Last Sunday I heard a wonderful sermon about how Jesus was wanting to bring changes here on earth, right now, not in heaven in some futuristic time. I was amazed at the courage of the (guest) speaker for being willing to pose challenges quite directly. Jesus was persecuted for his beliefs. Why aren’t we? Is it because we’ve toned our beliefs down, created a nonthreatening religion? He talked briefly about some of the injustice in the world – I think one of his examples was the plight of the First Nations in Canada – and said, ‘how does what we do here change any of that? How, if we continue doing what we do today, do we expect change?’
The sermon reminded me of the various things I’ve read about Jesus as a radical. I remember reading somewhere that when people hear that Joseph was a carpenter they tend to think of a skilled cabinet maker, when in the time a carpenter was probably more a landless labourer, a very low-paid construction worker. He grew up in a time when wealth was being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. People were losing their land. Was he a rabble rouser? Was he executed because of overturning the moneytables in the temple? Was the march into Jerusalem a form of street theatre in mockery of the emperor? Way he rejecting the whole language of empire by taking on the term Son of God, a term that belonged to the emperor? Was his acceptance of ‘sinners,’ bleeding women and foreigners a statement of solidarity with political and economic implications? I don’t know, and the sermon didn’t go into any of those details, only asserted that Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven was meant to be here on Earth, aided by God’s people, and not in some otherly world or afterlife.
It was an encouraging sermon and frusturating at the same time. I am eager for change. Eager to figure out how to bring about change and frusturated at my own inability to do more. It reminded me of when I was a teenager and I first heard that NATO was dropping bombs on Bosnia, and I wondered, how do we just accept life the way it is with this happening? Shouldn’t the bombing there effect everyone here? Shouldn’t we do something? I quickly realized it didn’t change anything around me and life could go on just as before but that bothered me. Since then an uncountable number of wrongs have slipped into my awareness and then faded away. Life goes on.
I know a powerful moving sermon like that isn’t really meant to spur a person to action, at least not in the way I’d like to take action. I know the socially acceptable response is to acknowledge it as inspirational, perhaps sign a couple of online petitions or make that donation to a political group or something, but not say, wait a second, really, given how Jesus lived and what he died for, how can we who would claim to follow him go on with our lives?
But then the challenge is how to live for justice. How do we embody it in our everyday lives, here and now? Except then I turn to this wonderful essay “Getting Past Purity.” Its content is very similar to that of the book Rebel Sell. Consumer and lifestyle politics have their limits.
This brings us to one of lifestyle politics’ big accomplishments. The work that goes into conscientious consumerism and voluntary simplicity, and lifestyle politics more generally, serves to create a bubble around its practitioners. An illusion is created where one feels disconnected from the consumer ties that link one to injustice and thus a feeling of absolution – the shedding of complicity – is possible. In effect, a household that successfully integrates various components of these solutions (recycling, no driving, buying organic, buying second hand, buying from companies that are better “corporate citizens” ) can wash its hands of problems without actually affecting the conditions of those struggling against the worst parts of labor exploitation, ecological destruction and pollution – not to mention totally failing to work on replacing the system of relationships that make these problems possible.
At its worst, progressive lifestyle politics over-emphasize the importance of largely white and middle-class buying habits while marginalizing the work of poor communities, particularly those of color, around the world to gain power in struggles against the same injustices our buying habits are supposedly addressing.
I recognize I’m part of the white middle-class. I’m part of the group of people so comfortable that we don’t want to recognize what’s going on, and however much I can change my lifestyle, sign petitions, or attend protests, or whatever, I still spend half my time feeling like I’m spinning my wheels. We need collective action, huge collective outcry to create real change, but how do we build that? I wish I could believe that Christians would see their faith as a reason to step up to the plate – for good, and not evil.