Chapter 12: Case Study: Consumerism
Rev. Dr. Thomas Hoyt, Jr. addressed consumption from an African American Christian perspective, and with mixed concerns. Hoyt asked: Why are some Americans concerned about consumption? Are they mainly concerned with overconsumption? Is it mainly a concern of upper to middle class people? “If persons are contending that persons should live simply so that others can simply live, what is to be said about those who have no alternative but to live simply since they have no ability to over consume out of their economic deprivation?” (44). Hoyt presupposes “that African Americans and the majority culture in America have different experiences with the market economy. Consequently, the valuations and effects of consumption are different. In fact, African-Americans’ experience of slavery and the struggle to survive and maintain their humanity among those determined to define them as property to be consumed, contribute in some measure to the differences in valuation of consumption.” (44)
Hoyt adds that “in the American economy, consumers obviously have vastly different purchasing powers. Equitable distribution of resources is the only way that all human beings will be able to consume the world’s good with any sense of justice,” and yet, Hoyt says, this remains challenging in our capitalistic system. Hoyt then describes a theory of stratification among African Americans referred to as Circles of Entrapment. Rather than just compare African American economic and social statistics to other American sub-groups, this theory recognizes differing levels of economic independence and dependence, and social freedom and repression, which results in seven distinct types of entrapment, including the following: 1) The Black Wealthy or Independent Class, 2) The Black Street Class, 3) The Black Working Class, 4) The Black Middle Class, 5) The Black Welfare Class, 6) The Black Military Class, and 7) The Black Jail Class. Different patterns of consumption and economic relationships are displayed in each category, and Hoyt details the relevance of consumption in each.
The Black Wealthy or Independent Class – Hoyt identifies African American entrepreneurs, businesspeople, athletes and entertainers who have gained significant wealth, and says this class “often advocates for the individualistic, self deterministic, capitalistic mindset: ‘If I did it, so can you if you just work, try hard enough, and let the system work for you.’” (46) This class may be just as prone as anyone to downsizing and seeking the cheapest labor possible to stay in business, since staying in business is necessary if one wants to be able to do the greatest good for the greatest number. And yet, Hoyt says, “there is an insidiousness about profits, the more one gets the more one wants. The question of how much is enough is just as real for the African American entrepreneur as for any other person in business.” (46)
Hoyt acknowledges that many African Americans who have great wealth give to charity and worthy educational projects, or create jobs for others. But he also notes the quintessential passage about wealth in Christian scriptures, that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get to heaven (Mk 10:21), a notion that the rich man in the story cannot quite internalize. If the ideal is to “sell what you have and give to the poor,” the rich man walks away sad. Hoyt comments: “the subtle peril of wealth, as Jesus perceived and taught, lies in this truth of which prosperous persons are unable to perceive its relevance for themselves. Material possessions imperil one’s spirit because possessions can render one incapable of realizing one’s peril. Wealth can imperceptibly overcome us, until we are unaware that our ‘disposition toward wealth has gotten out of hand. It is this subtlety of material possessions that Jesus warned against.'” (47)
The Black Street Class – this class is “made up of the large number of young black men and women who do not have jobs in the inner city and in rural America” (47). Some spend their days rapping on street corners, others deal dope; some join gangs for social purposes, seeking belonging and identity. Some get involved in crime, some wind up in jail. Some have killed for gold chains and name-brand sneakers, says Hoyt, and fine cars, name-brand clothes, wads of money and other materialistic symbols can confer prestige. Here, “consumption and identity are identical.” Still, “the Christian knows that a person is more than what one possesses or consumes. Yet, there must be the basic necessities of life. The Christian teaching that life consists of more than what one possesses, should not escape those who are seeking to enhance their self esteem through possessions and purchases.” (47)
The Black Working Class – Hoyt says this class “has been the backbone of much of the American economy. From slavery to the present,” African Americans have worked hard for low or no pay. Income equity issues, influxes of illegal immigrants, and an increase in low-paying service jobs dim the prospects for economic well-being in this class. Yet this is the class that “gives disproportionately to the Black churches, buys goods and services for the welfare of their families, manages to send their children to school through sacrificial savings and austerity budgets, and still finds time to give their time and money to community ventures.” (47) Yes, they also sometimes incur credit card debt, usually in an attempt to merely get the necessities of life. But this group will “often hear the Black preacher proclaim a ‘somehow theology:’’ God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. The earth is God’s and the fullness thereof. God will make a way out of no way and I know we can make it somehow.’ Inherent in this Christian affirmation is that to consume is necessary and is, indeed, a part of the intended good life God will provide.” This view affirms that “anxiety and worry about the necessities of life is an un-Christian position.” (48)
The Black Middle Class – This class “is that group made up of doctors, lawyers, nurses, business and corporate executives, ministers, funeral home owners, politicians, teachers, scientists, vocational and technical professionals, and others with certain educational and financial resources.” (48) Hoyt remarks that economic statistics suggest that the civil rights movement “helped basically only the Black wealthy and middle classes. These people are very conscious of their social status. Trying to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ calls for owning one’s own home” and having other fine possessions. Hoyt claims that “advertisers aim their ads at the middle class mentality. Some of the promoted commodities and services are necessities and some are luxuries; yet, through advertisements, those who produce them have done a good job of making us feel that indeed we cannot do without the luxuries.
One of the chief reasons why advertising has been so successful in causing consumers to over consume is because [of] its appeal to the basic selfish attitudes of human beings. Frugality, once considered a religious virtue, is now regarded as a social threat. Debt incurred for extravagance, ‘trying to keep up with the Joneses’, once considered sinful, is now looked upon as the basis of prosperity. Greed, once castigated as the enemy of the common good, is now exalted as the servant of social welfare. Jesus said: ‘You cannot serve God and mammon.’ The advertising industry says: ‘You serve society best by serving mammon.’ The New Testament says the love of money is the root of all evil. The politicians assure us that the love of money is the secret of national prosperity.”
“In a sense, we ought to applaud technological achievements, for in those achievements persons are participating as co-creators with God. This fact should not be a cause for hubris or pride but rather a recognition by persons of the gifts of God, which are discovered by those who utilize responsibly their physical senses, imagination, and intuition. According to the Genesis accounts of Creation, God gave to human beings dominion over the creation. However, this does not mean domination but freedom to tend responsibly to the good creation and discover the creative energy inherent in what God has created. As stewards of God’s good earth, we are not to desecrate, plunder, pollute, or overuse the earth in order to satisfy our wants.” (48-49)
Hoyt says the danger for this class is their economic vulnerability, though ironically, when the economy lags, consumption drops for the middle class.
The Black Military Class – Hoyt notes this class’ economic prospects are tied to the military industrial complex. He concludes that the “the philosophy regarding consumption seems to be that if one serves the country with honor, one will have enough of this world’s goods to survive and to live comfortably, having one’s physical needs and many wants met by the government. However, one cannot have this power without giving complete loyalty to the military.” (50)
The Black Jail Class – Hoyt bemoans that this is one of the fastest growing classes in America today, and resists suggesting that there is a group that deserves to be so called. But the economic and social reality of prisons is making this class more and more of a reality. Hoyt notes that prisoners help produce commodities for societal consumption. He raises the spectre of the tradeoff between investing in job training and opportunity versus incarceration. He concludes: “a consuming public would have more money to spend on projects of meaning to the community by stressing training for jobs rather than expenditures to jails.” (50)
Hoyt adds a concluding point to his discussion of the seven levels of social stratification, namely that for some in the African-American community, where many have long been denied the luxuries and goods that many others take for granted, there can tend to be a correlation between self-esteem and commodities, goods and services. Hoyt notes: “the desire for things is normal, but when the desire becomes an obsession even at the expense of human life [as in the case of killing another for a pair of Reebok tennis shoes], another value system needs to be interjected.” (50) Hoyt concludes with some insights from biblical perspectives.
A New Value System – Hoyt highlights a message from Luke’s gospel that an “all consuming concern or confidence in material goods is covetousness, a violation of the” biblical moral code. The “Kingdom of Heaven is immeasurably more significant than any earthly goods. Therefore, the disciples must sacrifice earthly blessings to be rich in heaven.” (51) Thus earthly wealth is a spiritual danger. Furthermore, as the passages about “considering the lilies” encourage, Christians must have faith, and are admonished to “trust God and ignore anxiety over worldly possessions.” (51) Luke’s gospel suggests that anxiety over things of life is more characteristic of pagans – Christians are to “seek first the Kingdom of God” and material concerns will be taken care of; “it therefore seems that the kingdom is entered in Luke’s theology only by way of poverty and detachment and by receiving it as a little child.” (52)
For Luke, the fear of not having the necessities of life can be relieved by the fact that the Kingdom of God is already present and yet to come. The Kingdom reality of abundance and justice is “partially realized in the Spirit-filled community but fully consummated in heaven. This means that the fear and threat of poverty need not cause anxiety, for presently the gifts of the Spirit will motivate sharing of possessions and thus take care of the basic necessities. The basic needs of the community would be satisfied. As participants of the present kingdom, participants seek a greater good for they have a treasure in heaven resulting from the surrender of their heart to God and the sharing of their possessions on earth.” (52)
This orientation of faith suggests a powerful form of social security within one’s community of faith. Hoyt’s final point relates back to the challenging temptation for Americans (which Brower highlighted as obvious even to deToqueville 150 years ago): the love of money. Hoyt quotes I Tim 6:10, which states that “the love of money is the root of all evils.” Hoyt replies by quoting the larger context of this passage in the New English Bible, “because it shows clearly the magnitude of the subtlety of a growing affection for money while offering a challenge to consume with the neighbor in mind. This quote offers both a summary and a challenge for the future consumption of all:
They think religion should yield dividends; and of course religion does yield high dividends, but only to the man (or woman) whose resources are within him (or her). We brought nothing into the world, because when we leave it we cannot take anything with us either, but if we have food and covering we may rest content…Those who want to be rich fall into temptations and snares and many foolish harmful desires which plunge people into ruin and perdition. It is ‘the love of money’ which is the root of all evil things. Instruct those who are rich in this world’s goods not to be proud and not to fix their hopes on so uncertain a thing as money, but upon God, who endows us richly with all things to enjoy. Tell them to hoard a wealth of noble actions by doing good, to be ready to give away and to share, and to acquire a treasure which will form a good foundation for the future. Thus they will grasp the life which is life indeed.” (53)
- All page numbers in this chapter refer to the NRPE Consumption Project essays. ↵