Giving 'ultimate rebuttal' to culture of consumerism

In face of economic downturn, Christians should extend generosity

Commentary | Nathan Brown

In face of economic downturn, Christians should extend generosity

Many of the big news stories from this year so far have focused on economics. From stock markets and exchange rates to debt issues and financial regulation, many of the economic systems we as a society have tended to take for granted continue to be brought into focus and questioned, particularly with regard to sustainability. As Christians, we are asked the same questions but these questions offer us the opportunity to urge some different answers.

One of the first realizations is a reminder that many of the current economic systems of our world -- based as they are on greed, exploitation, injustice and absurd over-consumption -- are wrong. That may not be the easiest thing to say. In times of stress, people tend to stick to what they know.

But the economic theory upon which so much of the way we live our lives -- as Brian McLaren is his book Everything Must Change -- is that which "inspires our pursuit of as much resource use and waste production (also known as economic growth) as possible, as fast as possible." The comparative privilege enjoyed by most of us in the developed world is subsidized at the expense of the rest of the world. We need to be prepared to recognize it for the wrong it is, and use the stresses of economically difficult times to prompt us to consider how we, individually and as a society, might do things better.

As part of this process we need to ask ourselves if our lives and even our faith are so entangled in the economy as it is that we are unable to imagine other ways of ordering our lives and our world. Those who promote and profit from our economic systems have powerful voices, tuned to convince us of their importance and pre-eminence. In the book Colossians Remixed by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, the prevailing economic forces can be described as "a religious movement of previously unheard-of proportions. Progress is its underlying myth, unlimited economic growth its foundational faith, the shopping mall -- physical or online -- its place of worship, consumerism its overriding image, 'I'll have a Big Mac and fries' its ritual of initiation, and global domination its ultimate goal."

In the face of rampant market-driven capitalism, it becomes increasingly clear why Jesus said, "You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24, NLT). He went on to urge that we should not worry about what we should eat, drink or wear -- and the list would probably be longer if the Sermon on the Mount had been preached to 21st-century consumers in a shopping mall rather than to rural peasants on a hillside -- and reminds us to look first to God who "already knows all your needs" and "will give you all you need from day to day if you live for him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern" (Matthew 6:32, 33, NLT).

But even as we ask some of these questions of our own lives, we need to be quick to realize that the poor and already disadvantaged are always first to suffer in whatever stresses impact society. We must be asking how we as individuals and as churches can reach out to those who are hurting financially and emotionally in our communities and around the world.

Giving is the ultimate rebuttal to an economy built on getting and having. We must resist the temptations that uncertainties bring to try to build walls of protection around ourselves. Instead, as Jesus recommended, by our generosity and faithfulness we demonstrate that our treasure is to be found in the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 6:20). Even in various end-time scenarios -- in which economic turbulence often seems to figure -- we must shift the focus away from mere self-preservation, whether spiritual or physical.

Adventist writer Chris Blake offers an inspiring alternative vision of the people of God responding to potential crises: "Let God's people transition to new models of transforming grace of Christian community. Christianity has never been about isolationism, and never will be. ... In the midst of imminent collapse, Adventist homes open to the dispossessed and fearful. Adventist churches and schools become cities of refuge and outposts of mercy. Sanctuaries house the homeless. Playing fields plough up into gardens. As a world self-destructs, chapter 2 of Acts emerges before our wondering eyes. ... This is our finest hour."

-- Nathan Brown is editor of Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria, Australia