By Steven M. Studebaker
Living the simple life and Christian minimalism are popular today.1 Living simply is a response to (at least) two characteristics of contemporary North American society: its increasing post-Christian character and the banality of consumer capitalism. On the one hand, living simply is a prophetic call to resist the nefarious forces of mindless hedonism and excessive self-indulgence rampant in North American society. On the other hand, as traditional cultural venues and civic institutions become increasingly secular, Christians seek ways to give their faith a public expression. Living simply is way to achieve authentic spirituality and to resist the dominant culture of crass consumerism.
Or is it?
If I decide to live simply, what are the consequences? Let’s consider three.
Buying (or maybe renting) a house. It will be a small house because buying one of those gaudy McMansions violates the simple life ethos. It will also definitely be an existing home rather than a new one. Why? Because building a new home is wasteful, harmful to the environment, and unnecessary self-indulgence when a pre-existing home is ready at hand. But that means the people who build homes hire fewer people. Residential construction workers are working class and skilled trades people. So, the simple lifestyle provides a reassuring spirituality for the practitioner, but leads to less economic activity, which means fewer jobs, especially for working- and middle-class people.
Second, I buy local. Off I go on Saturday morning to the neighbourhood farmer’s market. I pick up some seasonal greens and fruits and by a donut from a non-chain bakery. On the way home, I stop by the boutique village deli where I proceed to pay double the supermarket price for some organic free-range, hormone and antibiotic-free milk, lunchmeat, and chicken breasts. I feel good about doing all this (maybe even slip for a moment into self-righteousness). I supported local middle- to upper middle-class business owners. I shook my fist at and shouted “no” to the evil cabal of global capitals. My purchases this Saturday morning supported livable wages in my community rather than stoking the coffers of far off multinationals.
But my simple living decreases demand at the big chain grocery store that sells the big brand lunch meats and chicken breasts. Over time as more people live simply, the big chain needs fewer people to stock the shelves and run the checkout lanes. The consequence of my simple life is fewer people on the lower end of the pay scale have jobs. Living simply, simply supports the relatively well-off and hurts lower working-class people. The owner of the Boujee deli may have a livable wage, but the person let go from the big chain supermarket just around the corner now has no wage.
Third, go off the grid and live on the edge of empire in an urban intentional community. Shane Claiborne’s The Simple Way in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighbourhood is the most well-known intentional community. They move to dystopian urban centers to live and serve the discarded peoples of empire—the poor, the addicted, the hopeless. But is there a vision for getting off the edge? For helping people move from the edge to the centre? There does not seem to be. Why would a person want to move to the centre of the evil empire when living on its edge is the place of spiritual adventure and authenticity? It valourizes marginality. It is also parasitic on the empire it critiques. Will this community on the edge of empire ever fulfill its promise “to build a new society in the shell of the old one.”2 How will it do so? Will it build roads, hospitals, global networks of trade that can bring affordable produce to the poor during the winter? No. Because to do so would mean participating in the empire, the system of global capitalism that this movement rejects as anti-Christ.
Christian minimalism is also contrary to the vision of life presented in the Bible. The biblical story begins in a verdant Garden, a place bursting with life, opportunity, and abundance. The world of austerity encountered in Genesis 3 is not God’s vision for life. The “sweat of the brow” and scraping about in the dust for scraps is a fall from the life for which God created human beings. The Old Testament prophets describe redemption as a renewal of the cities, thriving crops, wine vats full to the brim. Ezekiel says it will be “like the garden of Eden” (Ezek 36:35). The final vision of redemption is of a renewed earth and a bustling city rich in abundance (Rev 21 and 22). These biblical visions of redemption are not of the Simple Life.
We need to find more sophisticated public responses to our culture that is increasingly economically stratified. Retreating to the margins and abdicating participation in culture in the name of a superficial quest for authentic spirituality is not a normative way to love the people in our society, especially the people teetering on the edge of empire.
1. The Simple Way and Shane Claiborne in Philadelphia is a key influencer in this movement (https://www.thesimpleway.org). For more recent thought leaders, see Joshua Becker’s The More of Less (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2016) and Becoming Minimalist webpage (https://www.becomingminimalist.com) and Becca Ehrlich’s website “Christian Minimalism (https://www.christianminimalism.com).
2. Matt Dabbs, “Interview with Shane Claiborne: Embracing the Margins,” Wineskins: Exploring the Heart of Restoration, 17 November 2015. http://wineskins.org/2015/11/17/interview-with-shane-claiborne-embracing-the-margins/
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*