Loving thy Neighbour in an Age of Consumerism – by Daniela Gunn-Doerge
Theological Reflection – Sunday August 11, 2013
Daniela Gunn-Doerge is entering the 4th year of her undergraduate degree in Conflict Studies and Human Rights. She serves as the Vice President of Academic Affairs for her students’ association. Daniela has worked for Persons Against the Crime of Trafficking in humans (PACT-Ottawa) and is now working as the Community Development Assistant for the Bishop’s Child Poverty Initiative and the Anglican Diocese in Ottawa.
I’d like to think of myself as a kind and goodhearted person, as I think most would. But what does it mean to love my neighbor and serve others when I find contradictions in my behaviour every step of the way? Sure I can be caring to the people around me, but what of those who are affected by my actions indirectly? How can I claim that I have never hurt a soul when I know that going to the shopping mall and purchasing a new shirt has so many implications? Not only does it contribute to a culture of consumerism, but the shirt might be tainted with slave labour, and could be instrumental in promoting a global economic system that is increasing the gap between the rich and the poor. The product has travelled a long way by plane or truck so that I can purchase it at a low price. These great distances and artificially low prices mean it has an impact both on the people who harvested the cotton, created the dyes and sewed it together, and on the planet that sustains them. As if that weren’t enough, most large-scale clothing brands advertise in a way that makes us keenly aware of our insecurities and depicts only healthy, white skinned, heterosexual, blue-eyed conceptions of perfection.
All that for a shirt? Yes, unfortunately. Today, the “neighbour” that God calls us to care for exists beyond those we physically interact with, and is affected through our purchases; with 7 billion of us now on the planet, there are a lot more neighbours to care for than in Jesus’ time. Globalization has connected us in ways that we ourselves are still trying to understand. It’s what we do with that connectivity that is important and is often where we have gotten a little overzealous. Timothy tells us that, “[…] the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (1 Timothy 6:10)”. It is true that we have fallen into this trap and become so attached to the power that we perceive money gives us, we often forget about those who suffer as a result.
So what is the way out? I don’t think the answer is to feel despair, but I do think changes are in order. I’ve come to discover that my guilt can actually be a productive force that empowers me to have difficult conversations and to challenge others and myself. It is second nature to cringe when I see someone buying bottled water, going on luxury vacations to countries facing extreme poverty, or wearing diamonds that could be from countries where they are used to fund conflict and human rights abuses, and I think that’s good. Although I have to choose my battles, I think it’s important that I continue to be critical and aware that almost every move we make has an impact on someone else. With that knowledge, I can try to counter the negative and give back in ways I know I can. I can choose not to buy as much as I do; to consider what I need rather than what I want; to travel less; to have fun in ways that don’t involve spending money; to work on my insecurities from within, rather than covering them up with more purchased goods. I must reconcile with the fact that I can’t do everything and that I was born into a system that is not soon to let me go. To me, loving my neighbour today has come to mean being a thoughtful consumer and active citizen as much as being a caring friend, benevolent stranger, and loving family member. I can only hope that this becomes a realization for many others and moves them to see beyond their immediate circumstances to a more global understanding of how their actions and purchasing power impact on their neighbours who now live all over the world.