Christopher L. Heuertz: Spending, ethics and justice in a globalized world

A Christian activist who has worked on behalf of the world’s poor confesses that he, too, struggles with how to be a responsible American consumer.

One of today’s most complicated moral issues is how to spend money responsibly in a globalized world.

I’m as conflicted as the next person about it. I love coffee, for example, but I’m not a fan of fair-trade coffee, because frankly, I rarely find an excellent cup of it.

I’m deeply troubled by child labor and sweatshops, but I still don’t make my own clothes. I don’t know how, and even if I did, I honestly wouldn’t have time to do it.

Some of our most lucrative oil companies are among the world’s greatest human-rights abusers, but I don’t drive a hybrid car, because they are still too expensive.

Finally, I would love to buy all my produce locally, but I live in Omaha, Neb. Enough said.

For years, I’ve wrestled with these issues. I’ve read books that offer hopeful promises and gimmicky solutions -- most of them filled with unrealistic and unattainable ideals that essentially become a full-time job themselves.

I don’t have time to live the life that many of those books suggest; few of us do.

I know these are excuses. What makes it worse is that I have many friends who make the necessary sacrifices to live past these excuses into difficult commitments for justice.

I applaud them. I admire them. I want to be more like them.

I confess that the ethics that drive my spending patterns and consumption are a tangle of contradictions, and I’m stumbling forward, trying to untangle them.

However, there are a few values that have guided my social consciousness as it relates to the ethics of consumption.

Living below your means

There are few obvious cultural marks of being an American, but one of them is living above one’s means. This is an observation, not a judgment. It’s not a judgment because the system in the United States allows for even moderately poor persons to borrow money to buy a house or a car or to pay for education.

I remember, during my freshman year of college, going to the university bookstore to buy the stack of required readings for my first-semester classes.

I was shocked by the total cost, and the bookstore clerk, obviously aware of the impact this had on incoming students, handed me a credit card application.

And that’s how it begins for many people. Credit cards are the gateway drug of living above our means. This cultural dynamic becomes a kind of prison that convolutes and malforms our view of reality.

People sometimes refer to themselves as “poor college students” while accumulating tens of thousands of dollars of student loans -- a considerable fortune for a large portion of the world’s population.

What’s ironic is that these average Americans who lament their disadvantaged state are actually among the world’s richest 5 percent.

And this easy recourse to borrowing is also important, when you consider that lack of sustainable access to opportunity and resources is central to understanding poverty. The mere fact that we have access to credit, loans and debt cannot make us poor in the eyes of the world.

In most places on the face of the earth, people who can’t afford to go to school don’t get to go -- they don’t have the luxury of going into debt to pay for their school uniforms, books and tuition, or housing.

Living above one’s means is not sustainable, let alone responsible; and it certainly doesn’t reflect respect for friends who are poor.

Giving generously

Shortly after my wife and I married, we visited friends in Hong Kong. We knew they lived very simply and survived on missionary support, so we tried to pick up the tab everywhere we went. But they insisted on paying for everything.

Once after lunch, when the bill came, I asked whether they’d let us pay just that one time. They wouldn’t. Our friends replied, “We’re happy to get this for you. We’ve learned you can’t out-give God.”

That statement immediately became a truth we committed to live into. My wife and I began practicing that principle, not as a challenge or a test to see whether God would “repay” us for what we gave away, but as a statement of faith in God’s goodness and God’s desire that none should go without.

We still try to live into this posture of generous faithfulness. We know that we ourselves are in every way dependent on God’s generous kindness.

Spending to celebrate

If you know people who are very, very poor, then you know that many of them are extremely generous. Some of the poorest friends I have are the most resourceful. Some of the most desperate people I know have the deepest faith.

What surprises me the most, though, is that those who live in some of the worst conditions always throw the best parties. In parts of South America, I’ve stayed up all night, eating and drinking more than I should have, celebrating a wedding or a birthday.

My friends who are desperately poor have taught me how to celebrate. They’ve taught me that one of the best things I can do with the access to resources given me is to spend them on someone else -- spend them on celebrating the gift of friends, family and life.

When we reflect on the life of Christ, we often find him at the table, eating and drinking with friends. We frequently find Christ at parties, celebrating people.

In the world’s great religions, the promises and metaphors of paradise are often imaged as a great banquet, suggesting that sharing meals at the table is an existential human experience that in some way is a practice for the afterlife.

Recovering responsibility

Finally, social responsibility has to inform how we spend.

What holds me accountable is relationships; friendships with people who are poor have become the prophetic presence of Christ in my life, reminding me to live a life that reflects respect for their condition.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that our friends, our community and our faith have to help guide us in untangling the messy ethics of being a consumer.

We won’t get it right. If we’re American, we will leave a carbon footprint much larger than our neighbors from the Majority World. We honestly can’t offset it.

But in authentic relationships with people who are poor, we can challenge the donor/receptor roles and follow them to God’s heart. We can learn to be generous in new ways. We can make celebration a central part of our spirituality by finding the gifts and graces in life to honor. We can become imaginative, thoughtful and creative people who live simply for life’s redemptive possibilities.

And we can recover responsibility by finding the courage to confess our shortcomings, stumbling forward, continuing to grapple with the issues.