Thursday in the Second Week of Lent: The Desire of Economics and the Economics of Desire

Read:  Exodus 16:9-12

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. The LORD spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.’”

Watch

Reflect

Consumerism, at its heart, is simply the consumption of goods. It is not intrinsically evil, although certainly there is much talk about the morality of overconsumption. This is especially by those in developed countries like the United States, where we consume far more than a fair share of natural and manufactured resources. But author Joerg Rieger posits an interesting perspective on consumerism in his book, No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future.

When religious people discuss economic matters, one of the problems that is identified immediately is consumerism. People are too consumeristic, the charge goes. They identify their value by what they buy and how much they can buy, or so it is assumed. The related charge is materialism. People supposedly care about material things more than about spiritual things.

These charges overlook at least two basic problems and share one major blind spot. Even in a so-called consumer society, the will to consume more and more cannot necessarily be taken for granted. This may come as a surprise to many because it is commonly assumed that people always want more. Yet we shall see that the will to consume more needs to be produced, nurtured, and constantly revitalized if the economy is to grow.

Those who run the advertising agencies know this best; the will to consume and the desire that drives it cannot be taken for granted, and this is what keeps them in business. Second, this so-called materialism is really a misnomer because it is not ultimately about material things. The things that we buy promise us much more: advertising thus directs us not towards materialism but towards fulfillment. The major blind spot that will need to be addressed in this connection—a blind spot perpetuated both by mainline economists and theologians—has to do with the role of production. There is no consumption without production…

What drives consumption, therefore, is not primarily consumerism but the economic imperative of the production of goods, ideas, and services. Yet this engine is usually hidden from view, especially when consumerism is lamented as the problem.

As we begin to understand the link between production and consumption, consumerism and the problem of wants are no longer seen as a problem of individual ethics and cannot be solved, therefore, by moral appeals to individuals.

Pray

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more  ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,  for ever and ever. Amen.

(The Book of Common Prayer, p. 234)

Author

Joe Burnett served as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and as an assistant bishop in the Diocese  of Maryland.