Born to shop?

Shopping is neither "retail therapy" nor something to be detested. Shopping is a calling, and for most Christians it is something that we must take much more seriously than we do.

September 25 th 2009

Every once in a while I see a person wearing a T-shirt that proclaims the slogan "Born to Shop." For many Christians, this idea brings both revulsion at the apparent materialism involved and at least a little guilt.

As a Christian economist, however, I have started to believe that we as Christ-followers are indeed born to shop, although in a very different way than our culture may lead us to believe. Where would I get such an unusual idea? I believe it is in the Bible, in Genesis 1:28—a passage sometimes called the "cultural mandate." God's command to humankind to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it" presupposes that we will be involved in production and exchange—and, therefore, shopping.

The idea that we are born to shop is not intended to comfort us in our current situation, but to challenge our current shopping habits. Shopping is neither "retail therapy" nor something to be detested. Shopping is a calling, and for most Christians it is something that we must take much more seriously than we do. It is another area of life, like all others, that is under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

How, then, shall we shop? One of the overarching themes in the Bible is that of shalom. Nicholas Wolterstorff defines shalom as both a future condition when "justice and peace embrace" but also something that we strive for now—goodness and delight in three inter-related sets of relationships: between God and humans, between humans and humans, and between humans and the rest of creation. When we make purchases, we ought to have promoting shalom in its many forms as a goal. Shopping for shalom will require much more thought than simply looking for the lowest price or following the influence of marketers who suggest what we need to be "cool." It means that we must care about how a product is made, advertised and distributed, and make choices that demonstrate love of neighbor and care for creation.

As we think about the implications of shopping to promote shalom, it immediately becomes apparent that this is no easy task. It requires much more information than we usually ask about what we buy (although I have known people to spend hundreds of hours of research before purchasing a wide screen television).

The notion that we are our "brother's keeper" certainly applies to shopping. Shopping must become a more community-oriented process. We tend to believe that how we spend our money is an individual matter, and we refrain from making formal judgments concerning which products people buy; however, in doing so, we miss an opportunity to help each other become more faithful in our shopping activity.

Shopping unites buyers and sellers. Both shopping and working are important callings for Christians, and they are dependent upon each other. What we buy impacts what someone else produces, and influences not only whether someone else has a job, but also what that person does on that job. In addition, shopping is an opportunity to exert influence on the marketplace and society (especially if we work together). It also provides us with a chance to interact with those outside our normal social network and to build new relationships.

What about the idea of a simple lifestyle? Many believers have restricted their purchases as a way to reduce their impact on the environment or to show solidarity with the poor. I have much admiration for people who have made this decision; they obviously think very carefully about what they purchase. I value our North American society's freedom, which allows people to practice stewardship in many different ways.

However, I do not believe that "living simply, so that others may simply live" is the preferred solution for everyone—at least not all at the same time. While this phrase suggests that our purchases generally harm others or the creation, it does not acknowledge the many benefits of commerce. Household consumption makes up the majority of spending in both the American and Canadian economies. Often, when we shop, a substantial portion of the price we pay is returned to workers in wages and salaries—shopping creates jobs.

One of the major reasons for the high unemployment that we currently experience is that people are just not buying as many things as they used to. If everyone restricted his or her purchases, our economy would quickly fall into a depression. For the developing world, the long-term solution to the problem of poverty is not just more aid, but also the purchase of products that provide employment to those who live on very little. In this instance, we almost certainly need to buy more, rather than less.

This leaves us with a conundrum. We want to embrace our call to develop culture to the glory of God but not fall into the idolatry of materialism. We want to exercise care of creation, and also provide opportunities for employment.

What is the way forward? Shopping to promote shalom, a practice whose manifestation is best left to the carefully reasoned and Spirit-led decisions of both individuals and communities. I believe that God's Word tells us that we were born to shop. It also says that we should save, and that we should give away at least a tenth of the resources that God has given us. Two thousand years ago three wise men purchased gold, frankincense and myrrh in order to honor our newborn king. Years later Mary spent a year's wages on a jar of perfume that she used to wash Jesus' feet. So let our redeemed and renewed shopping begin, but shopping that promotes shalom in our relationships to God, others and the creation. This Christmas would be a great time to start. May our purchases honor our risen savior, who is seated at God's right hand.

Topics: Business Markets
 

Todd P. Steen is the Granger Professor of Economics at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where he has worked since 1988. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, where he studied under President Obama's chief economic adviser Larry Summers. His favorite economists are Summers, Greg Mankiw, and Bob Goudzwaard.

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