Theology and Consumerism



I’ve not posted too much lately because I was asked to teach a J-Term class at the university where I work (think one month, January, fifteen weeks crammed into 18 days!). The course was on theology and consumerism. “What’s the connection?” you might ask. Well . . . everything. How we see God – loving, compassionate and present within each person, for example – influences how we make decisions regarding everything we buy or whether we buy anything at all.

For Christians (and others too) we believe there is an inherent responsibility to consume less in order to relieve the stresses caused by carbon and waste to our planet. There is concern for the 23 million human beings enslaved worldwide to produce cheap goods for industrialized countries. I live in an urban area (Twin Cities) that is sadly one of the centers of human trafficking in this country. Finally, there is a concern about the inhumane treatment given to many of the animals we consume.

In many ways this seems too overwhelming to consider. And yet we have a moral responsibility to do exactly that. However, education and changes can be made slowly over time. It’s a process that is on-going. Choosing to live more simply is a great way to start. It is a way to use less, take care with what is actually used and frees time to learn more about what and how we consume.

So this was the topic of the course. The students were engaged, thoughtful and brought excellent suggestions and ideas to their discussions. I am always amazed at how much young adults are already doing to learn more, help others and the earth. They are inspiring for sure! They inspired me most definitely!

How many planets would it take to support your lifestyle? Here is one of the links a student highlighted that calculates what our lifestyle choices mean for our planet. Get started. Click on the map and find out if you should consider living more simply.

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Tired of Same Old Movie Th[M]emes?

During the holidays, I saw a couple of newly released movies at the theater. The most recent one was Les Miserables. Now this is a classic story that I enjoyed seeing years ago as play. However, this time around I couldn’t help but think how tired I was of viewing the same old plot line that exists for too many movies. It goes like this: systemic injustice (for example vast wealth inequality in 19th century Les Mis and today too) creates horrific suffering which is then personally alleviated for a few characters by one over-privileged white male who saves – pick one – his family, the United States or planet earth.

Hollywood clearly knows about the underlying systemic abuses and injustice that causes so much of the suffering in the world. But then Hollywood too often misses the point: one person alone will never change systemic injustice. The “one person will save us fantasy” – is just that – a fantasy. It’s particularly a fantasy when that one person is a white male, since patriarchy (men having power over women, children and people of color) is the root cause of the wealth inequality, discrimination and abuse in the world.

Worse, believing this fantasy short circuits our motivation to do what is really necessary. Each of us is part of the human family and each of us has a responsibility to work for long term change. Real changes in the way we provide for basic needs, distribute resources and care for those who are vulnerable requires a community willing to use all its imagination, empathy and creativity.

Why can’t Hollywood use their abundant resources, ingenuity, creativity and imagination to highlight real and useful systemic solutions for the poverty and abuse that we see in our local communities, on our continent and around the world? Possibilities and opportunities for solutions exist. They are many and often easily accomplished. Examples abound. Why not build powerful stories around these ideas?

Unfair By Design

Americans are notorious for not wanting to look at the systemic problems underlying many of our social ills. For example, we’d rather believe that if we vote for the right politician or political party our problems will be solved – rather than tackle the underlying systemic problem of campaign finance reform and lack of term limits that keeps politicians of both parties beholden to big financial, military and corporate interests. Far easier to turn politics into a competitive sport where we pick a political party more or less like a sports team and cheer for our side to win.

We’d rather tell ourselves that charities should take care of those made poor and those who struggle with health problems or tragedies, rather than look at the huge wealth transfers (regressive rates, deductions) for the middle class, elites and corporations designed to take wealth unfairly from others. Wealth transfers are designed into our tax code. They can be designed out as well.

We’d rather think that millions of home foreclosures were due to the personal failings of homeowners rather than the predatory lending practices, high risk hedging and multi-trillion dollar bail-outs of the too-big-to-fail-banks encouraged by the repeal of banking regulation laws. This mortgage boom-bust was designed by lawmakers acting in the interests of the financial industry.

We’d rather tell ourselves that tolerance and warm feelings toward people of color will solve systems of white privilege and racism, rather than face and dismantle the wealth-transferring discrimination built into our legal, educational and corporate systems.

Many work for or against legalizing marriage for all, rather than acknowledge that systemically, the social benefits assigned arbitrarily to those who are married could and should be made available to all, independent of marital status, and how conventional marriage creates poverty for women and children by design.

Others want to believe that raising the eligibility age for social security or medicare is not the same as privatizing them (meaning giving all the attendant fees and insurance dollars to corporations) when it is exactly that. Health care, like clean water is a basic human right. Without adequate social safety nets crime, corruption and violence will radically increase in our society. Not a country or a world I want to live in.

It’s no different for religious institutions. Within the Catholic church, for example, many feel that ordaining women will solve the governance problem in the church. But it is the ordination system itself that allows for one voice to trump all within a community. Those who are ordained in this system are formed in such a way that they are predisposed to elitism, privilege, self-focus with no accountability. This creates a situation that fosters corruption and abuse. Lack of financial transparency within the church similarly promotes unethical and immoral behavior. Ordaining women will not change these fundamental flaws designed into this system.

Our refusal to look at or discuss underlying systems persists because doing so would take time, require self examination and is complex. It’s easier to focus on personal charity, personal spirituality or personal failings of high profile individuals. But this is to fail ethically and morally because we are all interconnected and interdependent. We either work to transform unjust systems or we are part of the corruption.

Refusing to learn about systemic injustice makes us morally culpable. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t endeavor to work for systemic change. We’ve had the moral courage and tenacity to make systemic changes in the past (ending slavery, women voting, environmental laws, human rights, etc.). A better future for everyone requires it.

You may also like Time to Tax Wall Street and True Freedom.

Authentic Living


Recently I had the occasion to reconnect with the woman who was my principal for eight years in grade school. She is just as bright, vibrant and sharp today as she was then. While she worked many years in education and administration, she still works three days a week as a chaplain. Her focus has always been in the area of social justice and service. I credit her and her faculty with my own interest in service and social justice.

However, there is more going on here than simply a focus on justice. The capacity to focus on others in a permanent way allows us to “de-center” ourselves. It is in “de-centering” or becoming other-centered that we experience a deeper, more permanent happiness and joy.

This can feel like a scary process that involves giving up control. However, in reality any feelings of security or control we imagine we have are really illusory. There is no real security or control in life. Life lives us. We are being lived.

Often circumstances in our lives will naturally move us towards this process of becoming other-centered. Falling in love, becoming a new parent, religious conversion or work situations can nudge us toward de-centering temporarily. This is why new lovers are so happy, as are new parents. But not until it becomes a permanent way of living and being will joy and happiness envelop us and permeate our lives.

The medical profession knows too. Those struggling with depression or recovering from addiction are encouraged to volunteer and engage in service. They are encouraged to “de-center” as part of their healing.

Bring more joy into your life. Learn about social justice. Focus on others in the world. In doing so you will become more authentic, bring depth to your life, become real.

You may also like Secret to the Fabulous Life, Authentic Living – Life Editing and Endlessly Interesting.

Nostalgia or Reality?

Recently I watched Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris. In addition to an intriguing plot, the characters in the film are nostalgic, romanticizing the past and pining for eras gone by. One of the characters in the film makes the point that indulging in nostalgia is merely a way to escape from dealing with current reality as it is. I think this is true.

We might long for the days of the “horse and buggy” but we don’t include the stench of rotting horse manure, straw, flies and a lack of refrigeration in our longing for “days gone by.”

People wax on dreamily about “the good old days” which when you really stop and think – in too many ways – weren’t that good at all. I’ve watched relatives spend hours telling the same old stories and glorifying the “glory days” of an era, of high school, of college or whatever.

On the other hand, these same people often steadfastly refuse to engage in honest discussion regarding current cultural, social or political events – because this is complex, messy, requires reading, self-reflection and can make us uncomfortable.

Our culture promotes sinking into nostalgia with it’s glorification of the secularized holidays of Halloween, Christmas and Easter. It’s another way to sell products and anesthetize us from facing the hard realities of our time. But it also prevents us from entering more deeply into the positive aspects of life too.

We can resist this however. Use these same holidays as a way to focus on life as it really is – both the positive and the negative. For example, go to both museums and homeless shelters, art exhibits and food shelves. Meet and talk with people from many cultures. Watch foreign films with English subtitles and try new ethnic dishes.

Reality and people are rich, diverse and fascinating – far more fascinating than social media, TV, Twitter and IPhones. Enter more deeply into reality. Experience life – your life – before it passes you by.

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