Being Consumed Synopsis

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William Cavanaugh

Jesus warned, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” [1] And while many Christians believe their faith should characterize and advise their handling of resources, few question the current economic realities in which we now live. Instead, they consider appropriate responses within the confines of our system. William Cavanaugh, author of Being Consumed, attempts however, to change the assumptions and terms of the questions in his consideration of the free market, consumerism, globalization and scarcity. Using the writings of Augustine, the Eucharist, the church catholic and the life of Christ, Cavanaugh reformulates the discussion by presenting four paradoxes: freedom/unfreedom, detachment/attachment, global/local and scarcity/abundance.

Instead of resigning ourselves to the way things are, Cavanaugh argues the church itself must be a different economic space, opening opportunities for alternative practices, and encouraging the development of additional spaces around the world. [2] The ultimate goal, then, becomes revolutionary, thereby “transform[ing] the entirety of economic life into something worthy of God’s children.” [3]

Freedom and Unfreedom

A free market economy, such as what one finds in the US, Germany and France, is characterized by a system in which buyers and sellers independently operate to make choices, set prices and distribute goods and services. [4] According to Milton Friedman, American economist, free market exchanges must be free from interference or coercion by government or otherwise, informed, and voluntary, based solely on mutual benefit or gain. [5] A free market neither speaks to seemingly insatiable desires of an individual or society, nor does it recognize a common telos, or end. Additionally, a free market has no opinion on the object of consumers’ desire, and considers any judgment thereupon to be coercive and limiting. Freedom, then, is “pursuing whatever you want without interference from others.” [6]

Using the writings of Augustine, Cavanaugh debates neither pro- or con- free market, but asks instead whether such an economy is truly free. Economic transactions must positively enhance each parties’ life, but only when each life is considered within its proper telos of life in God. Freedom, much more than “freedom from” something is instead a freedom to, within the will and grace of God, achieve meaningful goals. [7] Humans indeed have a common telos which is living a life in God, and our freedom and desires should naturally be shaped by our beliefs. Freedom, more than an absence of coercion, or even something to exercise, is rather given by God. Freedom in God tames and properly directs our arbitrary, detached desires into right desires that “participate in God, the source of their being and the source of all good.” [8] Further, property and wealth, rather than something to collect and use without regard to anyone else, should be, according to Aquinas, seen as a gift from God to be used to benefit others. [9]

Power, specifically Libido dominandi, the lust for power, truly plays a key role in the free market system in insidious ways. Marketing, increasingly less focused on providing information, and more on eliciting desire and evoking emotional connections to products, saturates our daily lives. [10] Conglomerates, transnational corporations and stockholders wield enormous power in production, pricing and consumption, affecting consumers’ freedom of choice and even employees’ freedom from victimization. [11]

The international labor force, comprised primarily of women and children, work 10-12 hour shifts, 6-7 days a week, often in deplorable conditions for nickels and dimes per hour. A recent study of cocoa farms in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire by Tulane University found evidence of child labor including trafficked children from Mali and Burkino Faso. Working in dangerous conditions, children were verbally, physically and sexually harassed to limit their leaving the plantations. Cocoa farmers, forced to employ children as laborers on the plantations, do not even receive enough in the sale of their product to hire adult laborers. [12] Although Tulane’s studies discovered possible involuntary child labor, hundreds if not thousands of factories around the world employ “voluntary” and “informed” laborers in similar conditions. Can these situations truly be considered free? These situations, declared by some to be anomalies of the free market system, clearly violate an employee’s “standard of human flourishing” and violates the ends of human life by her working for less than a living wage. [13]

Detachment and Attachment

Consumerism clearly defines Western society. Rather than being greed- or hoarding-oriented, however, our consumer culture displays a zealous detachment to things including money and material goods. [14] Items become quickly discarded in favor of newer, better items, and shoppers display restless dissatisfaction and discontentment, always in pursuit of the “next thing”. [15] In fact, consumers derive satisfaction and enjoyment not from the attainment and possession of an object, but in the quest.

Consumer detachment has increased steadily as society has transitioned from family farms which produced most of its own goods, to urban settings in which children may not even know where milk comes from! Spurred initially by the Industrial Revolution and propelled exponentially by the globalization of factory work, most consumers today have little concept of how, where and under what conditions goods they purchase have been produced. So disconnected from society are we, in fact, that we reflect Karl Marx’s claims of “eating food from nowhere and wearing clothes made by no one.” [16] Even perceptions of work have been adversely affected, as we have become further removed from opportunities to creatively and meaningfully shape our immediate surroundings. [17]

Today’s consumer culture, even more significant than Christianity, is one of the most powerful systems of formation, [18] echoing Clark’s assertion of consumerism as a civil religion which thwarts attempts to develop Christ-followers. [19] A consumerist view of things contrasts greatly with a Christian view. On the one hand, a consumerist, in constant pursuit of stuff whose attainment never provides satisfaction, eventually succumbs to transcendentalism, trying to “escape time and death by constantly seeking renewal in created things.” [20] The Christian, however, recognizes that all things are indeed good, not by their own virtue, but because God created them, they point to Him, and are in fact a means to enjoy God himself. Augustine declares restless consumer spirits find rest in God who satisfies our desires, rather than “needing” to endlessly pursue more. [21]

While all of us consume, we can do so as “disembodied acts of consumption” limiting involvement and social action, [22] or within community, using goods for higher means and drawing closer to God and each other in the process. [23] The Eucharist is a Christian act of consumerism that, when viewed and celebrated scripturally, satisfies our desires (John 6:35) and consumes us into a larger community in which we are expected to feed others such as the hungry, thirsty, sick and imprisoned with whom Jesus identifies (Matthew 25:34-36). [24] We too are called to identify ourselves with the poor and needy, using our resources to meet their need, in the same way that Jesus becomes the gift, giver and recipient in the Eucharist. [25]

The Global and Local

Globalization, the process of integrating regional economies, societies, and cultures through worldwide trade and communication networks, [26] is a contemporary example of the the philosophical quandary of the one and many. In a world that appears to be multiple, how can there be genuine unity? [27] Christ alone resolves this tension, answers Cavanaugh, drawing on writings from Catholic theologian Balthasar. [28] In the face of abstracted human relationships, homogenization resulting in dissolution of all differences, universalization, and fragmentation, [29] stands Jesus as the ‘concrete universal’. [30]

What employees formerly accomplished locally, is now produced globally, due in large part to commodification and widespread availability of cheap labor, international trade agreements and the evolution of financial banking systems. [31] As our culture becomes increasingly the same, prompting even the renewal of long-forgotten cultural particularities, we understand the simultaneous process of producing “greater sameness and greater difference” known as glocalization. [32]

First Corinthians 12:12-26, describing the body of Christ as a single body made up of different parts, addresses the ecclesiological tension between the particular and universal. The catholic (universal) church, expresses well the desire to unite a divided humanity as one whole, particularly in regards to the Eucharist. As each faith community participates in the Eucharist, they experience the unique, individual, particular Christ, but simultaneously are drawn into fellowship and communion with the greater, universal body. [33] Whereas consumerism connects us in ways that isolate us from ourselves, the disciplines of the church isolate us so we can be connected one to another. [34]

God’s distinct ability to transcend and reveal the universal to the particular is perhaps best illustrated by Christ’s incarnation and the resultant paradox of His humanity/divinity, as well as His uniquely unique self which is revealed, not hindered, by His self-limiting kenosis. [35] Humans too, created in God’s image and imbued with unique qualities, find their purpose (particular) in relation to God’s mission and sending out (universal). In personal kenosis, can one find true freedom and identity, becoming, according to Balthasar, free partners with God in an covenantal relationship of mission. [36]

Scarcity and Abundance

Market, trade and even the science of economics operates on the “given” of scarcity, assuming limitless human needs and desires far surpassing limited resources and goods. [37] Marketing, shoppers’ behaviors, consumption patterns, and even charitable giving are all shaped by such perceived scarcity. [38] In the face of insatiable desires, the truly hungry person encountering starvation competes against the individualistic view that “no one has enough these days”. Eschatologically the market promises abundance for all in the near future, encouraging consumers to keep shopping to grow the economy, provide jobs, bolster revenues and stimulate production.

Christianity, however, disputes scarcity: “From His abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another.” [39] Jesus, and our engagement with Him through the Eucharist, embodies abundance and fullness. “The abundance of the Eucharist is inseparable from the kenosis, the self-emptying, of the Cross” and its consumption connects us to others and their challenges. [40] The Eucharist proclaims God’s presence, hope and justice amidst the darkness of despair and need; as we consume, being filled by His body and blood, we are moved by the suffering, and become compelled to reach out to our brothers and sisters.

Cavanaugh’s book contributed significantly to my understanding of the challenges of church engaging with social justice in today’s society. Interwoven in each chapter were examples of practical applications of the theoretical ideas ranging from Fair Trade to the alternative Economy of Communion business model. The examples, while not necessarily applicable to my current situation, reminded me of further possibilities. The Savings for Life development program for women in Africa [41] and Kiva, an internet-based micro-finance site that allows individuals/families/faith communities to provide direct micro-loans to individuals, [42] are two examples of using resources in ways that sustain and contribute to life. In an attempt to reconnect to material production, Pastor Jason Clark imagines celebrating communion with self-produced bread, and is therefore endeavoring to have church families grow maize at home. The maize will be ground into flour, and used to bake bread for their Eucharist celebrations. [43]

Beyond just practical activities, however, this week’s reading revolutionized my views on possessions. In light of immense global needs, I have always erred on the side of minimalism and even mild asceticism, avoiding traditional marketing avenues and cathedrals of Western culture (malls) [44] by choosing contentment instead. With our one-income, 12-member household, being frugal is more than just necessary – it is chosen, in order to consume less and contribute more. Therefore, Cavanaugh’s assertion that all of creation, including the material world, is sanctified, sings of His glory and is a way to encounter God, was quite challenging to me. [45] However, the challenge is resolved when considered in cooperation with Cavanaugh’s conclusion, based on Aquinas’ writing, that “we may possess property, but use it only for the common good, especially for the sake of the neediest among us.” [46] The question then becomes – not should we participate in the market, but how do we detach ourselves from property allowing it to be used for the greater goals of God? And, perhaps more even more importantly, how do we model and teach detachment within our faith communities?

Hirsch’s teachings on the absolutism of “Jesus is Lord” in every aspect of our lives, erasing the line between the sacred and secular, and his criticism of acting syncretistically, co-opting God to a particular agenda (ie., consumerism, scarcity mentality) may provide some insight. After all, “how can one worship the God of justice by acting unjustly? Clearly, the biblical answer is that one cannot.” [47] Secondly, Augustine’s perspective also provides insight. The problem with Christians, he stated, was not that we love the world too much, but that we don’t love it enough. We need to learn to love and “use” the world rightly, by being engaged more fully and deeply therein. [48] Education seems key here.

Part of awareness may need to include re-learning definitions, and re-defining our perspectives. Few would question a free market economy being universally free and fair. Yet, even, the largest online economics community in the world, claims that prices set by free market systems “place the poor in an unenviable situation who are gradually thrown out of the system without any access to wealth and the basic needs of subsistence.” [49] Similarly, according to the EcoJustice Dictionary, words acquire and connote different meanings outside our Western context, depending on the culture and people using them. Globalization’s definition according to the EcoJustice Dictionary provides a fascinating insight into the realities of, and social justice issues related to, current trends:

Globalization – the effort to standardize consumer habits, values, and ways of thinking that contributes to the development of global markets, greater efficiencies and profits; politically, it is based on neo-liberal values and assumptions that justify this latest expression of Western colonization; undermines local economies, traditions of self-sufficiency, and the non-monetized aspects of local cultures; a source of poverty as it requires participating in a money economy even when automation makes work even more scarce; environmentally destructive and an overwhelming force in the process of enclosure of the commons. [50]

In addition to providing opportunities to engage in alternative market behavior and education, discipleship and awareness-raising appear to be critical components in engaging people in social justice issues. Returning to Cavanaugh’s example of the Eucharist, our actions must engage us with Christ’s abundance, envelop us in community and embrace the hurting people, not as a means to obtain a reward, but as an authentic encounter with Jesus Himself.

End Notes

[1] Matthew 6:24. New Living Translation.

[2] W. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), viii-ix.

[3] Ibid., x.

[4] Free Market Economy. Economy Watch (

[5] W. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 2-4.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Ibid., 8.

[8] Ibid., 14.

[9] Ibid., 29.

[10] Ibid., 16-19.

[11] Ibid., 20-22.

[12] C. Smith. Halloween Actions to Stop Child Labor in Chocolate. Labor is Not a Commodity (, 10/28/10).

[13] W. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 25.

[14] Ibid., 34.

[15] Ibid., 35.

[16] J. Clark. Church Contexts: Consumerism & Church (Portland: Face to Face Lecture, October 2010), Slide 5.

[17] Ibid., 38.

[18] Ibid., 47.

[19] J. Clark. Consumerism and the Emerging Church. 2-3.

[20] W. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 48.

[21] Ibid., 49.

[22] Ibid., 50-51.

[23] Ibid., 52-53.

[24] Ibid., 54-55.

[25] Ibid., 56.



[28] W. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 59.

[29] Ibid., 60-61.

[30] Ibid., xi.

[31] Ibid., 62-63.

[32] Ibid., 67.

[33] Ibid., 70-71.

[34] J. Clark. Church Contexts: Secularism (Portland: Face to Face Lecture, October 2010).

[35] W. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 77-80.

[36] Ibid., 83.


[38] W. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 90-91.

[39] John 1:16. New Living Translation.

[40] W. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 95.

[41] S. Bauman, W. Wellman and M. Laughlin. The Wealth of the Poor: Women and the Savings Movement in Africa. (The Lausanne Global Conversation,, 1.

[42] Kiva: Loans that Change Lives. (

[43] J. Clark. Church Contexts: Consumerism & Church (Portland: Face to Face Lecture, October 2010), Slide 5.

[44] W. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 91.

[45] Ibid., 36.

[46] Ibid., 52.

[47] A. Hirsch. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 98.

[48] J. Clark. Church Contexts: Secularism (Portland: Face to Face Lecture, October 2010). Slide 6.

[49] Free Market Economy. Economy Watch (

[50] EcoJustice Dictionary. EcoJustice Education (