Recently a student in a Harvard Christian fellowship I am part of started a thread on our fellowship’s email list with this:
Something that I’ve been thinking and praying about a lot lately is the pervasiveness of materialism in Western culture, and, by extent, the Western church. … It’s incredibly easy to ignore “need” for money/things as a sin in our lives because the idea that we “need” all these things has been diffused into our brains since childhood. … We can all probably change our lives to reflect Christ better in this manner, in both how we spend our money and how we give it. I hope to see more dialogue about this.
I was thrilled to see the email, since I believe that following Jesus should influence what we do with our wealth. However, many Christians have little idea what they should do with their wealth and even if they think they know what to do, they may not be succeeding in actually doing it. Christians should talk about wealth for both educational and accountability reasons.
Now, I do not have much wisdom in these matters – I am young and I have had to make very few substantial decisions about wealth. Nonetheless, I shared some things on the email list because I have thought about wealth a good deal and have done some reading to hear the ideas of others. I wrote an article in our Fall 2013 issue called “Radical Generosity: How Christians Fail,” I am in the Harvard course “God and Money” with theologian Harvey Cox this semester, and I am currently researching for a paper on Augustine and consumerism. Here is what I think:
Materialism – excessive concern with material possessions – is definitely common among people in the West. I prefer to use the word consumerism, but these phenomena are, if not identical, then at least closely related. In Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, he describes “secular liturgies” – practices that shapes our desires. Here he explains why we should pay attention to them:
One of the reasons I’m describing cultural practices and institutions as secular liturgies is to raise the stakes: I want to give you a heightened awareness of the religious nature of many of the cultural institutions we inhabit that you might not otherwise think of as having anything to do with Christian discipleship. By religious, I mean that they are institutions that command our allegiance, that view for our passion, and that aim to capture our heart with a particular vision of the good life. They don’t want to just give us entertainment or an education; they want to make us into certain kinds of people.
He identifies the Mall in particular as one of these cultural liturgies, and tells us why it is harmful:
By our immersion in this liturgy of consumption, we are being trained to both overvalue and undervalue things: we’re being trained to invest them with a meaning and significance as objects of love and desire in which we place disproportionate hopes.
Smith identifies marketing as the evangelism of consumerism, with the happy, beautiful, hip people on TV serving as consumerism’s icons, saints for us to mimic. And he says that the church’s response to the power of the consumerism has often been consumerist as well – as “Jesufied” parody of the mall.
I start with Smith’s cultural exegesis because he points out the power of the forces at work around us. He is not the only one to describe malls in this way, either: I have found several sources that say similar things. Religious historian John Pahl writes in Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Sapces:
If places as well as events shape the contours of piety, then clearly a trip to the mall can have an impact on the contours of one’s faith. Personally, I have rarely left a mall inspired to be a more generous and caring person.
If Smith, Pahl, and others are right, then when we start to talk about our relationship to wealth, we must acknowledge that we are not doing it in a vacuum – we are surrounded by the pressures of consumerism.
What, then, should Christians do? Christians should imitate Jesus, who, as Paul puts it in Phil 2:7, “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,” and who, as Matthew writes in Matt 9:36, “when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” It is clear that Christians should care about the suffering of others.
Therefore, Christians with wealth should reflect on the ramifications of their wealth while a billion people live in extreme poverty (under $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank stats). According to one set of statistics, Christians today give at 2.5% of income per capita to the church, less than the 3.3% of income per capita given during the Great Depression.
The first theatre of action for Christians, I believe, is in our own personal generosity and spending. How can we orient our lives not around primarily around following everyone else or on our own material comfort, but rather on loving the world as Christ first loved us?
To make this question more practical, we can ask ourselves individually, “How much money should I give, and how much should I spend?” For assistance we can look to Proverbs 30:8, which says, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” This does not mean aiming for “middle class.” The paradigm is in thinking about our daily bread. We do not aim to be poor, and neither do we aim to be rich. Instead, we think about what we need.
Defining what we “need” is difficult, and I do not have a quick answer – practical steps are hard to enumerate. As I wrote in my Ichthus piece last fall, there is no literal, specific application of Jesus’s message of radical generosity to each Christian’s life.
Still, I can think of three practical steps for Christians; and particularly, for Christians around my (college) age:
First, we can really think about the suffering of others and of our power to help, with our time, money, energy, and skills, now and in the future. We can pray that God would use us to help the poor of the world.
Second, we can imagine what kind of lives we should be living to live out radical generosity. We can think about what these means now, but a primary way is to think about the future. What kinds of houses, vacations, pleasures, and foods to we imagine in our lives? We should try to envision for ourselves a life of radical generosity, and commit to it mentally.
Third, we can take steps now, even if small, to reach out to the poor and to deny ourselves comforts. I like to have meals with the homeless sometimes, or share some food with them from the dining hall when I am fasting and skipping a meal. I also am in the practice of giving weekly to my church. Not everyone should do the same things, and different people are certainly in different financial situations.
One of the best ways to close a discussion on faith and wealth is to reflect soberly on the condition of those who suffer from lack of it, and one of my favorite ways to do this is to read this quotation from Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps. This 1896 book deals with the question of what to do with wealth and privilege in light of Jesus Christ by portraying several members of a well-to-do church at the turn of the century who begin trying to answer the question “What would Jesus do?” in their lives. Early in the book church members are inspired to change by hearing these words from a “tramp” who wanders into a Sunday service:
I heard some people singing at a church prayer meeting the other night, “All for Jesus, all for Jesus, All my being’s ransomed powers, All my thoughts, and all my doings, All my days, and all my hours,” and I kept wondering as I sat on the steps outside what they meant by it. It seems to me there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. … It seems to me sometimes as if the people in the big churches had good clothes and nice houses to live in, and money to spend for luxuries, and could go away on summer vacations an all that, while the people outside the churches, thousands of them, I mean, die in tenements, and walk the streets for jobs, and never have a piano or a picture in the house, and grow up in misery and drunkenness and sin.
Christians, let us denounce materialism in the name of Jesus Christ, and use our resources to help those who suffer!