Original Sin and Throw Pillows: On the Ethics of Stuff

In May, I published an essay for OnFaith about finally realizing, after years of guilt, that wanting and having a comfortable, attractive home is not necessarily un-Christian. The essay, later published in the print edition of the Washington Post, got lots of responses from readers thanking me for tackling a question that many Christians, particularly those committed to social, economic and environmental justice, struggle with: Is it okay to enjoy material things simply for the pleasure and comforts—physical, relational, psychological—they offer? I argued that, as believers in a God who took on human flesh, we can practice a redemptive sort of materialism, in which we see God’s grace manifest in the stuff of life—our homes and food, our bodies and the natural world.

Within the limits of a 1,000 word post, however, I couldn’t cover the many nuances of “redemptive materialism.,” and some readers who expressed thanks also asked great questions. How does, or ought, this kind of materialism differ from pure consumerism? What about what Jesus said and practiced concerning possessions and material wealth (that we ought to give up the former and understand that the latter makes faith more difficult)? Was my post nothing more than an apologetics for affluence?

Those are all great questions, and I’m going to write about them as I can. Today, I’m responding to this question from one reader:

What are we to do with the fact that sometimes the things in our lives that give us such joy come to us as a result of hardship or exploitation of other people and/or the environment? As you were renovating your kitchen or decorating your home, were these sorts of considerations part of your process? Is this something you’ve thought about?

Yes, I have thought about this. A lot. My response is to engage in three practices, which abide in tension with one another:

Do what I can do.

Be aware of what I cannot (or do not) do.

Keep trying anyway.

Do what I can do. In our recent kitchen/porch renovation, we made a number of decisions that considered the human and/or environmental cost of creating the kind of space we wanted. We repurposed some furnishings (for example, moving a futon that we inherited from friends seven years ago from our living room to our refurbished porch) and bought new furniture (a dining table and two armchairs to replace the futon in the living room) from a local company that contracts with skilled domestic furniture makers. Friends took our used appliances and some cabinets, so we didn’t trash them. We chose environmentally responsible linoleum flooring (true linoleum, made from sawdust and linseed oil, not the vinyl flooring that most of us mistakenly call “linoleum”). We bought a porch rug from a company that partners with a workers’ collective in India to ensure that weavers receive fair wages. Our new cabinets were made in North Carolina, a few highway exits away from my husband’s hometown, by a company committed to high environmental standards.

But we still produced a dumpster full of waste. I bought several things, such as dishtowels and throw pillows, at chain stores that could very well be procuring goods from foreign factories with questionable labor practices. I could have avoided these questionable purchases by making my own throw pillows or, more significantly, living indefinitely with the outdated but essentially functional kitchen we already had. Our decisions were a mix of responsible and ethically questionable, which is relevant to my next point.

Be aware of what I cannot (or do not) do. That I make ethically problematic decisions about what to buy and how to live speaks to both my sinful nature and my limitations as a human being. As I wrote last year in a post about buying inexpensive clothes shortly after Bangladeshi garment workers died in a factory collapse,

It strikes me that this conundrum—my complicity, as a Western consumer, in injustices committed on my behalf—speaks to what we mean when we talk about “original sin” or the scriptural truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” From the moment we are born, with pain and blood and tearing, our very existence becomes complicit in other people’s anguish. Sometimes, as with the pain of birth or the pain of growing up, learning life’s important lessons the hard way, we can see purpose in that pain. We witness redemption, pain embraced because it brings new life, pain accepted because of love.

But sometimes, our very existence, our most mundane daily actions, cause pain that is not so easily redeemed. Sometimes our existence creates ruptures in the fabric of life that aren’t so readily healed. The clothes that protect my children from the weather and bring color to their days endanger children on the other side of the world, because their parents make those clothes in unsafe conditions. The minivan that enables me, with my weak bones and painful joints, to do the many errands that sustain my family’s life, also contributes to climate change endangering people and species around the globe (as does the fossil-fueled mechanicals that keep my family warm in winter and allow me to take the near-daily hot baths that ease my joint pain).

Human beings are born consumers, our existence exacting a cost, demanding nourishment from soil, water, and other living organisms; the burning of one thing or another to heat homes in cold climates; the labor of sewing fabrics to clothe our bodies. Westerners, of course, have become uber-consumers, demanding more than our fair share, imperiling other people and our planet.

Every day, in ways big and small, my existence and my children’s existence demands something from this earth and its inhabitants. We can and do take small steps to lessen harm, from accepting the offer of secondhand clothes to keeping the house uncomfortably chilly on winter days. But I can’t help but feel, in the aftermath of these months of factory fires and collapses, devastating hurricanes, news of ice caps melting at an unprecedented pace, that whatever we do cannot possibly be enough.

My point here is not to offer our sinful nature as an excuse for ethically questionable decisions, but as an explanation, based on the nature of the world as described in the biblical narrative. We are sinful, imperfect people who create and sustain sinful, imperfect systems within which we all—wealthy consumers and underpaid workers and anyone who drives a car or heats a home or uses plastic bags or eats food grown with damaging agricultural practices—are trapped. And ultimately, we are not the ones capable of freeing ourselves and redeeming this fallen world. God is.

This is not an excuse for heedless consumption—the earth and its less fortunate inhabitants be damned unless God decides to do something for them. But it is a reality check—one that drives us to both confession and greater awareness, even as it frees us from futile hand-wringing. Perhaps because my disability makes crystal clear that certain ethically problematic activities are non-negotiable (such driving a minivan instead of walking or biking, or using my clothes dryer instead of hanging clothes out), this reality check moves me toward productive action instead of an obsessive and ultimately fruitless striving for perfection.

Keep trying anyway. Yes, God is the only one who can ultimately save us, but God, with wisdom that can look like folly, has invited—no, commanded—us to be an essential part of God’s plan for salvation. We are to love our neighbors and work for justice even when we know that our love and our work might not change much about the larger systems built by consumption, greed, and complacency. When it comes to how we procure the things that nurture and beautify our lives, justice-oriented decisions will look different depending on our circumstances and resources.

Sometimes we choose not to buy something we’d really like to have, because we know it comes from an exploitative process.  Sometimes we make something ourselves instead of buying it, or spend more to buy it handmade from someone in our community instead of from a discount chain store. Sometimes we advocate for more ethical practices by writing letters or joining boycotts or spreading the word about unethical practices and better alternatives.

Helen Keller said,

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.

None of us can get very far carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders. Our patterns of consumption are built on centuries of economic and social history that cannot be simply dismantled. As I wrote in another post in the aftermath of the Bangladeshi factory collapse,

Perhaps this is how the kingdom of God comes—one lonely effort after another to care for our earth and its inhabitants a little better, joining over time with other lonely efforts, until we are no longer lonely because we are working together, in community. As exciting as it can be to dream of grand gestures and sweeping revolutions, the fact remains that most significant change (for better or worse) happens incrementally, slowly, one small step at a time. That’s how we got here, to an uber-consumerist culture of citizens craving larger closets and renting storage units to store all of our ready-made, discount-purchased stuff. And that’s how we’re going to get to someplace different, and better—one tiny, seemingly inconsequential step at a time, taken in lonely, frustrating isolation, until we look up one day to realize we have made change happen, and we are no longer alone.

Author’s Note: As it happens, my friend and colleague Jennifer Grant wrote a post for Her.meneutics, the women’s blog at Christianity Today, about fair trade goods. Published today, it responds to the same questions I am discussing here. I commend it to you. 

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.


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