10 resolutions for ‘twenty-ten’ from ‘Freedom of the Self’ – make this decade selfless and self-full rather than selfish

In my new book – Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads – I outline an argument to move away from the posture of consumerism and into what I call “the Kenotic Self” based on Philippians 2:5-11.  In the book I track the forgotten path of the Kenotic self in philosophy dating back to Aristotle and Augustine through to Derrida, Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion and theologians such as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Graham Ward.  In light of this move toward the Kenotic self for 2010, here are 5 things to consider for ‘twenty-ten’ and 5 questions to ask yourself in making economic decisions in the new year drawn from the latter half of the book where I spell out the lifestyle choices of the Kenotic self:

1. God owns all things. As we hear in Ps 24: 11 and Job 41:11, the notion of personal and corporate ownership is an illusion. We have a lease relationship with this life. The fact that people in the U.S. speak of “owning” a home when the truth of the matter is that a vast majority of so-called “home owners” are tenants in a residence “owned” by a mortgage company or bank shows how far we have come as a culture into the illusion that “debt” can be equated with “ownership.” This mentality has seeped into the marrow of our understanding of God’s ownership of creation and all that dwells in it. Regardless of stance on free will and human ethical agency, it is central to the Christian story that God is the not only the sustainer of creation, but the owner as well. We are “stewards” of the garden, not owners. As John Taylor points out in his book Enough is Enough: “Only in his unbroken awareness of God is man’s technological mastery safe. Only in his acceptance of creaturehood can his dominion [over creation] be prevented from becoming raw domination. For being answerable to God, man remains answerable for his fellow creatures and for the soil of his earth.”

2. God provides all things. As the Bible reminds us, there is no need for anxiety: Matt 6; Luke 12: 22–31; no need for love of money: Heb 13:5; no need to serve two masters: Matt 6:24; no need to seek secondary treasures: Matt 13:45. In short, what is needed is provided for—all the rest is fuel of fear at best. Part of the concerns surrounding economic flux in the global market and the rash responses—from Y2K paranoia to increased interest in Middle East oil reserves—has to do with a need to manage and control those things we need due to our deep lack of faith. In short, we pay lip service to God’s providence the more we hoard goods and services unto ourselves at the expense of others. The notion that we are to “focus on our family” as a “primary concern” only exacerbates the divide between our nuclear family and the “widow and orphan” whose caring is not additive, but central to our understanding of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

3. We release all things. Henri Nouwen spoke prophetically in regard to the only true prayer is the prayer offered with open hands. Jesus’ ministry was one of freedom for hospitality through our availability to others. In this way, the extreme is the normative—we are to sell all, give all, and ultimately receive all and pure gift as we hear in Luke 12:33–34 and Mark 10:21, 29–30. To “hold on” and grasp things is harmful—both to relationship with God (i.e. “Eye of the Needle,” Luke 18:18–24) and to one’s own identity and relations with others as we hear in 1 Tim 6:8–10. It is important to remember that the judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah was a judgment primarily based upon a lack of hospitality—they had become so consumed with feeding their own lusts and desires that they had no time nor vision to acknowledge the needs of others. In this notion as Americans do not stand apart from Sodom, but in the Sodom town square.

4. We are called to desacralise all things. Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society argued that money in and of itself when we imbue it with idol-like mission—in this way money qua money has power in itself and we need to act counter to this temptation and set people and relationships in primary consideration as having priority over things. In this way we need to work toward a redefinition of the Good Life: not quantity of things but quality of relations. As we are challenged under the divine command ethics of the ten commandments, we are not to mission any other God than God, period. To hold things and the monetary value we have placed upon those things above drawing people close in relationship with ourselves and their Creator is to choose graven images. This goes for the notion of usury or putting interest upon money borrowed from others. As we hear in 2 Cor 8, we are challenged not to coerce more money from people but liberate people from addiction and release people from debts. The work of DATA and Jubilee 2000 is not merely fad, it is a mandate. As we learn from liberative and emancipatory theologies, God’s concern for the poor is primary throughout scripture. The “new poverty” is the poverty of ignorance to the cry from the margins. Theologian Ron Sider reminds us: “Are the people of God truly God’s people if they oppress the poor? Is the church really the church if it does not work to free the oppressed? [Regarding Matt 25:41] The meaning [of Matt 25] is clear and unambiguous. Jesus intends that disciples imitate his own special concern for the poor and needy. Those who disobey will experience eternal damnation . . . Regardless of what we do or say at 11am on Sunday morning, affluent people who neglect the poor are not the people of God . . . God is not neutral. His freedom from bias does not mean that he maintains neutrality in the struggle for justice. He is indeed on the side of the poor.” What are some of the challenges that remain before us in striving toward an authentic and humble biblical economics? We are reminded of the Lausanne Covenant:  “All of us are shocked by the poverty of millions and disturbed by the injustices which cause it. Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple life-style in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.”  In many respects, little has changed in the 30 years since the Lausanne Covenant was drafted, but the challenge before us as people of integrity is still there.

5. Create communities of loving defiance. Ron Sider puts it this way in Rich Christians in An Age of Hunger: “The church should consist of communities of loving defiance. Instead it consists largely of comfortable clubs of conformity. A far-reaching reformation of the church is a prerequisite if it is to commit itself to Jesus’ mission of liberating the oppressed.” There is a need for intentionality among the faithful to form a new vision of the church as “communities of loving defiance” is a world moving with the inertia of consumerism and an ego-born appetite that shows no natural hope of slowing. The time for a spiritual reassessment of economics and the “new poverty” where the deficits of the soul are acknowledged on the balance sheet alongside the deficits of the check book in now needed. Bonhoeffer made this all too apparent as a factor for authentic discipleship: “Earthly possessions dazzle our eyes and delude us into thinking that they can provide security and freedom from anxiety. Yet all the time they are the very source of anxiety. If our hearts are set on them, our reward is an anxiety whose burden is intolerable . . . When we seek security in possessions we are trying to drive out care with care, and the net result is the . opposite of our anticipations.”

Here are five more resolutions to ask yourself for ‘twenty-ten’ form Ron Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger:

6. Does this purchase I am about to make move toward a globally sustainable personal lifestyle? Are the choices you are making sustainable outside of the US?  Can someone from different economic system live into the life you are surrounding yourself with?  If making high end purchases – clothing brands, technology upgrades – are not attainable by others then why are you binding yourself to such a lifestyle?

7. How am I distinguishing between necessities and luxuries in my economic priorities? One of the best ways to life into this is to surround yourself with a community of discernment who have permission to speak into your purchases and economic decisions.  Remember, what becomes normative is what we spend up to.  Find friends who share a lifestyle you wish to hold as normative and then give people permission to hold you to it.

8. Work toward eliminating “status expenditures”—can a basic Mp3 player do the job that the iPod can? On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was amazed that most of the brand clothing lines (think: ‘7 for all mankind’ jeans) merely have labels attached to them where as the same jeans in a discount store do not. Same jeans sans the label.  Another thing I advise college students to do – wait 1 day for every dollar you are thinking of spending on entertainment items.  If a new CD or download costs $12, then wait two weeks before buying it.  I have often found that the “need to buy” and the “need to have” diminishes merely by waiting to see if you really want and need it. I still have that stupid T’Pau CD that if I had waited a few days I would have released how lame it was...

9. Work toward distinguishing between expenditures for creativity and recreation and excessive self-indulgence. People spend often when they are bored and as a way to alleviate loneliness and boredom.  “I don’t have anything to do, I will go shopping.”  If the chief question is community and connection, then begin with people and have spending follow.  Additionally, you do not need to spend money to spend time with people – i.e. you do not need to buy food as an excuse to spend time together.

10. Strive toward severing the connection between what you earn and what you consume. This is by far the most difficult task for many. The reality that “downsizing” is incredibly difficult shouldn’t surprise anyone—but the call to do so is certainly central to what it means to life selflessly and self-fully rather than selfishly.

Let me know what you think.  Since I am in the final stages of editing Freedom of the Self, your comments may make it into the final book!

4 Comments

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  1. Very thought provoking and bold.
    However, in #3 in reference to hospitality you say “In this notion as Americans do not stand apart from Sodom, but in the Sodom town square.” Why do you say this? As a % of GDP, Americans give far more to charity than any other country in the world.

    #10 makes sense but I don’t understand the point you make in #6. If communist North Korea is not my context for ministry, why do I need to live in a life-style that I can sustain there? Why would I want to put my family through that? Why can’t we enjoy the blessings that God gives and yet continue to share?

    Another point that could me made is that freedom from material things is also freedom from the system/world. The Fed can tweak an interest rate and congress can enact laws to make home financing easier and suddenly everyone is refinancing their house to buy more stuff. Neighbors and friends brag about their net worth doubling because their home increased in value. Therefore, they get that new car. Then the bubble bursts and the masses cry out in fear! Wouldn’t it be nice to be free from this?

  2. thanks for the reply and great comments. As to the question of hospitality mentioned in #3, I fear that the fact that the US gives “more” charity than other sovereign nation states actually prevents the US from being as hospitable as possible – the gulf between “giving the most in comparison” and “what can we do?” is something to consider. I am not arguing that the US isnt doing something, but are we doing what we are called to is the question.

    Your second point in reference to #10 is also important and glad you zero in on the issue of putting others you care for through the had work of economic sustainability (“Why would I want to put my family through that? Why can’t we enjoy the blessings that God gives and yet continue to share?”) As I said, I think joy is a great thing and true joyfulness for what we have been given demonstrates thankfulness and grace. Yet why is a globally sustainable lifestyle putting my family through something? If you are concerned about about released from the fear of the bubble bursting again as you say in the last paragraph, then a simpler lifestyle will certainly help to get there. I am not say that you forgo food and shelter – everybody desires this to thrive – but challenging the norms of rapid consumerism.

  3. Thanks for your reply and thanks for listening to what may be a contrarian response.
    It appears that consumerism is automatically assumed to be a negative attribute as you say to move away from it. I am not disagreeing that in many cases it is excessive and needs to be contained, but is it really negative when consumerism and globalism have been responsible for putting so many to work, feeding so many people, and developing technology that enhances our lives (eg. medical advances)? Rather than moving away from consumerism, why not move toward a value centered consumerism?

    In other words, contrary to #8 I say buy the IPOD not the generic MP3 Player, although not for status. Apple ensures that each foreign supplier holds a high code of conduct. This is in contrast to cheap generic MP3 players which are probably made in Chinese sweat shops. Part of the higher price paid for the IPOD rewards high innovation and greater ethical standards. When I am willing to pay more for an IPOD, I am helping the two-thirds world find good jobs in ethical businesses and sending a strong message that ethical conduct will be rewarded.

    Regarding charities, unfortunately many of them are highly inefficient and waste resources. For example, if I send money to Africa, what doesn’t go to administrative overhead gets intercepted by the military, requires bribes to be paid, and very little of the supplies purchased goes to the intended recipients. Furthermore, it encourages bad political systems and leaders to thrive as they can rely on charity for domestic needs and focus resources on increasing military violence. On the other hand, no interest micro-loans for African businesses encourage work, health, fairness, and accountability. But that also encourages consumerism.

    What I am getting at is consumerism has its short-comings, but is it redeemable? As consumers, do we feel guilty about our purchases that exceed necessary expenditures, or do we feel good about supporting great businesses knowing that we have just created jobs in impoverished countries that are governed by higher ethical standards?
    Perhaps an emptying of oneself can be compatible with a capitalist system, but look radically different. We still make purchases, but less of them and more focused on higher values. We see ourselves as not just clients but in relationship to the companies that we buy from, both holding them accountable and rewarding them. Most importantly, we do not allow material items to define who we are, rather we enjoy things with thankfulness and gratitude toward God.

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