Whatever happened to the sin of conspicuous consumption?

Whatever happened to the sin of conspicuous consumption? July 10, 2012

The other evening my wife and I were watching HGTV and saw part of a show about RVs–recreational vehicles. They were showing off the latest and best motor homes. One had a price tag of over $700,000. The inside looked to me like a fancy gambling casino on the Las Vegas strip (which I’ve only seen on TV). It was, to say the least, gaudy. But even those with price tags in the $200,000 range were over the top in terms of what was inside them. One had three 42 inch LED TVs–one on the outside (so when you’re “camping” you can enjoy your TV experience rather than God’s great outdoors).

Norwegian economist Thorsten Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” in 1899 while living in Minnesota. (I’ve been to his homestead site south of the Twin Cities.) When I was a kid growing up in conservative evangelicalism in the Midwest I heard several sermons preached against the “sin of conspicuous consumption.” I remember when a family in our church bought a brand new Cadillac which was then (in the 1950s) a symbol of affluence. They were harshly criticized by fellow church members because nobody (the church members and pastor believed) needs a brand new Cadillac and the money above what a new Chevrolet would cost could have been given to missions.

While I’m not in favor of ostracizing church members based on their purchase decisions, I do think it would be appropriate for evangelical Christians (and others) to reflect more deeply on what Christians should do and not do with discretionary income.

Is it appropriate for a Christian to buy a $200,000 mobile home in a world where children in Haiti and other places are dying due to lack of clean water, life saving medicines and even food?

Oh, I know the typical, trite answers. I’ve heard them all my adult life–especially since the rise of the prosperity gospel and evangelical Christians joining in the race for affluent lifestyles (and regarding them as God’s blessings).

People will say it’s nobody else’s business what a person, even a Christian, does with his or her money. And, so long as they are giving a portion to God’s mission, they should be congratulated if they can afford some luxuries. And, of course, Jesus never condemned wealth, etc., etc., etc.

In fact, however, the Bible, including Jesus, clearly speaks about the spiritual toxicity of wealth. And Jesus did warn against living luxuriously when there are starving people around you.

Then someone will say “We Americans all live luxuriously compared with most people in Haiti.” True enough, but is that reason not to consider ethical limits to luxury?

I will go out on a limb and say that, in my best opinion as an evangelical theologian, Christians ought not to spend their disposable incomes or savings on $200,000 plus recreational vehicles. That’s conspicuous consumption and it’s a sin. Whether it’s a sin that offends God so much that it destroys a person’s relationship with God is not my decision to make. I won’t go that far. But it is a sin. Period. Churches ought to warn their people against it (conspicuous consumption).

Have I sinned this sin? Of course. That time I bought a shirt and paid $20 more than a nearly identical shirt just to have a certain brand displayed on it. Am I going to hell for that? No. But I think we evangelicals have simplistically divided acts between three kinds–those for which you will go to hell (if you don’t repent) and those that are morally neutral and those that make God smile. What about those that make God frown but don’t destroy relationship with God? What about those that put a dent in your relationship with God and/or may case a weaker Christian to stumble?

By and large we American evangelicals have discarded all ethical, moral, spiritual and theological consideration of money and what should be done with it. I think we need to get back to an emphasis on relatively simple living and eschewing the American “dream” of getting rich. And if I hear of a brother or sister in Christ buying a $200,000 RV, I will put them on my prayer list, asking God to convict them of the sin of conspicuous consumption.

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