Yet at the same time, even where our “compassionate consumerism” is not the whole of our charitable activity (and it never should be), tying relief for the poor, widow and orphan to acquiring material comforts and creating more wealth through profits risks corroding our charitable efforts by tying them to the benefits we receive. The philosophy of doing good to others through consumption that undergirds the union is, from one standpoint, a subtle variation of prosperity theology. The benefits we receive from doing good are not “crowns in heaven,” but immediate and tangible goods (that really are goods!) that we can enjoy here and now.
Yet the legitimacy of Christian charity should not always be measured by its immediate consequences. “One sows but another reaps” may have a different context (John 4:37), but the principle is true here as well. For Christians, doing justice and evangelism are community projects. The benefits and fruits of any one individual’s efforts may not be readily apparent. Yet the individualistic assumptions of “compassionate consumerism” and the immediately tangible benefits or our purchasing both breed a focus on the short-term results, potentially eroding our long-term will to do good, turning it into a fad that prompts businesses to move on once profits dry up.
I have been encouraged that many of my friends in the non-profit world are wrestling with the same tensions. And the practical aspects of this are really difficult. Most non-profits, for instance, hold auctions as fundraisers because they raise more money if people get something tangible in return.
Is there a solution? I'm not sure, but it's an issue that I think consumers should be cognizant of in our purchasing practices.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.