ben

Having Enough Stuff

I recently spent some time at Bluffton University, in Ohio talking about Compassion International. During a question and answer time, one student asked me;  “You are talking about the poor and social justice but you are wearing nice clothes and use a Mac.  What’s the deal with that?”  The student wasn’t intending to be prickly but was raising a legitimate issue that those of us who do live well but are conscious of and morally present to the poor have to face.  How can one who not only knows, but desires to change the conditions of poverty continue to live in what is by global standards, luxury?  Does my standard of living disqualify me from being an advocate?  Is my authority subverted by my wardrobe?

Now, I can’t recall what exactly it was that I said, though I remember thinking that had not answered him very well; I might have said something about keeping his nose out of other people’s business and that he should be so lucky as to find pants that fit him without being hemmed… But whatever I said, this is what I think would have been more appropriate…

It’s not about stuff or the having of stuff; it’s about patterns.  In other words, while I’m not obliged to justify each and every article of clothing I am currently wearing (which, at the moment includes a pair of chucks and christmas socks… For the sake of literary accuracy), I do need to examine and discipline the spending patterns that make up my consumer life.  Yes, I use a Mac.  I am typing on it right now…  The question is, when the “new MacBook” shows up, will I ditch this one and upgrade simply for the sake of upgrading?  In the same way; it’s not about having nice clothes but about whether or not I revamp my wardrobe annually to keep up with cool.
The question I am learning to ask myself is “Do I have enough?”  The deeper question behind that question is “do I know what ‘enough’ is?”  I will be the fist to admit that I am not clear on the answer.  I have started by doing some rather practical examinations such as: when I put clothes on hangers in my closet, am a running out of hangers?  Or, likewise, am I cramming socks into a drawer, particularly on top of socks I don’t wear anymore?  This is where doing the work of justice is most practically and personally challenging to my daily life.  You see, I firmly believe that there is a link between my habits as a consumer and the poor condition of things globally.  And as I’ve been learning and doing my best to communicate, one of the defining characteristics of a truly good work is that it changes the worker.

As might be obvious already, I am not much of an extremist.  I’m not of the opinion that consumer spending is an evil in and of itself.  Just like “having stuff” is not the issue, neither is “buying stuff.”  The Product (RED) experiment has been about the very fact that we are going to purchase things..  at times for fun as well as out of necessity but that we can do so in a way that is redemptive.  I am going to purchase pants, shoes, shirts and even computers; but do I buy into the ‘planned obsolescence’ idea which requires us to purchase a new ‘whatever’ on the Market’s time-table?

Likewise, I am not of the opinion that wealth is an evil or even a problem in and of itself. Rockefeller’s roll in India’s Green Revolution, the powerful charity of the Gates Foundation and the would not be possible were those men not in a position to do so much with the much they had.  (Of course, some would argue that in the growing of their wealth, damage had been done that warranted some kind of generous action anyway.. I’m not sure I agree with this assessment.  Those same people may even go so far as to say that Batman is necessary because Bruce Wayne’s wealth leaves the poor to choose crime and that’s just foolishness).

Still, there is something to be said for the distance between a mindset rooted in the Marketplace and one rooted in the Kingdom.  Where the Market teaches us to ask “What can I gain?”  the Kingdom teach us to ask “What can I do without?” or “What of mine can I offer?”  In both cases, the implication is that one HAS, the understanding of where to go from there is a matter of wisdom; wisdom I am asking for above all else.

6 Comments

  1. Matthew

    I agree. Buying stuff has little to do with charity or “stewardship.”

    I remember being told as a kid to eat all my dinner because there were starving kids in Africa who would feel very fortunate to have the food I have. I remember thinking how absurd it sounded that weather or not I ate my dinner could have any effect on a kid in Africa. I think the same thing today when I hear folks complain about inflated salaries or excessive spending. If Bill Gates makes less money, will that house the homeless? Probably not. In fact, between the amount of cash he gives to various charities and the number of jobs Microsoft accounts for, I’d say Mr Gate’s high income is fighting homelessness, not contributing to it.

    I’d even argue that the question “what can I gain” may not even be bad in itself. People who ask themselves that question often start very profitable businesses that create jobs and feed families. The ethic rests in what you’re willing to do for that gain. Are you willing to cheat and exploit to get what you want? And, as you said, can you also ask yourself, “what can I offer?”

    finally, the fact that you linked to to teamsugar.com negates your entire post.

  2. Graig

    Good post. I love “gadgets”. I put so much energy into those things that I was forgetting to put my energy into spending time with God every day.

    My truck was broken into and I had left my iPod in there. So it was one of the things that was stolen from me. Newly married and barely making it we couldn’t afford to just go buy a new one. I was at a Young Life Leaders retreat a few weeks after this happened. It was in one of the classes that weekend that we talked about our priorities in our life. I realized I had put more time and money into a silly gadget than I put into my relationship with God.

    Eventually I saved up the money to buy a new one. But I told my self that I couldn’t get it until I had my priorities straight. A month or so later I went and got my replacement. But from that time on I have had a new outlook on the “things” I have an what I put my time and energy into.

    I would lie if I said I still didn’t want the new iPhone, or want the better DSLR camera or want a bigger TV. I have realized that I have more fun with my things when I get to share them. I use my phone to stay in contact with my students at church, I have the youth group over for movie nights and share my TV, etc.

  3. Sarah

    I keep trying to put words together in a cohesive order but it is repeatedly ending up saying things like, “MACS ARE CHEAPER ACTUALLY” which is missing the point, and also you don’t need convinced, so in lieu of that I will just say this: I really do like this post, and I think it is well said, and good to think about. The end.

  4. Hmmm…it’s like you’re seeking some kind of a “middle way” between being an ascetic and being a consumer-nut. How Buddha of you…

    He’s a witch! Stone him!

  5. Amy Kate

    Reminds me of the quote by Gandhi: “Live simply so others can simply live.”
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts…

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