The End (The Beginning)

Happy Easter!

It’s been a privilege to go on this journey with everyone who’s been reading and contributing – even for a second year running. I’m going to keep this blog open for posts from time to time, as part of my contribution to the Breathe network. You’re welcome to stay tuned.

Lent has never, and should never, be about grim self-abasement. It has always, and will always truly be, about joy. Hidden in every willing sacrifice is a liberation. The whole journey of lifestyle change is illuminated by its end-point: the expolsive freedom of Easter.

So what freedoms have I tasted this Lent, for the first time?

I’ve named the thorns of over-work, and renegotiated my job description to make space for important things

I’ve seen the full abundance of my possessions by creating a list of them. I’ve cleared my library and I’m waiting to hear back from a friend who’ll be praying over my list of things.

We’ve raised some money for Tearfund by giving up consumer treats as a family.

I’ve been massively encouraged and inspired by spending a week of only giving thanks – I feel my heart has been enlarged and I can’t wait to do it again for a season (but every week, on day a week, I will keep on only saying prayers of thanks).

I’ve been challenged to ‘make friends’ for eternity and take our giving up a level.

I feel I’ve been given a freedom to carry the Breathe journey forward. Who knows where it should go next, and who will be involved. As for me, I’m in – and the rest is up to God.

Manifesto III (Government)

You’ll have to bear with me – I’ve never written a government manifesto before. And I don’t believe that governments can tackle consumerism; not on their own, at least. Neither do I believe that if everyone has enough ‘stuff’ life would be perfect. That’s the worst kind of materialism. Our life is relational, with God, with others and with our world. Governments and laws and financial resources can play only a part of setting those relationships right. But regulation can be important, as even a quick read of a book like Exodus will reveal. So where to start? What can we ask government to do to transform consumerism?

Protect the environment. Reducing carbon emissions has got to be a serious target. It will take a national leap of consciousness in the direction of a simpler life to give any government the confidence to take bold steps on greenhouse emissions. That’s one reason a consumer detox is so important. Along the way, one simple governmental solution is to extend statutory rights – if products need to be guaranteed for longer, they will tend to be made better, valued more and thrown away less.

Any policies that might aid community and family life serve to limit consumerism. Safeguarding a day of rest, helping communities govern and organise themselves, protecting family life, even lighter evenings can contribute to a reweaving of the social fabric of our lives.

Controls on advertising can help. In Sweden, advertising in programmes aimed at under 12s is banned. We could do the same here. We could also revisit our recent decision to allow product placement.

Consumerism is fed by inequality, which rips society apart. But redistribution cannot be driven solely by the state, allowing progress through free enterprise can also play a role, especially at an international level. The issues are, of course, complex. But they are muddied hopelessly by national self-interest (another reason governments can’t solve everything).

Underlying a lot of these issues is the current notion that GDP alone is the measure of our wealth and a government’s duty is mainly or simply to make this figure rise. We need a new economics (see the New Economics Foundation website) which measures things differently.

But I won’t end this list with a policy; I’ll end it with prayer. Father, God of the nations, give us new eyes to see what justice looks like in today’s economies, give us new hearts that feel again the pull of your compassion for the poor, give us new minds with which to plan a more sustainable way of living. As we anticipate the new world of your kingdom, give us the courage we need to be signs of your love and rule today. Amen.

Manifesto II (Church)

(Trumpets sound) It is now time for a manifesto for the church to confront consumerism…!

However, I have to admit that I find myself a bit clueless at this point. I keep thinking of things I’ve missed on my list of the personal (fair trade, limit TV, low carbon, deeper commitment to family life, connect personally with poverty); but the church stuff is tricky. Maybe because it’s my job. Maybe because I feel the church was posed an impossible question 20 or so years ago: consumerize yourself or become utterly irrelevant. Some went one way, some another. And now the church finds itself half-consumerized (slick music, comfy seats, good coffee, entertaining speakers, ‘me’ focus, worship at your place and time of choice, need I go on?) and half irrelevant (cold, dusty, fusty and musty!). But the church MUST share in culture – it has to connect to communicate. I don’t know how we could have avoided this situation. But then we should also face it honesty.

So where next? What do steps of Exodus look like for an Egyptian Church?

Talk about it. It begins with an admission and the naming of what can be named. We need to develop realistic, accurate and powerful language to describe the consumer culture we find ourselves in. We need to be able to be honest about how compromised we are / feel, and how intractible some of the issues seem.

Become a community of welcome, care and sacrifice. So much of consumerism is about status, belonging and self-protection. But the church, the more it supports its members, possesses the antidote to this. As Ron Sider put it, Jesus din’t call the rich young man to be destitute and friendless – it’s only a community of economic sharing and genuine love that can support serious lifestyle change.

Refuse the cult of personality and personal choice. The letter of 1 Corinthians applies just as much to the previous point (caring for weaker members of the body) as it does to this one (church isn’t a personality contest or a quest for comfort). Larger churches need to find ways of being healthy that bless smaller churches and poorer communities rather than, in the worst cases, feeding off their failure to compete.

We can set different standards for lifestyle than our neighbours might set.

We can share and give creatively through church like nowhere else.

We can be accountable to each other in new ways (the group notes for this detox have tried to enable that).

We can consider how often our activities simply follow the consumer trend (Wii nights, shopping trips, pamper weekends, etc).

We can rediscover the cost of discipleship in an age of self-fulfilment. We can learn how to read the gospels again, even if the first thing we say is ‘I don’t know how I could possibly live this’.

We can work more closely with aid agencies, take up concerns around advocacy, truly make friends with poorer communities and churches (Tearfund are just one organisation doing good work in this area).

We can return to this detox challenge in Lent 2014, but bring others with us!

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