The Church of Holy Purchases

Fellow Truett alum and preacher extraordinaire, Kyndall, has been tickling my brain lately at her blog. She recently shared about her experience avoiding feeling guilty (and feeling guilty anyway) about whether or not she bought fair trade chocolate for Halloween in a post titled Too Poor to Buy Fair Trade. Go read it first and subscribe to her wonderful blog.

This is such a huge topic and sort of the whole point of my own blog, What Would Jesus Eat? I really sympathize with this dilemma. People sometimes think our family only eats the most pure of foods carefully grown in our backyard with organic methods. The truth is we are sometimes too busy or tired to cook and we eat fast food.

We have sometimes felt guilty when visiting friends, if we were bringing over fast food for dinner. Oh, the shame we feel, because we are supposed to be holier-than-thou when it comes to our food choices. We preach the gospel of holy food to our neighbors and with our business. It feels like there is enormous pressure for us to live up to these ideals that we espouse. The burden is on us to “be the change we want to see”.

Now that I’ve opened my big mouth about things I see that are wrong, I feel pressure to make sure that I’m not a hypocrite (or that others at least don’t know that I am). The truth is that we all live with this dilemma, stuck between the world as it is and the world as we hope and long for. It dawned on me when thinking about this guilt and shame we feel about our purchases that this is an essential aspect of the consumer religion that I have not yet explored. So, first I want to think about the role that consumer choices play in the consumer religion and then ways that we can begin to step outside these roles and definitions (short of getting off the grid and living on our own self-sufficient homestead).

Meaning and Identity
The first thing shopping and buying does in the consumer religion is create meaning and identity. In economic terms we are defined as the autonomous unit which freely chooses how to participate in the economy. More and more we are defined and confined to a particular identity as a consumer. It is not whether or not we define ourselves in economic or consumer terms, but only how we will choose to define ourselves as a consumer. This is what advertisers, the evangelists of this religion, tell us is the gospel message… “You are what you buy (or wear or eat or drink).”

Our consumer choices are often overwhelming. The variety of breakfast cereals or types of orange juice are enough to make your head spin. How are we even supposed to make choices among such diversity? Enter the marketers to help us. If you buy this kind of orange juice, you are health-conscious. If you buy organic or grass-fed meat, then you care about the earth. If you shop at the farmer’s market, you support local food. If you buy fair trade, you get to make a claim about yourself, who you are and what you value.

Many of us balk at the idea that our purchases define us or give us meaning, but marketers and advertisers wouldn’t spend billions of dollars selling us an image if it didn’t work. PBS has a great documentary on this called The Merchants of Cool in which the ways that even rebellion itself is marketed, packaged and sold to youth at a profit. So, we have been trained to define ourselves in large part by how we choose to spend our money and the products and brands we put in our cart.

Absolution and Righteousness
The things we buy also serve as a form of absolution or forgiveness for our sins. So, if you become concerned about the way that people are treated who make your products, you can buy fair trade and this absolves you of those sins perpetuated by the global market. If you are upset about the way modern farming treats the environment or produces food, you can buy organic (or any number of unregulated terms like natural, pasture-raised, etc.) products. If you want to feel better about your electricity usage, you can use a company that purchases offsets or uses some combination of wind and solar.

No matter what sin the market produces and involves us in as consumers, the market also develops an alternative to absolve us and make us feel better about our continued role in the economy as consumers. The last thing that the market wants is for anyone to try and find solutions that are not market-based or that question whether our purchases will be enough to really make a difference. What the market wants is for us to stay within the consumer religion and have faith that our purchases will be enough to at the very least absolve ourselves and assuage our guilt and at the most solve these problems without making changes to the economy or questioning any of its assumptions.

Just to keep things interesting and build tension, I will deal with how we might respond to this reality of our consumer identity in another post.

images from Wikipedia entry for Homo Consumericus and