Consumerism and Decay in Jeremiah

Written by Thom T Turner II : December 13, 2007

The world in which we live is run by the economic market that the United States and the European Union has endorsed to provide luxury and comfort for the West. Outside the mainstream media, the grassroots of the Western world is convinced that the free-market capitalist system we live in is causing the determent of thousands of people in the developing world that work for slave wages in order to assure us that we have electric iced tea makers at Wal-Mart for below $25. When we read about companies having pesticides sprayed on workers so the fields are more efficient, or the children near steel mills getting lead poisoning, or the needle-pricked hands of poor children sewing soccer balls, we should heed the warning God gave to the Jews through Jeremiah:

Only if you clean up your act (the way you live, the things you do), only if you do a total spring cleaning on the way you live and treat your neighbors, only if you quit exploiting the street people and orphans and widows, no longer taking advantage of innocent people on this very site and no longer destroying your souls by using this Temple as a front for other gods—only then will I move into your neighborhood. (Jeremiah 7)

The world is decaying because we take advantage of the poor, whether intentionally or indirectly through buying and selling, many of us our caught in the daydream of consumption. We love things, and desire new things instead of the old and less fashionable. The daydream of consumption has lead us to lead lives saturated with the sweat and blood of the poor and the fruit of this earth. We decimate our environment daily, and this is not just a global warming talk—without the things that cause greenhouse gases there is more than enough littering, crop dusting, and wastefulness going around. Our society whispers in our ears to consume in ways we cannot comprehend, as we sit around drinking out of paper cups at lunch everyday because we won’t take the time to buy a mug and wash it out every day. Our exploitation is not just of the poor, the orphan, and the widow, it is of the earth, too. When God calls down judgment on Judah for their wicked ways of exploitation in the sex-god shrines and in their idolatry, the pronouncement is made on their whole system of consumption:

My white-hot anger is about to descend on this country and everything in it—people and animals, trees in the field and vegetables in the garden—a raging wildfire that no one can put out. (Jeremiah 7)

Consumerism as part of our culture is a filling of life-yearning souls with something they perceive as life, activity. Consumption, whether of food, clothes, or cars, makes us feel alive. The feeling is not bad, the addiction to this type of behavior is.

In my own thoughts, I have become much more socialist as I have looked to find the way to remedy the problem of those that have so little. Originally, I was encouraged when Scot McKnight recently wrote on his blog about how in Denmark poverty is almost nonexistent because of the democratic socialist government in power. It seemed there was a government that was accomplishing the actions of Jesus, to love one another as yourself and to care for the least of the world. But to what end is the removing of poverty in a nation that loves things? It struck me that my own thinking has been about such superficial consumer-based thinking, that we are to make sure that everyone has what we consider daily bread. We think when we pray for daily bread that it is a prayer for everyone to have the Americanized, consumer driven bread. Indeed, our definition of daily bread is coming from our consumerist greed. Another step must be added, that we all, both poor and having, change our modes and outlooks so that we do not simply need all this activity. Whether in a free-market capitalist society like America, or in a democratic socialist society as in Denmark, we will still destroy in our consumption, for both systems are set up to ensure unrelenting consumption, whether by the wealthy in capitalism or the masses in socialism. As Milbank prophetically writes,

While [the critics] Hardt and Negri concede that neoempire in certain ways outdoes old empire in vileness, they still subscribe to a dialectical myth that renders this more nakedly capitalist phase of empire somehow a necessary staging post on the way to socialist utopia. Surely we need instead more sober reflections on the temporary need for some sort of more benignly parentalist assistance for the South from the North? So much of the South is devastated in its internal resources and in any case so bound up with the North that only global solutions enabled by a West newly committed to global equality will be viable. (308)

There is a third way, and that lies in removing consumerism as our political and religious goal, for we are to be content in all things and love all people and all the earth. Consumerism serves as the reason for living for so many people—we are always looking for the new. Consumption is our idol, and it is far more closely linked to the idolatry of the Jews than we first realize:

Don’t take the godless nations as your models.
Don’t be impressed by their glamour and glitz,
no matter how much they’re impressed.
The religion of these peoples
is nothing but smoke.
An idol is nothing but a tree chopped down,
then shaped by a woodsman’s ax.
They trim it with tinsel and balls,
use hammer and nails to keep it upright.
It’s like a scarecrow in a cabbage patch—can’t talk!
Dead wood that has to be carried—can’t walk!
Don’t be impressed by such stuff.
It’s useless for either good or evil

Stupidly, they line them up—a lineup of sticks,
good for nothing but making smoke.
Gilded with silver foil from Tarshish,
covered with gold from Uphaz,
Hung with violet and purple fabrics—
no matter how fancy the sticks, they’re still sticks. (Jeremiah 10)

This passage above highlights the drive of our whole economic system, except now we have so much more to consume. The maxim ”no matter how fancy, sticks are sticks” applies to the differences between Kia and BMW, Fossil and Rolex, or Candie’s and Kate Spade. These things are tools we need to possess to a degree, but the extras we so dearly love are the cake-frosting of consumerism, the glamour and glitz…useless for either good or evil. A stick is a stick…

Therefore, we need to address how we look at our possession of things and the implications of possession. God calls us into living, not the unending action of consumption. Consumption is the ultimate masquerade, because it makes the consumer feel alive for a little bit. Big houses, luxury cars, boutique clothes and designer furniture are consumed expressly because they fill the void of life in people. This is not for good or evil per se, but often it turns into the sole reason for existing, and it is what drives the economic and political machines of our world. The solution is to begin to exit the cycle that causes so much exploitation and decay within our world. Withdrawing ourselves from the consumerist cycle enables us to begin becoming obedient not just to God’s commands and the Spirit’s call of morality in our lives, but in how we care for the poor, the maligned, and the earth without consuming. Consumerism is the path of vanity that the Jews followed with sacrifices, and it becomes the ritual of life instead of God’s purpose for our lives. God says through Jeremiah:

Go ahead! Put your burnt offerings with all your other sacrificial offerings and make a good meal for yourselves. I sure don’t want them! When I delivered your ancestors out of Egypt, I never said anything to them about wanting burnt offerings and sacrifices as such. But I did say this, commanded this: Obey me. Do what I say and I will be your God and you will be my people. Live the way I tell you. Do what I command so that your lives will go well. (Jeremiah 7)

God’s calling is out of consumerism, out of all the burnt offerings and sacrifices (conscious, unending activity) and towards obedience and contentment (active, Spirit-led living), for

God is the real thing—
the living God, the eternal King. (Jeremiah 10)

In God and his blessings we should find every feeling and purpose of living. He is the living God, and he gives that abundant life to us not through the prosperity gospel or consumerism preached far and wide, but through the abundant life of Himself. Our abundant life is not things, it is God—in him we live and move and have our being.

Milbank, John. ”Soveriegnty, Empire, Capital and Terror.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 2002, vol. 101.

All Biblical excerpts are from Eugene Peterson’s The Message.

Author Bio:: Thom Turner is an English Literature graduate student at Rutgers University. He is the Editor of Everyday Liturgy, a community blog discussing the intersection of liturgy, theology, and culture. Thom also is the leader of EmergentNJ, the emergent cohort of Northern New Jersey.

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