As a leader of mission trips, I have thought about the struggle against poverty as an object of consumption for quite some time. Often we go on mission trips for ourselves as much as if not more than for the people we serve on mission. It's important for us to be aware of this fact.
More recently, the ELCA MAPP committee (Ministry Among People in Poverty) published a report, one paragraph of which reads:
Although there are many notable exceptions, our experience is that frequently what people in our congregations see as their response to the poor is to see the poor as clients for their charity, rather than living in faith community among the poor or facilitating the fullness of community among the poor. As a result we have many examples of places where the poor will come to the Lutheran Church for food and clothing but go to church down the street at the Pentecostal church, because at the Lutheran Church they are poor people, but at the Pentecostal Church they are just people.I have found this to be true in my own ministry. As a church we often put ourselves in the client position, offering to help those who are poor. We serve meals to the poor, but seldom eat with the poor, or acknowledge that we are the poor, or embrace the poor as us and vice versa.
One reason I love the Sunday Suppers program that an ecumenical group of churches organizes here in Fayetteville is because, at least in theory, it is supposed to be a community meal, with everyone eating together. However, all of us find that in practice it is harder to break out of the scripts we inhabit. It is easier as church people to go serve the meal than it is to go and just eat the meal. And vice versa, those who go to eat the meal are not as likely to help serve the meal, because they are playing their part in the script.
A classic example of a program that does excellent work, but is very much at risk of experiencing the struggle against poverty as an object of consumption is the popular Feed My Starving Children. The program undoubtedly does good work. It feeds hungry people. But there are many aspects of it that are energized more by the bourgeois desire to consume a product (get the t-shirt, take a photo of yourself packing the meals).
Because we are all inextricably tied up in the class we inhabit, it is unlikely we can extricate ourselves from this situation. But it is nevertheless healthy for us to be aware that when we are struggling against poverty, often what we are really doing is consuming our own struggle against poverty. It becomes about us and how we consume what we do.
Walter Benjamin writes of this and says, "The transformation of the political struggle from a call-to-decision into an object of contemplative enjoyment, from a means of production into a consumer article, is the defining characteristic of this."
Other popular examples of this include Tom's shoes and fair-trade coffee. Any time we put ourselves in the patron situation, consuming the good that we do as a commodity, rather than living in solidarity with, serving as allies with, those in poverty, we have exited the struggle against poverty and instead are consuming our struggle against poverty in a capitalist manner.
And I reiterate, it's probably impossible for many of us not to do this. We are all consumers. We are consumers who want to do good things, who hope to make a difference.
All I am inviting in this post is greater awareness not to confuse our consumption of our own struggle against poverty with the struggle against poverty itself. All I hope for is that I myself will be convicted to live in solidarity with the poor, or to even stop making a distinction between myself and "the poor," for indeed we are all beggars, we are all people. We are human first.
We are called to enter the fray as human beings, to share place with our neighbors, rather than live above (or below) our neighbors. We are in this together.