Ben Witherington has a great article today on the expensive cost of cheap goods. Read it. It’s worth your time.
When I was a teenager in the 1980s, it was common amongst Christians to hear the complaint that “we’ve become too materialistic”: that we’d become just like the world with respect to seeking status through acquisition. In the ’80s, this was certainly true for most people I knew. Heck, it was true for me too, from my Ralph Lauren and Lacoste shirts to my Claiborne for Men slacks (or my Levi’s 501 button-fly jeans) to my Sperry Top-Siders (or my Tretorns, or my Bass Weejuns, or my L.L. Bean Camp Moccasins with the laces twisted macaroni-style), I was a conspicuous consumer. We all were. Bargain-hunting was something some people did as a hobby, but it was not widely practiced. K-Mart was a punchline. (“What are the three words a Mountain Brook housewife has never heard? ‘Attention, K-Mart shoppers!'”)
Then Wal-Mart came along. Yes, Wal-Mart was around before the 1990s, I know, but it was not until then that it hit my hometown. (Remember, their strategy was to go into the small towns first, where they’d have little, if any, real competition. Then they’d destroy all the other stores in town.) Through my high shcool years, the only Wal-Mart I’d ever heard of was in Oneonta (a small town a good 45 minutes from our house). I was in college before Wal-Mart came to Birmingham.
And Wal-Mart changed everything. For everyone.
Soon, people weren’t bragging about what label they were wearing. They were bragging about how little they had paid for their clothes, or their tires, or their Cheetos, or the millions of other things they were buying at Wal-Mart. More and more, those things were being made in China, where they could be made cheaply. That way, people could by even more stuff, even more cheaply.
So now most Christians talk about being “good stewards”, and what they often mean is getting everything for the lowest price possible. What happened? Did we all finally outrgrow our materialism? Did we finally see the error of our ways and swear off our brand-consciousness? Were we, as Christians, finally learning what it means to be “in the world, but not of the world?”
Not a chance. The Zeitgeist changed, and, as usual, we simply went with the flow. In the ’80s, conspicuous consumption was chic, so Christians were conspicuous consumers. In the ’90s and today, cheap is chic, so we’re cheap. I no longer think this qualifies as “good stewardship.”
To be sure, wastefulness is not a Christian virtue. I’m not advocating that you go out a buy a gold-plated toothbrush or anything. But can it be good for our souls to go “cheapest at all costs,” considering what it does to American jobs, not to mention the ethical ramifications of buying items made by slave labor (often child labor at that) in China. How Christian is that?
Look at it this way too: sure, you can get a Barbie doll for $4.97 at Wal-Mart, but how many Barbies does your child really need? How much more disposable plastic junk do our children have now because we can get cheap, Chinese-made toys for them? Is a little girl better off with 25 plastic Barbies than with, say, one really nice baby doll?
We need to think about the ethical implications of our purchases. We also need to let biblical concerns of righteousness and justice inform our views of economics, not just whatever the Wall Street Journal is saying. The bottom line is all that matters for most businesses: it is not all that matters for the Christian.
Besides, some things are worth spending more money on. Sumptuous, home-cooked feasts that your children will always remember. Trips to the movies or to Sonic for a soda “just because.” Birthdays. Christmas. Fine art. Good music. Good wine. None of these things is “essential,” but what do we teach our children about the beauty of God and of his creation when there is no beauty in our everyday lives?
This is true in the church too. I mean no disrespect, but it is very hard to learn of the greatness of God when one is worshiping in an ugly building. I am not speaking here about church planters, who must find a place to worship wherever they can find it. I am not speaking of persecuted Christians who must worship in secret. I am speaking of American evangelical churches who have the money and who spend it on gymnasiums and golf courses and then put up the butt-ugliest “worship centers” they can because it’s cheaper. It’s expedient. Walk into the National Cathedral in Washington and you are immediately in the midst of a wordless sermon about the majesty and the greatness of our Creator and Redeemer. Walk into your nearest metal-building, drop-ceilinged, wall-to-wall carpeted McChurch and you’ll get a different message entirely. (And that’s before they break out the stale crackers and the Great Value grape juice for Communion. How’s anyone supposed to “taste and see that the Lord is good” with that?) We’ve got to find a balance between the excesses of a Crystal Cathedral on the one hand and the “Jesus isn’t worth much to us” message on the other.
Good stewards, yes. Cheapskates for Jesus, no.
(Boy, I sure wish I still had a pair of Tretorns. But they’re probably made in China now too.)