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.