Breaking our addiction to buying stuff

This year for lent I am planning to bake forty loaves of bread.

The idea came to me as I was thinking about being more intentional and thoughtful in my observance of Lent and after realizing an old room-mate had left around 2kg of flour behind when he moved out in early January.

Lent is often a time when people give up something for forty days – they fast like Jesus did while in the desert. Some people give up meat, others give up chocolate. Today people will give up facebook. What is the, perhaps audacious, goal of baking forty loaves of bread giving up?

Quite simply? Buying it.

I think a lot about our economy, its history and its impact on people. One of the most interesting (and I think important) ideas I have stumbled upon is this distinction between producerism and consumerism as two opposing ways of organizing an economy. Simply put producerism emphasizes making or producing things we need by ourselves, in our families and in our communities. Consumerism, on the other hand, is about buying the things we need from the market.

Who needs to do things or make things when we can simply buy things?

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The problem with consumerism is that the businesses that offer these goods tend to over-centralize and become huge monopolies. These monopolies wield ever-growing, unaccountable power in our societies and, as we all know, power corrupts. On the other side the power people had to provide for themselves in community atrophies and they become dependents of the powerful monopolies.

It’s a vicious cycle as the more communities rely on purchasing things the less they remember how to make things for themselves and thus the more they need to purchase things. This leaves communities extremely vulnerable and corporations extremely powerful.

One of my favourite thinkers, Ivan Illich, was so alarmed at what was going on he labeled the societal shift from producerism to consumerism a War on Subsistence. He saw that Western consumerism would eventually break the bonds of community that hold people together and would erode the skills and values of self-sufficiency.

The end state of this war would be what he called Modernized Poverty – a state where some people would have money to buy what they need but nothing more and others would not only be money-poor but the lack the community, the culture and the skills they once had to help them survive.

This made Illich angry. It makes me angry – and I don’t want any part of it.

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Unfortunately I am a part of it. I am complicit.

I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I do not want to do.

I consume.

I do not make most of what I need, I buy it – even though I preach producerism I do not let my life preach it!

Every year Christians around the world celebrate Lent as a fast that prepares them to commemorate Easter – the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, an event that promises liberation both for the world and for our hearts.

In many Christian traditions one goes to church on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the forty days of Lent, and gets marked with ash on one’s forehead as a sign of repentance. Ash, the leftover from burnt wood, is an incredible earthy symbol pointing to the seriousness, humility and even grief associated with repentance.

Repentance is the buried treasure of our freedom

Our culture has a lot of understandable baggage around the idea of sin and repentance. They have been used in strange and sometimes authoritarian ways. At the very least they are simply unfamiliar and foreign words to many.

Sin and repentance are rooted in a concrete sense of human freedom. We are free – radically so. In interacting and relating to each other our freedom brings with it a shadow side in our capacity to deeply betray and wound one another. All of us know what this means, some more than others. This, as I understand it, is sin.

Repentance, on the other hand, is the buried treasure of our freedom – the capacity to correct our failures, to seek reconciliation and to right relationships after betrayal and wounding. In Hebrew the word for repentance is simply turn – implying a turn from acts that destroy to acts that nurture.

I don’t think we act in a vacuum – all of us are embedded in wider systems in society. Thus sin and repentance are by no means simply individual or personal in nature, they are also about our complicity in destructive systems and our acts to remove us from such complicity.

To that end over the forty days of lent this year I hope to bake forty small loaves of bread, to repent of my complicity in consumerism in one small way. At the same time I am reminded of the story of God providing food for his people as they wandered the desert for forty years (Exodus 16:35).

BrookeCagle_Bread (1000x667)As I bake bread for forty days I thus have the opportunity to reflect on two gifts from God.

The first is the gift of the second chance, the opportunity to change, to occasion to turn from acts that wound and betray, to repent of our complicities– a gift remembered especially on good Friday as we reflect on how the death of Jesus in a mysterious way opened us up to this gift.

The second is the gift of sustenance, of the power to keep going when we leave dominating and destructive systems – as when God’s people left the slavery of Egypt and were given food in the desert for forty years.

What sort of things are you being asked to turn from this Lent? What systems are you complicit that you must leave?

As I bake bread over these forty days I will be reminded of the two sacred gifts of a second chance and the sustaining power to keep going.

I hope in whatever you are being asked to turn from, in whatever complicity you feel challenged to leave, that you too can find strength and support from these two gifts from God.

12631487_10156396233495524_824091852202587468_nIsaiah was born in Waterloo Region and hopes to stay here. A graduate of Theological Studies at Conrad Grebel he works for the Working Centre where he facilitates the Diploma in Local Democracy, is a member of Waterloo Mennonite Brethren ​and is involved in a volunteer capacity with both MCC Ontario and Transition KW.

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