Who Gets to Eat? Consumption, Complicity, and Poverty

[1] Two of my favorite theologians set the terms of this essay. One, Kathryn Tanner, asserts as her theological base that God gives unconditionally; God gives to all; and that God wills a community of mutual benefit.1 The other, Craig Nessan of Wartburg Seminary, writes that hunger in a world of abundance is a scandal to Christians and calls for the orthopraxis of relieving world hunger.2 Apparently, there is a gap between the world that God intends and the world where 1.2 billion people live or die on the equivalent of $1 a day.

Who Gets to Eat? Consumption, Complicity, and Poverty by Shannon Jung

[2] The point of this essay is to draw the connections between consumption and poverty. The thesis here is that the culture of consumption is itself destructive of human well-being, most obviously the well-being of the poor and malnourished, but also the well-being of the affluent. The culture of consumption is prejudiced against the poor and blue-collar worker even as it uses them and even as they adopt its values. The affluent suffer complicity or spiritual malaise when they realize that they have appropriated the benefits that cost the laborer or welfare mother dearly. The path out of this complicity is not familiar to the religion of consumption, but lies in our contrition before God and our forgiveness toward a more spiritually exciting and neighborly future.

Consumption, Domestic Poverty, and Complicity
[3] To be sure, there is subtle damage involved in what often seems like a religion, but is at least a spirituality, of consumption. Even though it does generate damage for its affluent practitioners in the United States, much more significant damage is done to those whose labor supports the comfort of the affluent. While the audience for this essay is the affluent (those with a median income — $52,000 per household — or more), the damage that their comfort and convenience costs in terms of hunger, malnutrition, disease, and death is large. The poor or blue-collar worker, the farmer, the rural resident, all discriminated-against peoples in affluent countries, they all subsidize the comfort and convenience of the affluent. For example, think about the fate of the 29 miners who died in the Massey coal mines during the first week of April 2010; the ill health of poultry workers in North Carolina; the still-displaced victims of Katrina, most of whom are members of minority groups; and other well-publicized environmental disasters that are exacerbated by policies supporting cheap oil.

[4] These are only some of those U.S. citizens who have paid for the energy, food, and labor that the comfortable enjoy. More routinely in our towns and cities, those making low wages and experiencing poor living conditions as checkers at grocery and discount stores, wait staff, janitors, meat packers, and fast-food employees are keeping prices low in many industries.3 Domestically, those policies have benefited agribusinesses and forced many U.S. farmers off the land as well. They have undercut rural communities and congregations, endangered the health of many, resulted in environmental destruction, cost the United States billions of dollars, and produced a myopic vision in the affluent.4 The culture of consumption is one that is shared by both the affluent and the poor.

[5] This produces an additional burden for the affluent: that of complicity. The degree of total complicity is overwhelming. This essay has listed a few of the examples. Perhaps the most subtle vice of complicity is that it is cumulative in impact. Few people desire that those who make their Nikes die; few desire that their consumption habits produce the negative effects of climate change; few desire that retail sales taxes which produce lower taxes for them unjustly impact the budgets of the poor. Few desire that their consumptive lifestyles produce resentment among those who cannot afford them (but are confronted with them every time they turn on the television). This essay will demonstrate that complicity unrecognized is a nemesis to which the most common reaction — to ignore or deny complicity — is a course of treatment that is iatrogenic. The “cure” only deepens the disease. This gets ahead of my argument here.

Global Complicity, Consumption, and Poverty
[6] The affluent benefit from global patterns of production and consumption as well; those patterns also promote injustice and the appropriation of benefits which come at the cost of the poor. Nations without the capability of influencing the market and gathering resources at equitable prices pay for the products that the affluent consume. Tina Rosenberg reports that “Everyone in a wealthy nation has become the beneficiary of the generous subsidies the poorer countries bestow upon rich ones.”5

[7] There are numerous examples of the ways in which U.S. export policies undermine local economics and problematize the price of food in other countries, such as the policies that impact the price of corn in Mexico. Let me offer you another: the way in which the Democratic Republic of the Congo has had its mineral resources usurped by mining interests which have systematically extracted coltran from that country in order to manufacture cell phones and other electronic devices. The West is not alone in this exploitation. Gilbert Malemba N’Saakila, a former law-school dean in Lubumbashi (the second largest city in the DRC), notes the fact that Chinese mining interests “are not even making use of Congolese talent. They hire laborers, and that’s it. Management and technical expertise are provided almost exclusively by Chinese workers. When they pack up and go, the Congo will be left with nothing, not even an upgrade in our human resources. Our earth will be dug up, emptied, and left that way.”6 It is the affluent, whether in China or Belgium or Europe or the United States that benefit from the relatively low prices that can be paid for the coltran that is an ingredient in our electronic devices and the copper that is in the pipes of our homes. The environmental costs that mining leaves behind are another cost that is externalized.

[8] Consumers and Christians have developed ways of concealing, denying, or blunting the force of recognizing these injustices. Some of the ways that U.S. consumers deny their responsibilities are:

calling cheap food a blessing,
denying the true costs of its production,
perceiving themselves as powerless,
blaming the victims, and
not recognizing the social structural components of poverty.
Distorted Desire
[9] Consumer desires are finally distortions. The adherents of consumerism (marketers, advertisers, and others) make promises by generating dissatisfaction and discontent that cannot subsequently be satisfied. It would be too easy to blame advertisers, though; to the degree that we consumers buy into those promises we are also perpetuating that religion. One of the implicit tenets of consumerism is that there can never be enough; there are no limits to consumption. There are no limits because consumers are looking for wholeness and completion in the wrong places. Goods and services and even attainments cannot provide the identity, meaning, purpose, and creative love that men and women are seeking.

[10] This is no diatribe. Nor is it simplistic. Consumption is powerful, baffling, and strong. It carries spiritual dimensions and speaks to our deepest yearnings. The Christian tradition gives its adherents the strength to face reality and to see that neither our own deepest longings nor those of our domestic or global neighbors are being furthered by the culture of consumption. Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God, until they recognize that their nature and destiny long for the wholeness and peace that only God can give.

[11] The Christian faith speaks of a common human hunger for a deeper, more creative love, a hunger to be worthwhile, to be valued, to be appreciated, to have a purpose or goal in life. Human beings also need to share as well as receive. That is what we see in Christ. Human beings yearn for God.

[12] The spiritual emotion or character trait that is especially relevant to the topic under discussion is that of contrition. It is contrition that can address complicity, which ensnares affluent consumers, and makes the structures of today’s economy seem intractable. Contrition is not at first glance an emotion or virtue which has much chance of blossoming in our situation. Nevertheless, in a consumer culture which appeals to the enlargement of the self and its happiness, there is a great deal of hope in the possibility of contrition.

[13] Contrition is especially appropriate to the state of being complicit in others’ poverty and suffering. Though it is not directly the action of the affluent that produce low wages or ill health, it is nevertheless the affluent’s consumptive actions which, through long lines of transmission, permit injustices to continue. Consumerism is a treadmill which promises newness of life with each new acquisition but reveals itself to be incapable of delivering meaning, purpose, or identity. Contrition offers a new birth, a transformation of desire which makes for spiritual well-being and the reversal of the complicit lifestyles of the affluent.

[14] Robert C. Roberts called contrition “the centerpiece and moving force of the process of repentance and the formation of a new self.”7 He describes contrition as seeing oneself as culpable. The most important aspect of contrition is that, in contrast to guilt, it is characterized by “confident hope in God’s mercy — in other words, the construal of one’s self as not lost because of one’s guilt, the construal of God as benevolent and a source of help, as well as angry and offended.”8 Related as it is to humility and joy, contrition motivates a consequent desire, a desire developed out of an acknowledgment of one’s own culpability and complicity. In the face of God’s grace and forgiveness there arises in a man or woman a desire to amend one’s life. This begins to liberate the complicity by giving him or her another way, a way to give in response to God’s grace. It begins the restitution of the good.

[15] This will entail the re-education of our desire (a phenomenon not unrelated to “self-denial” but better named) away from consumer culture and toward the joy of Christian discipleship. There are many who are already moving in this direction. The voluntary simplicity movement, community gardens, eating lower on the food chain, environmental movements, social entrepreneurship initiatives (including such microenterprises as Grameen banks and Kiva) — all of these are ways in which people are re-educating their desires. They are coming to a place where they do not define themselves according to their consumables but according to their ability to share with others of God’s children.

[16] Furthermore, I am convinced on the basis of the research on “happiness” or “spiritual well-being” that the affluent can be saved from their entrapment in stuff to the joy of relationships and service to others.9 Though this essay is straying beyond its assigned bounds at this point, it is clear that the nexus between consumption and poverty/hunger can be broken to the benefit of all. The affluent stand to lose their spiritual malaise; the poor stand to be fed and their lives secured.

[17] Monika Hellwig suggests that the salvation of one group may be found in the salvation of the other. “It is true in one sense that those who are lonely, unloved, unappreciated, but rich and possessive of their wealth are as much in need of compassion as those who are poor and physically in want. But it is also true that the solution to their problem is to be brought to do things for others, to share, to surrender what is hoarded, to take risks, to give.”10 Luther would have recognized this quotation and would have rejoiced in the recognition that all of God’s children are radically in need of the creative love which prompts sharing and receiving, ultimately from God operating through others.


1. Kathryn Tanner, Economy of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).

2. Craig Nessan, Give Us This Day: A Lutheran Proposal for Ending World Hunger (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2003).

3. Barbara Ehrenreich and Frances Fox Piven, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 2001).

4. For documentation of these claims, see Shannon Jung, Hunger & Happiness: Feeding the Hungry, Nourishing Our Souls (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2009).

5. A longer piece would necessarily turn to a discussion of degrees of complicity and of distortions of desire. What is pernicious about complicity is its cumulative impact, not the degree of individual implication or appropriation.

6. Howard M. French, “…The Next Empire: China’s Quiet Takeover of Africa.” The Atlantic 305:4 (May 2010) 58-69.

7. Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007) 98.

8. Ibid.,104.

9. See Shannon Jung, Hunger & Happiness: Feeding the Hungry, Nourishing Our Souls (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2009).

10. The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, rev. ed. (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 1999) 80.

Shannon Jung

Shannon Jung is Franklin and Louise Cole Professor of Town and Country Ministries at Saint Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, Missouri.