and does not hold back” (Proverbs 21:26).
This passage from Israel’s wisdom literature presents a stark contrast between the wicked and the righteous man. The former’s desire for wealth and possessions is insatiable, and his appetite for material things pathological. And this desire to consume consumes him, making him incapable of controlling his own cravings for more, and rendering him totally insensitive to the needs of others. He shrivels up in his own self-centredness and develops a dangerously distorted view of himself, of others and of the world. The righteous, in contrast, is naturally and unselfconsciously generous. And from the fount of his kind heart flows concrete acts of self-effacing altruism and magnanimity.
This passage speaks eloquently and forcefully, even if indirectly, to the culture that has become so pervasive in modern society: consumerism. That consumerism is the most powerful and influential system of formation that shapes our individual and collective psyche is well attested to by theologians, philosophers, sociologists and ethicists of every stripe and tradition. More than a culture, consumerism may be even described as the kind of ethos in which we inhabit, the ideological air that we breathe daily. The average city-dweller, we are told, spend hours every week watching television, surfing the Internet, and listening to the radio. He is bombarded by advertisements that come through junk mail, mobile phone text messages, and emails, and surrounded by posters, billboards, banners and the like the whets his consumerist appetite.
In January 2005, BBC reported the story of a twenty-year-old student from Nebraska who auctioned space on his forehead as advertising space. A company promoting a remedy for snoring rented the young man’s forehead for a month at USD 37,000, making him a human billboard. The company that tattooed its product on the student’s forehead is well aware of the fact that this advertisement will only be seen by a limited number of people. But it hoped that the worldwide publicity that this unusual stunt will receive would boost the sales of its product. This story presents yet another side of the culture of consumerism: its basic assertion that everything can be turned into a commodity, that everything can be bought or sold when the price is right.
The consumer culture must be taken seriously because such a powerful and pervasive force cannot possibly be philosophically and morally neutral or benign. Put differently, the consumerist culture says something about how we perceive the world and its material goods. And in some ways it influences and governs our response to them. But because material things and their acquisition cannot be detached from the web of human relationships – political, economic, and social – the consumerist culture can and does shape social behaviour. In light of this, some theologians have described consumerism as a spiritual disposition, a way of looking at and responding to reality that is profoundly formative, shaping our outlook and actions.
Some writers have wedded the consumerist mindset with materialism. In many ways, the relationship between the two cannot be denied. But, consumerism’s relationship with materialism must be understood in a more nuanced fashion if we are to arrive at a proper assessment. Consumerism is in many ways not about the acquisition and hoarding of more and more material goods, the majority of which we don’t need or use. Analysed more deeply, consumerism ironically betrays our detachment with material goods, our seemingly constant dissatisfaction with them. Thus, consumerism is not about getting more things; it is really about getting new things. As some writers have perceptively observed, consumerism is not just about buying; it is also about shopping. The insatiability in consumerism stems from its inability to be satisfied with the products already acquired and the constant need to achieve that elusive consumerist nirvana (by buying new products). Thus, buying – as one writer puts it – simply puts a temporary pause to the restlessness that characterises consumerism.
Consumerism as a cultural phenomenon must not be dismissed lightly also because it says something profound and important about who we are. We are often symbols of ourselves in that our desires and habits reveal those things that matters most to us, that which define and shape us. In consumerism, the core values of our culture are derived from consumption. Yet, such unbridled pursuit of material goods to quench our acquisitive thirst can and does take on the character of idolatry. The question Christians that must therefore be taken seriously is how can our desires be reshaped so that they can properly reflect God’s creational values? How can Christians consume the gifts of God and the products of human labour in ways that are not idolatrous?
Here, the story of the rich man’s encounter with Jesus continues to be instructive and relevant to the modern man. When the rich man approached Jesus and asked him what he must do to attain eternal life, Jesus replied: ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’ (Matthew 19:21). This story does not teach that the consumption and possession of material wealth are wrong in and of themselves. But it does alert us to the kind of attachment to material wealth that can be unhealthy and enslaving. Jesus’ instruction to the rich man to sell his goods therefore points to two important truths about wealth and consumption. Firstly, it teaches us to be aware of the inordinate desire for those material things that are injurious to our souls, and to denounce them. And secondly, it teaches us to cultivate a proper sense of detachment from material things, so that they no longer have the ability to exert control over our lives.
And it is only when the rich man is able to do this – that is, to denounce his unhealthy attachment to material things – that he is able to stand together with the righteous man of Proverbs 21:26. Only then, will he be able to achieve true solidarity with his fellow human beings (note that he was asked not only to sell his possessions but also to give the proceeds to the poor), and become capable of the generosity exemplified in the righteous man of Proverbs 21:26.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in Word@Work (December 2013).