by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
The organizing principle of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative (CNI) is: “Nonviolence is a theological and practical framework which cuts across … many forms of violence.” (Advancing Nonviolence and Just Peace in the Church and the World, 11-12)
During these weeks, this column is commenting on several examples of violence which underscore another principle of the CNI – that violence is the root cause and result of myriad injustices, conflicts and threats to humanity and our environment.
One form of violence which regularly escapes our notice is consumerism. On the face of it we may find this difficult to compute. The word has become an accepted term in this culture. However, a brief consideration would help us to understand the veracity of this claim.
First then a description of consumerism/consumer: “The preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods” (Oxford Languages). I find this description of the general public to be insulting. In vulgar terms I have the image of cows – especially in feedlots – where the entire existence of these animals is given over to eating (consuming). However, modern economies and national policies inevitably consider us almost exclusively as consumers – important only to the degree in which we serve the market by continually purchasing stuff.
What is more, national policies, especially in the so-called developed world, promote as a sign of patriotism this support for what often results in thoughtless and compulsive acquisition. Many of us remember the advice of President George W. Bush in the first days after the 9/11 tragedy. Assuring us that the perpetrators of that attack on the United States would be punished with overwhelming destruction, he advised us to “go out and do some shopping”!!
Christmas is the epitome of the monster that is consumerism. For people who deeply revere the feast of Our Lord’s birth, the overwhelming demands that we engage fully in “Christmas buying sprees” feels blasphemous.
Consumerism is eating at our souls. We need storage buildings to put our ever-increasing belongings. Many identify “freedom” with the ability to buy more. But as Pope Francis said in Laudato Si‘, “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume.” He also said there: “Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction” (LS, 204). Once again, citing the response of the United States to the 9/11 event, we remember that one reason for extending our country’s military retribution against Iraq was the rich oil fields there. Words like “guarding our way of life” and “our” oil spoke to the need to continue feeding this consumer culture.
Some examples of the violence of Consumerism to drive home this moral and ecological challenge:
- The horrible trafficking in women and children to satisfy consumers of sex.
- Illegal production and sale of drugs to further entice their users to consume them.
- Destruction of earth’s riches, such as the Amazonian forests, to provide consumer goods to the wealthy.
- Overfishing distant oceans and lakes to satisfy exquisite tastes in food.
- Extractive industries which enable large corporations to continually flood markets with often unnecessary products.
These are grim and unpleasant considerations, much like Jesus’ hearers expressed when he promised his very self as our food and drink: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (Jn. 6:60). But the Lord insisted that it must be heard.
Pope Francis points in a more positive and hopeful direction away from this violence. “A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. That is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production… This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers (italics mine). Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act.” (LS 206)
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.